Metaphors of Ed Tech is out!

My 6th book (yes, we’re keeping count like Tarantino movies) is out now, published by Athabasca University Press. It’s openly licensed, with digital copy free to read (the print version should be available next month). It looks at a range of metaphors relating to educational technology, divided into the following sections:

  • General thoughts about Ed Tech 
  • The field of Ed Tech itself as an (un)discipline
  • Looking at specific technologies 
  • Criticism of ed tech approaches
  • Looking at elements of open practice
  • Specifically focusing on the Online Pivot and the relationship with ed tech
  • Metaphors relating to pedagogy 

I like to think there’s something in there for everyone, even if you don’t like or agree with all the metaphors. I had three main intentions in writing the book (apart from the ego kick of writing a book):

  • Understanding – educational technology is still a relatively new field, and one that changes a lot. Like with any new area, metaphors provide a powerful means to develop understanding.
  • Defence – how metaphors are used (by ed tech companies, academics, management, politicians, the media) shapes how that technology is deployed. It is important to be aware of, and critical towards, any metaphor that is used to describe technology and its usage.
  • Fun – Metaphor allows us to reason in a creative manner about technology, in a field that is often a bit, well, dry.

I think it’s a useful book, but hey, don’t take my word for it, look what Mark Brown said:

Weller provides an insightful analysis of competing and co-existing ‘ed tech’ metaphors and our complex relationship with them in a widely accessible manner anchored in both practice and critical scholarship. This refreshing and thought-provoking volume will be particularly valuable as we look towards the post-pandemic future.”

Or how about this fab quote from Maha Bali:

I love metaphors, and this book does something that very few ever do: it simultaneously invites creativity by inviting the reader to imagine, and criticality, by using metaphors to expose hidden aspects of educational technology not tackled by dominant discourse. It gives the reader the opportunity to step back and look at things differently, and in so doing, can potentially transform the conversations we are having

And lovely Dave White describes it as fun and robust:

A fun and robust read. Using the entertaining lens of metaphors Weller has deftly unpicked much of the dangerous ‘tech will save us’ thinking which surrounds digital education. This book will be fuel for papers, talks, and strategies across the education sector for years to come

So, I hope you give it a read, and find something in there.

Energy crisis and hybrid learning

First of all, the implications of the energy crisis for hybrid learning are waaaaaaay down the list of priorities. Many people in the UK are going to face incredible hardship this winter essentially choosing between food and heating ( this will happen elsewhere too, but the UK has uniquely managed to combine a set of factors such as Brexit, contemptuous leadership, lack of investment in renewables, a failed market approach, over-reliance on imported gas, etc to make this a real catastrophe). We have also seen many small businesses such as cafes and pubs facing incredible energy bill increases that mean they will have to close or start selling a cup of coffee for about £18.

So, yeah, let’s get it into perspective. But there will be implications I think. For a start, it will intensify the culture wars I mentioned in the previous post. Those who view online learning and working as essentially faking it, will use the energy crisis as a means to press this argument. It will be along the lines of “we’re heating these buildings because we have to, so get in and use them”. Alan Sugar, essentially a pickled onion belch given human form, is symptomatic of this view, as all people who work form home are ‘lazy gits’. So expect a ramping up of this rhetoric both from a general working from home angle but in higher ed more specifically about making more use of the campus, if it’s being heated with no-one there.

A consequence of this will be a hardening of position on both sides I expect. Those working from home and delivering online learning will see it as a response to the energy crisis, but at the cost of shifting expense to the individual. The home worker or home learner are paying for their own energy costs and will want recognition of this. The counter to this will be that institutions can’t afford to support both models, when their estate’s energy costs will more than triple.

This brings to the fore an economic tension at the heart of all hybrid operations. In some respects, hybrid seems the ideal solution, getting the best of both worlds, for example, the flexibility of online with the social connection of face to face. But from an investment perspective it puts many HEIs in a difficult position. They know that they need to be investing in a future that incorporates online aspects alongside face to face. But they are still largely in a face to face model, and that is what students, parents, politicians, funding bodies and the media demand from them.

The pandemic and online pivot highlighted the need for the emphasis on the first of these demands, building a more robust hybrid offering that could flex to fully online if needed. The post-pandemic backlash against online however has created an environment where they need to promote the latter demand of face to face provision. So they were already dancing on the horns of a dilemma before the energy crisis. This now exaggerates the claims of each, and drastically reduces the budget HEIs had to invest. Schools are facing a funding crisis with rising energy costs and HEIs will likely be hit hard also.

An example of this heightened dilemma might be something like: Many buildings are old and inefficient – should a university invest in constructing a new, more energy efficient building, or should they invest in a technical infrastructure and staff development for better online? They will probably try to do both, but as budgets are hit there may not be that freedom to do so. What would you do?

