Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

More thinking about the alignment project

The following is the latest, and first close to (but not there) complete, draft of the proposal explaining the alignment project. While informed by good discussions with a range of folk, the following is still a bit limited. Should be improved over the next couple of weeks.

Even if the application doesn’t get off the ground it has helped me make connections bit a range of different bodies of work (complex adaptive systems, connectivism, distributive leadership and distributed cognition). Some of which I’ve been aware of and some I’ve ignored. It has helped develop my interest in thinking about how to combine some of the principles underpinning these bodies of work with behaviour change, hopefully to do some interesting things in the future.

As always, any comments/suggestions are more than welcome.

Executive summary

The aim of this project is to build distributive leadership capacity into institutional systems and processes to encourage and enable alignment and quality enhancement. It aims to make consideration of alignment a regular, transparent, supported and integrated part of common teaching practice, supported by effective systems and processes. The project aims to fulfil the suggestion by Biggs (1996), that attempts to enhance teaching should seek to address the system as a whole, rather than simply adding “good” components such as new curriculum or methods. It seeks to build distributive leadership to empower academics to actively engage in alignment and move towards achieving what Biggs (2001) calls ‘the reflective institution’.

For most teaching academics, the consideration of alignment in their courses and programs is not a part of everyday teaching practice. Consideration of alignment is typically limited to events such as significant re-design of courses and programs of visits from accreditation or quality assurance organizations. The dominant teaching experience for academics is teaching an existing course, generally one the academic has taught previously. In such a setting, academics spend most of their time fine tuning a course or making minor modifications to material or content (Stark, 2000). Given this focus, it does not appear surprising when Green et al (2009) report that “many academic staff continue to employ inappropriate, teacher-centered, content focused strategies”. If the systems and processes of university teaching and learning practice do not encourage and enable everyday consideration of alignment, is it surprising that many academics don’t consider alignment?

Instructional (Cohen, 1987), curriculum (Anderson, 2002) and constructive (Biggs, 1996) alignment are all built on a similar foundation: the recognition that student learning outcomes are significantly higher when there are strong links between those learning outcomes, assessment tasks, and instructional activities and materials. Cohen (1987) argues that limitations in learning are not mainly caused by ineffective teaching, but are instead mostly the result of a misalignment between what teachers teach, what they intend to teach, and what they assess as having been taught. The importance of achieving and demonstrating alignment with expected outcomes is also a central component of outcomes-based accreditation and quality assurance approaches that are increasingly widespread within higher education.

Consequently, the main tasks of this project are based on the three stages which Bigg’s (2001, p. 221) identified as encouraging institutional reflective practice. These are:

  1. Make explicit the quality model.
    Alignment should be explicit if it is to be seen as a key to quality student learning outcomes. The systems, technology, processes and support practices around learning and teaching should therefore enable and encourage alignment to be an everyday consideration. This support will enable: a) the level of alignment within a course, or group of courses, to be mapped and understood; and b) information about the alignment of a course or courses to be used in the everyday learning and teaching practice.
  2. Build in support for quality enhancement.
    An institution must also establish mechanisms that allow it to review and improve current practice, as it is not sufficient to simply make the quality model explicit (Biggs (2001, p. 223). This stage aims to help teachers to ‘teach better’ through the provision of responsive, appropriate, and contextualised support that responds to insights gained as a result of a greater focus on alignment and other factors.
  3. Institute a process for quality feasibility.
    An institution can only enhance quality if it actively identifies and removes factors that inhibit quality learning (Biggs, 2001, p. 229). This requires formal leadership, processes and hierarchies at the participating institutions to be actively involved in the removal of these inhibiting factors. For the project this involves factors identified through the quality enhancement process and also, more broadly, factors inhibiting the project’s aim of building distributive leadership capacity.

This project will help teaching academics to more regularly consider alignment through context sensitive and collegial methods by building distributive leadership capacity into the participant institutions. . This improved capacity will empower and encourage teaching academics to develop and grow their conceptions of teaching and learning and engage in ongoing improvement of teaching. This process is aided by the active removal of inhibiting factors. The combination of all these actions should lead to significant improvements in student learning outcomes.

Background and rationale

While it is common to describe leadership as a concept that eludes comprehensive definition (Southwell & Morgan, 2009), Parker (2008) suggests that some level of conceptual clarity around leadership within higher education has emerged from the ALTC leadership grants. This emerging view sees leadership in universities as inclusive and distributed, as opposed to the “deeply entrenched association of leadership with hierarchy and authority” (Parker, 2008). Lakomski (2005) argues that the growing recognition of distributed leadership within organisational theory is helping debunk the leader myth of traditional leadership theories. This project, like a number of previous ALTC Leadership projects, is based on the concept of distributed or distributive leadership.

