Curriculum design

Open classes curriculum design and delivery

The teaching team at Coventry were aware that the curricula of their media courses needed to change to reflect the needs of professional media practitioners and to enable their courses to compete with other Media Departments. Shaun Hides presented a new vision for the Department in 2009 which was informed by the changing student demographic, open approaches to learning, technological developments and the changing needs of media professions. This identified 5 key principles and was supported and endorsed by the Dean of School:

  1. tactical use of technologies – taking into account mobile media and the convergence of student and  institutional technologies
  2. engaging students with the discipline and the changing media professional landscape
  3. the need to reconfigure teaching spaces to encourage activity rather than passive listening to encourage students to see themselves as practitioners whilst they are learning
  4. promoting visibility of both the University, academics and students through the engagement of visiting speakers and with students being visible to communities of practice whilst they are still learning
  5. working collaboratively as a principle supported by reconfigurable working spaces, technologies and teaching approaches

These five principles are clearly evident in the approaches adopted in the open classes.
 1. Tactical use of technologies
Open Classes have all been delivered both in terms of their face-to-face versions and more importantly, as online presences, which curate a diversity of resources into openly accessible ‘hubs’. Each of the open classes has a slightly different feel; each makes use of, and makes available, particular kinds of resources and web/social media platforms. Picbod (“Picturing the Body”) makes extensive use of twitter and its hashtag logics as research discussion tools – as well as using podcasts,,vimeo and flicker to collate talks and images. Creative Activism has quickly established itself in peer-to peer networks – as well as using vimeo twitter and itunesU. Living in a digital world has focused on student content creation and using blogging – with flicker etc, – as a means of archiving pan-European research projects. (COMC Final Report, 2012)

The open classes utilised freely available proprietary platforms, which minimised issues of access and interoperability. Clearly each platform/space can bring their own constraints but the ethos of the classes encouraged a form of crowd-sourcing approach and a ’beta-version’ stance. In relation to technologies, the open classes always remain in a development phase. If staff, students, or other participants identify issues, limitations or problems, they are both able and encouraged to suggest fixes, alternative spaces and new ways of solving problems.  Adopting this approach meant that the team needed a hub to aggregate activities and content that was scattered across a range of services. A wordpress site for each class acted as the central hub and was linked to mobile apps developed by the Department which aggregated content using the hashtag and also allowed students to take and share photographs, and search the class content. Using technologies and services that already exist has an advantage in that staff and students may already be familiar with them and can continue to use them once they leave the institution. There is, of course,  a challenge for institutions in not having control over the continued existence of external platforms or in the possibility of changing terms and conditions, but this does reflect the notion of tactical use – and the need for adaptability as a media professional. The Media Department also instigated other tactical technological innovations – including from 2012, the ‘lab-in-a-bag’, a one-to-one laptop scheme. The distributed laptops and software packages were not in themselves necessary for the development of the open classes, but provided a supportive context in which they could continue to flourish

By considering the impact of social and networked technologies on media professionals and using them in the open classes the curriculum reflects those changing needs and offers support for students to learn visual literacy, incorporating digital storytelling, identify management and other digital and media literacies. Similarly, open professional practice has been integrated into the course and is modeled by the approaches taken in the open classes so students will develop an online presence, engage with ownership and licensing issues and become open practitioners through the use of open and free technologies.
 “The learning activities focus on the idea of being a trusted source, a credible witness, and being a publisher as well as a storyteller. The three strands that come together in the course are art design, storytelling, and publishing.” Jonathan Worth, 2013

2. Engaging students with the discipline and the changing media professional landscape
The focus of the BA (Hons) Photography course is “What does it mean to be a twenty first century photographer?” and the open classes, in particular, explore this by engaging practicing photographers from around the world, as well as open students and enthusiastic amateurs. The conversations around this form the core of the classes and the teaching activities encourage students to consider where they fit as practitioners and in which directions they may want to take. Classes are informed by the experiences of Jonathan Worth, Matt Johnston and other photography tutors ( Paul Smith, Jonathan Shaw et al) and other media professionals and in the open classes this specifically includes consideration of the language of openness and the culture of remixing that is emerging through open licences such as Creative Commons. Whilst this could happen in a traditional classroom, the fact that the open classes mirror some of the challenges, opportunities and mechanisms affecting contemporary professional practitioners, emphasises the issues and engages students with an ‘authentic’ experience. Students themselves develop their own personal peer networks by choosing which conversations to connect with and which relationships to cultivate, as do the external participants and contributors. The element of selection allows all course participants to engage at varying levels with other people and other content, and reflects personal interests and pathways. These networks and connections have the potential to last far beyond the time constraints of the classes or of the course. The varied mechanisms being used to support engagement exist outside the course dimensions and the conversations and content also remain as stimulus for ongoing conversations once the classes have ended. Indeed the course boundaries become fluid in terms of both time and space.

