10 November 2022
Modular learning by design and not by default
Dr Charles Wiffen
Head of Academic Portfolio Development, Bath Spa University
At Bath Spa University we’re working with Coventry, Middlesex and Staffordshire Universities and Bath College on a QAA Collaborative Enhancement Project on post-18 modular learning. Our objective is to develop a toolkit for coherent and effective micro-credential curriculum design across levels 4-6.
In order to achieve this, we’re drawing on expertise from universities, FE colleges, and industry and third sector partners. We’re aiming to explore practice across the sector and provide a set of case studies which will illustrate the range and potential of modular learning across the country in the context of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).
As with many providers in the sector, all the partners in this project have some experience of delivering short courses to provide upskilling and reskilling opportunities that are relevant to learners and to employers. In the case of Bath Spa University, these include Skills Bootcamps in response to the Department for Education (DfE) initiative to provide free, flexible courses of up to 16 weeks, available for adults aged 19 or over. We’re also involved in the Short Course Challenge sponsored by the DfE and the Office for Students through our collaboration with Weston College. And we have a long history of providing CPD, particularly in areas such as schools and the education sector where for many years we’ve provided innovative and flexible opportunities that have enabled practising teachers to develop specialisms and build towards Master’s qualifications. All of the partners in the project are also experienced at working with different types of organisation and qualifications.
As well as sharing our own experiences and knowledge across the partnership, we’re building on existing foundations such as the UNESCO's work towards agreeing a common definition of micro-credentials, SCQF’s Exploration for Recognition for Micro-credentials Report (March 2021), the Department for Education Consultation on the LLE (February 2022) and the QAA Micro-credentials Characteristics Statement (May 2022).
Our aim is to design and deliver modules that relate to disciplinary themes in areas of national skills needs (which include digital, health and sustainability). As part of this, we want to provide flexible opportunities for learners to address skills gaps in the short term. However, to meet the ambitions of the LLE and some learners, we also need to look to the longer term and how we will support learners who might wish to build these micro-credentials into larger qualifications or macro-credentials, so that their experience is meaningful and valuable to their career development and to employers alike.
We’re exploring a range of approaches to micro-credentials and we’re particularly interested in developing these across institutions (in a consortium), which could include universities, independent providers and those who also deliver further education. Inevitably, this involves reviewing our respective internal regulations and approaches to awarding credit. But, as we observed through our work in the first part of this Collaborative Enhancement Project which was led by our partner Bath College, there are significant design considerations across the higher and further education sectors and different types of qualification.
Modular qualifications in the post-18 space have existed for some time and work well where the articulations between them are designed into the qualifications themselves. However, until now, there have been relatively few opportunities for learners in England to move between HE providers or between FE and HE provision, other than the model of Foundation Degrees, or sometimes HNDs, followed by Level 6 ‘top-ups’. This means that addressing discrepancies has not been a priority within the sector.
From initial work that explored the core principles and practices of qualification design across the further and higher education sectors, we found a number of operational variants within the basic framework. These included practices around the volume of credit required at particular levels for a qualification, differences in terminology to describe levels of learning, the overall hours and forms of study, and unit (or module) size.
These can pose some challenges when moving from one type of qualification to another, for example progressing from an HND to a Level 6 Bachelors with Honours award. Whilst these differences can be accommodated and mitigated in larger volumes of learning where there is more space, that luxury will not be available in micro-credentials. This means that alignment of key features of design becomes more important, especially as is it likely that the LLE environment (and future funding models) will both facilitate and demand easier articulation between providers.
We expect that a sense of cohort progression will be less apparent than individual learners determining their own route, and that the approaches to credit and design taken by FE and HE providers will need to align more closely with each other in order to create a joined-up experience for the learner. Module design will also need to take account of potential learning gaps (which will vary between learners) and of the development of autonomous learning and self-responsibility.
We also need to ensure that adequate support is provided to the learner (and employer) in terms of admissions and navigation through modules, as well as appropriate learning support once learners are enrolled.
This is still a work in progress, but this project on micro-credentials provides us with an opportunity to explore current design and regulatory practice in the context of a rapidly changing policy environment. In addressing the design challenges that we’ve observed, we’re hoping that the project will give us a better understanding of the needs of learners and employers and how best to meet those needs to create more flexible - yet still coherent - learner-led opportunities.
One of the ways we’re exploring this is through a focus on assessment. Our approach favours inclusive, authentic and sustainable assessment practice. We know we need to demonstrate the relevance of that assessment to employers so, as part of the wider work in this area, we’re aiming to work closely with employers on co-creating modules.
We’re also aware of the need for agility within our approval systems and we’re developing guidance both for academic developers to work with employers and for employers who may be new to co-creation. This provides a framework for creating appropriate assessments (such as working to live, ‘real-world’ assessment briefs and providing mentorship opportunities for learners), and addressing some of the design challenges that we’ve noticed in this way. We welcome dialogue with others in the sector on this via email@example.com and we’ll share more of our work later in the year via the project web page.
About QAA Collaborative Enhancement Projects
QAA Collaborative Enhancement Projects offer funding for small groups of QAA Member institutions to work together on projects to enhance the quality of the participating institutions’ student learning experience. More information, including the projects we are currently supporting and resources from completed projects, is available on the QAA website.