From the bottom up: A curriculum dissemination strategy in practice

In order to feel a sense of control, [teachers] have to recognize what it is ... that they want to change. It is not easy, however, to help teachers to arrive at such complex understandings. (Rudduck, 1991, p.92)

Clare McBeath


Much has been written about the difficulty of bringing about curriculum change. In 25 years of practice and research, nobody has dared claim it is easy. This paper analyses one part of the curriculum change process as it occurred in a Technical and Further Education (TAFE) study area in one State. It describes a strategy set up in an attempt to make the dissemination process easier for teachers, reflects on some of the features of the strategy and assesses its degree of success according to what the strategy set out to do.

The research concentrated on dissemination, perhaps one of the most neglected and least understood elements of the change process. Curriculum dissemination is not easy to define. It overlaps with orientation, adoption and implementation and can reach across a number of stages of the change process. It interacts with and is involved in them, to the extent that a number of writers on curriculum change avoid using the word altogether. It 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 and from the needs and requirements of the local scene. It was tailored to fit both top-down, prescriptive, political and technological frameworks, and bottom-up, humanistic and user-centred situations. It accommodates mandated reform alongside cultural and personal meaning and individual interpretation of lecturer and student needs.

Since the late 1980s the TAFE sector in Australia has been undergoing enormous industry and government led restructure, felt, indeed, to the very heart of the system. With massive structural and curriculum reform underway, dissemination has never been considered officially as a problem, and specific funds, time or management systems are rarely devoted to its successful accomplishment. The research built on an earlier study (McBeath, 1993) which had indicated that the neglect of dissemination practice was causing unnecessary stress and inefficiency among TAFE lecturers and harming the process of curriculum renewal in many TAFE courses. It was found that improved dissemination practice should help TAFE lecturers understand and accept new curriculum products more easily, improve their level of collaboration and participation in the change, help them with materials development, reduce the frustration of sudden, unsupported change, and increase their communication network with all parties involved in the process. It was from these factors that the aims of this dissemination project were produced.

The Strategy

The dissemination strategy described in this paper was put into place with a small Horticulture study area (50 lecturing staff) and applied to a newly accredited, one-year, competency-based Certificate in Horticultural Skills. It had three aims:

The four most distinctive tactics of the dissemination strategy were

These tactics are claimed to be normative/re-educative, according to the definitions derived by Bennis et al. (1976). Using Marsh's (1992) categories, the meetings could be described as 'personal demonstration' tactics, the newsletters as 'impersonal information' and the questionnaires and network as 'interpersonal field agents'.

Two other tactics were included as part of the strategy, namely, the distribution of curriculum materials, and materials development. These were put into place as part of the strategy, and are referred to in the description. They were important, but do not warrant separate headings and discussion. 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 during the life of the project and was not put into place until after the formal research period had finished.

The Tactics in Operation

The meetings

First project meeting (early May)
The six lecturers at the first meeting were involved in the pilot course and had a certain degree of ownership. The meeting included also a horticulture senior lecturer and the Study Area Leader, both from what I shall refer to as 'City' campus and both familiar with the pilot course. From the outset, it looked as though the major tactic was not reaching the right people, and that there was a large number of potential implementers who were not involved. However, one of the first things that the researcher had to realise was that the project could not dominate, but had to fit in with, the existing way of doing things. This was an example of the constraints at work.

The majority at the meeting had seen the new syllabus document, although they had read only their own subject syllabuses thoroughly. Not surprisingly, the content of the new course was assumed and, apart from a few learning outcomes which some lecturers considered irrelevant, the subject matter was not an issue. They discussed the innovative aspects of the course and shared some of their experiences in interpreting the assessment of learning outcomes. Assessment of learning outcomes was regarded as the most difficult part of the new competency based course, and they agreed that this should be the main feature of the next newsletter. A standardised form for setting out teaching and assessment strategies was circulated. They agreed to begin writing their teaching notes on the new forms for the next meeting. They also discussed the need for a State-wide system of assessment record keeping, and agreed to bring examples of their different recording systems to the next meeting.

The lecturers at the meeting immediately saw themselves in leadership or advocacy roles. The City participants claimed that, as they were the largest staff group in the Horticulture study area, they frequently developed teaching materials and distributed them to other sites. As they were running the pilot course, they assumed they would do the same again. Further questioning revealed that this never had been a systematic exercise and that the development and distribution of materials had been irregular and ad hoc, and certainly not a coordinated and routine practice on which to build a successful dissemination strategy.

