Case studies in TAFE curriculum [ Contents ]

Chapter 5
Developing a national curriculum for distance education

Clare McBeath
School of Curriculum Studies
Curtin University of Technology

In 1986 Trading Standards Level I became Australia's first national, distance education TAFE Certificate course. It is offered through the Victorian TAFE Off-Campus Network (VTOCN), but exists as a result of the joint effort of individuals from the Department of TAFE, South Australia, the TAFE Board, Victoria, the National Standards Commission, the Institute of Trading Standards, the TAFE National Centre for Research and Development, the Western Australian Technical Extension Service1, and the VTOCN. It represents an outstanding example of cooperative cross-state curriculum development, and furthermore, it was achieved with virtually no official funding!

This paper describes the Trading Standards curriculum development project. It is a case study based on participant observation in the sense that the writer was part of the curriculum team and was involved in the successes and setbacks encountered by the team.

Why a Case Study?

Curriculum writers frequently deplore the dearth of literature on the practical aspects of curriculum development while theoretical writings continue to abound (Fraser, 1985, p.iii). In an attempt to overcome this and to collect and record actual curriculum development experiences, there is a growing interest in Australia at the moment in the publication of case studies in curriculum development.

In the field of distance education, the place of the case study is uneven. Case studies in distance education management and administration are relatively numerous in the literature, and have been for some years. A researcher (Murphy, 1986) recently argued for single case study designs as a new approach to research in distance education learning styles. Case studies in curriculum development for distance education, however, are virtually unknown, possibly because much development work is done by busy individuals who are not part of formally constituted curriculum teams.

This paper presents a case study of the development of a course for distance education and thus fits into an area of need in both curriculum development and distance education literature. It is an interesting case in that the project produced the first complete TAFE course to be offered nationally, as well as the first offered nationally by distance education. It is even more interesting that it ever reached completion at all, given the problems it encountered.

This is a retrospective account of the Trading Standards story. The writer was a participant of the task force and the working party and was present at all meetings, including the one in Perth where the final problems were solved. She was involved in a number of activities between meetings and in constant contact with the members of the working party. She also participated in all major decisions and read all draft materials as they were prepared. However, there was no need to rely on memory alone, as the curriculum documents (1984) included a history of the project and a review of all major background data. The Perth meeting likewise was documented (Heads of TAFE External Studies, 1985), and these two sources were consulted to check the accuracy of memory.

TAFE curriculum development

Australia's TAFE Authorities are, on the whole, rather good at developing curricula. For many years curriculum design processes have improved and consolidated in the effort to meet the needs of local, regional and State vocational courses. Technological change, transitional employment patterns, recurrent retraining and upgrading demands of employers and employees have been answered by the development of literally thousands of new and revised trade, vocational and para-professional certificate and short courses, ranging in length from six hours to five years!

In the last few years national curriculum projects have also become a reality in TAFE, These projects are selected, monitored and assessed by the nationally constituted Curriculum Projects Steering Group. With representatives from each State and Territory, the Curriculum Projects Steering Group and their appointed curriculum development task forces are answerable to the Australian Conference of TAFE Directors and financed by Federal funds through the TAFE Council. There have been 97 projects so far (McBeath, 1987) and, with that accumulation of experience, the processes and procedures of curriculum development have improved and the task force managers and advisers have grown in confidence and efficiency.

It is against this background that we see the development of a national course in Trading Standards for Weights and Measures inspectors. Three members of the working party, which was a subgroup of the task force, had worked previously in other national curriculum projects. They were familiar with and confident in the process. It was not the curriculum development aspect that nearly wrecked the endeavour, but the uncharted waters of national materials development for distance education. For this was the first TAFE national curriculum project for distance education and the procedures had not been tested before.

Setting up the project

The initiative for the new course came from the National Standards Commission. The only TAFE training for Trading Standards inspectors had been an out-of-date course run by the VTOCN in Victoria. In Queensland, Trade Measurement inspectors had studied subjects from the Institute of Technology's Associate Diploma in Mechanical Engineering. Training in other States had been conducted in-house by the relevant State Departments, where many of the senior officers had been recruited from Britain. Because there had been growing concern that something had to be done about training, a direct approach was made late in 1983 to the Curriculum Projects Steering Group to fund and facilitate a national curriculum project.