The fake online vs in-person culture war


If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past few years, it’s that the media and politicians love a fake culture war. There are several reasons for this: distraction (“Hey, why were you partying when we were all observing lockdown?” “Don’t worry about that, what about trans women using ladies loos eh?”); diverting blame (“Why is the NHS so underfunded?” “It’s all those greedy doctors”); making people feel superior sells (“Young people can’t afford houses” “Young people don’t work hard and save like you did”).

No group is safe from a culture war it seems: migrants, women, POC, young people, LGBT people, poor people, liberals, etc. So, it’s no surprise I guess that ‘being online’ would get caught in the net. For those of us in ed tech this comes in two guises: home working and online/hybrid education.

We’ve seen that after being the means that effectively saved education during the online pivot, it has now become the enemy. It’s strange the way this narrative repeats – front line workers were all praised during the pandemic, but are now often pilloried for being greedy (train workers, nurses) or lazy (teachers). That gratitude, respecting everyone attitude sure didn’t last long did it? So, having worked hard to help education keep on track, many educational technologists found themselves rewarded with a ruffle of the hair and a “thanks, now it’s time for the adults to take over” response. HEIs, educators and educational technologists were derided for not running back to the campus quickly enough. And in general any online learning was deemed to be inferior now that we’re back to the real thing.

This is also being played out in most sectors with regards to virtual or hybrid working. Unsurprisingly, Victorian turd monitor, Jacob Rees-Mogg, declared that civil servants must all return to the office full time (the mistrust that they were actually working otherwise was a special thank-you for all their hard work during the pandemic). Even Elon Musk, the tech-bro’s Gordon Ramsey, demanded that Tesla staff return to the office or ‘pretend to work somewhere else” (he really is the asshole’s asshole).

The message is clear – online is pretend, in-person is real. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy, aimed at provoking the reactions I mentioned at the outset. But nevertheless, it is a narrative that is easy (see this more innocent Transport for Wales ad for a version of it). And simple narratives are powerful for many people, so even if everyone involved knows that it’s nonsense, you can still end up spending a lot of your time refuting it (for example, responding to monitoring about face to face time, or writing pointless blog posts).

I don’t have anything profound to say here, but the combination of online learning and online working (whether wholly or hybrid) is likely to give this culture war momentum. And for those of us in ed tech, it’s a storm we will be at the centre of, so be prepared to have rational, well thought arguments to counter it. And then for those to be completely ignored.

Reviewing the ed tech angst


Audrey Watters’ understandable withdrawal from the ed tech sphere has prompted some musings, and I like a good navel gaze, so I thought I’d join in. Audrey sums it up rather bleakly:

I have to put this decade-long project to rest so that I can move on to something that doesn’t consume me in its awfulness and make me dwell in doom

Jim Groom bemoans the selling out by many in the field, stating:

There are a lot of edtechs, in the true sense of that word for me, that have willingly resisted the lure of exchanging cachet for cashFolks who continue to good work, edtechs that I deeply respect who reside far from the maddening crowd of the financials of firms that have little to no interest in the transformative power of augmenting teaching and learning

But he is still hopeful for the field and maintains enthusiasm for it. Tom Woodward (following an excellent lion punching metaphor) also finds room for hope:

I look for things that change my mind about what can be done. Those things, regardless of the source, keep aggregating to change how I think and what I try to do. The source (person, company, college) isn’t all that relevant to me. I don’t even care (much) any more if I’m creating any degree of change beyond the limited sphere of people I interact with directly. I’ll take what I can get.

Anne-Marie Scott probably speaks for a lot of people in the sector, when she writes of exhaustion and disillusionment:

 The techno-bullshittery never ceases, and the lack of respect for learning and teaching expertise and for human scale initiatives is unrelenting.

I have sympathy with all these views, and I’ve been thinking about them quite a bit while walking the dogs. I’m not sure there’s any meaningful synthesis here, more just snippets that have occurred to me.

The ed tech industry is different to the ed tech community of practitioners. Of course, there is considerable overlap, but I couldn’t do what Audrey has done for so long and spend time immersed in that venture capital, “how can we monetise this?”, bullshitty, tech-bro world without having burnt out long before she did. But that’s not what I experience when I got to conferences like OER22, ALT-C, OEGlobal, etc. Here I meet practitioners who care about students, are enthusiastic in finding ways to use technology creatively, passionate about social justice, and suspicious of bullshit. The ed tech industry is probably what happens when any sector meets hyper-aggressive capitalism – it’s never pretty. There is probably a big difference in Big Pharma, and the community of tertiary education chemistry lectures, for instance.

I liked their early stuff. In an earlier post, Jim comments that “Seeing the next generation of edtechs come into their own has been the unexpected joy of playing the long-game”. I think there is a danger in his later post I linked to above of being a bit like grumpy old music fans who preferred a band before they sold out. I agree about the new generation of ed tech practitioners coming through – and I think those of us who’ve been around shouldn’t bemoan the state of current ed tech too much, when these people are shaping it to their own ends. I have no evidence for this, but my experience suggests a lot of new ed tech people are driven by values, such as social justice, rather than an interest in the tech itself. In the early days of e-learning the possibilities of the internet were exciting because they could challenge convention, so they offered new ways to realise things such as widening participation. Now, I suspect, it is more the case that the technologies are taken for granted, but rather the focus is on implementing aspects of social justice. That’s a subtle distinction (which I’m not sure I’ve articulated very well). But the rambling point I’m trying to make is, a new generation of ed tech practitioners are here and they may approach it differently than the old hands, and I am very much all for that.