Parrish et al (2008) define distributive leadership as the distribution of power through a collegial sharing of knowledge, of practice, and reflection within a socio-cultural context. Zepke (2007) argues that this is more than the delegation of tasks and responsibilities, and more than collaborative practice. Spillane et al (2004, p. 9) argue that, based on its foundations in distributed cognition and activity theory, distributive leadership is not limited to people, but can also be attributed to artefacts such as language, notational systems, tools and buildings. Leadership activity is distributed through an interactive web of actors, artefacts and situation (Spillane et al., 2004, p. 20). Spillane et al (2004, p. 11) define Leadership as

the identification, acquisition, allocation, co-ordination, and use of the social, material, and cultural resources necessary to establish the conditions for the possibility of teaching and learning.

Over thirty years of research (Prosser, Ramsden, Trigwell, & Martin, 2003; Ramsden, Prosser, Trigwell, & Martin, 2007) has produced abundant empirical inquiry and theory that links the quality of student learning outcomes with: (1) the approaches to learning taken by students; (2) the students’ perceptions of the learning context; and (3) the approaches to teaching practiced by teaching staff. In turn, this research confirms the findings of other leadership studies by illustrating that variation in teaching approaches is associated with perceptions of the academic environment (Ramsden et al., 2007). As Biggs (1999) argues, it is the alignment of all aspects of the system that contributes to higher quality outcomes. Conversely, misalignment within an institutional system is likely to contribute to a lowering of quality outcomes. In particular, while pedagogues may hold a higher-level view of teaching other contextual factors may prevent use of those conceptions (Leveson, 2004).

A fundamental assumption of this project is that there is a misalignment between the importance of instructional and curriculum alignment to student learning outcomes and its prevalence within the teaching and learning systems and processes of universities. This misalignment is seen as a major contributing factor to Barrie’s et al (2009) observation that despite significant espoused intentions around graduate attributes,

Australian universities have not generally been successful in deliberately and systematically refocussing the curriculum in ways that foreground the development of these attributes as opposed to the acquisition of factual disciplinary content or the accumulation of isolated and unrelated knowledge, skills and dispositions

This project aims to address this misalignment through making alignment a prevalent component of the teaching and learning systems of the participant institutions. It seeks to move consideration of alignment beyond a focus on program review or accreditation purposes, towards making consideration of alignment as a part of everyday teaching practice. To achieve this goal, the project must deal with a number of problems. The approaches this project will adopt to address these problems are described in the following.

Most teaching practice is not alignment focused

The practice of most academics does not separate planning from implementation, and rather than starting with explicit course objectives, starts with content (Lattuca & Stark, 2009). The dominant setting for academics is teaching an existing course for which they spend most of the time making minor modifications to material or content (Stark, 2000). For most staff teaching a course starts with the existing course materials such as outlines, assignments and website. The general description of these existing courses embedded in these materials may be non-specific and not systematically explain the content of teaching and the outcome of learning (Levander & Mikkola, 2009). This make it difficult to understand just how aligned a course is both within itself and with other courses in the program. This problem is compounded by the increasing casualisation of academic staff that leads to a context where there is high staff turnover, lack of ownership and lack of institutional support (Green et al., 2009).

The project will embed consideration of alignment into everyday practice by modifying the main institutional learning and teaching information system used by teachers and students, the LMS. The intent is to map alignment of a subset of existing courses within the LMS through a collaborative process between teaching academics and support staff. As described above, standard practice for most academics is to copy the course site from the last offering and make minor modifications to material and activities. The LMS modifications will enable and encourage teaching academics to modify the alignment mapping of their course as they make these minor modifications. Importantly, the project also aims to identify and experiment with additional LMS modifications that enable teaching staff and students to make use of the alignment mapping within the LMS.

Teaching is an isolated, solitary practice

The norms of the higher education community encourage autonomy and independence (Uchiyama & Radin, 2009). Lowe and Marshall (2004) describe academic life as often isolated and that even when this isolation is overcome, few academics will discuss course design and teaching practices with peers. The planning and implementation of teaching has largely been a private issue creating the possibility that the actual delivered teaching represents the teacher’s implicit, internalised knowledge and not that described in published course descriptions (Levander & Mikkola, 2009).

Enabling examination, comparison and discussion about the alignment and how it was achieved amongst groups of courses, teaching academics and other stakeholders is a major aim of the project. Initially this may focus on leveraging the alignment information for staff teaching courses within the same program, including program coordinators. The L&T support section below describes how the project hopes to enable and encourage connections between teaching academics and L&T support staff.