In May 1984 a twelve-member taskforce of curriculum, Trading Standards and Consumer Affairs representatives from all States and Territories met in Adelaide for two days to assess the feasibility of a national training syllabus for Trading Standards officers. Initially $2,000 was allocated for this - actually funds transferred from the balance of another curriculum project.

This meeting, quickly convinced of the need for and feasibility of developing the course, agreed to proceed with curriculum development. A national survey of Trading Standards officers in need of training had identified a prospective initial student intake of 68, with a continuing intake of about 30 students per year thereafter. It was a small prospective student market scattered unevenly throughout the country and including both urban and rural inspectors. It was agreed, among other things, that a Level I Certificate course should be developed first and that it should be offered in distance education mode. This was seen as an appropriate way of catering for the initial training of such a student population. As TAFE Victoria already had a Weights and Measures course offering, it was suggested that VTOCN be asked to administer the new course on a national basis, rather than having each TAFE Authority offer it separately.

The meeting set up a working party of six people to develop the course structure, content and learning objectives, with the idea that the whole taskforce would meet again in three months to plan the instructional development of the course for distance education study. No-one could have realised at that stage that the national curriculum taskforce was never to meet again.

Developing the syllabus

The working party consisted of four TAFE curriculum developers and two content specialists from the National Standards Commission and the Institute of Trading Standards. Four were based in Adelaide, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. During the following three months, they produced a syllabus document detailing a 600-hour course of nine subjects, subject aims and an implementation strategy. They met once more in Adelaide during this time - at the expense of their own departmental budgets.

The TAFE curriculum development experience directed the decision making process. The subject outline had been produced at the task force meeting, with the TAFE people questioning the industry representatives as content experts. Content topics and associated skills, elicited by questioning, discussion and brainstorming, were listed under preliminary headings. They were written on butcher's paper pinned up where the participants could see them as they developed. When the amount of material became unwieldy, the topics were sorted into new groupings, sometimes reinterpreted or restructured, and put onto the word processor. The questioning then began again, this time focusing in closer detail on actual field practice and specific training needs. The exercise also distinguished between the requirements for basic training (the Level I certificate) and higher level training for a course to be developed at a later date. The nine-subject Level I course structure was already obvious at the end of the initial two day task-force meeting.

The working party used a micro version of the same techniques. A TAFE developer and a content specialist/practitioner worked in detail through the topic headings, focusing this time on subject aims, learning objectives and assessment strategies. The content specialist wrote them up and the curriculum person helped him shape them into educational format. In fact the objectives were never fully defined in performance or behavioural terms according to usual TAFE practice, perhaps because the concept was foreign to the content people with their traditional academic backgrounds. The curriculum people, however, accepted the compromise, knowing that the distance education development stage would take care of that.

The project manager organised the word processing and circulation of all draft material for ongoing comment and input from individual members of the working party. The working party together looked at issues such as entry level, accreditation, dissemination, implementation and planning strategies. The syllabus was produced remarkably quickly and efficiently and was printed as two documents - the "short form" and "long form" documentation format typical of South Australian TAFE practice.

The documentation was then submitted to the Curriculum Projects Steering Group for endorsement and for recommendation of funds for distance education development (estimated at this stage to be anything up to $200,000).

This, however, was not to be. From the point of view of the Curriculum Projects Steering Group, the syllabus had been developed and the project was finished. Funds still unspent from the original $2,000 were recalled. The syllabus was approved by the Conference of TAFE Directors and, from there, it seemed as though it were to be put on a shelf to gather dust. No individual TAFE Authority had the funds or the motivation to develop off-campus materials for so few students and there was no national machinery for joint Authority development beyond that point.

The search for a solution

The next stage of the story is what practical curriculum development in action is all about. The next meeting of the working party near the end of 1984 was expected to be a post mortem. Instructional design for distance education was expensive and there was no money to pay for it. The TAFE representatives had exhausted the directions they knew. The Trading Standards people, however, refused to be deterred. The course was needed and they were determined to make it possible. They could write it themselves; they could seek long term loans and buy in development expertise; they could attract funding from the makers of weighing machines, weigh-bridges and petrol pumps. All sorts of possibilities were discussed and the working party members went off with new hope to write letters, lobby training councils and talk to TAFE External Studies course developers. But still nobody seemed to be able to help.

