American higher education institutions are widely regarded as some of the best in the world and regularly top World University Rankings. Universities in the United States thrived in the 20th century due to their dynamism, reputation, and relationships with the private sector. But the 21st century is already looking very different. As the world changes at an ever rapid pace, due to advances in technology, political and economic upheaval, and even a global pandemic, students must be prepared to live in this new environment.
But colleges and universities have been struggling to adapt. To ensure quality, compliance, and shared governance, a rich and complicated array of policies, procedures and committees were developed over time. In many instances, these structures and processes now represent the barriers to adaptation. A primary example is the curriculum approval process. This process is fundamental to quality education, but often focuses on institutional hierarchy over course quality. In order to continue to prepare students for the future, universities must streamline their curriculum approval process.
The current curriculum approval process is difficult and time-consuming for everyone involved. Yet there is little understanding as to why this process is so inefficient. We believe that the issue is not due to lack of passion or capability of the institution's administration and faculty. Rather, it is the lack of clear standards and outcomes that leads to inefficiency, tedium, and headache.
New curriculum stems from a few places. First, the need to keep courses up to date with a quickly changing world. Second, increasing or decreasing student enrollment in programs often creates the need for new courses of program changes to adjust. Third, universities often need faculty from many departments to contribute to general (core) education programs. Often these courses need to be aligned with program level learning outcomes. Finally, new courses often emerge from faculty expertise.
The process starts when administrators (provost, deans, department chairs) are tasked with the complex job of aligning student demand, program needs, and faculty expertise with making sure learning outcomes are accessible and relevant to accreditation needs. This is often a dance between equitable workloads for faculty, enrollment demands, course capacities, and classroom space.
Most curriculum must be approved by numerous committees before it can actually be offered to students. The process usually starts with a faculty member who creates a syllabus. This then often goes to departmental committees, onto collegewide, then moving through general education and university wide committees for approval. Each of these committees has 3-5 members, often more. Depending on the institutional size and focus, a syllabus could hypothetically be reviewed by over 20 other faculty before it can be offered to students. Whatsmore, every time a syllabus is not approved by committee to chair, the faculty member must make the changes required and start the process all over again.
The timeline for curriculum approval could range from 3-6 months to over a year for a single course to be approved. The result? Many faculty choose not to submit new courses (or even make program changes) because they do not want to deal with the hassle of the process. Others get bumped to another calendar year for missing an arbitrary deadline. For example, at some institutions, if the curriculum is not approved by February it can't be taught the following fall semester, a 6 month time period before the next semester starts.
In response to these challenges, VAS has created Streamlining Curriculum Approval (SCA), a service designed to increase efficiency and transparency of an institution’s current approval process while maintaining and enhancing alignment with department, college, and institutional learning outcomes, and accreditation metrics. Our service involves us creating a custom made rubric for faculty to follow when submitting their curriculum to be reviewed by each respective committee. By working directly with administrators, faculty, and staff, the rubric aligns and prioritizes metrics for approval. It enables committees to develop project management skills and work within clear guidelines.
Our Streamlining Curriculum Approval process (SCA) leverages existing strengths and addresses the problem from a systems perspective. This approach helps institutions build more efficient, durable, and scalable systems from within. In a time where faculty, staff, and administrators are working harder than ever with more uncertainty, this process will help ease the burden of committee work.
By leveraging and pairing existing strengths with the rubric and our process management and facilitation services, we are creating a win-win solution that will solve problems for each stakeholder group in the following ways:
To stay competitive, serve our students, and keep producing high quality research, universities will need to respond quickly to the challenges we currently face. Streamlining the curriculum approval process is just a starting point, but can be the birthplace for emergent and beneficial changes.
The SCA rubric is estimated to cut time spent on curriculum approval in half while simultaneously getting faculty back to teaching and research, increasing transparency of the process, and making outcomes assessment easier. At a time when higher education is facing enormous strain, we must improve our processes in order to improve our outcomes.