It was assumed too readily that this group was going to make all the decisions and do the work and that they were going to 'disseminate' their work to other sites. It did not arise that this 'dissemination' was not going to happen by itself, but that someone needed to take responsibility for planning it and making sure it was systematic and complete. An awareness of the problems and demands of the dissemination of new teaching materials was not existent among participants at this meeting.

The researcher stressed the importance of the involvement of all lecturers who would be teaching the course. The meeting discussed the network concept proposed in the strategy and appeared to accept it as meritorious. However, it looked as if this was not going to happen easily nor without strong encouragement.

Rural College study area meeting (late May)
This meeting attracted 14 lecturers from seven colleges and TAFE centres, thus it was a larger and geographically more widely spread gathering than the first dissemination project meeting and proved to be a vigorous and lively group.

The researcher was given a half-hour slot at the beginning of the day to talk about the new course and the dissemination project, but the meeting kept returning throughout the day to the issue of the teachers' roles in the innovation. Competency-based training was very much on their minds, and there was uncertainty about what the reforms expected of them in terms of teaching and assessment. Late in the day, the point was accepted eventually that the accredited documents were not the same thing as curriculum materials for teaching. Lecturers could use their training and experience to interpret the learning outcomes in the syllabus in a way that made sense to themselves. Wilson (1993) and Fullan (1991) had made this point, but it was difficult for the horticulture lecturers to come to grips with it and to discover that they themselves had an important role to play in the change. The network concept also was discussed frequently as a background issue.

The assessment of competency-based learning outcomes was debated with some fervour during the afternoon. A significant change in TAFE's thinking on this matter was occurring, mainly as the result of the disaster-ridden introduction of the National Metals projects two or three years before. Some of the lecturers still were thinking in the old mould of the need for painstaking assessment and recording of every single assessment criterion in the syllabus. Others had attended recent staff development meetings, and had been reassured that assessment should be based on the lecturer's professional judgement that the learner has attained competency in the knowledge and skills of the learning outcomes. It was suggested that this issue should be explored further in the next newsletter.

There was also discussion on articulation, as lecturers wanted to be assured that the new course would be recognised as credit towards higher level courses. The lecturers wanted to be reassured that the 'planners' knew what they were doing, and that they knew the potential problems of introducing a lower level course which might not lead easily into existing Trade Certificate (apprenticeship) or Advanced Certificate level courses. One of the course writers was present and she attempted to explain 'course mapping', a technique used to separate the various Australian Standards Framework levels of competencies into the various levels of TAFE courses and awards. The discussion appeared to be useful to both the lecturers and the course writer in raising their awareness of a wide range of potential problems.

At the Rural College meeting, representatives from six TAFE colleges and campuses announced that they would be running the new course the following year. Some of them had decided only that day to apply for funding. The meeting had achieved a more significant dissemination outcome than the previous meeting.

Second project meeting (June)
Horticulture lecturers from two rural campuses joined the core group from City campus, and apologies were received from people in three other centres. Two more colleges had been funded to run the new course, making a total of eight sites committed at this stage. The information-giving function of the strategy was beginning to have some effect.

The meeting discussed the practical implications of recognition of prior learning (RPL), another new feature of the competency-based training agenda. They agreed that an existing form could continue to be used, but that a set process needed to be developed so that practice would be consistent in all colleges and campuses. Mention was made of an RPL Assessors' course offered at one of the city campuses, and that it was the aim of the Department of Training to have an RPL specialist appointed to every campus. The meeting participants were happy with this information, but again asked that something go in the next newsletter in case staff in smaller centres were worried about it.

Discussion occurred on record-keeping procedures, on the use of percentages in student assessment, on the logistics of retesting when a student failed to achieve a learning outcome, on ideal class size, and on lecturer accountability. Suggestions were put together for developing an assessment recording package for distribution throughout the study area. The researcher agreed to put the package together.

It was a vigorous workshop meeting, with many difficult issues brought into open discussion and practical answers found. For topic after topic, they asked that the issue be raised in newsletters and distributed to other lecturers. The newsletters had become an important feature in the process of spreading ideas and information from the project lecturers to the rest of the State. The meeting participants appeared to assume that the newsletters were going to be published indefinitely!

