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R What is learning design?


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R What is learning design?

  1. 1. What is learning design?The implicit nature of teaching practiceDesign is an inherent part of any teacher’s practice (i.e. preparing for teachingsessions or creating learning materials, activities and assessments). Indeed, it is socore to what they do it is often taken for granted. It is assumed that it ‘just happens’.In other words, design is so embedded in a teacher’s practice that it tends to beimplicit – not formally articulated, or externalised for others, apart from at arelatively superficial level in the course syllabus or lesson plan.Once you start to focus on learning design and, in particular, try to understand whatdesign is and how it occurs, a number of questions come to mind. • How do teachers prepare their teaching materials and/or teaching sessions? • What decisions do they make? • How do they decide which activities, resource and technologies to incorporate? • Where do they get advice and help on the process?These are some of the questions we will ask you to consider as you read through thisResource.A critical eye on the design processThe focus of this resource is to look critically at the design process. The sheerquantity and variety of new technologies available, and the ways in which they canbe used to support learning and teaching, presents a daunting prospect to teacherswanting to use these technologies in effective and innovative ways. In particularthere is a need for a better understanding of the design process and clearermechanisms to help guide teachers in making decisions about the creation of newlearning activities.The activities, resources, and tools in the training module will give you a briefoverview of new approaches to design that help teachers and designers to makechoices on how to incorporate new technologies to facilitate learning activities. Themodule will provide an overview of the issues associated with designing for learning– what it means, and what the advantages and the difficulties are.The design processYou will get the opportunity to try out different ways of thinking about the designprocess that can be used to help teachers map the pedagogy, technologies andactivities students are intended to undertake. You will also look at how design ideascan be represented and shared and, in particular, the advantages and disadvantages
  2. 2. of different forms of representation. You will have the chance to explore differenttools for planning designs.Why focus on design at all?In recent years there has been a growing interest in trying to better understandteachers’ design processes and to make them more explicit.There are a number of reasons for this, but two are particularly worth noting. 1. By making the design process more explicit it can be more easily shared with others, which means good practice can be transferred. 2. There is now such a diversity of resources and technologies available, which can potentially be used to support the teaching process that teachers need clearer guidance to help them find relevant tools and resources and find support on how to incorporate the tools and resources into the learning activities they are creating.‘Learning design’ is the term most commonly used to describe the research anddevelopment activities associated with a better understanding of the processinvolved in designing learning activities and which support teachers’ designpractices. However, it should be noted that the term is not without controversy andoverlaps to some extent with other terms, such as instructional design, curriculumdesign and course design.While some people prefer to use other terms, such as ‘educational design’,‘instructional design’ or ‘curriculum/course design’, all the terms tend to focus onthe importance of ‘design’. This is regarded as a good term around which to reclaimthe scholarship of teaching and to rethink pedagogy for a digital age and in the newinformation economy (Beetham and Sharpe, 2007).Why design is becoming increasinglyimportantSo why is it important to pay so much attention to the design process? Preciselybecause it is core to the teaching process and to the ultimate learning experiencestudents have as a result of how a teaching session or some learning materials aredesigned. In the creation of learning materials either for independent study ormediated by a tutor, the impact of good design makes itself felt immediately. Oftenworking intuitively or with tacit knowledge, the expert teacher can produce theapposite example to illustrate a complex concept. Or they can advise on the use offormative assessment at the appropriate point in a long chain of argumentation toanchor a critical perception in a student’s mind. Learning design aims to move thepedagogic skills of the expert teacher from the realm of tacit to explicit knowledgeand to capture the essence of that knowledge for reuse in other contexts by otherstaff.
