Case studies in TAFE curriculum [ Contents ]

Chapter 1

Clare McBeath
Curtin University of Technology
Wendy Richards
New South Wales Department of Technical and Further Education

Case studies as an approach to research

The editors of the first two volumes of the Australian Case Studies in Curriculum series (Fraser, 1985; Kennedy, 1986) pointed to a need for more published material on practical activities in curriculum development and evaluation, especially in the Australian context. Case study research has always been considered slightly suspect in some sections of the research and evaluation community, and it has been variously decried as subjective, non-conclusive and "wishy-washy". Theoretical investigations and "hard data" research into educational problems have tended to appear more attractive to journal editors, while studies of single situations have been deemed to be of limited general interest (Fraser, 1985, p.ix). Hence, at a time when it is becoming increasingly important in Australia for educationists and teachers to take on extra responsibilities as curriculum practitioners, it is often difficult to locate reports on practical curriculum problems and solutions.

The case study approach, and the qualitative methodologies generally used with it, are not new in the social sciences. The techniques of observation, participant observation and intensive structured and unstructured interviews have been the methodological mainstay of particular theoretical positions within disciplines such as psychoanalysis, anthropology and sociology. Despite this longevity however, the case study approach has been overshadowed in the social sciences, particularly in the post World War 2 years, by more quantitative methodologies whose rationale and techniques are drawn from the natural sciences.

Since the mid-1960s, however, the limitations, weaknesses and sometimes abuses of an uncritical use of quantitative methodologies have been widely debated in many fields of social enquiry (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983; Bhaskar, 1974; Bell, 1978; Keat & Urry, 1975). The qualitative methodologies, often used in conjunction with the case study approach, are now commonly favoured by researchers working within interpretive or critical theoretical frameworks, These methodologies offer them greater opportunity to explore in a more holistic fashion the multifaceted and complex nature of social reality (Angus, n.d.). Case studies and qualitative methodologies also appear more frequently in recent research in education (Ball, 1984; Samuel, 1983; Connell et al, 1982; Willis, 1977) though as yet in Australia, and particularly in the technical and further education sector (TAFE), they represent only a small proportion of current research and evaluation designs.

An important consideration in the development of any research methodology is the elimination of bias. Both the positivist and naturalist traditions in the social sciences have argued that scientific objectivity, as a necessary precondition for arriving at the truth of a situation, is produced by the elimination of the potential for bias. Both traditions assume that this can be achieved by isolating a body of data so that it will be "uncontaminated by the researcher, either by turning him or her into an automaton, or by making him or her a neutral vessel of cultural experience" (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983, p.14). A conceptual distinction is made between social science and its object of study, which in practice is embodied in the methodological prescriptions governing the nature of the relationship between the researcher and the researched. It is believed possible to reduce the potential for bias by developing an account of the situation under investigation which treats it as external to, or independent of, the individual conducting the research. This belief is based on two assumptions: that it is possible for a researcher to approach a research setting without preconceived theories or expectations regarding the outcomes of the investigation and, secondly, that the research subjects must remain objects, or targets, of investigation to the researcher, to prevent the introduction of bias through personal involvement. Relationships between the researcher and researched are viewed as possible barriers to scientific objectivity, rather than avenues through which to obtain a greater understanding of the elements of that which is being studied.

Qualitative methodologies and the case studies approach to research acknowledge that some form of relationship exists between researcher and researched and that some kind of bias, whether it be personal, political or theoretical, is brought to the investigation by all those involved in its conduct. Research of this nature provides the opportunity to take the effect of these predispositions and relationships into account.