Discussion was steered to future directions. Officially, the research project was drawing to a close, but the excitement which had taken so long to appear was just beginning for the participants. They were ready to start just as the researcher had planned to finish. The future needed to involve a hand-over process, and it appeared that this needed to be more gradual than the researcher had planned. There had been no discussion of the issue of materials development and distribution, nor the appointment of someone to collect and sort feedback from lecturers and students to channel into the Skills Formation Advisory Panel review process. These were essential components of the strategy and had to be addressed quickly.

None of the pilot lecturers had brought their teaching notes, nor felt they had done enough to offer to other lecturers. The pilot course was due to be extended to a second college in five weeks' time, and nothing substantial as yet had come out of the first four pilot subjects. This experience would be wasted if other lecturers needed to start planning the same subjects again from scratch. The pilot lecturers were asked to consider what could be produced reasonably within a couple of weeks, so that some assistance would reach beginning pilot lecturers in time for them to start preparing their subjects. A three-part plan was adopted to assist first, lecturers about to begin teaching in the pilot course, and second, those who would be teaching the course the following year.

The final issue was the appointment of a person to monitor and collect feedback. The Study Area Leader volunteered that this should be part of his responsibilities.

There was a positive attitude towards the achievements of this meeting. The participants were coming to grips with the major problems of the new course, and were developing not only a strong sense of reflection and ownership, but a sense of responsibility towards the introduction of the new course in the State.

Outer City Regional College study area meeting (August)
Between the second project meeting and the study area meeting at Outer City Regional College there was some urgency to develop a specific plan for the development of teaching materials. It was not going to happen without direction, and it was not going to happen without funds. Even the four lecturers, who had done their own planning for the pilot subjects and had written brief reports for distribution, were far too busy to put in the extra hours to develop a teaching package suitable for use by other lecturers. One of them told the researcher bluntly that he would not do it without funding.

In discussion with the Manager of Curriculum Services, the researcher determined that there was still enough money in the original project fund to offer $200 per subject for development. This obviously was not a large sum, and the amount of development which could be expected was discussed privately with the Study Area Leader and the senior lecturers from the two pilot programs. Paid time had to assume that the developers already had worked in the pilot program and had done a certain amount of planning as part of their teaching. Development had to be limited to the production of a basic teaching package, consisting of timetable, teaching notes, activities, worksheets, overhead transparencies, assessment strategies and a list of available resources.

Present at the Outer City meeting were the newly-appointed acting Associate Director, who was a horticulturalist, the Study Area Leader and the new acting senior lecturer from City campus. There were also senior staff from eight institutions, and one lecturer from each of the pilot sites. Nine centres were represented by 12 people, three of whom had not been at the previous three meetings. The number of lecturers with face-to-face involvement in the project was continuing to grow.

The meeting agreed that eight subjects be scheduled for development in the current year and two in the following year. The packages were to be prepared on computer disk and printed in time for distribution in December, before the end of the teaching year. The researcher offered to do the editing and formatting, as this would be a final opportunity for reinforcing the network concept and giving final messages to the implementers. It also would help soften the hiatus of the researcher's withdrawal from the project, a factor which was discussed at the meeting as a problem for the group.

It was not the ideal plan for development. It did not allow for collaborative development teams, nor did it spread the ownership of direct involvement to those who were to teach the course during the following year. It gave the opportunity for reflective practice and control to a handful of lecturers, leaving the majority still to come to grips with the new materials when they began implementing them. However, it did give the developers the official backing of the Study Area Leader and senior staff, and it did let representatives from nine different centres know more about the decision making processes of the project and what was planned. Once again, the meeting asked that the development plan be reported in the newsletter, and that all lecturers be invited to communicate with the developers to discuss ideas and offer relevant assistance.

Supervision of the development of teaching packages by the researcher continued for another four months after the research project itself had ceased officially, but continued to affect the eventual success of the strategy.

The newsletters

The newsletters served three purposes. First, they were to spread information about the new course to everybody in the study area, whether they were expecting to teach it or not. Second, they were to let lecturers know that there was a special 'dissemination project' in place, and to inform them of the activities and issues most valued by the project. Third, they were to open up the concept of the network, letting staff know who was doing what, and inviting them to talk about the new course and to get in touch by telephone if they wanted to discuss anything.

