Representations of curriculum design

I’ve just been at a very productive two-day meeting at Strathclyde University. It was related to our JISC Curriculum Design project (see our main OULDI site and associated links). The twelve projects involved in the programme have been grouped into clusters of related projects. We are part of Cluster C, pharmacy along with Strathclyde and Ulster University. We have a shared interest in a number of respects: a focus on the pedagogical aspects of curriculum design, generic exploration of different types of representations and development of schema for thinking through the design process.

Each cluster has a ‘critical friend’ ours is Peter Bullen from Hertfordshire University.The aim of the meeting was to share what we have done to date in the projects and in particular to draw out a set of activities that it might be useful to do at the cluster level. We began by providing an overview of our projects, work to date and issues we had identified. One of the activities we are currently all engaged with is mapping our existing curriculum design processes and developing a baseline document of curriculum design which we can use as a benchmark of progress achieved on the projects.

A key issue for all of us is how to represent curriculum design – what representations might be useful, for what purposes and for whom? We spent a lot of the first afternoon sharing what we had done to date and some of the problems in terms of what representations might be appropriate. We agreed that representation at the level of learning activity was now fairly well understood. In our own work we have articulated a learning activity taxonomy, which describes the components that need to be addressed when designing at this level (such as the tools and resources involved in the activity, the kinds of task the students will do, the roles of those involved, etc.). Whilst some of these components scale up to the level of curriculum design, this level brings additional levels of complexity – how can you map across the design process, what are the relationships between the different components at this level and what are the interdependencies?The general conversation got me thinking and with jet lag kicking in I was wide awake early the next morning so took the opportunity to try and articulate my thoughts and issues with this through a series of Powerpoint slides, which are available from slideshare. I used the Powerpoint presentation as a starting point for the conversation on day two and then adapted the slides on the basis of our shared discussion.It seemed to me we needed first and foremost to agree a set of types of representations and then test these out in our different contexts. I put forward eight initial representations but during the discussion an addition two emerged – around mapping relationships/interdependencies and around mapping the flow process of design. Below is a description of each of these representations.

Textual summary and keywords

This representation provides a brief textual overview of the course (akin probably to what is already produced in course descriptions). In addition we would include keywords, which give an indication of the nature of the course. For us keywords might include a description of the type of course it is (in terms of mapping to some abstract model). At the OU we have identified six models: ‘OU classic’, bought-in, Web 2.0, wrap around, empty box, and disaggregated curriculum assets. In addition we would include a set of keywords that described the course generally, in terms of discipline, level and pedagogy (problem-based, dialogic, etc.).

At a glance map

This representation would list out all the components of the course. It would be possible to drill down into each component to find out more details about it – for example what tools are being used, when and for what purpose?At a glance


The timeline would distinguish between activities during the production phase of a course and those during the actual presentation/delivery of the course. In addition, a simplified student timeline (akin to what we in the OU in terms of the course calendar), giving a breakdown week by week of what the student has to do, along with key milestones such as assignment deadlines would be useful.For us for example each course starts with a Business Appraisal (BA), then there are eight ‘stage gates’ (SG1 – SG8) over the production and presentation of the course. Other key moments include drafts of material (from D0 a rough outline of content and activities through to D2 a final draft).timeline

In terms of the student view – courses are divided into blocks with each block consisting of a number of weeks; key deadlines include TMAs (Tutor Marked Assignments) and ECA(End of Course Assignment).

Content/topic/curriculum map

One way of representing content is showed below – where the content is organised by a series of themes and sub-themes.

Content map

Workload – overall, distribution, breakdown

The workload representation would need to identify the stakeholders involved in the course and an allocation of their time involvement/costing across the production/presentation of the course. This could be presented as a simple aggregate of time/costs or broken down into appropriate timeframes (weeks or months).


Principles/pedagogy matrix

This representation articulates the pedagogical approach being adopted by the course and the overarching principles. The example we provide uses a schema we have developed previously, more details are available in a recent Ariadne article. It provides a matrix which maps the principles of the course against four macro-level aspects of pedagogy. Principles might be generated/articulated by the course team (for example getting the students to reflect on experience and show understanding or incorporating frequent interactive exercises and feedback across the course) or might be derived from theory or empirical evidence (for example the 12 REAP assessment principles).

pedagogy principles

Furthermore we can then produce a set of ‘Course Design DNAs’, which can be used to compare the nature of different courses. Below is an example of two comparative DNAs. One for OpenLearn which is a repository of open educational resources and one for SocilaLearn which is an initiative applying web 2.0 tools and principles to an educational context.Variants on the matrix are also possible. For example mapping principles to course activities, or mapping the principles to a different set of pedagogical characteristics (for example Bloom’s educational taxonomy, the REAP principles or Laurillard’s conversational framework).