  3. 3. ‘Learning activities’ and ‘learning design’Two key concepts, ‘learning activities’ and ‘learning design’, are central to the topicscovered in the module and it is worth defining these concepts from the outset.Learning activities are those tasks that students undertake to achieve a set ofintended outcomes. Examples might include: • Finding and synthesising a series of resources from the web • Contributing to a ‘for and against debate’ in a discussion forum • Manipulating data in a spreadsheet • Constructing a group report in a wiki • Summarising the salient points of a podcast.Beetham views learning activities in relation to the design process ‘as a specificinteraction of learner(s) with other(s) using specific tools and resources, orientatedtowards specific outcomes’. (Beetham in Beetham and Sharpe, 2007, p.28)Learning design refers to the range of actions associated with creating a learningactivity and crucially provides a means of describing learning activities. The termlearning design can refer to: • The process of planning, structuring and sequencing learning activities, • The product of the design process – the documentation, representation(s), plan, or structure) created either during the design phase or later.Agostinho (2006) describes it as ‘a representation of teaching and learning practicedocumented in some notational format so that it can serve as a model or templateadaptable by a teacher to suit his/her context’.Learning design provides a means of guiding the creation of learning activities, aswell as representing learning activities so that they can be shared between tutorsand designers. For example, this might consist of illustrating learning activities in aneasy to understand way (as a diagram and/or text) so that they can: • Be shared between a teacher and a designer • Be repurposed from one teacher to another • Serve as a means of scaffolding the process of creating new learning activities • Provide the tools for practitioners to capture their innovative practice in a form that is not only easy to share but also gives them ownership of the problem and solution. Such a scaffold might be in the form of an online tool to provide support and guidance to a teacher in the steps involved in creating a new learning activity – including tips and hints on how they might use particular tools.Learning design therefore refers to a range of activities associated with betterdescribing, understanding, supporting and guiding pedagogic design practices and
  4. 4. processes. It is about supporting teachers in managing and responding to newperspectives, pedagogies, and work practices resulting, to a greater or lesser extent,from new uses of technology to support teaching and learning.Learning design aims to enable reflection, refinement, change and communicationby focusing on forms of representation, notation and documentation. This can: • Make the structures of intended teaching and learning – the pedagogy – more visible and explicit thereby promoting understanding and reflection • Serve as a description or template, which can be adaptable or reused by another teacher to suit his/her own context • Add value to the building of shared understandings and communication between those involved in the design and teaching process • Promote creativity.Learning design can take place at a number of levels: from the creation of a specificlearning activity, through the sequencing and linking of activities and resource, tothe broad curriculum and programme levels. Conceptually, there is a growingappreciation, borne out by research at The Open University (UK) and elsewhere, thatlearning design has an important role throughout the teaching and learning process;from design and production, through the delivery of learning and sharing designswith students, to evaluation and sharing practice.To some extent, teachers already engage in some form of learning design, such asplanning a lecture or using a table to map learning objectives to assessment criteria.However, as technologies, pedagogies and working practices change, many believethat a greater formality in existing design practices, processes and support needs tobe developed. A number of groups are working on learning design research andpractice. The range of learning design approaches offers something for bothteachers/lecturers and those in support or mediatory roles (e.g. instructionaldesigners and others seeking learning and teaching solutions).Different interpretations of ‘learningdesign’‘Learning design’ as a term originated in the technical community and began to gainprominence around 2004, following the development of an educational mark-uplanguage at the Open University of the Netherlands. This was taken as the basis forattempting to create a learning design specification as part of a broader body ofwork on technical specifications by the IMS consortium ( aim of this formal specification was to provide a framework for describingteaching strategies and learning objectives in a method that allows easy interchangebetween elearning providers. The capitalised term ‘Learning Design’ is sometimesused to refer to this more technical approach. Only limited implementations of thefull specification have yet been realised and as an approach it does not tend to makepedagogic design and learner activity explicit in a human-readable form.
  5. 5. However, since then the term has been appropriated by others and as such there issome confusion surrounding it because it has become popular as an expression thatin a more general sense is synonymous with instructional or course design, forexample, someone might ask ‘What is the learning design underlying this course?’They do not expect to be presented with XML code when they ask this, but areseeking some rationale behind the course design, for example, an explanation thatrelates learning outcomes to pedagogy and content.This extension of the term partly reflects the interest the specification hasgenerated. In order to distinguish between a more general use of the term andreference to the IMS specification itself some suggest the convention of using‘learning design’ (small ‘l’, small ‘d’) when talking about the general concept and‘Learning Design’ (capital ‘L’ and ‘D’) when referring to the concept as implementedin the IMS specification.A second approach to learning design adopts a more general interpretation oflearning design – one that focuses on pedagogy and the activity of the student ratherthan, say, the content. This approach advocates a process of ‘design for learning’ bywhich one arrives at a plan, structure or design for a learning situation, wheresupport is realised through tools that support the process (e.g. software applications,websites) and resources that represent the design (e.g. designs of specific cases,templates).Beetham suggests the primary focus should be on the activities undertaken bylearners. That is to say, not just the tasks required of learners but thinking abouthow learners, each with their own way of proceeding, engage as active participantsin these tasks. This means greater emphasis on understanding and codifying thecomponents and relationships within learning experiences, be these specific‘learning activities’ or an entire curriculum. An example of this approach may see adesigner give an explanation that relates learning outcomes to learner activity topedagogy to content. The lower case term ‘learning design’ is often used to refer tothis approach although there remains ambiguity in use.The value of learning design as anapproachAt this point you may still be wondering ‘what on earth is learning design and whyshould I be interested in learning about it?’ You can think of it as a fancy word forwhat you were doing every day of your professional life, working out what you weregoing to teach and how you were going to teach it. The difference is that with firstlydistance learning, and now e-learning, teachers have had to make that process moreexplicit, because without face-to-face contact you can’t fix things on the fly if theystart going wrong.This is the view Beetham takes in her chapter (p.37) when she talks about thepossibility of learning design existing as unarticulated shared expertise. The point isto become aware of it, to do it better and, of course, to share the practice and theresults.
