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Invited Paper - What effect does an academic's concept of curriculum have on their engagement with its design and development?

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2013 ASEE International Forum


Atlanta, Georgia

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June 22, 2013

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June 22, 2013

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June 22, 2013

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Track 2 - Session I - Curriculum Development

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Invited - Curriculum Development

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21.53.1 - 21.53.9



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Lynette Frances Johns-Boast Australian National University Orcid 16x16

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Lynette Johns-Boast is a Lecturer in software engineering at the Australian National University College of Engineering and Computer Science. Her research interests include curriculum design and development, experiential and cooperative learning, personality and successful teams in software engineering, open educational resources (OER) and learning object repositories (LOR), engineering education including the transfer of learning between the university and the workplace, and women in engineering. Prior to joining the ANU in 2005, she had 20 years’ experience in the information technology industry in Australia and the United Kingdom, including establishing a very successful small business which provides bespoke software and consultancy services to the Australian Federal Government in Canberra. Lynette holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Modern European Languages from the ANU and a Graduate Diploma in Information Systems from the University of Canberra. She is currently a PhD candidate in Higher Education at the Centre for Higher Education, Teaching & Learning at the ANU. In 2012 Lynette received an Australian Council of Engineering Deans National Award for Engineering Education (High Commendation) and in 2007 she received the “WICked Woman of the Year” award from the Canberra Women in Information and Communication (WIC) for her contribution to developing, encouraging and mentoring young women in industry and at university.