A 'hidden' purpose was to educate staff on matters like competency-based training and assessment and their roles in interpreting the changes which were being introduced into TAFE courses. A knowledge of how things were done in the Certificate of Horticultural Skills course would pay off when the later courses were brought on stream. There was a lot of ignorance and fear about competency-based assessment, recognition of prior learning and the Australian Standards Framework. As the project members clarified their own ideas, they were anxious that other lecturers also keep up with the new terminology and concepts. As the newsletters began to have an impact on lecturers, the project team encouraged their use specifically to increase this impact.

Researchers such as Fullan (1991) and Miles (1987) have warned of the inadequacy of advertising innovation to teachers by way of brochures or letters. Marsh (1992) categorises it as a 'low cost, medium coverage, low impact, high convenience and low feedback' tactic (p.144). With the amount of paper passing over the average lecturer's desk each day, much is relegated promptly to the waste paper bin. The newsletters, if they were to be effective, had to catch the busy lecturer's eye. Considerable attention was given to the initial design, especially to the title and the prominence of the name of the new course. Graphics were used, not necessarily with more than passing horticultural interest, but to catch the eye, to add variety to the page design, and to distinguish one newsletter easily from the next. For similar reasons, each edition of the newsletter was printed on different coloured paper.

The newsletters purported to be more collaborative than they actually were. They made frequent use of 'we' in reference to decisions made and how the networking was proceeding but, in fact, they were mainly the work of the researcher and no writing was done by anyone else involved in the project. Although the research was mentioned in most newsletters, the researcher never was identified as the author, and it was reported at one of the meetings that a number of lecturers thought they were being written by one of the original course writers. This enabled the writer to avoid being identified as an outsider, and the newsletters probably held more credibility.

Much of the material in the newsletters arose from the meetings. Because lecturers at the first project meeting were worried about assessment, the second newsletter contained an item about assessment. The Rural College meeting gave rise to discussion about the role of the teacher in competency-based teaching, record keeping and articulation. Hence the third newsletter concentrated on those topics. The fourth and fifth newsletters expounded on the issues raised in the second project meeting, while the sixth reported the development plan discussed at the Outer City meeting. Other items arose from the questionnaires (see the next section). When a respondent indicated that something was not known or understood, the information was given in the next newsletter.

The newsletters quickly found a distinct identity. As the researcher began to understand the culture and expectations of the lecturers, the newsletters fell more and more into their language. They were friendly in style and combined humour and seriousness. They summed up, expanded and developed (and in some cases corrected misconceptions about) the important issues of the project.

Feedback from the newsletters was sparse, but positive. After the first one had been distributed, a senior lecturer from a Regional college telephoned the researcher to comment enthusiastically. He said it was an excellent idea, but warned that they needed to be addressed individually to all lecturers in the study area to make sure that they reached them, and did not stop on a senior lecturer's desk.

As feedback quickened, it became clear that a wide cross section of staff were reading the newsletters and finding them useful. Another senior lecturer sent a message from a rural centre to say he was 'most impressed'. Telephone calls began coming in from senior officers outside the horticulture study area, commenting on the approach and content of the newsletters and, in one case, remarking that he didn't understand why nobody had thought of doing it before!

There were six newsletters, one each month from April to September. The original plan envisaged three or four, in line with the planned time line of three months, but, as mentioned above, the project moved at its own pace and the researcher continued to cater for its demands for several months longer than expected. To a limited extent, the newsletters tell the story of the project. They reflect how slowly some of the concepts developed, and the sort of problems occupying the attention of the project team. They also gave the researcher an opportunity to push the project along and keep it on track.

In the case of nine (18%) lecturers, the newsletters comprised the only information they received about the project. These lecturers were not expected to be implementing the new course in the foreseeable future. However, the newsletters gave them the opportunity to know what was going on among their colleagues and receive enough information to be able to discuss the issues amongst themselves if they wished. While feedback was received from only a small number of staff, it was positive, and it was hoped that the newsletters' novelty would help them penetrate into areas where they would be most needed.

The questionnaires

Two questionnaires were distributed to all lecturers at the colleges and centres thought to be interested in running the new course the following year. At the time when the sample was selected, it was not possible to know which centres these would be, but the most likely ones were chosen with the help of the Study Area Leader.

