Published on 2012/07/18

Responsive Curriculum Development for the 21st Century

Higher education institutions need to change their approach to suit the needs of the modern student, who has more options for their further education than at any time in the past. Today’s student is more of a consumer than any time before, and institutions must be more nimble in developing new programs to meet student needs. Photo by Lars Plougmann.

Technology futurists have long predicted exponential growth in computing power that will eventually reach a point of singularity. In society, we have seen smart phones, social media, digital media, and cloud computing move from dream to mass adoption in an extremely short period of time. The average individual consciously or subconsciously expects products and services to fulfill a need and to adapt quickly to this changing world.

So what does this have to do with education?

Every institution employs a process for curriculum development and program approval. While there are variances depending on the institution size, structure, degree type, and accrediting body, one common denominator is the length of the curriculum development and approval cycle. Put simply, it’s very long. While traditional processes can be useful in assuring proper governance and quality controls, tradition becomes problematic for keeping pace with the rapidly-evolving demands of today’s learners.

As the retail industry knows, the product development cycle should ideally forecast consumer demand so new products are available at the right time when consumers are ready to purchase. This model relies heavily on research into patterns, competition, and potential growth areas. And the best products fulfill a need, enhance daily life, or solve a problem for the consumer. In the education industry, the idea of considering a degree program or certificate as a “product” and a student as a “customer” is often controversial. However, our industry is missing opportunities by neglecting to consider consumer demand and persisting with lengthy development cycles for educational programming.

Generally speaking, the program development cycle goes something like this:

  1. Instructor enjoys teaching subject X.
  2. Subject X is not offered by his/her institution.
  3. Instructor suggests to department / college that subject X would be a great new program.
  4. Department / college sends proposal to councils and committees.
  5. Institution submits documents to governing body, but they only vote on new programs once a year, so proposal is tabled until the next vote.
  6. Governing body says yes.
  7. Three years have elapsed.  Subject X is launched.
  8. Few students enroll. Everyone wonders why.

Obviously, this model is oversimplified for dramatic effect. But the reality is not so far off. Many a failed degree program has its origins in a “build it and they will come” mentality and not consumer demand. Often, new programs are outdated, out-priced by competitors, and doomed for failure before they ever hit the market. Many current programs are failing to even break even, but fear of pulling the plug keeps them alive. Not only is this bad news for students disappointed in the lack of relevant program choices, but it’s a massive financial drain on our institutions.

So what are possible ways to address this problem? Consider the classic 4 Ps of marketing:

  1. Product: Start with research. Ironically, this is an area of strength for many faculty members, yet this talent is rarely leveraged for program development. Research can identify needs and develop a product (or program) that satisfies those needs. All products have lifecycles, so once a program exists, it doesn’t mean it must exist forever.  As needs change, programs must adapt or be dissolved at end of lifecycle. Dissolving a failing program to free up resources to launch a potentially successful new program is not a failure.  In fact, it’s smart business.
  2. Price: Unfortunately, institutional tuition and fees are often a one size fits all solution. But the reality is that some degrees are simply worth more from a financial ROI perspective than others. Consider job opportunities for graduates and trends in the industries that a particular program prepares graduates to enter and price that program accordingly.
  3. Promotion: Bring marketing experts into the planning process. Waiting until after a program is fully developed and approved to discuss marketing misses valuable opportunities to strategize in advance of a launch.
  4. Place: The location, physical or online, is a key factor in the appeal of a program. Is the location convenient for the students you want to reach? Is the delivery mechanism accessible for your audience? If the best candidates for your program are located geographically distant from your campus, is online or a satellite location a possibility?

Students and companies providing funding for employee development have needs to fulfill and choices to make. With the internet at their fingertips, comparison shopping is easier than ever. For an industry steeped in tradition, changes to adapt to the needs of the 21st century student may not occur overnight. But working towards a more nimble rolling approval cycle with program proposals based on research and development is a step in the right direction.

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Readers Comments

Rebecca Cruser 2012/07/18 at 4:28 pm

With the huge expansion of free programming, I’m simply not sure how colleges and universities (tuition-charging institutions) can compete… do you think it’s time for institutions to focus purely on degree/credential programs and leave the in-demand-but-available-for-free programs to the disruptors?

    Lesley Snyder 2012/07/19 at 8:15 pm

    The disruptors are bringing innovation to the table. Competition is good as it forces us to step up. I think we can learn from the caliber of the content, accessibility, and delivery mechanism. But ultimately, the distruptors are also seeking a way to make these efforts profitable. And the obstacle of course is the credential. Students participating in MOOCs need a mechanism to “prove” what they learned. Watch out for the next step – testing and certificates of completion.

André Levesque 2012/07/19 at 9:25 am

It’s interesting how, in the traditional cycle, courses seem to be developed based on instructor expertise rather than market need. And even if there is a market demand, as you point out, the approval process takes so long that by the time you go to market the demand is probably moved on.

You mention research should be the first step in developing a program and I agree. However, do you think it’s possible to develop predictive programming? That’s to say, do you think it’s possible to, through research, predict what programming will be in-demand in three years time?

    Lesley Snyder 2012/07/19 at 8:26 pm

    Thanks for your comment. Predictive modeling of program opportunities is an ongoing challenge in a highly competitive market. I do think that a considered approach to student outcomes is the right place to start. The days of earning a degree in an obscure field to “find yourself” may be numbered. Today’s student (and parent) consumers are looking ahead to career options. So a focus on industry employment trends and essential skills can help identify the right program ideas to equip the next graduating class for success.

Walter Smith 2012/08/30 at 7:59 pm

Lesley, what do you think of this program development scenario?

Start with a system for dimensioning and building knowledge systems (see my articles).

Colleges have people who are dedicated to keeping a close eye on the emerging needs of the workplace.

Needs for programs are identified.

Suggested programs are scrutinized by the college academic council in terms of the college’s overall knowledge system.

Program is conceptualized.

Appropriate instructional resources are identified within the college or hired.

An advisory committee is struck from industry representatives, instructional staff, and admin staff.

A knowledge system is developed for the program using the advisory committee as a focus group.

Instructional staff design tentative learning experiences for the program.

Whole process takes about six months at the most regardless of the length of the program.

Program is launched and the system of learning experiences and the program itself are continuously evaluated and improved and modified.

I used this process to develop or re-develop well over 100 programs.

Andrée Robinson-Neal 2012/09/05 at 3:37 pm

I agree with the author on this one; the planning cycle in program development is often on a very different continuum than student interest and economic need. Unfortunately for those institutions that focus on degree-only programming, the ability to create on-demand courses and programs is nearly impossible. As the article indicates, we are living in a fast-paced world that continues to move even more swiftly; if higher education institutions want to remain relevant to the employment sector, new methods of program development must be implemented and the addition of on-demand structures are warranted. In the case of larger institutions that have multiple campuses, the ability to predict demand is based on the demographic of the location and program development does not always take that factor into account either. Higher education leaders need to take a look at the ways in which short-term programs can be developed, multiple delivery models, and instructor training. Despite our institutions having faculty who are skilled researchers and so forth as the author mentions, we sometimes leave them in the dark when it comes to the implementation of new technologies–if we take the time to develop an innovative program for students, should we not also ensure that our faculty are skilled in its use?

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