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Paper ID #8372Invited Paper - What effect does an academic’s concept of curriculum haveon their engagement with its design and development?Ms. Lynette Frances Johns-Boast, Australian National University Lynette Johns-Boast is a Lecturer in software engineering at the Australian National University College of Engineering and Computer Science. Her research interests include curriculum design and develop- ment, experiential and cooperative learning, personality and successful teams in software engineering, open educational resources (OER) and learning object repositories (LOR), engineering education includ- ing the transfer of learning between the university and the workplace, and women in engineering. Prior to joining the ANU in 2005, she had 20 years’ experience in the information technology industry in Aus- tralia and the United Kingdom, including establishing a very successful small business which provides bespoke software and consultancy services to the Australian Federal Government in Canberra. Lynette holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Modern European Languages from the ANU and a Graduate Diploma in Information Systems from the University of Canberra. She is currently a PhD candidate in Higher Ed- ucation at the Centre for Higher Education, Teaching & Learning at the ANU. In 2012 Lynette received an Australian Council of Engineering Deans National Award for Engineering Education (High Commen- dation) and in 2007 she received the ”WICked Woman of the Year” award from the Canberra Women in Information and Communication (WIC) for her contribution to developing, encouraging and mentoring young women in industry and at university. c American Society for Engineering Education, 2013 What effect does an academic’s concept of curriculum have on their engagement with its design and development?AbstractThe undergraduate curriculum is one of the most important products higher education institutionsoffer their stakeholders 1 as it both determines and drives outcomes. Despite this, the most notableoutcome of a “review of the literature on curriculum in higher education in the UK, the USA andAustralia … [is that there] is the dearth of writing on the subject” 2. That literature which doesaddress higher education curricula assumes a common understanding of the term curriculum andtargets curriculum related issues such as ‘inclusive curriculum’, ‘learner-centered curriculum’,internationalization of the curriculum or it focuses on the design of individual courses – that is,single units of study 2.Accepting that an important aspect of our role as academics is “not to impart knowledge, but todesign learning environments that support knowledge acquisition” 3, what impact might a highereducation academic’s understanding of the term ‘curriculum’ have upon the process and activitiesthey undertake when designing and developing courses and programs of study?This paper reports on the initial findings of an on-going study whose aim is to tease apart thefactors that affect an individual academic’s engagement with curriculum design and development.So far, data has been collected from 22 academics involved in teaching computer science,software engineering, engineering, and information systems courses at three Australianuniversities. The constructivist grounded theory methodology proposed by Charmaz 4 wasselected for this project. Accordingly, data collection and analysis are being conductedconcurrently, with the outcome of earlier data analysis informing subsequent data collection.Initial data analysis indicates that academics focus their attention on course level curriculumrather than program level; don’t frequently discuss ideas and proposed changes with peers; thatcurriculum design and development at individual course level is essentially a solitary activity; andthat academics don’t have a coherent view of the whole degree program. These findings are inaccord with those reported in 1997 by Stark, Lowther, Sharp and Arnold 5. Furthermore, thediverse understanding of just what curriculum is caused confusion during focus group interviews.In addition to the findings noted above, participants described the goals and outcomes of acurriculum as a specification or set of requirements, and noted that the written, official or“espoused curriculum” was a complex, “designed object” whose internal relationships were hardto understand and visualize. Participants also identified the notion of “drift”, where a curriculummoves out of alignment as teaching staff, responsible for individual courses are replaced, and/orsmall but frequent change to course goals and outcomes are implemented without reference todegree outcomes.In this paper program refers to a complete, integrated course of study leading to the award of adegree qualification. Course refers to a single unit of study, sometimes called a unit, subject ormodule. Students take a number of courses each semester. A program is constructed from manycourses. Academic refers to a teacher at a higher education institution, sometimes called faculty.BackgroundThrough its ability to determine and drive outcomes, the undergraduate curriculum is key toachieving quality outcomes for all stakeholders: students, academics, higher educationinstitutions, professional bodies and society more generally. Despite this, curriculum in highereducation has not received the attention that it has at other levels of education. Professional bodiesassociated with higher education have provided guidance on appropriate content for wholeprograms of study, e.g. the ACM/IEEE “Ironman” curriculum 6 for computer science. However,the elements of a higher degree curriculum and the relationships between those elements have notbeen studied widely.For many university academics the concept of curriculum is unfamiliar 7. Many develop and teachcourses which reflect their own, frequently research-driven, interests and pay little heed to theneed