Thirty two copies of both questionnaires were distributed to those most likely to be teaching the new course. Fourteen replies (43.75%) were received for questionnaire 1 and 15 replies (46.88%) for questionnaire 2. The low response rate must be interpreted as a problem and draws attention to a weakness in the strategy. The constraints of distance, in particular, and the consequent difficulty of establishing face-to-face contact and communication with lecturers in rural centres, meant that a dependable two-way communication process was not established. Furthermore, there were lecturers in metropolitan colleges who did not respond and, while the project might have been disseminating well one way, there could be no check as to whether the messages were being received, or whether they were useful.

Approximately 25% of the respondents to both questionnaires were senior staff. Staff in more junior positions have a tendency to leave the decision making to their senior staff, and the strategy did not appear to have the desired affect of involving them as deeply in the project as might have been desired.

First questionnaire (June)
It was the intention of the first questionnaire to explore lecturers' views about the curriculum change process and, in doing so, to raise their awareness, in advance, of potential difficulties and problems in implementing the new course.

The first questionnaire contained three kinds of questions. The first four questions were to identify and locate the innovation within the respondents' consciousness, and to enable the researcher to gauge how many of the respondents would be implementing the new course. A second group of questions focused on factors identified earlier as causing lecturer frustration, such as lack of time for preparation, lack of involvement in development, lack of reward or recognition, lack of acceptance of the innovation, the need for change, or the amount of change. The questions were intended to explore the readiness of respondents to cope with these issues. The remaining questions were intended to project respondents' thoughts forward to what the change might mean to them and their colleagues in terms of support available, time commitment, materials development and the effect on students.

The first group of questions did not produce very useful information, as too few lecturers knew at that stage whether they would be teaching the new course or not. Their main usefulness was that the questions themselves were instrumental in spreading knowledge about the innovation.

The questions on readiness produced a high degree of acceptance of the inevitability of the changes. Most respondents displayed some degree of understanding of the reasons for the new course and a knowledge of national changes. There appeared to be a high level of thoughtful acceptance of the need for the changes, even though a number of the respondents hadn't read the syllabus documents nor knew whether they were to teach the new course or not. On the other hand, there was some apprehension and lack of knowledge of what the changes would mean on a personal level. Some of the answers were cynical, reflecting some low morale.

The third group of answers gave a picture of a group of hard working, slightly martyred lecturers out there battling against the odds, determined to cope and protect their students from being affected by their problems no matter what. 'There probably would not be enough time and enough support, but that's how things are normally.' There were conflicting statements in some of the responses, which could reflect that filling out the questionnaire often was done in a rush. The final question on the sort of support and assistance needed provided some useful information, which was built into the ongoing research plan.

The responses overall enabled the researcher to begin building a picture of the identity of the lecturers, especially those from rural colleges who had not attended the meetings.

Second questionnaire (July)
The second questionnaire was entitled 'Participation in New Curriculum', and indeed it was the intention in the original plan to explore the depth and level of involvement of implementers. However, the strategy had developed more slowly than anticipated, and neither the Study Area Leader nor the curriculum officer could give a clear picture of implementation plans for the second semester or the following year.

Under these circumstances, the purposes of the questionnaire were reconceptualised to concentrate on collecting further data, offering support and inviting input and feedback on the project.

Some of the information given by the 15 respondents was obsolete by the beginning of the second semester, when it became clear that the course was to run, as part of the pilot, in two centres. Staff in other centres did not know whether they would be teaching it or not and they had no sense of urgency about finding out. The data-gathering objective had not produced any new information.

The usefulness of the questionnaire as a technique of support and encouragement could not be known until mainstream implementation began the following year. As most of the respondents were expected to be teaching the new course, the timing of the questionnaire seemed to be psychologically sound and at least part of the second aim was fulfilled.

As a vehicle of input and feedback, the questionnaire produced useful ideas in answer to the question: 'If the project team is able to get further funding to prepare teaching materials of some kind for the new course, what sort of materials, or what sort of assistance, would you find most useful?' These answers were edited and discussed at the Outer City meeting, and distributed to the lecturers involved in the development of teaching packages.