Alignment is difficult

Levander and Mikkola (2009) describe the full complexity of managing alignment at the degree level which makes it difficult for the individual teacher and the program coordinator to keep connections between courses in mind. von Konsky et al (2006) describe how the sharing of courses between programs and a variety of outcome types (e.g. graduate attributes and course, program, discipline accrediting body learning outcomes) significantly complicates curriculum design and review. In reporting on the status of curriculum mapping, a significant task associated with alignment, Willet (2008) reports on the need for more research on effective political and electronic strategies for the construction and maintenance of curriculum maps, especially those that improve faculty participation and buy-in.

The overarching aim of the project is to build distributive leadership capacity into the systems (mostly in the form of modifications to the LMS) and processes (mostly aimed at helping teaching staff overcome these difficulties) of the participant institutions. The project aims to reduce, if not remove, the difficulties associated with this task. It seeks to achieve this by adopting an action research methodology that draws heavily on the skills, experience and insights from a broad array of project participants. The action research methodology recognises that a major part of this project is focused on learning about these difficulties and how best to reduce them within the host institutions. The following table summarises how participant selection will help reduce the impact of difficulties.

Participants Contribution
Reference group Members: chosen due to expertise and experience gained from previous ALTC leadership grants (e.g. ???) and related alignment and mapping work (Lowe & Marshall, 2004; Oliver, Jones, Ferns, & Tucker, 2007).
Responsibilities: critique and offer suggestions for improvement of project plans and results.
Institutional steering committees
(1 per institution)
Members: Institutional members with expertise/responsibility for aspects of institutional strategic aims or operational environment.
Responsibilities: planning how project activities are integrated into each institution, and fulfilling quality feasibility task.
Project team Members: Institutional L&T support staff with expertise and insight into alignment and related issues.
Responsibilities: collaborating with and helping participating teaching academic staff map and respond to course alignment.
Teaching academic staff Members: Teaching staff responsible for courses selected (using process developed by institutional steering committee and reviewed by reference group) for participation in the project.
Responsibilities: Engage reflectively on the process and its outcomes.

Concerns around learning and teaching (L&T) support

Academics come to teaching with immense amounts of content knowledge but little or no knowledge of teaching and learning (Weimer, 2007). Given this limited knowledge and the complexities and importance of learning and teaching knowledge universities have provided various types of L&T support (e.g. staff development, instructional design etc). How this support is provided and questions about its impact of the quality of L&T remain problematic. Parker (2008) identifies the on-going tension between centralised and devolved L&T support. It is widely recognised that the activities and resources associated with L&T support are used by small numbers of teaching academics, and usually not those most in need of the support (The National GAP, 2009). Weimer (2007) argues that despite nearly 30 years of effort, L&T support roles have had little impact on the instructional quality of higher education.

By making alignment an everyday consideration of teaching practice, the project aims to directly address some concerns around L&T support by drawing on important insights from the literature. Numerous authors (Biggs, 1999; Michael Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Ramsden, 1998) have argued that the focus of L&T support should shift from techniques and technologies towards the facilitation and support of a more reflective approach to teaching. Encouraging reflection at all levels is a fundamental components of the project’s aims to move towards Bigg’s (2001) idea of the reflective institution. The quality enhancement task of the project is most closely associated with encouraging a reflective approach to teaching. Biggs (2001, p. 227) argues that the fundamental problem with L&T support is the focus on individual teachers, rather than on teaching. Following his approach, this project maintains the on-going focus on the alignment of courses, not on individual teachers. Boud (1999) argues that L&T support needs to be embedded within the context of academic work, that it needs to occur in or close to the teaching academics sites of practice. The aim of the quality enhancement phase is to make consideration of alignment an important site of practice for teaching academics and to provide the L&T support necessary as part of this site of practice.

Limitations of quality assurance

While outcomes-based quality assurance has been a prevalent component of higher education for a number of years, there remain significant concerns about how it is implemented and the subsequent outcomes. Raban (2007) observes that the quality management systems of most universities employ procedures that are retrospective and weakly integrated with long term strategic planning. He continues to argue that the conventional quality management systems used by higher education are self-defeating as they undermine the commitment and motivation of academic staff through an apparent lack of trust, and divert resources away from the core activities of teaching and research (Raban, 2007, p. 78). Barrie et al (2009) identify a bureaucratic approach to quality assurance as a potential contributor to the limited engagement of university staff in graduate attributes curriculum renewal. Biggs (2001) defines this type of quality assurance as retrospective and argues that its procedures are frequently counter-productive for quality and that most of its indicators concentrate on administrative procedures. He cites Bowden and Marton’s (1998) opinion that “retrospective QA actually damages teaching”.

