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FEATURE: Lessons learned from developing a climate master’s programme

The vision was to develop a master’s programme in climate change and sustainable development, flexible and adaptable enough to be taken up by universities across the SADC region. Involving 23 academics from six universities across five countries, the mission was to deliver seven modules within twelve months. Leslie Ashburner of the Africa Climate and Development Initiative shares the lessons learned from the process.

In 2014, the Southern African Regional Universities Association identified a master’s degree as a key ‘curriculum innovation point’ in building capacity for climate compatible development. Rather than multiple institutions independently developing their own curricula, SARUA supported an innovative, combined effort, drawing on multiple disciplines and expertise across institutions in southern Africa. In response, a consortium of academics from six different regional universities was tasked with developing the new curriculum. Seven module teams were set up, supported by an educational expert and two project coordinators.

There were three main deliverables over the year-long process. First was a Curriculum Framework, including rationale, principles, and high-level structure. Second was the Curriculum itself, three core modules plus four elective modules, based on a Teaching-Learning-Assessment template. Third was the Courseware (in the form of resource packs and guidelines on how these should be used). These deliverables were planned as three consecutive stages, each including a face-to-face workshop, although the greater part of the work would be done by team members separated geographically and working independently or corresponding by email, Skype, Google, etc.). Each deliverable would be reviewed by external stakeholders with feedback for making the necessary adjustments.

Drawing on comments by the consortium (from online survey) and direct observations by the project team, the following key insights emerge:

Have an early full-team workshop to develop a clear understanding of curriculum development and key pedagogical principles
Academics know their subject matter and many practice good teaching approaches intuitively, or through picking up ideas as they go. However, ideally, key pedagogical principles and terms (such as assessment approaches, alignment of activities with outcomes) should have been unpacked thoroughly at the start of the process, giving academics the language of curriculum development. For example, the term ‘curriculum’ is generally used to refer to the syllabus or content in a course of study. But it is more than that. It includes the development of skills, the manner of teaching, the type of assessment and the philosophical outlook of the lecturer and the institution – all of which contribute to the experience of the learner.

This early workshop would also allow teams to get to know each other and develop a shared work culture and set of expectations.

Do a pilot testing of the Teaching-Learning-Assessment Plan
After clarification of the curriculum principles, it would have been ideal for a single high-capacity pilot team to test the template and complete a first module. This would illustrate what was needed and avoid numerous iterations and revisions.

Agree on structure and content of the curriculum at an early stage
The structure and content of the curriculum remains a good starting point for developing a new course. Ideally, this should have been agreed on and approved by the reviewers, to a fairly substantial degree, before adding activities and readings to the plan. This structure should be shared with the entire group so that gaps and overlaps can be amended.

Allow for frequent face-to-face meetings within each module team 
The two face-to-face workshops were extremely valuable.  Having plenary sessions for educational/ curriculum input worked well, as did the smaller, team breakaway groups. On the other hand, long distance virtual communications were fraught with frustration and were frequently very unsatisfactory. Some team members therefore worked in isolation other than at the face-to-face workshops, and this meant having to ‘unpick’ some of the work when the team was together. Given the difficulty of getting the entire team together at the same time, it might have been better to plan for module teams to get together face-to-face more frequently, as this is where the real work happened.

Provide team leader with a mandate to reallocate roles if necessary
Teams need an effective work plan with clear deadlines and incentives to deliver timeously. Academics have very high workloads and competing priorities. The module leader needs an explicit mandate to reallocate roles and associated costs if necessary. The module leader also has to take responsibility for version control and the final product.

Acknowledge success
There were many indirect benefits for the contributors.  Contributors felt a strong belief in the value of the project goals. Despite the difficulties of long-distance communication, the collaborative process of co-production contributed to relationship building, trust and respect across the regional divisions. Academic benefits included subject expertise growth through cross-fertilisation by working intensely with regional counterparts, and being exposed to multiple unfamiliar/ new academic resources. For some academics, this was also an opportunity to explore and create content for an emergent area of interest.  Contributors also benefitted from having their theory reviewed by a broad set of external stakeholders in southern Africa. Unexpected learnings included the language of curriculum development and new insights into teaching, learning and assessment practices.

The final product has received commendations from the external review team as well as from independent higher education experts.

“This curriculum is an exemplary product. The rationale for each module clearly shows the logic for the content and structure. The Teaching-Learning-Assessment Plan for each module shows the desired outcomes explicitly, raising awareness of the purpose of the activities.” – Alan Cliff, Associate Professor, Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), University of Cape Town.

For more infomation visit the CDKN project page.

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2 responses to “FEATURE: Lessons learned from developing a climate master’s programme”

  1. Pauline Matu says:

    Thanks for publishing this material. Very insightful lessons to be learned by other regions. Is there any way we can replicate this as a best practice in our region, East Africa? Or even to evaluate the courses in place? How can people like me, with skills in climate change matters,but not academics,be involved in the processes?

  2. nkulumo says:

    Hi Pauline. Thanks for your feedback. Regarding replication, it is our interest that such kind of a process be replicated in the rest of the continent. We are gathering lessons on the entire process which we expect to share widely. The courses have gone through a comprehensive review process which was open to all stakeholders interested in the climate change and development space. Some of the most insightful contributions that were incorporated into the curriculum development process indeed came from those outside academics. While the Master’s curricullum itself has been finalised, we welcome all contributions and interactions going forward. You can join the curricullum innovation network where all lessons are shared and discussion hosted ( Here you can interact with the Master’s programme developers, reviewers and other stakeholders. you can also get in touch with our project coordinator on for more information.

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