Issues in Educational Research, 7(1), 1997, 53-67.

A strategy for curriculum dissemination

Clare McBeath
Curtin University of Technology

This paper discusses research into curriculum dissemination in the vocational education and training sector in Western Australia. The research explored the hypothesis that much of the frustration and inefficiency which occurs when TAFE courses are revised can be eradicated by attention given to well developed dissemination strategies. The paper describes seven "tactics" used in a planned dissemination strategy and assesses their effectiveness in breaking down the barriers to effective educational change. It concludes with a brief discussion of the apparent tensions between theory and practice.

Curriculum change in the research literature

In the mid 1960s, Miles (1964) suggested that it could take 50 years for new practices and new ideas to become widely established in schools. Very little was known about the process of change, or how to accelerate it. Typically, curriculum innovation was seen as a smorgasbord of new ideas or new materials, from which teachers could select and use in the classroom in the way they thought fit. We have moved a long way since then, but many of the early research issues remain problematic in the curriculum change process.

Research into the issues of curriculum dissemination and implementation, and factors determining their success, first found a focus with the work of Fullan and Pomfret (1977), who analysed 16 case studies of attempted innovation in American schools and found that all of them had resulted in some degree of failure. For two decades, researchers have continued to examine the phenomenon of educational change, discuss its characteristics and determinants, list the skills of the 'change agent' and suggest ways in which the process might be improved (Beyer & Liston, 1996; Collins, 1995; Fullan, 1982, 1991, 1993; Hong, 1996; Lieberman, 1995; Miles & Huberman, 1982, 1984; Miles, 1993; Miles, Saxl & Lieberman, 1988; Olson, 1980; Rudduck, 1980, 1991; Sarason 1990; Snyder, et al. 1992; etc).)

All of this research has a common theme that curriculum change is a complex and difficult process and requires careful planning, adequate time, funding and support and opportunities for teacher involvement. Much of the literature recognises the variability and liquidity of individual situations, and the difficulty of determining a single model to suit all. While researchers seek commonalities in the projects they describe and analyse and slowly tease out key concepts from the continuing contradictions between theory and practice, they all constantly recognise the dynamics of each innovation as being uniquely different. This is what makes the implementation of curriculum change continue to be so complex.

Smooth and successful curriculum change is enormously difficult and time consuming and cannot be accomplished without potential implementers becoming personally involved and accepting the change on their own terms, according to their own constructs of reality. While many systems currently mandate change from above, and will continue to do so, there is a need to find compromises which enable users to find their own meaning and ownership of new ideas. According to several writers, teacher ownership can exist side by side with central initiative and direction, and ownership can be achieved jointly by both teachers and central administration (Fullan 1991; Marsh & Huberman, 1984; Rudduck, 1991).

United Kingdom researchers (Kelly, 1982; MacDonald & Rudduck, 1971; MacDonald & Walker 1976; Rudduck, 1991; Stenhouse, 1975) have stressed the importance of a strong teacher participation role in curriculum change and the need for involvement of teachers in the development and decision making process. However, ownership is fragile, very difficult to define or measure, and has many levels (Rudduck, 1991). The human face of collaborative teams working creatively on defining and filling their own needs can be whimsical and fraught with conflict and emotion. On the other hand, collaborative development often needs to be steered, and sometimes top-down decisions need to be made on theoretical issues which are outside teachers' knowledge and experience. Also, teachers might need to be encouraged, or coached, to cooperate in change (Stenhouse, 1976).

Curriculum change and the training reform agenda

In the current climate of industry-driven reform taking place in vocational education, coinciding as it does, with Federal and State Government efforts towards institutional accountability, entrepreneurialism and corporatism, it is hardly surprising that the Vocational Education and Training system (VET) throughout Australia is undergoing severe trauma. The amount of change required of VET lecturers in the current reform movement is without precedent, and the pain is being felt at the very heart of the training system in TAFE classrooms and workshops, where lecturers and instructors are grappling simultaneously with structural and pedagogical reform and with the uncertainties of changing workplace conditions and management systems (McBeath, 1991; 1993; 1995). The research literature on educational change during the past two decades has much to offer those who mandate such change, but a closer examination of the process during the last few years suggests that this knowledge has not been utilised and the mistakes of the past are being repeated.

