Build or buy? Your curriculum management system options
The term ‘curriculum management’ describes a complex set of tasks and processes that encompass almost all the university’s essential curriculum operations. These are the essential components that design, review, manage, and govern the university’s taught programs (or courses), subjects (or modules), majors, minors and specialized offerings.
The 2021 Gartner® Market Guide for Higher Education Catalog and Curriculum Management Solutions states: “More usable and adaptable systems are needed to both optimize institutional teaching and create flexibility and choice for students.”1
Gartner cautions that “some institutions continue to inhibit change and incur costs by maintaining homegrown systems and/or manual processes to support their catalog and curriculum management functions.”
Therefore, according to our understanding, the guide positions a widespread need for more modern and robust curriculum management systems, leaving many institutions to wonder: Should we buy an existing system – or build our own?
In this post we will look at the pros and cons of these two contrasting approaches.
What value does a curriculum management system offer?
A modern higher education curriculum management system must be capable of structuring complex curriculum information into a central database.
This ‘definitive source’ repository will provide the information needed to guide administrators, staff and students across the whole range of university operations including marketing, recruitment, course management, quality assurance, governance and strategic decision making.
There are a number of valuable benefits that stem from adopting a flexible and robust system. According to Gartner, “Catalog and curriculum management solutions can address: Efficiency – being able to streamline processes to reduce waste and enhance learning pathways… Agility – enabling rapid launch of new programs, credentials and pathways to support critical corporate partnerships.”
A comprehensive solution can also reduce risk by providing explicit evidence for regulatory compliance, student learning outcomes and surface actionable insight through whole-of-program visual mapping capability.
Overall, curriculum management plays an under-appreciated role in enhancing the overall student experience – from the design and quality of the curriculum itself, to providing clear and easy-to-understand pathways to students, so they can make more informed decisions.
Buy it – or build it?
Institutions who have undertaken a review of their existing curriculum management processes and/or system have two options:
- Build – Design and assemble a solution from scratch tailored to the unique needs and requirements of the institution, using current IT capabilities perhaps boosted with further generic systems to handle niche functionality.
- Buy – Seek out a purpose-built curriculum management solution that delivers robust and comprehensive capabilities to handle curriculum management in an integrated way.
The first pathway certainly has some champions: the most recent annual review of corporate information systems by UCISA suggested that around a quarter of UK institutions are using ‘homegrown’ curriculum management systems2.
However, that also suggests a majority of institutions prefer to buy an established curriculum management system and this is confirmed by Gartner, who observe: “There is an increased market tendency to partner externally rather than to build.”1
Build: pros and cons
The main advantage of building a solution ‘in-house’ is that it is possible to create a ‘bespoke’ system that is holistically aligned with the university’s particular curriculum needs and to the needs of their technology ecosystem. However, there are also potential downsides to this approach that can include more costly and lengthy implementation, costly to maintain, with need to mobilize more buy-in from stakeholders that can cause internal delays, as well as uncertainty over the time and resources required to build.
When examining the option to build a system at the University of New South Wales, John Reed, ex-Director of Student Services and Systems, said that they came to the realization that “the challenge was too big, too expensive to maintain and too hard to enhance”. They would also need to do all the critical thinking on it.
He added: “We see value moving to more of a services based model. It removes all the budget issues with running it in-house and not having to maintain the currency of it. We saw the value in moving to a Saas model – one where we were not encouraged to over-enhance ourselves, one we didn’t have to enhance, and when we did the numbers – to get the richness of functionality that’s already existing in the CourseLoop product – it was going to cost us a lot more and a lot longer to build.”
According to Gartner, “Even when systems exist, they are frequently stand-alone, independent of other related systems, such as the SIS, degree navigation, degree audit, and course scheduling and timetabling.”1 The lack of integration with the wider technology ecosystem often results in manual effort and data inaccuracies.
Buy: pros and cons
The main advantage of sourcing a solution from an outside provider is that it usually proves more cost-effective. This applies both to implementation, since the provided system is already pre-built based on established industry needs, and also to ongoing operation with staff benefiting from automated workflows and processes and more oversight across the entire curriculum management process.
