• carlgombrich

Towards curriculum as network

I'm going to do series of blogs on curriculum as network. This reconception aims to impact standard educational thinking on learning outcomes, disciplinary siloes, matrix conceptions of assessment and other things that may be past their sell-by date. I'm particularly interested in how curriculum as network might relate to interdisciplinary education.


These blogs will have more in the way of research, citations etc. than some others.


But, still, think of this more as 'thinking out loud', not highly edited work. In another life and at another time I would put this material through the standard academic peer review process. But I take seriously the idea that anyone who reads this blog is a peer. And it's knowledge as the outcome of this blog and the thoughts and implementations that arise from it that matter - not where or how it is published. I therefore welcome all corrections, comments, suggestions for improvement etc.


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The network is the dominant metaphor of our age. It is 25 years since Kevin Kelly prophetically wrote:


‘The Atom is the past. The symbol of science for the next century is the dynamical Net…Whereas the atom represents clean simplicity, the Net channels the messy power of complexity…The only organization capable of…unguided learning is a network.’


And - amazing to me as I remember it as quite new - it is 20 years since Manuel Castell’s monumental The Rise of the Network Society, which describes a ‘networking logic’ pervading all aspects of our contemporary economics, politics and culture.


We speak of social networks, business networks, ecological networks, networks in our brain, transport networks, protein interaction networks, powerline networks, citation networks – and, of course, the internet itself is a network consisting of computers and server nodes and various forms of connection.


And yet there appears to be little on rethinking the curriculum as a network and how this might impact on some of our standard thinking in teaching, learning and assessment. A search of the Quality Assurance Agency (the UK’s national body on academic standards) returns only items on networks of various institutions, none on curricula in particular. Further, a search of google scholar and other databases reveals little of relevance for the various combinations of ‘curriculum’ and ‘network’.


Google scholar searchers:


“interdisciplinary curriculum as a network” – 0 matches

“interdisciplinary curriculum as network” – 0 matches

“network model of curriculum” – 5 matches, not very relevant

“network model of curriculum” interdisciplinary – 0 matches

"curriculum as network" - 4 matches, not very relevant

"interdisciplinary curriculum" as network - 6,630 results, but in-text search of first 50 papers, sorted by 'relevance', reveals few are relevant to a discussion of the curriculum as a network as 'network' in these papers usually refers to networks of people, institutions etc, not networked knowledge in a curriculum.

"networked curriculum" - 157 matches, mostly not relevant - though see comments on Kandiko and Blackmore below..

Etc.


A 2016 OECD report on innovation in education has 43 uses of the work 'network' in 150 pages but none of them relate to curriculum, although the learners of the future are envisaged to “have their own network of learning resources […] for continuous learning of STEM+ disciplines. (p.91)”


As a rare exception to this disconnect between network thinking and curricula, Davis and Sumara in their book Complexity in Education (2006) write, ‘…might network theory prompt reconsiderations of the assumed structures of disciplinary knowledge and the curricula based on varied knowledge domains?’ (p. 53). But despite this prescient remark, couched as a fledgling research question, in a recent correspondence I had with the author, Brent Davis said he knew of no work that had taken up this challenge.


The work of Dilly Fung and her team at UCL made a significant contribution, with the Connected Curriculum (2017), towards how we might conceive coherently of a curriculum across multiple dimensions in a multi-faculty university. The focus here is very much for the benefit of students and there are helpful innovations and analyses of research-based learning, student collaboration, interdisciplinary learning etc. But the work, in both its language and its conceptualisation/visualisation, stops short of developing a theory based on networks.


Perhaps Camille Kandiko and Paul Blackmore (Eds) and the authors in their book Strategic Curriculum Change: Global Trend in Universities (2012) come closest to articulating the curriculum as network.


'Using network theory as a theoretical framework, we advocate a social practice approach to understanding curriculum change', Kandiko and Blackmore say (p. 3). And 'network structures allow new ways to consider how to keep the benefits of disciplinary structures but take advantage of opportunities of interdisciplinary working, sharing ideas across disciplines and situating disciplines in relation to one another' (p.13).


But in the following chapters, this theme is not developed into a full theory of what a networked curriculum might be. Bergeron, in her chapter on the curriculum at Brown university notes (quoting a student), 'the real "core" of the Brown curriculum lay in the connections students make between their courses and their activites' (p. 39). Kandiko and Blackmore quote Parker, 2003, on the need for curriculum models that are 'multi-faceted, comprehensive and intellectual cogent' (sounds like a good description of a network) and also Short, 2002, who exhorts us to find 'a new way to conceive, rationalize, and legitimize the organization of the curriculum' (p. 45). However, Kandiko and Blackmore also quote an unnamed academic saying 'the curriculum could be conceptualised as a brick wall, where the bricks and the disciplines, with generic skills providing the mortar to keep it all together' (p. 58). The metaphors of bricks and mortar as organising and conceptual principles are some distance from those of nodes and links of networks!


'Links' are also mentioned, both in the context of connecting research and teaching (Kandiko and Blackmore, p. 75, p. 80), but the idea is not developed in the context of the curriculum. Most of the other references to networks in this work refer to institutional and organisational networks rather than curricular or pedagogic ones.



Networked curriculum. Credit: Maria Angelica Madero at the London Interdisciplinary School



It seems there is interesting work to be done on developing the theory of 'Curriculum as Network'. This would bring curricular theory in line with many other areas of contemporary thought where the metaphor and model of the network has proven its value.


The above gif, developed by my colleague Maria Angelica Madero at the London Interdisciplinary School, gives a first idea of how we might develop a conceptual theory and visualisations to progress this thinking. We will explore more in future blogs.




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