There is a belief among the bureaucrats of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA), the Standards and Curriculum Council, State Accreditation Boards and TAFE management that curriculum change merely needs to be mandated and it will happen. It is assumed that lecturers will understand the need for, and the intention of, the proposed changes and accept them uncritically and without difficulty. There appears to exist a widespread but mistaken belief that the National Modules, or State accredited versions of them, are all that are needed for lecturers to begin implementing new subjects and courses, and teaching efficiently according to the intentions of the reformers.

Figure 1 graphically represents the ideal, linear, management perspective on the flow of curriculum reform from planning to implementation, with decisions moving easily down through the various levels of management to VET staff and into the classrooms and workshops. Figure 2 represents the situation which VET staff believe is happening (McBeath, 1991; 1993).

Figure 1: Bureaucratic perspective on curriculum change

Figure 2: Trauma in TAFE dissemination process

Background of the dissemination research project

Curriculum dissemination was defined, for the purpose of this study, as the process of informing teachers about new or revised curriculum ideas, documents or materials, so that they understand and accept the innovation. The definition was extrapolated from existing research, such as that mentioned earlier, and from the needs and requirements of the local TAFE scene. It was tailored to fit both top-down, prescriptive, political and technological frameworks, as well as bottom-up, humanistic and user-centred situations. It accommodates mandated reform alongside cultural and personal meaning and individual interpretation of lecturer and student needs. Dissemination in this sense can be planned but not predetermined, and it should exist as a central characteristic of the change process.

This paper presents a case study of a curriculum dissemination project in the TAFE sector in Western Australia. Preliminary research took place in several stages over a number of years, culminating in the application and analysis of a planned dissemination strategy within a new competency-based Horticulture Certificate course in the Department of Training.

Because the dissemination project was built on the findings of the preliminary research, a brief summary is given here. The first stage consisted of an analysis of semi-structured interviews with TAFE lecturers and administrators, to identify what they thought were the positive and negative factors influencing the success of dissemination and implementation of curriculum innovation (McBeath, 1991).

The interviews pointed to some successful communication and support strategies in place but, overall, the data indicated that not enough attention had been given to techniques needed for successful dissemination, and in particular to information giving, support, involvement of the lecturers, feedback and conflict resolution. The study indicated that little planning had gone into convincing the users that the curriculum innovations were valid, or that lecturers had a right to a share in their ownership.

The next stage of the study consisted of a questionnaire survey of TAFE lecturers involved in curriculum innovation. The survey questions allowed for the collection of data which were more focused on the specific factors of dissemination. It elicited a list of factors considered important to lecturers involved in innovation (McBeath, 1993).

A number of open-ended questions included in the survey questionnaire evoked further valuable data, again confirming that there were serious problems in communication, support and lecturer involvement in the change process. The overall conclusion from this study was that the majority of lecturers believed that the change had been necessary and that they were happy to be part of it, but that they had been given very little support and that the experience had been unnecessarily stressful. The survey also confirmed the hypothesis that no formal attention had been given to the dissemination process and that, where successful strategies had occurred, they were the result of the hard work and leadership skills of senior lecturers working in collaborative development teams with their staff.

The factors diagnosed by the survey consisted of the areas of greatest concern to lecturers having to cope with innovation. The respondents believed it was essential to know in advance when major curriculum development was to begin in their study area, and about any changes planned in course structure, or educational changes, such as new methods, alternative delivery strategies, entry and exit points, competency based learning outcomes, assessment styles, or self pacing. They wanted in-service development on new skills needed in teaching the new course, staff meetings to share and discuss course ideas and the opportunity to give feedback on the innovation to senior staff. They wanted to know when the course was to be implemented and they needed to be given time off teaching to develop resources and teaching materials, and to discuss them with each other.