Case studies can also be seen as a way of addressing the problem of relevance, in the sense that they reflect what is really happening in all its personal and social complexity (Stake, n.d., p.4) rather than studying events in controlled, atypical, "laboratory" situations. However, this does not mean that the case study is merely the telling of a story, although "case stories" may well also be case studies. As a research approach it has a conceptual structure which presents an understanding of a situation, draws conclusions about it and allows readers to extend these new insights into their own experience and awareness. It is important to realise that the case study is not a specific technique. As Stake emphasises, "... it is a way of organising social data so as to preserve the unitary character of the social object being studied" (n.d., p.5). It "is the study of a 'bounded system' with a conception of unity or totality" (Stake, n.d., p.4; our emphasis) at the centre of the methodological concerns. The research methodology may be statistical or ethnographic; data gathering methods may be structured or unstructured; the analysis may be quantitative or interpretative. The case study sets out to focus on, and interpret, a part of reality which is considered to be significant to the researcher and to the reader.

Case studies for curriculum study

The focus of this collection of papers is the development and evaluation of curriculum in the Technical and Further Education sector (TAFE). In a recent article entitled Curriculum as Anthropology, McLeod (1987) pointed to the distinction between what curriculum developers say they know, or the ritual of curriculum procedure, and how they act. Their actions are of far greater importance to the researcher than their plans and beliefs, because action is the indicator of meaning. "Given that action embodies meaning, the precise nature of that action becomes crucial in the understanding of curriculum" (p.18). It is hoped that the papers will show that the case study approach gives researchers important access to the actions of curriculum developers, as well as to their statements about what they thought were the important "meanings" when they looked back analytically on their activities. This perspective is particularly pertinent in looking at curriculum decision making in the TAFE sector where far more is known of the ritual than of the meaning of the process.

Case study research also takes into account the context of curriculum activity. Curriculum practitioners continually stress the fact that decisions rarely work out as planned (McBeath, 1986). Political, economic and personal interaction become the reality of curriculum decision making, sometimes in clear contradiction to the ideals and intentions of the developer. Very little can be anticipated with certainty and the finished curriculum product is frequently full of surprises and hidden meanings (McBeath, 1986). These characteristics are reiterated constantly throughout this selection of TAFE curriculum case studies.

Different approaches to case study methodology are obvious in this collection. Four of the contributors had been involved in curriculum research projects using formal research methods; two were evaluations of specific courses (Funnell, Richards), one a study of user participation in the development of curriculum materials (Sharp) and the other an analysis of cross-state co-operative development (Ashurst). Two others had been involved in practical projects as curriculum developers (Furber, McBeath); they were participants, rather than participant observers, and their papers are retrospective accounts of their experiences. Another critically reviews the problems experienced in adapting traditional design methods in developing traineeship programmes (Smith) and the other draws on a wide experience of case study involvement to identify the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches (Jones). The papers are case studies in Stake's wider sense of the interpretation of a bounded system, presenting the individual researcher's understanding of a particular situation or experience, drawing conclusions on issues that are relevant or important to the writer in that situation, and allowing readers to internalize the experience and make it their own. The ultimate justification for a collection such as this is that the experiences of the writers will be used to widen and deepen the knowledge of those who need more confidence to embark on curriculum activities of their own.

To an inexperienced TAFE curriculum developer, case studies can provide reference points when developing new strategies or solving problems. They can become signposts, pointing out desirable or dangerous directions to be negotiated. Case studies can provide a fund of experiences which curriculum developers can dip into, picking out those they wish to share and use, adding depth to their own activities and increasing their confidence in making their own decisions.

The papers cover a diverse range of courses, topics and concerns. Some of the themes overlap; co-operative development, involvement of industry in development, need for flexibility in procedure and so on, but possibly the most striking features of the cases selected are that they are all so different and all emphasise different kinds of problems and solutions. Furthermore, all highlight completely different sets of issues which are considered important in TAFE curriculum development and which can usefully be shared.

TAFE and curriculum development

A further observation which needs to be made is that much valuable curriculum work of a surprisingly high standard is going on in TAFE throughout Australia. The papers came from five TAFE Authorities: New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. They span virtually the whole process of curriculum development, including methodology (Jones, Richards, Smith), occupational analysis (Smith), design (Furber, McBeath, Smith), materials development (Ashurst, McBeath), dissemination and implementation (Ashurst, Sharp) and evaluation (Funnell, Richards). Most of them deal also with policy, management and procedural issues.

