On 9 May 23, I attended a staff development event that had the title “Our STEM curriculum” which was presented by David Morse, Associate Dean for Curriculum, Faculty of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.
I must admit that I was expecting a very different session to the one that I attended. I was expecting something about curriculum accessibility. Instead, I had stumbled into what appeared to a briefing about the STEM curriculum.
What follows is a set of notes that I’ve taken from this session which I’ve moulded into a summary about different types of curricula that the university offers. Although the focus on this blog is, of course, STEM curricula, there will, of course, be similarities and differences between what happens in other faculties and institutions. Hopefully what follows will be a useful summary for anyone who is trying to understand what curriculum is all about.
How everything works
There are quite a few terms to understand: modules, qualifications, and credits. You gain credits by studying modules, and modules contribute towards qualifications. A degree is a qualification, as is a certificate and diploma. There are undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.
The most familiar qualification is the undergraduate degree. To really understand what is meant by curriculum it is worth spending a couple of minutes to unpick what it comprises:
A full-time three year undergraduate degree is 360 academic credits.
Every year, a full time student will be studying 120 worth of modules.
Students studying at half time study intensity will, of course, study modules worth 60 credits.
In the OU, modules are either 30 or 60 credits depending on the faculty, and the module. In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the modules are typically 60 credits. In STEM, they are often 30 credits. In some cases, students can study one 30 credit module after another.
Other institutions might have different sizes of modules. I’ve seen modules that are 15 credits, 20 credits or 45 credits. Some really bit postgraduate modules might be even 90 credits.
One credit is typically considered to be 10 hours of study. The term ‘study’ can refer to a whole set of different activities: it can refer to attending tutorials, reading learning materials, completing study tasks, interacting with fellow students, and completing assessments. The exact make-up of that time will depend on the module.
With 10 hours of study per credit, this means that a 60 credit module means 600 hours’ worth of study. If we assume a typical working day is 7.5 hours, this can be translated to 80 days of study time.
A traditional academic term lasts 9 months from October until June, but within this period there are the Christmas and Easter holidays, which means a break of4 weeks. This means there are 8 months of study time for full time students.
120 credits of full time study means, of course, 1,200 hours. Dividing this by 7.5 hours per day gives us 160 days of study time. Dividing this by 5 gives us 32 week of study time per year. Dividing this by 4 weeks in a month gives us exactly 8 months, which means that everything fits.
Modules are broadly categorised in terms of level, which corresponds to the year of study at a face-to-face university. A module that has the number 2 as the second number is a second year module. I’ll cover more about this a bit later.
Now that we’ve figured out undergraduate degrees, let’s turn our attention to postgraduate master’s degrees. A one year master’s degree at a face-to-face university typically takes 12 months rather than 9 months, usually running between September to September. This means there is more to study. MSc and MA degrees typically require 180 credits. When studying part time, OU students typically study for them over a three year period.
All this is enough to make our head hurt. When we look into the particulars of individual degrees and qualifications, we find a whole lot more detail.
What follows is an edited set of STEM specific notes that I made from the session. I’ve taken the liberty of adding a number of sections which shares a bit more context.
The first elements of curricula which some students may encounter are the university’s access modules. These modules are presented as an introduction to distance learning and aim to offer students a broad overview of a subject. There are four modules, one for each faculty, each taking up to 30 weeks.
The STEM access module is split into three sections (or blocks) which have the subjects: life, water and home. The first block addresses biology and ecology, the second adopts a practical perspective, and the third begins to address design, engineering and computing.
These access modules don’t attract academic credit. They do, however, help students to gain an understanding of what is involved with university level study. Students will gain experience of writing and submitting assignments, and will receive significant help and guidance from a tutor.
The faculty offers a number of qualifications: foundation degrees, undergraduate certificates, undergraduate diplomas, first degrees, postgraduate certificates and diplomas and taught higher degrees. The most popular is the first degree.
The most popular qualification in STEM is the Computing and IT BSc (Q62), followed by Natural Sciences degree (Q64), and then the Certificate in HE in Computing and IT (T12). The popularity of the certificate in Computing and IT might be explained that certificates in HE (CertHE) and diplomas (DipHE) are known as milestone qualifications, which means that students can gain these qualifications as they accumulate credit for an undergraduate degree.
The faculty also offers a number of foundation degrees, such as the Foundation Degree in Computing and IT Practice (X15). Rather than being 360 credits, these qualifications are 240 credits and cover stages 1 and 2, an contains a compulsory work-based learning element.
Students can also use something called credit transfer. There is an increasing number of students who have studied at another university and convert their foundation degree to an OU BA or BSc by using the credit transfer service. This is sometimes called a top up degree.