The network

Stenhouse (1975) wrote of the need for a 'coach', or a consultant observer to help teachers in their reflective process. 'An outsider is in a good position to help experienced teachers to loosen the hold of habit' according to Rudduck (1991, p.111).

In the strategy, the researcher assumed a role of facilitating, encouraging, explaining, discussing and urging the project along and propelling it to find a focus and direction which it would not have found by itself. Most of the lecturers were prepared to leave it at that, accepting as much as could be given to inform and assist them. Few lecturers initially were prepared to step far outside their busy schedules to become involved in the project. The exceptions were the senior lecturers and the Study Area Leader, who added a degree of project ownership to their existing management roles.

The fundamental element of bottom-up involvement lies in basic communication between lecturers, discovering what is going on and being prepared to talk to each other about their concerns. 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 thought that a modest level of 'coaching' as a dissemination technique would trigger a vigorous diffusion, or spontaneous spreading of ideas throughout the study area, in the sense that Rudduck (1980) believed was important for 'meaningful' change.

The technique used was to make frequent reference to the concept of networking whenever an opportunity arose and to encourage it as a feature of the change process. The newsletters made continuing reference to the importance of sharing ideas and discussing the new subjects with each other. Telephone numbers of pilot lecturers, colleges and centres planning to implement the new course and those involved in the project team were given in four of the newsletters, stressing the invitation to help each other with understanding and accepting the innovation. The importance of the network concept was included in the researcher's presentations at all four meetings, and discussed in detail at the Rural College meeting.

It was difficult at the time to know what effect this tactic was having. Feedback was irregular and unplanned. Replies to the second questionnaire indicated that 64% of the respondents knew the telephone number of another lecturer who would be teaching the same subject, and that 40% had telephoned or talked to someone who would be teaching their subject to discuss teaching plans. Several indicated that they would be talking to their colleagues when they knew what subjects they were to teach. The network concept, and the desirability of collaborating and sharing ideas was emphasised again when the teaching packages were edited, and the telephone number of the developer responsible for each was given as a contact person for discussing implementation problems. The role of the Study Area Leader as the focus of the review and revision process also was reiterated.

Some feedback occurred regarding occurrences of staff room diffusion. Staff apparently were taking note of the issues, especially those in the newsletters, and were talking about them. Diffusion also occurred at and after the meetings.

The most positive feedback on the usefulness of the network occurred at the Outer City meeting. The Study Area Leader reported later that the meeting had gone on to discuss the strength of the network and the newsletters as an ongoing strategy. The meeting discussed it as a way of improving and consolidating what they already believed was a well-established networking system through their regular study area meetings. The participants expressed a desire that these continue under the new autonomous college system, but that it be extended to reach out to 'grass roots level', that is, all the lecturers in the study area. This official adoption of the network concept and the newsletters as strategies for future study area development confirms the acceptance of them as useful and powerful tools of communication.

The previous sections discussed the four main normative/re-educative tactics of the dissemination strategy as they applied to the Certificate of Horticultural Skills. The following section re-examines the strategy, recognising its uniqueness in the horticultural environment and discussing the features which made its application perform as it did.

Features of the Dissemination Strategy

The nature of the strategy itself was flexible and evolutionary, changing and adapting as the participants' needs consolidated, and highlighted the inadequacy of typical top-down approaches as a single strategy for change. The human factor is unpredictable. The researcher went into this project with a clear idea of how the strategy should work and the techniques needed to produce the desired outcomes. The strategy, however, took on a life of its own and the tactics were forced to change pace and direction to suit it.

The project dealt with a very small study area and with a course designed for a lower skills level than most offered by TAFE. This had a number of advantages. Having only fifty lecturers employed in the study area meant that the logistics of distributing newsletters and other mailings were easily manageable. It was also possible for the researcher to get to know the names of everyone, to know where they worked and what they were doing, and to establish a closer identity with them. The introduction of competency-based training was also much easier than it had been in some other TAFE courses, and more likely to succeed in an easy course pitched at Australian Standards Framework Level 2. The compactness of the project also made it easier for one person to manage the various aspects of the strategy and to view it as a whole. The main disadvantage is that the strategy will be much harder to implement with another larger, more complex innovation at another time.