  6. 6. There are significant advantages in the instilling of the tenets of good design acrossthe teaching and support staff of an educational institution or within a trainingcontext: • A clearer perception by the teacher of good examples of teaching or learning support • More efficient use of the teacher’s time • More efficient and effective learning on the part of students • More useful sharing of pedagogic insights across the teaching and support staff, and across disciplines.Learning design seeks to provide tools and support that can help those involved inteaching and learning respond to changes – be these constraints on time andresource, greater choice in technology and pedagogies, the blurring of the real andvirtual, and shifting roles – and stakeholders involved in planning and deliveringcourses. When teaching at a distance, there may be particular benefits due to theeven greater need for rigorous planning, design and evaluation before delivery tostudents.Furthermore, in making a design more explicit, learning design encourages greaterfocus on what the student is doing – their learning experience and activity. It alsoasks questions about how design occurs, what decisions do teachers make? What istheir process? For both the individual practitioner and for universities, this maysupport more efficient use of time, more effective teaching and learning, bettereconomy of effort, clearer perceptions of good practice and the change to alternateforms of course delivery (for example, the ways of visualising the virtual hyperlinkedlearning landscape in an online course).Several tools have been developed to help the designer/practitioner, and if you wishto investigate further they can be found at: • The JISC Design for Learning Programme supported a variety of projects that developed tools for guiding, implementing and evaluating learning design including the London Pedagogy Planner and the Phoebe Pedagogic Planner) • The OU now with the support of the JISC Curriculum Design Programme (until 2012), are developing two tools, CompendiumLD and Cloudworks • The RELOAD project is building a suite of software tools for authoring and delivering standard-compliant learning objects • The LAMS (Learning Activity Management System) Foundation has produced a platform for teachers to create, deliver and run online sequences of learning activities in real-time with students.Links to some learning design tools • Cloudworks: • CompendiumLD: • Phoebe Pedagogic Planner: • London Pedagogy Planner:
  7. 7. • Learning Activity Management System (LAMS): • RELOAD: practiceTo aid the perception, capture and communication of good teaching practice (in aform that can be easily read and digested) requires the creation of a textual or visual‘space’ and within it a ‘vocabulary’ of pedagogical elements in terms of which theexamples can be described. From there the rules of combination of these elements,to create a learning task and groups of such tasks, have to be articulated.What is captured depends to some extent on the intended audience for the design.For example, the same ‘design’ would need to be represented in different ways to atechnical developer, a teacher or a student. A technical developer tasked withconverting the design into a set of web pages needs different information to thatrequired by a teacher who wants to use the design as the basis for setting up anactivity, or that required by a student who wants to work through the elements ofthe design.What are the drawbacks?Learning design has already attracted much interest but remains an emerging field atthe edge of mainstream practice. There are a variety of evolving issues andchallenges. 1. For researchers there are theoretical and methodological challenges associated with understanding what is a very complex process, ranging from questions about how it should researched?, modelled? Or made sense of? to what definitions and vocabularies are used. Other challenges relate to the impact and consequences of the approach. For example, Peter Goodyear writing in the Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects (Lockyer et al. (eds), 2009) asks if the very focus on ‘learning’ means we are inadvertently complicit in helping learners abdicate their responsibilities for learning. 2. Representations of learning designs can vary in their form, role, granularity and level of abstractness, and the choice of tool or platform may constrain/inform the approach used. Such variation introduces vibrancy to the field but also presents practical and theoretical challenges, which may appear difficult to reconcile. For example, how to resolve the tension between the desire to represent learning design in the abstract as some form of ‘pattern’ or practice model and the need to convey the contextual specificity of a design as realised in a particular case? Or, how can representations satisfy the need to represent a short, specific activity but also show its place in, and contribution to, an entire curriculum? At present there
