PROFESSIONAL REVIEW: Speculative Design and Curriculum Development

With higher education standards on the rise, curriculum designers are turning to controversial methods to develop their programs. Inhabiting in what is described as a “post-course” era, students and their career interests are moving away from traditional curriculum courses and toward engagements outside of the formal curriculum. Randy Bass, an Executive Director at Georgetown University, was consulted on the subject claiming we should “enrich the formal curriculum and also consider supporting and augmenting activities in the ‘extra’ curriculum” (Willis, 378). This way the curriculum could be integrated and thoughtful based on student interest.

In Speculative Design and Curriculum Development, Holly Willis and Steve Anderson explore the development of a new BA degree from the University of Southern California based on speculations of that “post-course” era of higher education. Willis and Anderson question the degrees’ ability to synthesize formal and informal learning, as well as course content, assignments, and specific assessments and professors. The summary of their research can be accompanied quite appropriately by the inclusion of Ben Williamson’s affirmation: “The curriculum of the future is not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but must be imagined and constructed” (Willis, 379).
The essay explains that through the use of the three practices of critical design, speculative design, and design fiction that we can imagine what such a future curriculum is like. Critical design is a practice that allows us to re-imagine and redesign curricular models that may be disruptive or troubling, while speculative design and design fiction practices allow creating imaginative projections of possible future designs–creating storytelling narratives that bring those designs from reality to science fiction. The latter practices are what inspired Willis and Anderson to research a concept called “worldbuilding” as it applies to both film and academics.
This “worldbuilding,” a concept used in developing the previously mentioned BA program, combines the practices of story creation and a nonlinear workflow. In simple terms, those using “worldbuilding” for curriculum development focus on the context of information before putting it into practice (ex. visual world creation before writing a screenplay). Willis and Anderson research this type of curriculum, questioning the validity of pedagogical practices in a student-designed degree program. They discovered a fair balance of theory and practice within a traditionally structured program, where students work in an individual and team based environment. The result is students have more responsibility–leading classes using provided and sought out resources for their specific study.

Wills and Anderson conclude their research by relating the structure of Southern California’s degree program to the “demand-pull approach.” Developed by John Seely Brown, John Hagel, and Lang Davison, the approach has the potential to shape the education system to fit students rather than shaping students to education systems. Although the development of degree programs such as this are relatively new and experimental, Willis and Anderson make a fair case for this new direction in education.
I can’t help thinking this type of program will be under scrutiny for some time, especially if curriculum designers want to make the program the norm. Assessment strategies need to be specific now more than ever in state universities. However, I think the new program is brilliant. Constructing an education based on what the students want makes sense, because both careers and student interests are shifting with each coming year. I am reminded of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, when the authors suggest a program of theory and practice, as well as “thinking through making” (Willis, 381). The strategies in this curriculum’s development mirror a project I completed while studying Early Childhood education. I designed an “Integrated Unit Plan,” which allowed me to introduce a broad topic to young children and they were left to explore anything and everything they could about said topic. Just like the college students, they could seek out class speakers and suggest class trips based on the developing interest and research. (Hey- If it can work for a kindergartner, then why not a college student?)

More related to graduate studies, this practice of student-led curriculum follows reader-response theory and the role of the intellectual. Students examine topics of study and choose a focus based on the research of those given topics. I believe this gives students an intellectual role in the development of their education. Professors and other mentors are the “esteemed” intellectuals, whose purpose is to guide students through an institution non-traditionally. The development of this new degree program is a perfect example of going against what was formally expected of intellectuals.


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