TAFE traditionally has been regarded as the Cinderella in tertiary education, with very little appearing in curriculum literature to dispel this image. The TAFE sector exists in the popular mind as attending to the practical and the unsophisticated, literally the nuts and bolts part of tertiary education. Many educators are surprised to discover that, hidden beneath this humble image, there exists an army of experienced and successful researchers, planners and developers whose curriculum output exceeds that of any other educational sector. Over one million TAFE students across Australia are enrolled in possibly as many as 30,000 different subjects at any one time. These subjects are being constantly updated according to rapidly changing industrial, commercial, social and political demand. Thus all have to be continually researched, developed and implemented. If reports of TAFE curriculum research and development are not often found in academic journals, it might be that curriculum developers are so busy meeting the demands of their workloads that they don't find much time to write about it! In fact, the editor of this collection had moved out of the TAFE sector before finding the opportunity to collect and edit these papers.

Also in popular mythology is the image of TAFE as an industrial trainer, concentrating steadfastly on the development of manual skills, carefully standardised and regulated by rigid performance objectives and mastery level achievement tests. The uninitiated might point to the ubiquitous Instructional Systems Model, controlling curriculum decision making with its algorithms and check lists, and accuse it of producing a mindless stream of performance objectives, unrelated to educational aspirations or the quality of life. The enormous gap between popular belief and actual curriculum practice is laid bare in these case studies. While the theory of vocational curriculum development frequently emphasises a technological or linear approach to curriculum development, and the typical syllabus found in TAFE colleges may display a prescribed rigid structure and format, practical case studies reveal that the structure and format of the finished product are probably the least, and last, of curriculum developers' concerns. The reality of curriculum decision making, as the deliberationists have been pointing out for nearly two decades (Walker 1971; Reid & Walker 1975), is far more complex than working through a set check list of tasks to complete. The reality is more to do with the ideals and disappointments of developers, teachers, students and administrators, and their compromises with the restrictions of time, finance and the need to produce results. This is the reality that the curriculum student or the beginning practitioner must also face.

The papers in this collection

In the first contribution to this collection, Neil Jones considers some implications arising from his wide research experience in Case study approaches to TAFE curriculum research: Some reflections based on practice. TAFE in Australia has a well-established history of quantitative survey research methods for the purposes of curriculum design, evaluation and implementation. More recently, however, TAFE curriculum researchers have been exploring the use of qualitative methods. Case study approaches have begun to be adopted, particularly to answer questions relating to specific curriculum, policy and planning issues and problems. Effective use of these approaches has required researchers to overcome difficulties arising from both the established expectations about research methods and the paucity of case study research experience available in TAFE.

In Traineeships: A case study in new curriculum design methodology, Helen Smith looks at political and procedural problems which had to be overcome in developing courses for traineeships. Curriculum development for accredited vocational programmes in TAFE in Victoria follows the Instructional Systems Model, commencing with an occupational analysis conducted by or for a specific industry. After training needs are identified and training objectives developed, curriculum design is based on skill requirements for a particular job. Because the Australian Traineeship Scheme addresses a broader range of needs and involves structured on- and off-job training, new procedures for conducting needs analysis and for negotiating training structures have been initiated. This paper is based on first hand involvement in the development and implementation of traineeship programmes between August 1985 and June 1987 and presents a discussion of the curriculum issues.

Bill Sharp was involved in research into the design, production and trialling of a set of Industrial Simulation Instructional Packages for Fitting and Machining in Western Australia. The research strategy was based on the assumption that user involvement in the design decision making process would engender a sense of ownership in the participating teachers, thus minimising implementation problems and enhancing the quality of the instructional materials. User participation in curriculum materials development was based on a case study research project using Hall's taxonomy of interventions as a framework. Data were collected retrospectively through formal and informal meetings, semi-structured interviews and an attitude survey of those who had been involved in the design process.