 3. Reconfigure teaching spaces
This can be applied to both physical and virtual spaces and supports an integrated approach to both kinds of spaces. Under the leadership of Jonathan Shaw, a significant refurbishment of the teaching spaces ( and teaching schedules) was undertaken in 20010-11 to make them more flexible and to capitalise on the Open Media strategy.  The physical spaces now offer a familiar and safe place for students to develop their confidence and develop relationships with teachers and other students. Broadening these spaces in the third year to open global virtual platforms takes the activities into an international arena where students can present themselves as practitioners whilst they are learning. Safer virtual spaces, such as closed forums, can also be offered to students if they find the openness too challenging for some activities.
 “These classes took place physically at Coventry University. I have always derived my energy from the people in the same room. The core course is not massive – 10-30 students in person. And not all of what goes on in the physical classroom is accessible to the outside world. But adding the online dimension set loose a generative force: there are direct correlations between the subject matter I teach and the mode of delivery; one has to embody the other. Teaching about networks couldn’t be confined to the physical classroom, although that is where the course is rooted.” Jonathan Worth, 2013

 4. Promoting visibility
The open classes play an important role in promoting the visibility of both the University, academics and students.  The classes have raised the profile of the University worldwide as the models adopted have been described as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘inspirational’. Staff who developed the open classes have received awards and recognition, and recruitment figures have increased dramatically.

A fundamental principle of the open classes has been to place students on an international platform where they can build and explore their own professional identities. The Media Department students have, more than any other Department, taken advantage of University Speed Plus Awards which support students to establish businesses.  Through the open classes students begin to establish themselves as professional practitioners and the extensive networking opportunities provide a global platform to launch themselves into the community of practice. Several students have been offered exciting professional opportunities as a result of having their work seen in this way.

 5. Working collaboratively
A fundamental aspect of the open classes is the move from a traditional broadcast model of delivery, to collaborative and connected interactions, where the notion of ‘expert’ is much more fluid. This model allows expertise to be drawn into the classes as appropriate by inviting specific ‘external’ contributors and participants depending on the nature of the class and the schedule. This has established an ever-broadening network of connections, since one contributor brings with them an existing series of links and networks. This helps to develop the network beyond the class and remains connected to the class through the aggregated hashtags. This connected approach, and the networks that sustain it, are one of the most vital and transformative elements of the open classes. In terms of assessment the impact of peer assessment and feedback on learners also needs to be considered. There are issues around the authenticity of feedback from open participants so an important role of lecturers is that of moderating these and maintaining positive interactions. This is not to simply accept a traditional view, which equates authentic feedback with in-house academics – but rather to remember that giving feedback entails mutual responsibilities and the mechanisms by which such relationships can be established are still being worked out for many developing open educational practices. One aspect of working collaboratively is the way in which the student voice is incorporated and responded to, both within the classes and also in the dialogue between students and the course providers. Implementing a completely new way of teaching is challenging for students and the Department had to be responsive to them when some of them expressed concern about some content being completely open. Providing a safe authenticated forum for feedback was one response that showed how far the students were heard. There were also instances when students decided to work collaboratively within the networks but outside the formal class, such as the launch of an online photography magazine and also a physical exhibition of work created during the class.

These five principles offer a useful framework for the open classes and for Department courses generally. They allow for new technological developments but do not make the technology the central focus of the course development or delivery. The framework acknowledges the importance of balancing the physical and virtual spaces – something which has emerged as an important aspect for the Department. The concept of openness is not identified as one single key principle, but can be applied across all of them, as can closed approaches as appropriate.

As the Department continues to embrace openness there are still some questions to be investigated.
It is worth considering if there is an optimum number of students in a class for the open element to work. In the first iteration, low class numbers of 9-12 students meant that opening the course expanded the number of conversations and range of people involved. Now that classes could include as many as 40 students the group dynamics are likely to change and the open classes may work differently.
How far the content developed during open classes can be reused, either by the Department or by those outside the University. There are questions about the return on investment that are interesting to Department Managers; so for example does the extra time needed to provide open classes lessen as the open content is developed, or does new content have to be developed at the same rate. Although much of the content in generated by students and external contributors significant content is still produced by the lecturers to keep classes fresh.

Jisc funding allowed the Department to devote extra time to the classes. How would conventional classes have benefited in similar or different ways if extra staffing had been available? How does the Department maintain the archive of class content and how far they support activity that might occur outside official class timescale? Automated aggregation mechanisms can do this to a certain extent but there is still a need to ensure that the virtual space remains a safe place to be. Does the open community ‘police’ itself in this regard or is there an onus on the Department to do this?

This is an important period for the team as they review the open classes and move towards more open courses. The fact that the Department has developed new open courses (from 2015-16) and that the Institution has approved them indicates that the models investigated during the open classes are transferable and scalable across the whole curriculum. Another key question for the Institution is how far this is transferable and scalable to other courses offered by the University. Something that the Disruptive Media Learning Lab is tasked with exploring.

See other findings: What critical factors led to the development of the open classes?  |  What kinds of institutional and departmental structures, strategies, policies and processes can support these models?  |  What kinds of support do staff need to implement these new open connected approaches?  | What was the impact of the classes on the various stakeholders?   |  How transferable are the models to other institutional contexts and subject disciplines?

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