Postgraduate coursework programs: a fresh approach

Posted by: Kym Fraser, L&T Group, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

Do you teach into a postgraduate coursework program? What makes your program attractive to prospective students? Why would prospective students choose your program over another University’s program?

The Postgraduate coursework market is a decidedly competitive market with a highly selective cohort. Prospective students carefully review what different universities have to offer. This cohort is an important component a university’s education profile, comprising approximately 25% of Australian higher education students, and we need to ensure that our programs are attractive to prospective students.

For the last year I have worked on an RMIT Learning and Teaching Investment Fund project called the Learning Segments Project which focused on reviewing the structure of RMIT coursework masters programs, specifically for students who are employed full time. I’ve interviewed students, and employers of our students, and reviewed the literature in relevant areas.

I wanted to share with you one challenging and exciting way of potentially making our postgraduate coursework programs attractive to prospective students.

The Parsons New School of Design in New York uses Charrettes to build authentic, work-based opportunities into their postgraduate programs. Charrettes seem to have originated in the architecture/design disciplines and are three- to five-day ‘courses’ “that bring together students to work with external partners. The topic of the Charrette varies from year to year and is broad enough to allow for multiple types of projects. Students need to delve deeply into the process and work collaboratively and quickly to finish their projects. In order to accommodate this, all other graduate classes are suspended so that students can maintain focus. Guests from outside communities and industries work with the faculty to develop a topic that is forward- looking, speculative, and open to multiple outcomes”.

Incorporating Charrettes into your program would help ensure that your program:

  • is relevant and up to date;
  • explicitly relates to current and/or future work of students;
  • introduces students to employers, possible future clients and industry experts; and
  • incorporates authentic, work related learning and assessment opportunities (Edwards, 2011; Higgs, 2011).

When might I run a Charrette?

Working with other programs to make your Charrette interdisciplinary would further emulate the workplaces in which our students already work. The timing for an interdisciplinary Charrette could be tricky during semesters 1 and 2, so you may need to consider running the Charrette in the summer or spring study period when fewer courses run.

What percentage of a course does a Charrette comprise?

Personally I would take into consideration that a 12 credit point course usually requires 120 hours of student engagement, which comprises attending classes, independent study, working online and completing assessment tasks (amongst other things). For a three day Charrette I would anticipate 20 hours of preparatory work, 24 hours of face-to-face engagement, and a follow up of 20 or more hours in completing the project report. In this scenario, the Charrette comprises approximately 50% of a course. A Charrette that you devise may take more or less time than this.

Who do I invite?

That will depend on your discipline area and the project that you design. After all, you are trying to invite stakeholders with whom your students may well work in the future (this may include specific interest groups, community members, experts in different fields) as well as potential employers and students from other disciplines.

What sort of project do I design?

Again, this will depend on your discipline. You are looking to engage, enthuse and educate students. The projects will probably be based on problems that are challenging and can be solved perhaps in different ways, in a short period of time. Charrettes provide our students with the opportunity to fulfill the AQF requirement that through their program they “…will apply knowledge and skills to demonstrate autonomy, expert judgement, adaptability and responsibility as a practitioner ….” (AQF, 2011: 57).

Where do I find out more about Charrettes and their design?

The USA based National Charrette Institute’s website contains explanations, toolkits and other resources for planning and running Charrettes (http://www.charretteinstitute.org/). The National Renewable Energy Laboratory “A handbook for planning and conducting Charrettes for high performance projects” is a detailed account of planning and conducting Charrettes in business organisations (http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy09osti/44051.pdf) A Google search also provides a number of sites that may provide useful information.

A well run Charrette or series of Charrettes can potentially engage, challenge and enthuse current students, attract prospective students, and distinguish your postgraduate coursework program from others. Why not trial one?

References

Australian Qualifications Framework, 2011. Council for the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment. Retrieved from www.aqf.edu.au April 16, 2012.

Edwards, D. (2011). Monitoring risk and return: Critical insights into graduate coursework engagement and outcomes.  AUSSE Research Briefing.

Higgs, J. (2011). Practice-Based Education: A Framework for Professional Education, Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. http://csusap.csu.edu.au/~jhiggs/documents/Higgs_J_2011_Fellowship_Brochure.pdf Accessed 28th January, 2012.

Lindsey, G., Todd, J., Hayter, S. and Ellis, P. (2009). A handbook for planning and conducting charettes for high performance projects. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Commerce 5285 Port Royal Road Springfield, VA. Retrieved from http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy09osti/44051.pdf April 18, 2012.

National Charrette Institute. Retrieved from http://www.charretteinstitute.org/ April 18, 2012.

The Parsons New School of Design. Retrieved from http://www.newschool.edu/parsons/ April 16, 2012.

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