The answer occurred eventually as one of those lucky accidents of history, when two disparate - and in this case, temporary - groups move into each other's orbit long enough to recognise that they have certain aims in common. The national Heads of TAFE External Studies is not a permanent organisation, but consists of the Principals and Heads of the external studies organisations and colleges from the eight TAFE Authorities. They are a small but dynamic group which had been meeting once a year since 1983. Their meetings had become a forum for exchanging ideas and information and for advocating cooperative development of distance education materials. While no single External Studies Head had been able to solve the Trading Standards problem alone, maybe the national meeting, due in Perth, March 1985, would be the place to present the problem to them jointly, as a test case for cooperative effort?

After some quiet lobbying went on behind the scenes in four States, the proposal that the Heads of TAFE External Studies cooperate in the off-campus development of the Trading Standards course was put formally to the participants at the Perth meeting. Funding, of course, was still expected to be the biggest problem.

The way ahead

The meeting suggested that the various States make existing course material available for appraisal and, where these or parts of them coincided with the objectives of the Trading Standards course, that they be offered as standard exemptions to Trading Standards students. This would enable VTOCN to reprint the relevant sections of different courses to make up the first five subjects, General Principles of Law, Mathematics for Technology, Communications, Electrical Science and Business Law. The meeting agreed and parts of off-campus courses from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were eventually used.

There remained the three specialist subjects, Physics and Materials Technology, Trading Standards Law and Metrology (Theory)2. Western Australia's Technical Extension Service agreed to provide instructional design expertise free of charge in exchange for Trading Standards content writing expertise, also without charge. Western Australia would print and maintain these three subjects, and offer them at a price to cover reproduction only. Victoria would then teach and administer the subjects. A few minutes of efficient and generous decision making had solved the problems of the TAFE Trading Standards Certificate and ensured its survival!

There were further curriculum issues involved at this stage of decision making. One of the difficulties of sharing distance education materials in the past has been the disparity of design styles in different States. Each State has a characteristic style of setting out instructions to students, learning objectives, self-testing exercises and the like, and each is aggressively possessive of its own style. The "not-done-here" syndrome is particularly strong in TAFE's external studies colleges. Yet if materials developed in four different States were to be used for this course, they had to be used in the style in which they had been written, because the cost of rewriting was as much out of the question as the cost of writing new materials had been. Thus in choosing the only possible alternative, and using the diverse materials as they stood, a significant curriculum decision had been made.

Another issue concerned the decision to use what external studies people call a low level of sophistication. Some centres define two distinct levels of production quality, separating developmental or draft editions from high quality publications. For a number of reasons, some study materials never progress past the developmental version (McBeath, 1985). Because of the cost per student ratio in this case, the Trading Standards course books were to be of this latter type, at least for the first few years until funding could be made available to upgrade them.

Where material taken from other courses might have caused confusion, it was decided that a note to students should be inserted at the beginning of the appropriate course books explaining that the subject had been developed originally for another TAFE course under a different name.

It was further decided that an element of uniformity could be introduced to the course by including a common introduction in all the course books. Specially designed and printed covers also were to be used for all Trading Standards materials.

At the next working party in Adelaide a couple of months later - still self-funded - officers from Western Australia's Technical Extension Service (on loud speaker telephone) and the Victorian TAFE Off Campus Network joined the planning discussions. They had the support of their respective Heads to participate fully in decision making and make the cooperative exercise a reality. The aim of that final meeting was to make it possible for the course to be offered nationally at the beginning of 1986 and for the first graduates to be produced by the end of 1988. The feeling of self-congratulation which occurred as the implementation strategy fell into place led to the further resolution that a short publicity report be written and circulated, as we wanted our story to be known. It was from that report that this chapter was later developed.


An issue which emerges from the Trading Standards story is the degree of inflexibility inherent in large systems when it comes to innovation. TAFE curriculum development processes and procedures have been referred to with praise earlier in this account, and the undertaking of national curriculum projects at all must be regarded as a major achievement. Early projects depended heavily on Jones' (1983) procedural model and later on Sandery's (1985) Manual. With annual workshops for national curriculum managers and conveners, the committed leadership of the Curriculum Projects Steering Group and, until 1987, the support of the TAFE National Centre, most national projects achieved a reasonable level of success. The problem occurred when the Trading Standards team set out to achieve something different, to go beyond documented procedures and to produce not just syllabus documents, but materials suitable for distance education.