for program coherence or even to identifying the aims and objectives of their course.Barnett8 argues that “curricula in higher education are to a large degree hidden curricula, beinglived by rather than being determined. They have an elusive quality about them. Their actualdimensions and elements are tacit. They take on certain patterns and relationships but thosepatterns and relationships will be hidden from all concerned, except as they are experienced bythe students” 8.What is curriculum?Descriptions of the term curriculum abound: a curriculum can be described as ‘a list of subjects’,a ‘set of courses’, the ‘entire course content’, ‘a set of planned learning experiences’, the ‘writtenplan of action’ as opposed to what is actually done in the classroom or even a ‘decision makingprocess’ for determining educational purposes and how they are to be achieved or somecombination of these concepts. The literature also provides a variety of conceptions of curriculumwhich essentially center on deciding what should be included (content or subject matter), what arethe most appropriate processes and conditions for learning (structure/organization and practice),and how to assess that learning has taken place.The literature is also unclear whether curriculum applies to programs or to courses or to both.Where it suggests curriculum applies to both programs and courses, it is unclear what therelationship between the two is. For example, Tyler 9 and Zais 10 are quite clear that they see theconcepts of curriculum as applying at both program and course level but they do not discuss therelationship between them. On the other hand, Stenhouse 11 does not give any hint to which levelhe considers curriculum belongs, though his language – singular verbs and nouns, and use ofterms such as “classroom teacher” – suggests that he is more focused at course level. Print 12 toois not clear to which level his definition applies. However, as he defines curriculum as “all theplanned learning opportunities offered to learners by the educational institution and theexperiences learners encounter when the curriculum is implemented” 12, p. 9 (my emphasis), Isuggest that Print sees curriculum as applying to a program rather than individual courses.Just how academics perceive the term curriculum and what is meant when they use it depends to alarge extent upon the context and their disciplinary area 13. Yet, despite this abundance ofmeanings and conceptions, frequently when writing about or discussing curriculum it is “with theuntested assumption that [we] are speaking a shared language” 14, p. 2.I contend that common usage and the definitions provided in the literature include multiple,widely differing concepts within the one term. I believe that Lattuca and Stark 1 are aware of theissues and confusion that has arisen from using a single term to mean multiple, different conceptswhen they propose their “academic plan”. They distinguish between a curriculum – content andsequence – and the process of curriculum development which they refer to as “the iterativeprocess of planning”. The combination of both is an “academic plan” 14, p. 15.I suggest that based on the literature and current usage curriculum can be described as: • a concept – how one thinks about a curriculum in the abstract or meta level; • an artifact – a set of documents (for implementation), e.g. the written, published, official, intended curriculum; • a body of knowledge – content (that is to be transmitted) and which may include some notion of sequence; • a process – the life cycle of curriculum or curriculum planning, i.e. an iterative process that includes inception, design, development, delivery (teaching), evaluation, change and retire; • a product – an attempt to achieve certain objectives through the structure, organization and approach to delivery; • or a combination of some or all of the above.Why is it important to understand the concepts of curriculum?I contend that how an individual perceives curriculum will affect the process of curriculum designand development in which he/she engages as well as the output of that process – the written, theofficial, intended or planned curriculum.I agree with Lattuca and Stark 1 when they say that without an common view of curriculumacademics “seldom link the elements they mention into an integrated definition of the curriculum[instead thinking] of separate educational tasks or processes, such as establishing the credit valueof courses, selecting the specific disciplines to be taught or studied, teaching their subjects,specifying objectives for student achievement, and evaluating what students know” 14, p. 2. Theyalso note that “the most common linkage faculty members address is the structural connectionbetween the set of courses offered and the related time and credit framework” 14, p. 2. AdditionallyI suggest that without an integrated definition of curriculum it is very difficult for academics tounderstand the impact changes have on course outcomes, let alone on program outcomes.I further contend that the curriculum intent – that is the aims, goals and objectives 10,12,15 – of ahigher education degree program is met by the sum of the outcomes of the courses from whichthat program is constructed, and that improved student outcomes will be achieved if all involvedat either program or course level have the same understanding of curriculum. Aligning the variouselements of a curriculum to create a coherent curriculum to is widely accepted as improvingstudent outcomes 9,7,5,16,17. A coherent curriculum is especially important at university level,because the “complex learning with which higher education institutions are concerned is bestpromoted by coherent curricula. However, curriculum coherence is not widespread” 18.Finally I contend that a common, well understood definition will enable the development ofquality curricula (both program and course) which create learning environments 3 from whichlearning is likely