One of the unforeseen difficulties in the strategy was the timetable. There is no ideal time to introduce innovation in TAFE. The dissemination project was supposed to have spanned four months. However, the plan did not take into account how busy lecturers would be with their normal workloads. The process was much slower than expected. It took longer to gather impetus and kept going for four months longer than planned.

The plan had assumed much wider face-to-face involvement with the lecturers. Even though a number of far flung rural colleges and TAFE centres were involved, the researcher believed that most colleges would send at least a couple of representatives to the project meetings. This did not happen. Distance was a real problem in implementing the dissemination process. The difficulty of releasing lecturers from small departments was a further problem. If the strategy is to be developed for further projects, attention needs to be given to increasing face-to-face contact in other ways. A further tactic needs to be introduced, namely, travel on the part of the change agent to discuss the innovation with rural participants. The Study Area Leader, after discussion with the researcher, agreed to take responsibility for this part of the strategy, and announced his intention of making three visits to rural centres to talk to lecturers about the new course. A further regional meeting was planned for a distant rural centre in November, and the researcher was invited to attend. Even the late application of face-to-face contact increased the level of involvement of those lecturers who could not attend the project meetings.

The funding allocation proved to be a significant factor in the strategy (Loucks & Lieberman, 1983; Fullan, 1991; Hayton, 1988). Funding had been designated initially for travel and staff release but, when it was not spent for this purpose, it became available for materials development. The Department of Training does not have the resources to pay for large-scale materials development, and jealously shepherds allocations for this purpose. The strategy was set up originally with the idea of having teams of volunteers produce the necessary teaching materials, but the cultural behavioural patterns of the lecturers was not going to allow that to happen. Some lecturers stated that they enjoy subject and materials development, but the climate of low morale, insecurity of employment and industrial unrest, meant that they refused to add such activities to their already heavy workloads without being paid for it.

The human factor was important in several ways (Owen, 1973; Rudduck, 1973; Stenhouse, 1975; Loucks & Lieberman, 1983). The researcher was amazed at the amount of uncertainty and indecision, rumour, inaccuracy and misunderstanding when it came to understanding the plans for implementation. This account smooths some of the rough edges of reality and puts the story into somewhat logical order. However, at times everyone involved in the project appeared to have different perceptions of what the project was aiming for, and it took painstaking reflection and adaptability of planning on the part of the researcher to bring these all together into a whole, without causing offence. This is typical of bottom-up involvement (Rudduck, 1991).

The project team and the researcher treated each with patience. Common understanding was sought consciously and worked on. Open interaction achieved progress and trust was established. The question needs to be asked about whether the strategy would have achieved as much as it did without this trust and interaction. When setting up a strategy for future use, these human ingredients cannot be guaranteed in advance.

Another aspect of the human face of the strategy was the self imposed demands put on the researcher as change agent (Havelock, 1973; Berman & McLaughlin, 1978; MacDonald & Walker, 1976; Marsh, 1986; Miles, 1987; Miles, Saxl & Lieberman, 1988; Olson, 1980). The more the strategy looked like failing, the more important became the need to keep working on it, giving it constant time and energy. This was important both to the researcher, for obvious reasons, and to the team which held high expectations that the researcher would know what to do and would come up with the right answers. Even as this project was being analysed, the researcher was still involved in ongoing activities with the project team. As a form of participant observation, the research created a role for the researcher which could not have been abandoned suddenly.

The strategy had elements of top-down and bottom-up ownership existing side by side, as Marsh and Huberman (1984) and Rudduck (1991) claimed it could. The syllabus document had been imposed from above and lecturers were to make of it what they could. The lecturers could only do justice to the new course if they had understood and accepted it on their own terms, within their own culture and meaning and with their own sense of ownership stamped on it. The researcher stood between these two perspectives, representing both the administration, which had given its blessing to the project and funding to make it possible, and the lecturers who were struggling with the personal meaning of the change. The lecturers required hard work on the part of the researcher as change agent, in that they didn't know what they wanted or needed in advance of implementation, and had to be cajoled and encouraged into becoming involved well ahead of time. The administration knew what it wanted and expected only to be informed of continued progress by the project team.

This created a not unexpected degree of philosophical conflict in the researcher's role. There was conflict between the humanistic approach required by the lecturers, as the project demanded more and more time, effort and understanding, and the technological, or empirical-analytic, requirements of the management perspective within the TAFE system to get it up and running as quickly and cheaply as possible (Loucks & Lieberman, 1983; Winning, 1993).