Clare McBeath deals with the themes of interstate co-operation and the production of materials for off campus learning in Developing a national curriculum for distance education. In 1986 Trading Standards Level I became Australia's first national distance education TAFE Certificate course. It is offered to Trading Standards (Weights and Measures) officers and exists as a result of the co-operative efforts of a working party drawn from a number of disparate organisations. The paper tells the story of its development, firstly, as a national curriculum project convened according to tried and tested procedures under the auspices of the Curriculum Projects Steering Group and, later, as it struggled for survival in the uncharted waters of instructional development for national distance education.

From South Australia, David Furber reports on the development of a three year course designed to meet the training needs of the State's tourism industry. Tourism: A case study in co-operation reiterates the cooperative theme, this time as a joint effort by the Department of TAFE and the South Australian Tourism and Hospitality Industry Training Committee.

Chapter 7 addresses two common problems facing curriculum developers in TAFE - the fostering and implementation of new procedures and the provision of more with fewer resources. The TAFE External Studies Authorities in the six Australian States typically have developed their own study materials in virtual seclusion, so that six sets of materials in very similar curriculum areas have been developed within similar time-frames. In more recent times there have been examples of interstate co-operation. Geoff Ashurst's paper on Co-operative initiatives in off-campus development and delivery gives details of some models of interstate co-operation in both the development and delivery of curriculum materials to students. The paper suggests which criteria are indispensable and which are highly recommended to enhance the potential for the success of such joint ventures.

In Privileged information: Evaluating a women's access course, Wendy Richards reports on an innovative approach to evaluation design developed to study the effectiveness of TAFE's women's access courses in NSW. The evaluation was conducted in two parts involving both survey techniques and a case study approach. The paper argues that this choice of methodologies was determined by the nature of the research questions asked and the type of data required to answer them. Evidence of the appropriateness of this two-part design is drawn from the experiences of one of the students in the course.

On the closure of a large car manufacturing plant in Brisbane, 14 retrenched workers undertook a landscaping course under the Federal Government's Labour Adjustment Training Arrangement (LATA) programme. Bob Funnell was involved in evaluating this innovation and, in his report on Retraining and conflicting work styles, he highlights the need for curriculum developers to consider the social constraints within which courses are framed and to relate them to the course. At the same time they should incorporate the interpretations which students are likely to have of the processes in which they are involved.

There is a lack of expectation in TAFE that important projects be analysed and written up for publication and public scrutiny. Internal report writing requires a different style of writing and format, and the extra time needed for crafting and perfecting a paper for publication is rarely available. Nor is there any reward for doing so. Thus it was with a sense of the ultimate usefulness of the case studies in this volume, that the contributors carried on in the face of practical difficulties and little support from the TAPE employing bodies.

We believe that the individual effort, time and emotion which went into the contributions will prove worthwhile. Their degree of worth will be judged on whether the collection can contribute answers to the two issues discussed earlier. They must be judged, firstly, on the extent to which they offer valuable experiences which can be shared usefully with other TAFE curriculum developers; and, secondly, on the degree to which they help dispel some of the myths and enable the TAFE sector to be seen publicly as a valid part of the research and evaluation community, with a potential contribution as valuable as any other part of the tertiary sector.


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Bhaskar, R. (1974). Social scientific knowledge and the limits of naturalism. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 8(1), 1-27.

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McLeod, J. (1987). Curriculum as anthropology. Curriculum Perspectives, 9(1), 17-21.

Reid, W. A. & Walker, D.F. (1975). Case studies in curriculum change. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Samuel, L. (1983). The making of a school resistor: A case study of Australian working class secondary schoolgirls. In R.K. Brown and L.E. Foster (Eds.), Sociology of Education (3rd ed.). Melbourne: Macmillan.

Stake, R.E. (n.d.). Seeking sweet water: Case study methods in educational research. In R.M. Jaegar (Ed.), Alternative methodologies in educational research. Study Guide and Audio-tape series, American Educational Research Association.

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Cite as: McBeath, C. & Richards, W. (1988). Introduction. In C. McBeath, (Ed), Case studies in TAFE curriculum, p.1-5. Perth, WA: West Australian Social Science Education Consortium, Curtin University of Technology.

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