Understanding a Systems Approach to Curriculum Design

1. The System

1.1 Defined

A system is a number of interacting components that have a relationship to each other in such a way that a change in one changes the others. A functional system requires that each component contribute its share, and each component has a role to play and if it is not carried out as planned, the total program will reflect error. A system also provides an orderly process for gathering, analyzing, and selecting required tasks, and the support materials necessary.

1.2 The four parts of a system

A system is made up of four parts. 1. The Feedback component - serves a system of providing results of system output back into the system so that it can be compared to the desired output. 2. The input - identifies that which enters the system from the environment and individuals who are involved in the system content selection. 3. The output - is the product of the system that is returned to the environment. 4. The process - all of the sub-processes within the environment that act on the system input and transfer it to output, i.e., the manner in which the content is presented, the resources, and the various approaches, processes, strategies, methods, and techniques.

This also assumes an environment. The environment is NOT a part of the system but rather - it is the context within which the system operates and may place constraints on system operation.

2. The Systems Approach

2.1 Applying a systems approach to process design and problem solving

The systems approach is a powerful methodology to use in education for many reasons. The systems approach is based on a sound scientific process. This process has been used and improved for many years. Its validity as a methodology has been fully demonstrated. Its strengths and weaknesses well documented. Common methods and tools exist so their creation and validation is unnecessary. The practicality and application of the tools and procedures common to the systems approach have been demonstrated across a large number of disciplines. The fact that the systems approach is so well documented and supported makes the analysis of the system relatively easy.

The system can contain subsystems that can again contain subsystems to whatever level of detail is needed. This means that we do not have to create new methods for detailing our system. Each subsystem is simply a new system in itself that is as open to all of the analysis methods and procedures as the whole system. This saves time and keeps the amount of skills and knowledge needed to create more complex systems to a minimum. Because of this recursion of system upon system analysis across scales is made much simpler.

Finally, using a system approach allows the designer the ability to arbitrarily manipulate all or any part of the system to determine the consequences. This gives a real ability to test ideas and suppositions about changes to the system without actually making the changes. This is especially important on large or complex projects where it is often difficult to predict the effect of changes on complex interrelationships. In the always changing and usually fast-changing world of education the systems approach is a method that can be invaluable to the instructional designer.

2.2 The systems approach in education design

A systems approach works well in training and development. The process of education as well as its development is iterative in nature and the systems method is especially geared to recursive processes. Education can be very complicated and the systems approach helps to simplify the process. Determining the cause and remediation of problems in the process of education as well as its development can be difficult. Because of the interrelationships between the components (educators, students, material, processes, organizations) the origin of problems are often difficult to find. Many problems have multiple points of origin or cause other, new, problems that can be difficult to trace back to the original cause. The systems approach allows one to relatively easily determine the origin of problems, how they are interrelated, and how to efficiently mitigate them. Education can be very complicated and the systems approach helps to simplify the process. This approach also lends itself to performing risk analysis on a project.

2.3 The systems approach in curriculum design

Systems design works equally well if the curriculum design model is prescriptive -- indicating what curriculum designers should do; or descriptive – indicating what curriculum designers actually do. It is also useful in any of the basic curriculum design approaches: subject-centered, learner-centered, and problem centered as well as any sub-category of each.

2.4 The systems approach in this course

We will be using the concepts of the systems approach throughout this course. So rather than discuss these concepts further here will actually use these concepets and provide any more details as we encounter a need for them in our work.