Effectiveness of the Dissemination Strategy

As the quotation at the head of this paper implies, it is not easy to set up a plan which will fall into place and make it easy for practising lecturers to understand and accept what is involved in the process of innovation. Teachers have to recognise what exactly is being changed and it is not easy to help teachers to reach such complex understandings. Nor is it easy to assess the level of understanding they have reached.

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

The highest level of involvement and ownership occurred amongst those lecturers who taught the pilot subjects (24%) and became involved in the development of teaching packages (20%). Because the project team continued to refer to the first round of teaching as the pilot program, these lecturers were singled out as having a special investment in the course. They were referred to in the newsletters as 'the pilot lecturers', and were given special acclaim as those blazing the trail for later implementers. Ten of them (20%) were selected, and paid, for developing materials for the others. Their reward included both acclaim and financial remuneration. Their ownership and involvement in the innovation was expected to be total, although this research did not continue to track them through the process.

The level of involvement of the 50 full-time lecturers in this project is represented in Figure 2. The percentages of staff participating in each level of activity are represented as a model of decreasing levels of involvement, with the darker colours representing greatest involvement and the lighter outer circles representing least involvement.

Figure 2 Involvement of lecturers in preparing for innovation

The strategy attained an acceptable level of penetration throughout the study area. It offered information and support, and opportunities for interaction with the project team. It also included a plan for the development of teaching materials, so that lecturers would not have to develop their own materials in isolation as they began teaching.

A number of the constraints were removed although, again, it was a question of degree. Face-to-face interaction occurred with almost 50% of the lecturers and ownership was increased. The follow-up visits to rural centres could increase this to almost 100%. 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 was widespread. Certainly the majority of the horticultural staff will be ready for the new course, and all would have had been given ample opportunity to be ready if they had so chosen.

The third objective was achieved in terms of tactics to encourage lecturer participation and ownership and to break down feelings of alienation and resistance. There wasn't much opportunity for lecturers formally to study their own practice 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 had occurred throughout the study area.


The study set out to overcome some of the difficulties of curriculum change referred to in the literature. By the encouragement of teacher level collaboration and involvement, the strategy offered the opportunity of bottom-up interaction with a top-down mandate to change and, overall, it was a happier change experience than that referred to by many researchers in the last quarter century.

There can be little doubt that the lecturers will be better off from their experience of the dissemination project than those in other innovation projects who have not received the information, involvement, support, materials development, the removal of constraints, and encouragement of participation and ownership offered by the strategy. Further research outside the boundaries of this study will be needed to determine how much better off they will be.

The greatest problem proved to be that stated earlier in this paper, that dissemination is 'perhaps one of the most neglected and least understood elements of the process' of change, and that the lecturers themselves did not have a theoretical grasp of the importance of the strategy. While they did appreciate being part of the research, and a number were enthusiastic about the success of some of the tactics, they never quite made the transfer to a full user centred development, in which personal meaning and individual interpretation became the dominant feature. However, it can be claimed that most lecturers came to understand and accept the new curriculum and that personal frustration and subsequent time-wasting was reduced.

This research, therefore, while claiming some success, cannot dispute the basic contention in the literature that changing the curriculum is always difficult. The project required enormous patience and frequent changes of plan on the part of the researcher. It was time consuming and physically and emotionally demanding. If it were known by politicians and reformers that this amount of energy is an integral part of the change process, perhaps they would be more cautious about the introduction of large-scale mandated reform in any sector of education.


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McBeath, C. (1991). Research into curriculum dissemination in TAFE. Issues in Educational Research, 1(1), 23-30.

McBeath, C. (1993). Curriculum dissemination: A question of competence? In After Competence: The Future of Post Compulsory Education and Training, (Vol 2, pp.1-15). Brisbane: Centre for Skill Formation Research and Development, Griffith University.

McBeath, C. (1995). Barriers to effective curriculum change: A case study in dissemination practice. In Post-Compulsory Education and Training, (Vol 2). Brisbane, Centre for Skill Formation Research and Development, Griffith University.

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Please cite as: McBeath C. (1997). From the bottom up: A curriculum dissemination strategy in practice. Curriculum Perspectives, 17(2), 9-20.

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