It hasn't been from lack of interest or intention that materials development has failed to become a part of the national development procedure. The concept was partly defined by the Australian Committee on Technical and Further Education as early as 1974 (the Kangan Report). When the TAFE National Centre for Research and Development was established in 1981, its Memorandum of Association included as one of its primary objectives "... the planning and development of learning materials ...". The Review of the TAFE National Centre confirmed this in 1984 (TAFE National Centre for Research and Development).

Kenworthy and Schilling (1984) developed the concept further in proposing that a TAFE National Education Technology Centre be established to consult with national curriculum task forces on all aspects of curriculum development. The proposal was expensive and possibly untimely and was not adopted.

Yet the need for a national initiative did not disappear. The Australian Conference of TAFE Directors has given support in principle to cross-mode materials design and development on a national basis (1984, 1985). Interest in more efficient sharing of instructional materials has been indicated by the TAFE National Clearinghouse, by the Curriculum branches of various TAFE Authorities and by the TAFE National Centre. Ashurst's paper in this volume indicates the increasing interest and experimentation occurring quietly in various external studies centres.

Meanwhile, national curriculum development remained limited officially to the production of syllabus documents, and each TAFE Authority continued to produce its own materials to meet its own local requirements. No formal machinery existed for sharing these. The wasteful repetition of effort is widely recognised, but the system is large and appears incapable of responding with flexibility and speed. The Trading Standards project was therefore an important test case, but its problems were only solved in an unexpected and untried way, outside the normal system.

There are two important points to be made from this case. Firstly, in these times of increasing financial stringency, TAFE curriculum development must look increasingly outside itself to utilise alternative procedures and attract alternative funding. Gone are the times when project teams can expect everything to be given to them with impunity. A new entrepreneurial spirit is emerging in tertiary education in Australia. If large systems are, by their very nature, inflexible and slow to change, then individuals within a system need to be even more imaginative and adaptable. Lack of official funding should not be confused with lack of official support, and projects should not fail merely because funding is difficult to find. There are always other paths to explore.

Secondly, the procedure followed by the Trading Standards project is not one which can be repeated by other projects. It was a unique solution and, if anything similar is tried again, it will be dependent on different conditions and new negotiations. Trading Standards has set a precedent in breaking out of tried and tested procedural paths, but has not set up a new path for other projects to follow.


  1. Now Western Australia's TAFE External Studies College.
  2. The ninth subject was Metrology Practical, which had already been developed in performance objectives form by the working party. It was to be assessed in the field by Departmental Supervisors and distance education materials were not needed.


Conference of TAFE Directors. Minutes of meeting, December 1984 and March 1985. Unpublished minutes.

Fraser, B.J. (1985). Case studies in curriculum evaluation. Perth: West Australian Social Science Education Consortium.

Heads of TAFE External Studies. (1985). Report on Conference. Perth: Technical Extension Service.

Jones, N. (1983). National core curricula: Development and implementation. Adelaide: TAFE National Centre for Research and Development.

Kangan, M. (Chair) (1974). TAFE in Australia: Report on needs in technical and further education. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Services.

Kenworthy, B. & Schilling R. (1984). The national development of instructional materials. Adelaide: TAFE National Centre for Research and Development.

McBeath, C. (1985). Choosing national resources for different learning modes in TAFE. Adelaide: TAFE National Centre for Research and Development.

McBeath, C. (1987). National resources for different learning modes in TAFE. Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, 2(2), pp.65-71.

Murphy, D. (1986). Experimental design: The case for single case. ICDE Bulletin, 10, pp.20-23.

Sandery, C. (1985). National curriculum projects manual. Adelaide: TAFE National Centre for Research and Development.

Cite as: McBeath, C. (1988). Developing a national curriculum for distance education. In C. McBeath, (Ed), Case studies in TAFE curriculum, p.38-43. Perth, WA: West Australian Social Science Education Consortium, Curtin University of Technology.

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