Most of the degrees and qualifications that the university has are what are called named degrees, which means a degree that is specifically linked to a particular subject or discipline. Named degrees are relatively new to the OU. They were introduced in their current form to enable students to apply for student loans which are available for part time study. Loans are only available to students who are studying a named degree.
Each school within a faculty ‘owns’ the qualifications that are aligned to their subject area. There are, of course, some qualifications which cross schools and faculties. A popular choice is a joint honours qualification. An example of this is the Computing and IT degree with a second subject. With this qualification, students can study Computing with Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology, Statistics and Electrical Engineering.
It is also worth mentioning an undergraduate qualification called the Open Degree. The Open Degree predates the introduction of the named degree. It enables students to create their own degree from any undergraduate module. It is described as follows: the Open degree “allows you to bring together different areas of study in a completely flexible way to develop knowledge and skills. … Choose from over 250 modules across 16 subject areas, to create a bespoke qualification to match your interests”. Returning to the topic of credits, students must study 360 worth of academic credit, in three groups of 120 credits, which correspond to each of the levels.
A variation of the Open degree in the STEM faculty is the Combined STEM degree where students can create their own STEM degree from the different STEM modules that the university offers. Within this qualification, there are corresponding diplomas and certificates.
Undergraduate degree classifications
In keeping with all other higher education institutions (HEIs), when a student gains their OU degree, it is assigned a classification which reflects their performance. The highest category is a first, followed by an upper second (2:1) or a lower second (2:2), or third class.
Also in keeping with other HEIs, the first level of study is all about skills development. Although the first level modules do not officially contribute to a degree classification, level 1 modules can have two overall scores: distinction, or pass. To get a distinction, students must gain an overall score of 85%, as defined by a module’s tuition strategy. This said, the exact boundary for a distinction can be slightly adjusted by a module results panel to ensure that results are awarded in a way that is consistent between different module presentations. More information about what is meant by assignment scores, module results and overall grades is available through the university help centre.
Results from level 2 and level 3 modules (modules that have the numbers 2 and 3 as the first numbers in the module code) do contribute to a degree classification. Module results are presented in terms of grades, ranging from grade 1 (which is a distinction) through to grade 4 (which is a bare pass). The module result grades are then combined with each other to calculate a student’s degree classification. More information about the algorithm used to calculate a degree classification is also available through the university help centre.
Like the undergraduate qualification, the postgraduate master’s qualifications also contain milestone qualifications which are, of course, qualifications in their own right. As mentioned earlier, a master’s degree is gained through 180 credits of study. Along with way, students can gain a postgraduate certificate, PGCert through 60 credits of study, or a postgraduate diploma, a PGDip through 120 credits of study.
The classification scheme for postgraduate qualifications are different to undergraduate qualifications. There are three different results for master’s degrees: distinction, merit, and pass. In keeping with postgraduate qualifications in other institutions, the pass mark for modules is 50%. For undergraduate modules, the pass mark is 40%.
Higher degrees, such as doctorates and MPhil qualifications are not discussed here. Further information about these qualifications are available in another blog about doctoral study.
The OU also offers a number of degree apprenticeships. The degree apprenticeships share a similarity with foundation degrees. Both have a compulsory-work based learning element, but with an important difference: an apprenticeship is essentially a job role, with an aspect of study attached to it. The study is aligned with the job role. Apprentices have access to module tutors, and to practice tutors. The role of the practice tutor is to help the apprentices relates their formal academic study with their work-based learning, and carry out regular reviews to evidence their learning.
The funding for apprenticeship study comes from the apprenticeship levy, which all employers of a certain size have to pay from their salary bill. Employers can gain back the value of the levy by encouraging some of their employees to participate in a degree apprenticeship scheme.
Unlike many of the other qualifications, the degree apprenticeship standards are defined by external organisation in conjunction with employers rather than the qualifications being owned by an academic school. Apprenticeship schemes are nation specific. In England, degree apprentices are defined by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education with other bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In STEM, there are two degree apprenticeships; a Digital and Technology solutions (DTS) qualification, and a postgraduate Systems Thinking Practitioner qualification.
Higher Technical Qualifications
Higher Technical Qualifications follow the roughly the same standard as the apprenticeship qualifications. Unlike the degree apprenticeships, these qualifications do not have the compulsory work-based learning component or have the requirement for students to be connected with an employer.
In STEM, there are two Higher Technical Qualifications, which are available in England only: one that relates to Network Engineering (W19) and another about Software Development (W20). Students studying these qualification also have the potential to use their credit from the constituent OU modules on different qualifications, if they wish to further their studies.
