Why I get excited about Program Annual Review

This week, Associate Professor Andrea Chester, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching), writes about the Program Annual Review process.

April marked the start of the Program Annual Review (PAR) process at RMIT, in which every program manager is invited to reflect on the quality, viability and relevance of their program. Combining the data collected at an institutional and national level, with detailed knowledge about the program, these reports provide rich descriptions of our strengths, opportunities and areas for focused attention. As the Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor in the College of Design and Social Context, my job is to facilitate the PAR process for the College. I love PAR season and I want to explain why…

If you’ve been at RMIT for a while you may remember the introduction of PAR more than 10 years ago, during what could euphemistically be described as a period of “financial pressure”. At the time the PAR process was used to identify the bottom performing programs so they could be closed. No wonder the word brings fear to the eyes of even the most steely Program Managers. Even those who arrived after this period seemed to absorb the institutional memory and the very mention of PAR could raise a collective moan. If you work at another university I’m sure you have a similar process. It may not happen every year; at some universities it is a three or five year cycle, but regardless of its frequency the process of reviewing programs can easily become a “tick and flick” process, regarded with the same irritation as a range of “compliance” requirements.

And yet the idea of regularly reviewing programs makes inherent sense; program teams want to better understand the student experience, we want to find out whether our students have strong graduate outcomes and we want to improve the curriculum and innovate in evidence-based ways.[1]

A strengths-based approach to PAR

This is why in 2014 we decided to review the PAR process within the College of Design and Social Context and pilot a strengths-based approach. Using the framework of Appreciative Inquiry and the 4-D cycle we asked schools what they do well and how the College and University could support them to do more of it.

PAR

The 4-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry

In contrast to deficit models that seek to understand and fix what isn’t working, focusing on gaps, needs and deficiencies (e.g., programs with poor margins, low enrolment numbers, poor quality data), Appreciative Inquiry focuses and celebrates what is currently working and looks at how this might shape future practice.

When we flipped the focus in this way the stories that emerged were rich and inspiring. For example, in 2014 the School of Art, who had largely been concentrating on their face-to-face model of studio teaching and who might have come under scrutiny for low engagement with technology, shared their success in developing a MOOC. The Art of Photography, offered through Open2Study by A/Prof Shane Hulbert, an experienced, knowledgeable and generous instructor, has now reached more than 45,000 students. Rather than focus our PAR meeting on the school’s lack of engagement with Blackboard we explored the steps they had taken in the digital space and their aspirations for the coming year. When we met again this year the school had made substantial inroads, with pilot work completed on a digital portfolio for students, the establishment of online collaborative assessment between students in Melbourne and Hong Kong, a streamlined online process for recognition of prior learning, several courses developed for online delivery and a bold vision for the school’s L&T digital future.

And in the other six schools similarly impressive stories emerged. On the basis of strengths identified the previous year, models for online studio teaching have been developed in the Schools of Architecture & Design, Fashion & Textiles, and Media & Communication. Fundamental work on program narratives is underway in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, consolidating ownership of program documentation and building a solid basis for curriculum renewal. The School of Education is doing important work to develop Vocational Education programs for multi-location, multi-channel delivery. And developing strengths established through its global partnerships, the School of Property, Construction and Project Management has designed a mentoring program that brings together local students undertaking study tours in China with cohorts of Chinese students studying in Melbourne.

Now I’m not suggesting that the PAR process alone is responsible for these achievements. Strong leadership from Deans, Deputy Deans, School Managers, program leaders and the right mix of staff within program teams all contribute. Funding is important. Space planning and IT systems need to align. Academic developers, educational designers, academic administration all need to come together. What I am arguing is that we are most likely to encourage the flourishing of innovation and encourage commitment from our staff when we work with strengths rather than focus on deficits. And the PAR process gives us an opportunity to do this.

Our job now in the College is to find effective ways to share these innovations, connect up and consolidate good practices across schools and use them to shape University agendas and policy.

So if you haven’t yet had a chance to see the PAR report for your program, ask your Program Manager for a copy. Chances are it tells an interesting story.


[1] As Carl Rogers wrote in 1960, admittedly in a different context, “the facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true”. (p.25) I’m aware that in the area of Program Review the data are often hotly contested; much of the data are lag and response rates are often low. But that deserves another post…


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