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Identifying Courses for Discontinuation – Sophie’s Choice?


This blog post is part of the Curriculum Matters blog series

By Professor Carol A. Miles, Senior Curriculum Management Architect, Blackboard, Australia & New Zealand

The most personal, precious, and prized possessions of virtually every university teacher are the courses that they design and teach. Whether these courses have been taught for the past 30 years or are just in the design phase, academics feel a true sense of personal connection, ownership and pride in their courses. 

This close relationship stems at least partially from loyalties toward their academic disciplines, not toward the universities for which they teach. In fact, many academics don’t see themselves as working for a university, but rather as working to advance their academic discipline while merely plying their trade at a given institution.  This creates a very difficult situation when universities must reduce or “rationalise” the courses they offer – usually discontinuing a course for budgetary or reputational purposes.

Identifying those courses bound for discontinuation sets up one of the most volatile and potentially contentious circumstances in the business life of a university.

For these academics, being told that one or more of their courses is being dropped from the university catalogue is tantamount to having one (or more) of their children stolen.  As is sometimes the case, when they are asked to choose themselves between two or more courses with one to be discontinued, it truly feels like a “Sophie’s Choice.”

Course rationalisation efforts often lead to in-school or in-faculty conflict as well as staff union grievances and other challenges.  Decisions to discontinue courses are not always clear cut and rarely evidenced by compelling objective data.  In some cases these decisions may be based on staffing decisions relating to poor performing or otherwise difficult staff members.

Many academic managers and “up-stream” administrators such as Heads of School, Deans, PVCs, DVCs, etc. have been career academics themselves and have never had much experience with line management especially handling staff-related conflicts caused by suspicions regarding how and why certain courses are targeted for discontinuation.

Most academics can understand (but find distasteful) the fact that courses with poor enrolments over time need to be discontinued.  Often, however, during periods of rationalisation such as we are currently experiencing, courses may be cut for other reasons – commonly because there are several courses at a university sharing the same or similar learning outcomes at the same level of study.  

With digitised curriculum management, it’s not the people that university administrators manage, it’s the curriculum . An objective, digitised method of identifying course and learning outcome duplication and overlap enables a much more transparent and palatable process that will be especially valued by those with limited experience in people management.

Employing the intelligence of a digitised curriculum management system will assist university administrators in justifying their difficult course rationalisation choices. The system will assure the academic community that course rationalisation decisions are based on objective data and are in no way personal in nature. In an era where academic technologies have previously been seen as impersonal and rationalisation choices are perceived as incredibly personal, precise, accurate data from a digitised curriculum management system could serve to bridge the divide.

Professor Carol A. Miles
Senior Curriculum Management Architect
Blackboard, Australia & New Zealand

Professor Carol A. Miles
Prior to joining Blackboard Inc., Professor Carol Miles was Director of the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Teaching and Learning for eight years, with responsibilities for academic development, learning development, distance and blended learning support, and virtual learning environments. In this role, she established a leading edge institute for the development of innovative blended, hybrid, and online program and course offerings, through the BOLD Lab (Blended and Online Learning Design Lab).  Professor Miles also established the University of Newcastle Institute for Teaching Excellence, delivering teaching certificate programs to academics in a number of Asian universities, including those in India, China and Singapore.  Her personal and professional areas of academic interest include assessment in higher education, models of blended learning student support, and maturity of models of academic development.

Prior to immigration to Australia, she held the position of Associate Vice-President (Academic), Teaching and Learning, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. In that role she initiated Carleton University Online (CUOL), one of Canada’s most successful distance and blended learning programs.  While in Canada, she was Managing Editor of the Canadian Journal for Studies in Higher Education, and Chair of the Council of Ontario Educational Developers, as well as holding a number of other key national roles.  She completed her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology specializing in Educational Measurement & Evaluation at the University of Calgary in 1998 has taught for in a variety of disciplines, winning a number of teaching awards.

Find out more about the benefits of digitising curriculum management here