Dr. Olufunke Aluko-Daniels: A step-by-step guide to implementing an agile curriculum

A student sat on a university campus.

This article previously appeared in Times Higher Education. You can read their version here.

The traditional approach to teaching is rigid and slow-moving: teaching materials are pre-planned before the start of the academic year; a new cohort of students completes the syllabus; and the cycle continues. This traditional method has its benefits, as lecturers have ready-made material, while lectures, seminars and workshops remain the same, and everyone is happy – at least in theory.

In practice, this system has its problems. The pandemic, by forcing a change in delivery format, revealed many long-term structural issues and prompted many – including myself – to reconsider the old, “set-in-stone” model of teaching.

I found myself asking how we as academics could create programmes that efficiently accommodate sudden changes without compromising academic standards for student cohorts with varying English language abilities and different cultural backgrounds. How, in other words, can we design academic programmes, learning, teaching and assessment strategies that are truly student-centric?

An agile approach

Borrowed from the world of software development, agile methodologies are flexible and offer innovative, collaborative ways of working. Rather than setting fixed goals and ways of reaching them, the goals and approaches adapt in real time. If this sounds like more work to you, you’re right – but it has some major advantages.

An agile curriculum enables teachers to use their creativity rather than simply recycling last year’s linear material and teaching approach. It delivers better results by focusing on learners and providing the flexibility to include employability skills matched to the labour market’s needs. The curriculum is also open to incremental improvement, ensuring that it gets better from day to day rather than year to year.

As it’s a data-driven approach, an agile curriculum needs continual feedback from students. Traditionally, feedback is used retrospectively, but with agile, the institution collects smaller amounts of feedback more frequently, enabling academics to make improvements to a module in real time. This gives students a say in their own learning, providing ownership and creating a more inclusive learning environment.

Getting started

The foregoing, combined with my experience as a teacher and curriculum developer, inspired my thoughts on agile curriculum. For those looking to implement an agile curriculum, here is a step-by-step guide to the first stages:

1. Identify student needs

An essential first step is to collect feedback from the relevant stakeholders – namely, students, teachers and those responsible for the curriculum. Accurate and thorough analysis of student outcomes by modules or programmes may also help to identify curriculum that is not fit for purpose.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, as most institutions already collect feedback on their academic programmes. For example, student feedback collected through module surveys within the semester can be amended to include appropriate questions on the curriculum itself. In a semesterised structure, biweekly feedback is ideal, but this would not work for block delivery where a module is taken within four to six weeks.

Feedback questions should focus on the appropriateness of the teaching strategy and the relevance of employability skills. In the context of the latter, interculturality and global competences are important considerations. Cultural awareness is a prerequisite to providing clear feedback to international students. For example, a teacher can increase inclusivity by understanding their students’ English language skills and incorporating materials to suit different capabilities.

Additionally, sourcing teachers’ reflections on the curriculum and feedback from external examiners on results and quality assurance ensures that curriculum designers and schools have the information they need to support the shift to an agile curriculum.

2. Get both approval and validation

The quality assurance regulatory framework in the UK – and most other countries – requires educational institutions to have a procedure in place for approving any new programme or changes made to an existing programme.

The school or department seeking to make these changes will need to show that they have identified a need and have evidence to support the rationale for the changes. The documents approved at this level will need to be high-level descriptions of the academic programme, including the programme specification, various units and module specifications (also known as the syllabus).

In an agile curriculum, the programme and module specifications will become living documents. The faculty or departmental quality officer must be able to exercise oversight of them without triggering a wholescale reapproval.

3. Curriculum development

At this stage, agility in design becomes crucial, as you will not be preparing all of your teaching materials prior to students commencing their studies. Before starting the academic year, the teacher has not met the students and does not understand their unique learning needs or capabilities. They have no way of knowing whether the teaching methods, examples or other features of the existing curriculum are appropriate for the new students.

To maintain the efficiency and reliability of the system, teachers can still prepare a significant portion of their materials – they just need to be designed with flexibility and collaboration in mind. Each week, the tutor can fine-tune them as they develop further insight into the group’s abilities.

From then on, materials should be prepared piecemeal on a weekly or biweekly basis. At the end of the term, you will have a collaboratively developed curriculum that incorporates the cohort’s voice. Many of these resources will be reusable, but each cohort is different and the landscape is continually changing, so it’s important to remain flexible.

I also recommend providing practical links to the real world each semester. This makes it easier for students to relate to the material. Employability skills and contemporary societal problems, for instance, can be integrated into formative assessments.

4. Continuously improve using feedback

Continual iteration, integrated into the quality assurance process, is more than just a tick-box exercise; it’s a core part of the agile methodology. This enables different cohorts of students taking a module to get the full benefits of learning and stretches teachers’ creative abilities. Constant refining of the course facilitates the creation of a learner-focused curriculum and the incorporation of real-time employability skills.

Over time, you’ll become more familiar with the challenges faced by your students. This will enable you to recycle elements of course material, so it’s not a case of starting from scratch every year. Rather than starting the year with a fully assembled curriculum, teachers will develop a range of components they can use as a foundation and adapt to suit requirements.