The majority of respondents were not strongly concerned with knowing the details of the training needs analyses, nor with communicating directly with industry representatives. They did not consider it important to be involved in the actual development of the innovation, but they wanted to be kept informed, in writing, about what is going on. They wanted to know who the project leader was, to meet members of the development team to discuss the new course and give input and to have a voice in decision making about learning outcomes. They expected a series of staff development meetings to inform them of revisions specific to their subject areas, and new content to be introduced. They needed to be reassured that plans for new equipment and materials were being attended to. They expressed a concern that they be given opportunities to discuss the completed documents with the development team from a teaching perspective. They considered it important to be involved in a two way information sharing process with the development team, and that communication channels should be in place to give input on their experiences and opinions about teaching the course and on feedback from students once implementation begins. Also, they wanted a written record of staff development meetings, in case they missed anything (McBeath, 1993).

These factors were put together with the constraints identified by Curriculum Services staff and the findings from the research literature, to devise a strategy, or a series of tactics, for curriculum dissemination. The strategy was then put into effect with a new TAFE course, and is described below.

Aims and methodology

There were four reasons for setting up the dissemination strategy.

One of the anticipated problems was the antipathy, or even hostility, expected from lecturers without a strong tradition of reflection or teacher research. The tasks which they were asked to perform had to be kept brief and easily understood. The techniques used had to trigger the desired awareness level which would lead the lecturers to feel that they were participating in their own project on their own terms. The tasks had to be unthreatening. They had to include not only elements of staff development and skills upgrading, but also encourage lecturers to cope with the personal ambiguities of change, so that they would give their considered input into improving the innovation from the practitioners' point of view. Also, it was desirable that the tactics include more opportunities for talking than writing. They needed to include a rhetoric which lecturers would learn to apply to their reflection and reshape their thinking. As Popkewitz et al. (1982) observed, "all reform programmes feature rituals, ceremonies and particular language styles which create a feeling ... that things are getting better" (p.169). Finally, written records of staff development activities needed to be made and distributed to all staff involved in the innovation. This would allow those who could not be present at meetings the opportunity to keep themselves fully informed, as well as supplying a record and reference for those who were present.

The tactics planned to meet these needs had three specific aims:

Much of the data were collected by participant observation. The researcher worked with the staff of the Horticultural study area both as 'coach' and participant in an attempt to overcome the communication trauma identified in the earlier research. The researcher was to work also with the Study Area Leader and the curriculum officer, providing knowledge of the theory of curriculum change and support for the dissemination plan. At curriculum development meetings, the researcher was to act as chair and adviser, interpreting the curriculum mandate and the expectations of the Department of Training, the Australian National Training Agenda and the ITCs, on one hand, and assisting lecturers to understand and accept the changes, on the other. The researcher was to be the 'coach', (Stenhouse, 1976) 'change agent' (Miles, Saxl & Lieberman, 1988) and mediator between management and the lecturers.

A diary was kept of meetings and conversations, and issues were identified by interpretative analysis. These issues were developed further in Newsletters and in meeting agenda and, as feedback occurred, it was recorded and critically analysed. This form of participant observation, recording and interpretation was time consuming and emotionally involving for the researcher. The participants began to expect more of the researcher than was originally intended, and the project which originally was to take three months eventually took nearly six.

The Horticulture study area chosen for the study was small (50 lecturers) and widely scattered throughout the State and distance proved to be a major problem in the communication process.

The tactics used in the dissemination strategy

Six tactics were planned initially to meet the aims of the dissemination strategy. This section describes each in turn, giving first the intention of the strategy and then commenting on its level of success as part of the dissemination strategy.

  1. Distribution of curriculum materials. It was considered important to distribute the syllabus documents and other related materials directly to individuals who would be involved in teaching the new course, rather than expecting that these materials would reach them automatically through the system. The newly accredited syllabuses were distributed to those identified as most likely to be teaching the new course. These comprised 64% of the study area. The Assessment Package materials, developed at one of the meetings, were sent to the same people. A general Lecturers' Guide about the new course was sent to senior staff and to those who were already teaching in the pilot program. This tactic served to inform those who were likely to be involved in innovation, and to raise their awareness that there was to be a new course requiring new approaches and new development.

