Curriculum Deliberation Online:
What does it offer?
Can it be applied to online tutor training?
by Lori Herod
I am in the Doctor of
Education program at
the Ontario Institute
for Studies in
University of Toronto.
I chose to research
deliberation because I
am interested in its
potential for developing
relevant and useful
learning materials for
Canadian adult literacy
tutors. As I write this, I
have almost finished
collecting my data and
have just begun to analyse and interpret it.
This article outlines the process
deliberation and the reasons I chose to investigate it.
It also brief ly describes my research and some
preliminary impressions from the data I have
collected. A much more comprehensive and formal
article will be written once the analysis and
interpretation of the data is complete.
What is Curriculum Deliberation?
The notion of curriculum deliberation
is attributed to educator Joseph Schwab. While curriculum is
typically developed in isolation by scholars or subject
matter experts, Schwab proposed in the 1970’s that
many other groups or areas should be equally
- the subject matter
- milieus, and
- curriculum making.
The data suggest that the process can be
in an online environment.
In the case of subject matter, representation would
be by an individual with in-depth knowledge of the
curricular material; that is, a subject matter expert or scholar. Learners
represented by an individual
with in-depth knowledge of
the abilities, needs and/or
wants of the learners for
which the curriculum is
being developed. Teachers
would be represented by
practitioners from the
particular area of education
for which the curriculum is
being deliberated. Milieus
refers to the context in
which the learning takes
place and involves various
influences on the
curriculum (e.g. the mandate
of the current government, the underlying philosophy
of the educational system / school, the community in
which the program is operating); that is, the
needs / wants of various stakeholder groups. A
curriculum specialist would represent the final area of
curriculum making, and would ensure that a rational
and defensible curriculum evolved. As Schwab
suggests, this role is key to the effectiveness of the
deliberations: “The special obligation of the
curriculum specialist chairman [sic] is to ensure that
the group hunt out, recognize, and juxtapose the
different considerations which are pertinent” (p. 521).
How useful is this process for adult literacy work?
E-learning means using a computer and the internet for
te a ching and learning. It is one of many tools and
approaches to providing adult, workplace and family
literacy. E-learning is continuously evolving and requires
scrutiny. Given the limited resources, competing demands
for investment, and public policy imperatives, we need to
understand and evaluate it. For this reason, ABC Canada
has asked FuturEd Inc. to conduct a study of E-learning.
The overall purpose of
the research is to explore the application of e-learning in literacy
programs in order to
improve e-learning and literacy practices and policies. The
research will balance the perspectives of learners/clients
and program/e-learning providers. It will result in general
findings about e-learning and literacy, and tools and
advice for literacy practitioners, learners, and leaders.
According to Dr. Kathryn Chang Barker, President of FuturEd, “The
e-learning industry is totally unregulated, and there is no relationship
and quality. E-learning
may have particular benefits to learners who have limited
literacy skills. We need to know a great deal more before
we invest too much – or not enough – in e-learning.”
The first phase
of the research is gathering information about how literacy programs
use e-learning. The researchers
would like to hear from family, workplace, institutional,
community and First Nations programs. If your program
uses computers and the internet for teaching and learning,
FuturEd wants to hear from you. Please send information to
Maxine Adam (email@example.com). For more
information about the study, visit www.FuturEd.com.
The purpose of a deliberative
process is not to standardize
curriculum. Rather, curriculum
deliberation is a fundamentally
democratic approach to
developing curriculum. Learning
materials are developed to be considered relevant and
useful to many groups (e.g. politicians, funding
bodies, learners, practitioners/ volunteers and the community). Standardized curriculum,
on the other hand, is developed in
isolation and often described as a ‘one
size fits all’ approach. According to
educators such as Valentine, this is not
an achievable goal in adult literacy
because of the wide range of learner
needs. More importantly perhaps, many
practitioners would not consider
standardization to be desirable given
the humanistic underpinnings of the
field and its emphasis on the needs/wants of the
individual learner. Thus, the value of the process to
the adult literacy field is that it is democratic and
can produce representative learning materials by
capture and integrate the needs/wants of many
stakeholders (e.g. regionally specific requirements,
differences in program objectives such as family
literacy versus workplace literacy programs, address
the requirements of funding agencies) into learning
materials for the field.
Curriculum deliberation is a fundamentally democratic
to developping curriculum.
The primary purpose of my research was to answer
the question, “How does the process of curriculum
deliberation unfold when a pluralistic group
deliberates in an online environment?” Despite the fact
that the curriculum deliberation process has been well
received by educators, it has rarely been researched.
Little data is available and existing studies have looked
at a team consisting of a single stakeholder group such
as teachers rather than multifaceted teams made up of
representatives from various stakeholder groups. This,
ironically, is contrary to Schwab’s belief that the
process must be representative to be effective.
Even less data
is available about conducting the
process in an electronic environment. Since
communicating by computer offers a means for our
resource-strapped field to bring together far-flung
parties, I also decided to investigate whether the
curriculum deliberation process could be effectively
conducted in an online environment. If the data
collected were positive, then our field would have a
viable means by which we could
collaborate more easily and costeffectively
My study involved two deliberation
teams comprised of five to six
stakeholders (including tutors, adult
educators and government
representatives) from the adult literacy
community in Canada. Each team met
in an online discussion forum at the
University of Toronto over a two month
period to deliberate on a course I developed entitled “Adult Learning: From
Theory to Practice”. (The course
is now available at www.nald.ca/adultlearningcourse.)