Furthermore, a reputable curriculum management partner will have a deep understanding of the industry that makes them a useful source of knowledge and expertise. It will be able to provide a purpose-built system that enables strategic oversight and innovation unlocking better student enrolment, admissions, completions, retention, satisfaction and ROI.
While it is true that some systems on the market are more rigid and provide limited ability to be configured to an institution’s existing processes, newer vendors have more flexibility in their products.
Professor Alison Cotgrave, Academic Registrar at the Liverpool John Moores University, spoke to the value of buying an established system – like CourseLoop’s.
“What we like about the CourseLoop Platform is that we’re building our own system into CourseLoop. We’re not having to change any of our processes; the CourseLoop Platform is being built around our systems. We’re going to be doing the exact same thing, but we’ll be doing it in a system where we can track progress and is more intuitive to use.”
The adoption of an ‘outside’ solution requires buy-in from academic, administration and technology stakeholders that requires careful change management, but that is more than achievable.
Integration capability is the other important consideration. Strong integration capability is a requirement in order to unlock the value of the curriculum and reduce considerable risk with curriculum data needing to be shared with multiple systems.
Starting the procurement journey
So you’ve decided that buying and leveraging an established platform is the best route for your organisation. What’s next?
The returns from Request for Proposals (RFPs) from commercial vendors will provide valuable guidance on both core features of the system and also set benchmarks for costs. When considering the latter, it is important to consider Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) in which initial purchase price is just part of the equation. Ongoing support, maintenance and upgrading costs can be even more significant over the life of the system, along with training, familiarization and ease of use.
The Gartner Market Guide also recommends “Higher education CIOs seeking educational technology optimization and modernization should create a solid foundation of good practices by implementing catalog and curriculum management systems to optimize business practices supporting course proposal and curriculum development. Select systems to save faculty and staff resources and ensure a consistent curriculum process across all campus units.”1
A more advanced consideration should be the degree to which the adopted solution will enable transformation by advancing institutional flexibility and strategic student success initiatives.
In practice this requires institutional ability to “think beyond current course and program architecture to select a solution that will accommodate media other than text in course descriptions, and support future needs, such as lifelong learning; adaptive, competency-based curriculum; and the award of microcredentials.”1
The guide also recommends CIOs should “Evaluate the performance of curriculum management practices by implementing a pace-layering approach and analyzing the impact of the curriculum management system for both institutional process efficiencies and student outcomes. Stretch requirements beyond course catalog and automation of curriculum management workflow by addressing the needs to search and select courses and to design personal pathways.”1
And importantly, there needs to be rigorous examination of the system’s ability to interface and share data with the other course- and curriculum-relevant systems such as the SIS, LMS, learning analytics tools, degree audit systems, and student pathway and navigation aids.
“Be deliberate about designing a sustainable enterprise architecture and integration methodology, with clarity around the designation of systems of record,"1 Gartner suggests.
When it comes to considering the move to a modern curriculum management system – and how to get there - there are a few overall considerations that should serve as guides:
- Costs and expenses: A rigorous comparison of initial costs versus ongoing overhead costs. What financial return on investment (ROI) can the university unlock once all the costs of curriculum management implementation are balanced against potential benefits?
- Configurability: What functionalities are needed and is the solution flexible enough to be configured to match those requirements?
- Curriculum management innovation: Which option best allows the university to innovate and improve their curriculum – and thereby, the student experience and student success?
Seek out a system that extends beyond robust data capture and streamlined workflow processes to support your institution in unlocking long-term strategic value.
1. Gartner, Market Guide for Higher Education Catalog and Curriculum Management Solutions, Tony Sheehan, Terri-Lynn Thayer, October 11, 2021. [online] Gartner. Available at: https://www.gartner.com/en/documents/4006704. GARTNER is the registered trademark and service mark of Gartner Inc., and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and/or internationally and has been used herein with permission. All rights reserved.
2. UCISA (n.d.). CIS Surveys - Corporate Information Systems - UCISA. [online] Available at: https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/cissurvey2020