Can Curriculum Development be Guided by Product Design?

"The details are not the details. They make the design." –Charles Eames

In the forthcoming #HEAchat on 22 February at 8pmGMT we will be focusing on curriculum development, in particular the design process behind a validated curriculum and the freedoms you have to be creative and collaborative in this process.

Each institution has evolved its own infrastructure, policy and practice that guides curriculum development. However, you as an academic will interpret these to determine how a curriculum is created or reimagined, whether collectively or individually. You will make a number of design choices in the process of development.  How many of these are predetermined by the context that you work (institutionally or disciplinary)?  What freedom do you have to create and design innovative curricula fitting for future students? How well are we using the principles of product design to assist in curriculum development?  

If you were to explain to the uninitiated how you built a curriculum - what would be the key steps you moved through as the development progressed? How is your curricula imagined?

Let’s remove ourselves from academia for a moment and look at product design in the real world (tongue in cheek #realworldacademic). The Design Council[1] uncovered a number of critical steps/ approaches supporting the design process in 11 global brands. Many of the brands worked within four recognised phases of design, outlined in the design diamond shown below:









Importantly working within this diamond, designers are steered through periods of divergent and convergent thinking. Of the 11 global brands design was underpinned by the following practices:

  • A user-driven mentality which was an upfront exploration of needs, behaviours and perceptions of users.
    • How well do we understand our current students and can we forecast for our prospective students?
    • How well do we understand points of difference and similarity between students?
  • Prototyping
    • How do we test curriculum ideas? We are seeing the growth of creative and collaborative learning and maker spaces - how about academic practice which allows co-creativity, co-exploration and importantly rapidly test ideas. Where is the safe space to take risks?
    • Can academic teams build curricula without being too constrained by academic conventions and protocols?
  • Concept visualisation- the outputs of early brainstorming are communicated across variety of media - often highly visual.
    • How often do you deviate from your institution’s validation paperwork to explain and communicate your curriculum ideas?

How about the Design principles for Digital Services in the UK Government?[2]

From the 10 design principles highlighted - the following seem appropriate yet often quietly assumed when developing curricula;

  1. Start with user needs
  2. Design with data
  3. Do the hard work to make it simple
  4. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  5. This is for everyone
  6. Understand context
  7. Be consistent, not uniform
  8. Make things open: it makes things better 

Perhaps product design processes do have some lessons for curriculum developers. It is likely that these are all part of our curriculum development vocabulary but how salient are they as part of our practice? Are there constraints in our academic life to subscribe fully to design processes? Take a look at this, how far does it reflect a curriculum development team- should it?



Join in the debate and share your curriculum design practices on 22 February at 8pm GMT- Following the hashtags #HEAchat #LTHEchat

Thank you to twitter friends who helped with the thinking of this blog - See #Designcurr for a few of their ideas about design principles that guide curriculum development. Feel free to add your own!




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