The general goal of each team was to make
recommendations for improving the course. This is
more difficult than it sounds in that, since different
stakeholder groups are represented, their needs/wants
differ. My dual role as course developer and mediator
in the deliberations was to ensure that the final
version of the course represented the needs/wants of
the various stakeholders in as fair and balanced a
manner as possible.
Despite the fact that the curriculum deliberation process has been well received by educators, it has rarely been researched.
Best Practices and Lessons Learned from the Research
Over the next three to four months I will be
formally analyzing the data I collected in the study
which include verbatim transcripts of the
deliberations and a lengthy questionnaire which was
completed by each participant. Based on my
preliminary impressions of the data, however, the
following points outline what my study seems to
indicate about some of the best practices for
curriculum deliberation in an online environment.
Best Practices for Curriculum Deliberation
- The deliberations should be mediated by
an objective, non-partisan individual who
is experienced in conflict resolution. By its
very nature the process invites debate and therefore,
conflict. The leadership of an objective,
non-partisan individual as mediator is crucial to
ensuring that the democratic goal of the process
is pursued and achieved.
- The deliberations should be moderated by
an experienced curriculum specialist. Because the final goal is
to produce curriculum that is representative, this role is pivotal. The moderator
must: a) ensure that the team focuses on the issues and generates alternatives
recommendations based on reasoned judgment;
b) establish and maintain a supportive
environment, which will allow critical reflection
and risk-taking by team; and, c) accommodate
the needs/wants of all stakeholders.
Since deliberating in an online forum is quite
different than meeting face-to-face, the
moderator’s experience must also include the
ability effectively facilitate discussion in a cyber
environment. An online forum does not allow
for physical cues such as facial expressions and
tone of voice, and asynchronous discussions are
spread over longer time periods.
- The goal of the deliberations should be to
accommodate the needs/wants of stakeholders
rather than to achieve consensus.
Pluralistic groups typically have conflicting
needs/wants. Therefore, consensus is unlikely.
Rather, an accommodation of stakeholders
needs/wants is more realistic and achievable.
- Whenever possible, team members should
choose to participate. The nature and purpose
of the deliberative process is such that team
members must have a high degree of motivation,
tolerance for other team members’ views, and a
positive, open attitude. Being directed to
participate rather than choosing to do so is
unlikely to engender any of these. Moreover, it
can be more difficult to sustain motivation and
persistence in an online environment when
members can lurk in the background or drift
away due to the anonymity of the medium.
Those who choose to participate, however, will
need prompting from the moderator.
- A timeline and end date for the
deliberations should be specified. Schwab
envisioned a free flowing process unfettered by
time. However, as in many fields the reality in
adult literacy is that time is very precious and
team members need/want to get to the task at
hand. The moderator needs to accommodate
stakeholders to some extent by suggesting a
timeline for the deliberation and specifying an
end date. This is particularly important when
the deliberations are conducted in an online
discussion forum. That is, asynchronous
discussions are quite different than face-to-face
meetings in both form and function (e.g.
responses are delayed versus given in real time,
discussions are preserved in writing so that
members can read, re-read and reflect over
time). A timeline provides participants with a
greater sense of time that tends to be lost in
- The degree to which the deliberation
process is unstructured and free-flowing
must be balanced by the tolerance of team
members for this approach. Schwab
proposed that in order to be effective
curriculum deliberation must be a fairly
unstructured process versus one in which a
universal set of sequential steps is specified. The
data from previous research has demonstrated that this loose approach can cause
and discomfort on the part of many team
members and this was confirmed in my study.
The first team was not given much in the way
of a structure for the deliberations. While the
team provided very rich and useful input
regarding the course, the dropout rate was fairly
high. As such, the semi-structured process
outlined below was used for the second team,
and the dropout rate was much lower.
- Stage #1: Review and rationalize existing
curriculum (two weeks)
- Stage #2: Generate and deliberate alternatives
- Stage #3: Identify unresolved issues and
develop recommendations (two weeks)
I also decided to investigate whether the curriculum deliberation process could be effectively conducted online.
As pointed out earlier, the best practices and lessons
learned are based on preliminary or superficial
impressions of my data. In the coming months, the
data will be “mined” much more deeply and I will
produce a comprehensive report in the coming year.
Overall, however, my study appears to indicate that the
curriculum deliberation is a valuable, if somewhat
consuming and at times frustrating process which can
be used to produce useful and relevant learning
materials. Moreover, the data suggest that the process
can be effectively conducted in an online
environment. This is a very positive finding for our
field in that it suggests that we have, at our fingertips
so to speak, a means by which we can successfully and
inexpensively collaborate in such activities as
Lori Herod is a doctoral student in the department of
Curriculum, Teaching and Learning with the Ontario Institute for Studies
in Education at the University of Toronto. Her specialty is in computer
applications in adult education. In addition to her studies, she develops
distance education courses for adult literacy practitioners. Over the
past five years for example, she has developed four correspondence and
two online tutor training courses for the office of Adult Learning and
Literacy in Manitoba.
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Valentine, T. (1986). “Functional Literacy as a Goal of
Instruction.” Adult Education
Quarterly, Vol.36, No. 2. 108-113.
Yin, R. (1989). Case study research:
design and methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.