to “emerge” 19. Furthermore, such a definition will improve communication andovercome ongoing differentiation and disputation – the outcome of existing attempts to arrive atconsensus 12 and is vital if higher education is to accept the challenge of harnessing the potentialof information communication technology (ICT).Design / MethodAs the study is not testing a hypothesis but is attempting to discover what academics actually dowhen engaged in curriculum design and development, the researcher determined it wasappropriate to follow Charmaz’ 4 constructivist grounded theory methodology and data analysismethod 20, p. 130. Based on the researcher’s view that the development of new curricula and theupdating and innovating of existing curricula is a design 21,22,23 or problem solving activity 12 itwas decided that data should be collected from engineering, computer science and informationsystems academics only. Specialists in these fields regularly grapple with problem solving and thedesign of improvements to those problems and their training prepares them to approach designproblems in a systematic way. Despite this, engineering, computer science and informationsystems academics, many of whom have explicit training in facets of design, seldom apply theirdesign skills to curriculum development activities 8.Initially it was planned to collect data via in-depth, semi-structured, one-to-one interviews with atleast 30 engineering, computer science and information systems academics from three Australianuniversities. However, it soon became apparent that academics were not used to thinking aboutcurriculum and the processes with which they engage when designing and developing curriculum– despite engaging regularly with curriculum as they design and develop courses, and participatein program reviews and accreditation visits. To alleviate a perceived significant potential for theresearcher to influence responses when prompting individual interviewees, it was decided toconduct the remainder of the data collection via small focus group interviews. Focus groupinterviews are particularly helpful in getting participants to “explore and clarify their views” 24 ina way not readily achievable in one-to-one interviews.Each focus group lasted for one to one and a half hours and was composed of three or fourparticipants drawn from a single institution. In all but one instance, focus group participants weredrawn from more than one of the specified disciplines. The researcher moderated focus groupsessions which were a guided discussion that explored participants’ approaches to, andunderstanding of, curriculum and curriculum design at both a course and program level. Anactivity oriented question was used to break the ice and to get participants thinking about theelements of a curriculum.Using a magnetic whiteboard, colored pens and prepared labels identifying possible elements ofcurriculum, participants developed a model of curriculum. Elements were drawn from dataobtained during the one-to-one interviews and from the literature. In some instances participantscreated new elements for inclusion in their models. Discussion centered on the model, which wascontinually refined and elaborated, and the concepts and understanding of curriculum that itdocumented.Six, one-to-one interviews were conducted with engineering and computer science academicsfrom one, research-intensive Australian University and the data was analyzed using Charmaz’ 4approach to grounded theory. The themes identified in the one-to-one interviews informed thesmall focus group interviews. Thus far, five focus group interviews have taken place. These haveinvolved 16 engineering, computer science and information systems academics drawn from threeAustralian universities: two of which are first-tier, research-intensive institutions.Participants also provided a small amount of demographic data: institution, appointment level andtype (e.g. permanent, sessional); length of involvement in higher education curriculumdevelopment; involvement in curriculum development at other levels (e.g. vocational orsecondary school); and whether they have formal education qualifications (e.g. GraduateCertificate in Higher Education, Diploma of Education).Interim Findings and DiscussionAt this stage, the work is on-going. The one-to-one interviews only have been analyzed in depth.Focus group interview data has been quickly analyzed between each group so that any importantaspects of one focus group could inform subsequent focus group sessions. More substantialanalysis of this data has begun. Further data collection and completion of in-depth analysis of thefocus group data will be carried out during the remainder of 2013.Thus far, 22 engineering, computer science and information systems academics have participated.Of the 22, six are women and seven have formal educational qualifications – five hold a GraduateCertificate in Higher Education; one a Bachelor in Adult Education and another, a GraduateDiploma in Education (Secondary Mathematics). Focus groups were high energy with participantssaying they had enjoyed the opportunity to discuss and debate the curriculum in this manner. Sofar, no correlations between any of the demographic data collected have emerged but thedemographic data has helped guard against selection bias when choosing participants.Key findings from the one-to-one interviews – that academics focus their attention on course levelcurriculum rather than program level; don’t frequently discuss their ideas and proposed changeswith peers; that curriculum design and development at course level is essentially a solitaryactivity; and that they don’t have a coherent view of the program curriculum – are repeated in thefocus group interviews. These findings accord with those reported in 1997 by Stark, Lowther,Sharp and Arnold 2 from their study of 59 academics at two United States universities. In thatstudy academics were asked “about their assumptions and the influences