  2. Meetings. These were conceived as a series of broad-based staff development meetings, which all lecturers involved in the new course would attend, to familiarise themselves with the requirements of the innovation, define their own roles within it and jointly develop teaching materials. Travel and staff release time were to be funded. Four meetings eventuated, two project meetings and two study area workshops. 48% of the study area attended at least one of these meetings, and established an acceptable level of two way communication on the project. The two project meetings were poorly attended and did not establish a core of materials developers as had been planned. The problems of time release and distance were not overcome by the offer of funding.

  3. Newsletters. This was seen as a way of keeping a record of discussions and consolidating decisions made at the meetings and of spreading information and ownership to anyone who could not attend. The Newsletters were envisaged also as a method of informing those who were not involved in the new course about its innovative features and about the aims and intentions of the project. There were eventually six Newsletters, designed for maximum impact and printed on coloured paper. They were distributed to 100% of the study area, and feedback suggested that they proved to be a surprisingly successful method of one way communication.

  4. The network. The concept of shared responsibility and ownership were to be encouraged and developed by setting up a network of those involved in preparing for the new course. The network was envisaged as an extension to the face-to-face contact established at the meetings and a method of keeping lecturers in distant colleges in touch with the rest of the innovators. The vision of the 'network' consisted of all the innovating lecturers becoming excited about the new ideas, picking up the telephone and talking openly and generously with each other, exchanging and sharing ideas and reaching mutually acceptable decisions for implementing change. It was meant to achieve on-going information giving and support. The effect of the Network concept was hard to gauge, and was probably only gathering momentum when the research came to an end. The Study Area Leader reported that a later meeting had discussed the strength of the network as an on-going strategy and as a way of improving and consolidating what senior staff already believed was a well-established networking system through their regular study area meetings. The meeting expressed a desire that the network continue under the new autonomous college system, but that it be extended to reach out to 'grass roots level', that is, to all the lecturers in the study area.

  5. Questionnaires. Two questionnaires were distributed to all potential users of the new course. The first was to explore lecturers' views about curriculum change, to raise their awareness of potential problems in implementing the new course and to assess their readiness to cope with these issues. The second questionnaire was meant to explore the depth and level of involvement of the lecturers in the change process. The questionnaires were seen also as a further method of two-way communication between the change agent and the lecturers. The response rate from the two questionnaires was 43.75% and 46.88% respectively. Approximately 25% of the respondents to both questionnaires were senior staff, and the strategy did not appear to have the desired effect of involving teaching staff as deeply as might have been desired. An unexpected problem was that the majority of respondents did not know whether they would be teaching the new course or not and found it difficult to feel any sense of ownership. The questionnaires, however, did produce some valuable data, and also served to establish two way communication between the researcher and approximately 30% of the study area.

  6. Materials development. The most important deficiency in the curriculum change process which had been identified by the earlier survey was that lecturers had to develop teaching materials in isolation as they began teaching new courses. This tactic was to ensure joint development of well planned teaching materials, with every lecturer taking a share of the responsibility. Fair quality materials were to be produced before they began the new course and a mechanism put in place for monitoring and reviewing them for further development in future. The reality proved far from the ideal. The possibility of collaborative development was obviated almost from the beginning when so few people attended the project meetings. Lecturers who did not have time to attend meetings were not likely to have time for materials development. Eventually, the pilot lecturers made their teaching materials available for distribution throughout the study area. The funds which had not been used for travel and release time were distributed equally among the developers. It came to $200 each.