As with the timeline representation, cost would be broken down into production vs. presentation/delivery costs. As with the workload costs could be viewed across different timeframes.The people cost would be an aggregation of the workload representation discussed earlier, but in addition cost types include resources, media, assessment and administration.


Success criteria tick box

This representation tries to articulate what constitutes a ‘good course’, what does good mean? At the OU we have identified four broad criteria for good; good in terms of: pedagogy, innovation, cost effectiveness and fitness for purpose/context. For each of these it is then possible to list a set of sub-criteria or demonstrations/evidence of how the course is ‘good’ in terms of the four macro-criteria.

success criteria

Relationships and inter-dependencies

We didn’t really get onto articulating what this might look like but essentially this representation would show relationships and inter-dependencies at the course level. This might include a mapping of learning outcomes, topics and assessment for example, or a representation of media use across the course. Diana Laurillard’s London Pedagogic Planner has attempted to do some aspects of this, as did the Media Advisor tool we developed a few years ago.

media advisor

Process flow maps

Finally UML-type representations can be used to show the process of curriculum design – who is involved and when and an indication of data flow across the system.

In discussion around these representations, we clarified a number of aspects. Firstly, that clearly the representations could work at a number of levels of detail and for each it would be important to work at a level that was meaningful. In many of the representations, there are a number of ‘white boxes’ that are represented at a general level but could, if needed, be unpacked in more detail. This is particularly evident with representation two – ‘course at a glance’.

As with the learning activity level there is a differentiation between Curriculum designs as static representations vs. progression process vs. relationships/dependencies; indeed as representation nine begins to indicate this is even more an issue at the Curriculum level than at the activity level. We also discussed as a group the distinction between representations of the design of a course and particular instantiations of the course.We also considered the ways in which such representations might be used and how they might add value.

Six initial examples were suggested:

  • Guidelines for course design
  • Comparison between courses
  • Articulation of particular departmental, faculty, or institutional overviews
  • Deconstruction
  • Checklist
  • Course evaluation

As a to do list to take this work forward we suggested the following:

  • Set up a cloudscape for the cluster and populate with clouds describing the different interventions each of the projects is producing (tools, approaches, methods)
  • Work up/validate curriculum design taxonomy
  • Agree a set of principles mapped to good pedagogy (REAP, etc)
  • Brainstorm success criteria
  • Trial representations and compare.

I found it really useful to have the time to discuss in-depth some of the challenges each of us are facing in terms of mapping and representing at the curriculum level. I would really welcome feedback on these representations, are they useful? are there others we should be including? Below is a picture of us dining out at the City Merchant where the heated debates from day one continued!


5 Responses to “Representations of curriculum design”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Hi Gráinne

    This is really useful!

    Early on in the text you write ‘A key issue for all of us is how to represent curriculum design – what representations might be useful, for what purposes and for whom?’
    You’ve generated some good examples of representations that ‘might be useful’. I would be really interested to see some answers to the other questions you raise, i.e. for what purpose and for whom? Although some of this sort of information is in the text you’ve supplied alongside each representation, it’s not always clear what the nature of the particular problems or barriers each representation is intended to help overcome.

    More information of this sort is essential to move from your sketches to practically useful representations. I realise that sometimes it’s better to ask ‘what can we do with this representation?’ as opposed to ‘what is the barrier or problem?’ but if there are particular barriers/problems in mind then knowing them would help me develop these examples, or propose alternatives.


  2. Gráinne Says:

    yep! agree Andrew!! these are the next challenges we want to address!

  3. Sheila MacNeill Says:

    Hi Grainne

    Sounds like a really productive meeting. The textual summary/keywords example seems to have really strong links to the XCRI course description profile ( As part of the wider curriculum design and QA processes ensuring that this level of detail was gathered and them easily re-used for marketing/advertising purpose would seem to be a quick win all round.

  4. Gráinne Says:

    thanks Sheila good point will take a closer look at it


  5. » Blog Archive » Course representations Says:

    […] of the course. It’s an adaption of an earlier pedagogy representation (see for example an earlier blog post), but Mick Jones pointed out that it was important to also emphase the instruction and guidance […]

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