upon them as they workwith colleagues in planning program curriculum” 5, p. 99.During the focus group interviews, the confusion caused by the lack of a commonly acceptedunderstanding of the term curriculum was apparent, which accords with Barnett’s 8,1 findings.Discussion of the elements of a curriculum was frequently interrupted by the discovery that one ormore members of the group were talking about a program while others were talking about acourse or vice versa. Also causing confusion and significant discussion were participants’different understanding of which elements formed a curriculum and which were constraints orinfluences. Interestingly, even though right from the start one Focus Group was very definiteabout the different aspects of a curriculum as they saw them – the process involved withdesigning and developing a curriculum; the output of that process, that is the course material; andthe formal, written curriculum – and would not begin discussing their concepts until they were allclear they were discussing the same thing, they discovered at one point that two of the group weretalking about curriculum in terms of a program while the other was thinking about it in terms of acourse. Participants also suggested that program and course curricula were organized in someform of hierarchy, potentially with the courses mapped from the program curriculum almost‘cookie cutter’ style.Focus group interviews have highlighted the variance in participants’ understanding of the distinctconcepts typically encompassed by the term curriculum. The concepts identified were: thewritten, official, “espoused curriculum” (Focus Group C) which is generally expressed in terms ofcontent and graduate outcomes; the process which surrounds the inception, design, development,delivery and maintenance of a curriculum; and the method of delivery and the structure andsequencing of content. Often there was robust discussion about exactly which elements formedpart of curriculum and which were influences and constraints.Participants indicated that they saw the written or formal curriculum as a specification, likeningcurriculum goals to project requirements, evoking the world of projects and design that theselected participants inhabit. Participants felt that the structure of a course – that is whether acourse was taught in a number of weekly ‘chunks’ or whether it was taught in intensive mode, andthe teaching methods and learning activities – was not part of the curriculum but instead wassimply an implementation of the curriculum, again echoing their design backgrounds andreinforcing the view of the formal curriculum as a specification. They argued that a coursecurriculum – the goals, outcomes and to a lesser extent, the content – would not change if, forexample, the method of delivery changed or the structure changed from a weekly to intensivemode.Focus group participants were generally clear that curriculum is a design problem and acurriculum itself was a “designed object” (Focus Group C). Participants saw the graduate orstudent outcomes as the guiding principles or the goals that one set out to achieve; the aims,learning outcomes and structure constituted the “thing” one designed to achieve the specifiedgoals; the content, the subject, subject matter, topics, modules of content were some of thematerial one had to work with to design the “thing”; and the mode of teaching, teaching method,learning activities, assessment were the means of implementing it. Available resources and costwere determinants or constraints. Like all design problems, it was suggested that one would startwith the goals and then, factoring in the constraints such as human resources and costs, one wouldproceed to design a solution which would be used to guide the implementation. As also noted byBarnett 6 participants did not explicitly follow any specific approach to design which they mayhave learned. Rather they seem to use various design mechanisms which they followunconsciously, perhaps reflecting their training, experience and background.A phenomenon, which participants called “curriculum drift”, was clearly identified. Drift wasdefined as the movement out of alignment of a newly designed or recently reviewed program, thecurriculum for which is coherent and cohesive. Drift happens relatively rapidly and was mostfrequently caused when the academic responsible for teaching individual courses changed and sochanged course outcomes. Such changes were frequently implemented without reference toprogram outcomes. Participants also admitted that they themselves often implemented changepiecemeal so as to avoid dealing with the administrative overhead surrounding more significantcurriculum change. They acknowledged that, over a period of two or three years, a series of smallchanges was likely to cause significant curriculum drift, resulting in a program curriculum whichwas severely out of alignment. Curriculum reviews, especially those occasioned by accreditationwere events which re-aligned the curriculum and made it coherent and cohesive once more. Oneparticipant saw drift as positive, stating that it was a “natural way of exploring change” (FocusGroup C) but acknowledged that drift affected quality if it was not properly monitored andcontrolled.The difficulty academics had in understanding the complex connections between the overalloutcomes of a program and how they mapped down onto the individual courses was identified asa significant problem when trying to maintain program cohesion and coherence. This mappingwas made more difficult when a course was shared across programs and even more so when thoseprograms were in different faculties. Participants felt that some form of visual representation of acurriculum and the relationships between the various elements, especially learning outcomes andcontent, would assist individual academics when designing, developing, delivering andmaintaining their courses as well as providing real assistance to a