Describing Changing Curricula

Roy Williams
Jenny Mackness
Simone Gumtau

Education is built on the foundations of peer reviewed knowledge, first formalised in the Royal Society many years ago, so networking in academic communities is nothing new. What is new is the facility for networking offered by the internet – global, mobile, and in principle open. It is now so much easier to explore “tools, information, resources and points of view from other disciplines that can elucidate and even answer problems” that you might be studying.

This provides opportunities and challenges for the curriculum. Institutions, through their courses, and students and staff, through their networked learning and research, are all trying to find ways to reconcile core curriculum values and standards with these rich, serendipitous, and sometimes centrifugal, forces.

We have identified a number of problems and opportunities arising from rapidly evolving new curricula in particular, which arise in teaching that links science and engineering to arts and design. We propose new methodologies and approaches that may help to address the new situation.

From the perspective of curriculum design, evaluation and research, one of the first challenges is how to describe and track these changes and the way they affect teaching and learning, both within the emerging curricula, and within curricula which are themselves emergent. Emergent curricula can change during a course; they are no longer defined solely by the providing institution, but rather by the interaction between what is provided by the institution and the initiative and networking of the students, as their learning crosses traditional institutional and disciplinary boundaries.
Describing these dynamic changes is the subject of a paper on ‘Footprints of Emergence’, forthcoming in IRRODL (International Review of Research on Open and Distance Learning). It is based on a paper in 2011 in IRRODL1 on Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies.

These dynamic changes are complex, so to do justice to them, we developed a new footprint template, based on our research into a range of very different courses and learning events. The template was proofed and tested in a workshop where the participants mapped out their own teaching or learning, and used the footprints they had drawn to inform discussions about their curriculum, and about emergent curricula.

This ‘topography of learning’ is a rich, three dimensional visual template, which enables us to map out, describe and explore the complex relationships and dynamics of adaptive, co-evolving, curricula and courses. For the first time, perhaps, it also explicitly integrates and acknowledges the value of prescribed learning: the central repository of core knowledge. The topography provides a visual framework and metaphor for exploring how and why learners move back and forth between prescribed learning and emergence. It can be used for strategy, design, course management, feedback and feed-forward, and critical reflection – by both students and staff.


The full paper is available here. Interested people can contact us for further information, in the first instance at:, and I will forward comments and queries to my collaborators.

1 Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0, IRRODL 2011 (