In the OU, typical modules are either 30 or 60 credits. OU microcredentials, however, can be thought as short courses (or modules) which run between 10 and 12 weeks which attract either 10 or 15 of academic credits. In some cases, these bits of academic credit can be ‘boxed’ together into a larger unit, and can be brought into a larger qualification through credit transfer, if the learning outcomes of the microcredentials are compatible.
Microcredentials aim to appeal to a different group of students: those who are interested in upskilling, or developing an evidenced continuing professional development (CPD) portfolio. This emphasis on CPD can be seen through the computing microcredentials, which currently draw on materials from industrial providers, such as Cisco.
Microcredentials differ from other modules in the sense that students are not provided a tutor. Instead, students have to carry out self-directed learning. Technology also plays an important role in the learning experience. At the time of writing OU microcredentials are delivered through FutureLearn, a MOOC provider, which offers a social learning approach.
Time will tell whether microcredentials will become a bigger element of the university’s portfolio of curriculum. A personal view is that they are useful for some disciplines and for some groups of students, but may not work for others. It is interesting to note that are international initiatives that support the development of microcredentials (Microcredentials.EU) and accompanying policies.
Other types of curricula
As well as formal qualifications and modules, there is also a site called OpenLearn which shares free online courses. Some of the courses delivered through OpenLearni are known as Badged Open Courses (BOCs). This means when a student completes an OpenLearn course, they are eligible to get a digital badge, and download a certificate of completion. Learners can highlight the completion of these BOCs by mentioning them on CVs and job applications. If OpenLearn learners are also OU students, completion of OpenLearn modules will also appear on their student record, which are visible to students.
The OpenLearn resources that are summarised within this section can also be called Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is a category of freely available resources which can be used and shared by educators.
There are quite a few OpenLearn courses and resources which can be useful to tutors. There are courses that enable students to gain an understanding about what is involved with online and OU study. Since a percentage of OU modules are shared through OpenLearn, there are also courses that enable students to get a flavour about what they will be studying if they are to formally enrol. Also, there are courses which can be taken as continuing professional development modules for tutors.
What follows is a sample of some of the materials that are available.
Courses about learning to study
Here are some courses that might be useful to share with students who are considering OU study, or are new to OU study:
The following courses would be helpful for students considering postgraduate study:
Courses that offer introductions to formal study
Here are some notable courses from other disciplines:
Courses that help with tutoring and teaching
The following courses can offer CPD for tutors, and help learners to gain more of an understanding of what is involved with OU teaching and learning:
STEM facts and figures
During this session, David shared some facts and figures about the STEM faculty. For 2021 and 2022, there were 47k students registered on STEM modules. Out of these, 3.5k students completed a qualification, which represents roughly 19% of all OU students graduating. Although there are three faculties, approximately a third of students graduate with an Open degree.
Out of these students, 76% of students work either part-time or full time. 69% of undergraduate students had no previous HE qualifications. This highlights that the transfer of academic credit is playing an important role in the journey for some students.
As mentioned earlier, the Q62 computing qualification is the most popular undergraduate programme offered by the faculty. In recent years there has been a decline in students registering for Q62, but there has been an increase in the number of students registering for the cyber security qualification. In terms of postgraduate study, the Mathematics MSc is the largest MSc within the faculty.
I was initially a bit grumpy when I realised that this continuing professional development session was offering a sketch about curriculum, rather than being about accessibility. A key learning point here is: make sure you read the event description carefully.
Sometimes it’s useful to stick with things. In this case, the summary of all the different qualifications that are provided by the faculty was a helpful reminder. I also took the opportunity to really figure out the notion of academic credit, and how it relates to modules, qualifications and the academic year.
I’ve taken the opportunity to add two complementary sections: a bit about access modules (which wasn’t really covered during the session), and a section about degree classifications. Everything is, of course, linked to each other: qualifications are linked to modules, which are linked to schools, which are liked to disciplines.
There are, of course, bits of curriculum that I haven’t mentioned. Some years ago, there used to be a number of short courses, some of which were credit bearing, but there is only one short course is run by the faculty: a digital photography course. There is also something called ‘open box’ modules, where bits of external academic credit can used to contribute to an OU qualification.
Curriculum is subject to continual change. Its structure is affected by a number of variables: academic and cultural trends, innovations in pedagogy and technology, and wider political changes, such as changes to funding. It is interesting to see the extent to which freely available materials complement formal credit bearing materials. Knowing about what free resources are available has the potential to make a real difference to the student experience.
Thanks are extended to David Morse for running such a thorough session.