program convener withresponsibility for ensuring that a program meets an accrediting body’s requirements.Additional points of interest from the one-to-one data include: the term ‘student’ is notable in itsalmost total absence from interviewees’ discussion of the term curriculum and the processsurrounding change; consequent on this is the apparently teacher-centric notions presentedalongside interviewee focus on teaching and content delivery rather than on student learning; theneed to rework / redevelop material before being confident to teach it; and that discussion withpeers was more prominent for those interviewees whose definition of curriculum was not clearlyassociated with either a course or program. These points are not so strongly emphasized in thefocus group data potentially reflecting the group nature of the interviews.Conclusions & ChallengesIt is anticipated that the knowledge gained through this research will facilitate taking up Barnett’schallenge of developing an “analytic framework ... [to help] in understanding curricula andcurricula change” 8, p. 256. Such a framework will also provide a clear and well-understooddefinition of the term curriculum. Together these will provide academics with a greaterunderstanding of the elements of curriculum and the relationships between them thus providing amechanism to monitor and control curriculum drift. A better understanding of curriculum willfacilitate the development of flexible higher education engineering, computer science andinformation systems curricula which can be adapted readily to deal with development and changesin technology. The findings and understanding gained from this research will inform the designand calibration of a model of ‘curriculum as abstract’ – a curriculum framework – and‘curriculum as process’.As the research is limited to the Australian context and the disciplines of engineering, computerscience and information systems, the findings may not be generalizable to other national highereducation systems or to other disciplines within the field of higher education both in Australia andabroad.Bibliography[1] R. Barnett, G. Parry and K. Coate, “Conceptualising Curriculum Change”, Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 435-449, 2001.[2] O. Hicks, “Curriculum in higher education in Australia – Hello?”, in Enhancing Higher Education, Theory and Scholarship, Proceedings of the 30th HERDSA Annual Conference [CD-ROM], Adelaide, 8-11 July, 2007.[3] R. S. Adams and R. M. Felder, “Reframing Professional Development: A systems Approach to Preparing Engineering Education to Educate Tomorrow's Engineers”, Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 97, no. 3, pp. 239-240, 2008.[4] K. Charmaz, “Grounded Theory”, Rethinking Methods in Psychology, J. A. Smith, R. Harre and L. V. Bangenhove, Eds., Sage Publications, London, 1995, pp. 27-49.[5] J. S. Stark, M. A. Lowther, S. Sharp and G. L. Arnold, “Program-level curriculum planning: An exploration of faculty perspectives on two different campuses”, Research in Higher Education, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 99-130, 1997.[6] IEEE and ACM, Computer Science Curricula 2013: Ironman Draft (Version 0.8), 2012.[7] P. C. Candy, G. Crebert and J. O'Leary, “Developing Lifelong Learners through Undergraduate Education”, Commissioned report (Australia. National Board of Employment, Education and Training), no. 28, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1994.[8] R. Barnett, “Supercomplexity and the Curriculum”, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 255-265, 2000.[9] R. W. Tyler, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, Paperback 1969 ed., University of Chicago Press, 1949.[10] R. S. Zais, Curriculum: Principles and Foundations, Harper & Row, 1976.[11] L. Stenhouse, An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, Heinemann, 1975.[12] M. Print, Curriculum Development and Design, Allen & Unwin, 1988, 1993.[13] J. S. Stark and L. R. Lattuca, “Diversity Among Disciplines: The Same Goals for All?”, New Directions for Higher Education, vol. 84, pp71-86, Winter 1993.[14] L. R. Lattuca and J. S. Stark, Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action, Second ed., Jossey- Bass, 2009.[15] R. M. Diamond, Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula: a practical guide, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, 2008.[16] J. Biggs, “Aligning the Curriculum to Promote Good Learning” in Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) Generic Centre, 2002.[17] C. O'Leary, D. Lawless, D. Gordon, D. Carroll, F. Mtenzi and M. Collins, “3D Alignment in the Adaptive Software Engineering Curriculum”, in Proceedings of the 36th ASEE/IEE Frontiers In Education Conference, San Diego, 2006.[18] P. Knight, “Complexity and Curriculum: a process approach to curriculum-making”, Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 369-381, July 2001.[19] P. Tosey, “Complexity Theory: A perspective on education”, 2002.[20] K. F. Punch, Introduction to Research Methods in Education, Sage Publications, London, 2009.[21] American Society for Engineering Education, Innovation with Impact: Creating a Culture for Scholarly and Systematic Innovation in Engineering Education, June 2012.[22] R. G. Baldwin and M. J. Baumann, “Options for Change: A Flexible Vehicle For Curriculum Evolution and Reform”, Innovative Higher Education, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 89-98, 2005.[23] M. Shaw, “We Can Teach Software Better” Computing Research News, vol. 4, pp. 2-4, 12, 4 September 1992.[24] J. Kitzinger, “Introducing focus groups”, BMJ, vol. 311, pp. 299-302, 1995.

Johns-Boast, L. F. (2013, June), Invited Paper - What effect does an academic's concept of curriculum have on their engagement with its design and development? Paper presented at 2013 ASEE International Forum, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--17258

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