Bigg’s (2001) conception of the reflective institution and its use of prospective quality assurance is presented as a solution that can make retrospective QA redundant. This project seeks to build distributive leadership capacity that enables the development of prospective quality assurance based around the everyday teaching practice of academic. Bigg’s (2001) defines prospective quality assurance as being, in part, as a bottom-up, systemic and supportive process with a priority on educational or scholarly outcomes. Such an approach has a focus on the teaching, not the teacher. These characteristics have significant connections with Southwell and Morgan’s (2009) description of Fullan’s (2008) “new leadership”, which they describe as having many of the hall marks of distributed leadership.

Long-term systemic change

As an attempt to build distributive leadership capacity the fundamental problem facing the project is to encourage long-term, systemic change. The change should not disappear once the project completes, it should become part of everyday operations. To achieve long-term, systemic change the project will:

  1. Ensure participation of formal institutional leadership and integration with institutional priorities.
    Beyond simply expressing support for a project, this project requires the active participation of formal institutional leadership roles in the institutional steering committees. These committees are responsible for developing the institutional implementation plans for two cycles of alignment embedding. These plans are intended to ensure that the project integrates appropriately with institutional priorities and practices. They are tasked with Bigg’s (2001) quality feasibility task that aims to increase institutional alignment.
  2. Action research perspective, flexible responsive.
    There is recognition that the type of fundamental change being attempted by this project is difficult, complex and replete with uncertainty. A critical success factor for the project is the ability to identify and respond to new insights. The projects action research methodology and the very nature of Bigg’s (2001) idea of a reflective institution aims to achieve on-going learning and improvement.
  3. Having a scholarly, not bureaucratic focus.
    As described above, the very nature of prospective quality assurance (Biggs, 2001) is bottom-up, systemic, supportive, and with a priority on educational or scholarly outcomes.
  4. Modifying an institutional information system.
    A fundamental enabler of this project is the presence of an information system that is embedded into the everyday practice of teaching and learning (for both students and staff) that encourages and enables consideration of alignment. Rather than develop a stand alone tool, this project seeks to modify the institutional LMS, a system to which the institutions are already significantly committed. In addition, both institutions have adopted the open source LMS Moodle as their institutional LMS. As an open source system, it is not only possible to make the changes, the subsequent changes will become available within the broader Moodle community. This increases the likelihood of on-going support both within and outside the participant institutions.

Project outcomes

The project aims to build leadership capacity within two institutions that enables consideration of alignment to become part of everyday teaching practice. The outcomes of that aim will include:

  • Within both institutions a number of courses that have had their instructional alignment mapped, made visible and reflected upon.
  • Increased availability and knowledge of resources around alignment and course mapping, especially those produced by ALTC projects, within the participant institutions.
  • For some of these courses, evidence of changes over time in the alignment and structure of the course.
  • Evidence of whether or not there have been changes in the conceptions of learning and teaching held by teaching staff participants.
  • Evidence of whether or not there have been changes in student learning experience or outcomes.
  • Availability of extensions to the Moodle LMS that enable the mapping of instructional alignment within and between courses.
  • Availability of extensions to the Moodle LMS that leverage course alignment information to provide a diverse collection of learning and teaching services.


The project will use an eight stage process that has at its core two action research cycles. Each action research cycle consists of 3 stages:

  • plan,
    The institutional steering committee with input from other institutional project members formulates a plan for the research cycle. Institutional plans are shared between participant institutions and reviewed by the reference group.
  • embed, and
    At its core, the project team work with selected teaching academic participants to map, understand and respond to the alignment within their courses. A key part of this stage will be identifying how having the alignment information of the course within the LMS can be leveraged for improving L&T. This will typically proceed over the course of an entire term.
  • review.
    A formal process of reviewing what happened during the embed stage involving all project participants.

Given that two action research cycles with the above three stages, there are two remaining stages. These are focused on the broader tasks of establishing and completing the project.


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Requirements for an "indicators" Moodle block


Getting started with Col's indicators block


  1. David,

    You may be interested in a rubric that we are developing to help programs assess their ability to assess teaching and learning. In other words, it’s a meta assessment. We are doing this work in the context of a need for an instituion wide system of assessment. Rather that impose a single assessment, we are encouraging programs to document their own robust practice, which we hope/imagine to be a combination of course level SoTL and program-wide alignment of efforts around questions of teaching and learning that interest the faculty. You can find our rubric, called Guide to Assessment, on the website. The current version is in the packet of resources for creating a self-study (right column).

    • G’day Nils,

      Thanks for the pointers. I was aware of your work on the harvesting gradebook, but not on the broader “meta-assessment”. Very interesting.

      I’m only sorry that I’m having to be very “pragmatic” with my time at the moment. Once a few deadlines are over, I’m hoping in a couple of months to read more about your work and start asking some questions. Hope that’s okay.

      I’m very much interested to learn more, especially about the experiences you’ve had engaging faculty with the work. For me, this remains the most difficult problem, developing something that a majority of teaching staff find useful enough to make part of their teaching practice.


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