  8. 8. is no singular agreement regarding representations or languages for learning design. 3. Learning design will be organised and embedded within established cultural and social practices and so practitioners will encounter it from many standpoints. There may be some concerns, for example, about the time required for the design process (although ideally it should be the quality of design that should take precedence and it is likely that time will be saved later in the process). Others may be uncertain about issues of ownership, how best to share, how to become proficient in skills of notation and representation and how to externalise and articulate practice.Summing up so far…So, learning design refers to the range of activities associated with creating alearning activity and crucially provides a means of describing learning activities.Internationally, a number of research groups are actively working in the area oflearning design. They are trying to find ways to help teachers create better learningexperiences for students, which are pedagogically grounded and make innovativeuse of new technologies.Cross and Conole provide a simple overview of the evolution of the term; see index.php/ cloud/ view/ 1513 for more on this.Two recent edited collections ([1] Beetham and Sharpe and [2] Goodyear andRetalis) provide a good starting point on learning design and between them havecontributions from most of the current major players in this area. Beetham andSharpe (2007) is probably the most accessible of the collected texts as it provides apractitioner-focused collection. ‘Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age’ provides acritical discussion of the issues surrounding the design, sharing and reuse of learningactivities. It offers tools that practitioners can apply to their own concerns andincorporates a variety of contexts including face-to-face, self-directed, blended anddistance learning modes, as well as a range of theories of learning and roles oftechnology.ReferencesBeetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (eds) (2007) ‘Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age’,Oxford, RoutledgeFalmer.Agostinho, S. (2006) ‘The use of a visual learning design representation to documentand communicate teaching ideas’ [online], Proceedings of the 23rd Annual AsciliteConference: Who’s Learning? Whose Technology?, Sydney 2006, conferences/ sydney06/ proceeding/ pdf_papers/p173.pdfLockyer, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S. and Harper, B. (eds) (2008) ‘Handbook ofResearch on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications andTechnologies’, Hersey, PA, IGI Global.
  9. 9. Goodyear, P. and Retalis, S. (eds) (2010) ‘Technology-enhanced Learning: DesignPatterns and Pattern Languages’, Rotterdam, Sense Publishers B.V.Optional Further ReadingConole, G. (2008) ‘Capturing practice: the role of mediating artefacts in learningdesign’ in Lockyer, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S. and Harper, B. (eds) Handbook ofResearch on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications andTechnologies, pp.187–207, Hersey, PA, IGI Global.Conole, G., Brasher, A., Cross, S., Weller, M., Clark, P. and White, J. (2008) ‘Visualisinglearning design to foster and support good practice and creativity’, EducationalMedia International, vol.45, no.3, pp.177–94.Conole, G. and Culver, J. (2010) ‘The design of Cloudworks: applying socialnetworking practice to foster the exchange of learning and teaching ideas anddesigns’, Computers and Education, vol.54, no.3, pp.679–92; available online at (accessed 19 February 2010).Conole, G., Dyke, M., Oliver, M. and Seale, J. (2004) ‘Mapping pedagogy and tools foreffective learning design’, Computers and Education, vol. 43, nos.1–2, pp.17–33; alsoavailable online at science/journal/ 03601315 (accessed 28 November 2008).Open University Learning Design Initiative: see and blogentries by Gráinne Conole (OULDI project lead) at, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S. and Harper, B. (eds) (2009) ‘The Handbook ofResearch on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications, andTechnologies’, New York, NY, Hershey. This includes ‘Representing models ofpractice’ by Isobel Falconer and Allison Littlejohn and ‘The role of mediatingartefacts in Learning Design’ by Gráinne Conole.Conole, G. (2008) ‘New schema for mapping pedagogies and technologies’ [online],Ariadne Magazine; (accessed 12 January2009).Jeffery, A. and Currier, S. (2003) ‘What is IMS Learning Design?’ – a four-pagebriefing written for CETIS/JISC; 12 January 2009).IMS (2005) ‘IMS Global Learning Consortium: Learning Design Specification’ [online], (accessed 12 January 2009).