A seventh tactic eventually developed as part of the dissemination strategy and that was face-to-face contact with rural lecturers. The need for this as a separate tactic arose partly because of poor attendance at the meetings, and partly in response to a strong need expressed in the questionnaires for face to face contact and discussion. The need was identified relatively late in the project and lay largely outside the scope of the research. The Study Area Leader made two trips, visiting colleges north and south of Perth. He reiterated the 'dissemination model' to the lecturers and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own 'networking'. Later, the researcher accompanied the Study Area Leader to a further rural workshop on the new course. This was attended by staff from four rural colleges and TAFE centres south of Perth.

Evaluation of the dissemination strategy

The application of the strategy can be regarded as successful, if not complete. It provided information and support, although involvement did not occur to the extent that it was hoped. All the factors listed earlier were dealt with in some way, but not necessarily forcefully enough to have made a lasting impression on the implementers.

Face-to-face interaction occurred with almost 50% of the lecturers and ownership was established. The follow-up visits to rural centres increased this percentage. Sufficient funding was obtained to make basic materials development possible. A realistic time line was followed and information, support systems and teaching materials were in place well before implementation was due to begin. Leadership was provided and the vision of successful change promulgated. There was some evidence of raised staff morale, although there was not enough feedback to know if it were widespread. The majority of the horticultural staff was ready for the new course, and all were given ample opportunity to be ready if they had so chosen.

Tactics were used to encourage lecturer participation and ownership and to break down feelings of alienation and resistance. There wasn't much opportunity for lecturers to study their own practice formally and it is doubtful whether they would have had the time to give to formal reflection even if the strategy had been able to enforce it. However, reflection was encouraged in all the tactics used, and feedback indicated that much informal discussion and introspection on the meaning of change was occurring throughout the study area.

The level of involvement and participation of the lecturers and the 'reach' of the strategy is graphically represented in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Involvement of lecturers in preparing for innovation


This project suggests a contradiction between the theories of educational change and the practice of curriculum dissemination. The theories of change indicate that lecturers and teachers will respond better to innovation if they are involved in formulating and developing it. The earlier research referred to above (McBeath, 1991; 1993; 1995) indicated that VET lecturers were frustrated by enforced change without proper information, preparation and support. This project set out to solve these problems in a carefully planned, practical way and yet it did not achieve 100% success in its aims. In fact, it appears that a number of lecturers rejected the opportunity to become involved.

The reality is far more complex. There can be little doubt that the existence of the dissemination project led to more successful implementation than would have occurred otherwise. There is little doubt that an awareness of the curriculum innovation became widespread throughout the study area, and that that awareness alone would have softened much of the trauma and frustration of implementation. Follow-up research is planned on this issue.

The research highlighted the political and human complexity of organising change throughout a relatively widespread system. It is worth considering the question that if, in an ideal world, all 50 members of the study area had been offered a number of professional development days free from teaching and other commitments, and transported free to the meetings, would they all have attended? And had they attended, would they have achieved a high degree of ownership and involvement, and would they have worked cooperatively to produce high quality teaching and learning materials to be shared throughout the State? Our knowledge of human nature suggests not.

The target group consisted of busy teachers, and involvement in the project was an additional task alongside their existing commitments. A number of lecturers did not come to the project meetings because they could not get time release. A number did not respond to the questionnaires because they had not been told whether they were going to teach the new course or not. Widespread collaboration on materials development proved impossible because the lecturers did not have the time or the face to face contact necessary. Against every point of "failure", a reasonable, human excuse can be made.

This project suggests that the constraints of time, money, distance and human resources will always provide limits to institutional reform and innovation, and human nature will always make for variations of commitment among individuals.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the dissemination project was worth doing and that the insights gained from the experience used to add to our understanding of the educational change process and the need to see such case studies within the context of the growing body of change theory.


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Author: Dr Clare McBeath is senior lecturer in curriculum studies at Curtin University. Much of her research and publication has been concerned with curriculum issues in the TAFE sector. She is author of Curriculum decision making in TAFE (1991) and editor of Case studies in TAFE curriculum (1988). This paper is based on her PhD research on Curriculum dissemination in TAFE.

Please cite as: McBeath, C. (1997). A strategy for curriculum dissemination. Issues in Educational Research, 7 (1), 53-67.

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