Ed tech eats its young. Back in the early days of the internet we used to say internet years were like dog years, it moved 7 times as fast. That was all techno-zealotry to scare people into making change (any change!) now. But there may be some truth in the rapid (and rapidly repeating) nature of ed tech that burns people out. I mean, if it’s 1 calendar year = 7 ed tech years, then I’ve been in the field for about 190 years. So, yeah, a bit tired.

It’s all a bit shit everywhere. I really have no idea if ed tech people are feeling more drained than everyone else. You’ve probably noticed, there has been A LOT going on over the past 5 years or so. Just living in a chaotic, catastrophic Tory governed UK is exhausting, not to mention pandemics, wars, the US situation, etc. So we’re all feeling it and sometimes the effect of *all this stuff* is difficult to extract from your immediate context.

We know we’re unloveable. The pandemic was of course draining and frightening for everybody. But for many in ed tech it was also a time of manic workloads. They were suddenly called upon to keep the whole education show on the road. And largely, they managed to do that, often putting in stupid hours, sacrificing holidays and abandoning their own research and interests. And then when it was all over, there was a big parade to thank them. Well, no. They were chastised in the media for online education being on a par with stealing from the charity box outside a sweet shop. And many found that post-pandemic their views were not respected, but instead met with a ‘thanks, but now we’ve seen how important it is, we’re going to put a proper executive in charge’ approach (not at the OU I should hasten to add, just things I’ve picked up anecdotally). That kind of stuff can get a person down.

From this rather dour view I think we can draw some positives though:

  • There are people engaging with ed tech who use it for the best intentions.
  • It’s firmly placed in higher ed to achieve real change in many of the areas we care about (pedagogy, widening participation, diversity, etc).
  • There’s a solid basis of theory, application, and experience to draw upon.
  • There is still fun to be had (probably)

Anyway, I’m still here, although I think that enthusiastic engagement with any new tech has faded. I mainly do it for the metaphors now. And thanks to Audrey for her amazing work over the past decade or so. I hope the next phase is as productive, but brings more joy.

[UPDATE: Because he’s always ahead of the curve, Alan Levine had combined pretty much exactly the same posts over on his blog before I did this, and of course, made a better job of it.]

The tricky questions for assessment to answer

Getting ready for the exams vibe shift

Assessment as we know it (Jim) is facing, or about to face, something of a perfect storm of crisis. Here are some of the factors bearing down on it.

Post pandemic shift to online – during the pandemic most HEIs shifted to online exams. These come in different formats: standard exam essays with anything from 24 hours to 3 weeks to complete; timed ‘real time’ exams over three hours or so; proctored online exams; multiple choice and other automatic assessment.

It turns out that students prefer this form of exam, and many HEIs have decided to stick with it going forward. In some research conducted at the OU, comparing the online versus the previous face to face exams, nearly all the indicators are positive: more students complete the exams, they are closer to their continual assessment scores (but not outrageously high), EDI participation is improved, etc. So the question then arises, why would you want to return to traditional exams, giving the damage they cause and the student preference? A week to complete essays using the internet and library resources is much more realistic a task than sitting in a sealed room and writing with a pen (for chrissakes).

So on the one hand there is this understandable push to largely do away with conventional face to face exams. But this brings the issue of cheating and plagiarism even more to the forefront. The exam has been viewed as the final check against this (even if it’s pretty bad at everything else). The essay format is in a plagiarism arms race with sites such as CourseHero and Chegg – it’s a race HEIs can’t win. We can also add to this the increasing ability of AI to generate pretty good essays, that are largely plagiarism detection proof (as highlighted by Mike Sharples in this Twitter thread:

What we have then is an increasing desire for online exams meeting an increasingly sophisticated market for plagiarism and cheating. It’s difficult to see how the conventional exam can survive this. The answer for some will be to revert back to face to face exams (be prepared for a lot of this in the popular press and from halfwit politicians), or horribly intrusive proctored online exams.

Assessment is one of the core functions of the higher education offering. It shapes a lot of what we do as HEIs. So any significant change to it has a big knock on effect. But the solution to this coming assessment crisis will have to be to change the nature of assessment. As Dave Cormier points out, the other solutions all make things more difficult for the student.

There are some who advocate for the removal of all assessment, or at least of grades, and I can see their argument but I don’t think it will get traction across the sector (which is not to say it’s not worth exploring). There are of course whole books and conferences on different forms of assessment, but it’s probably not as difficult as we think to move away from the default essay or exam (although in some disciplines the exam does make more sense). Some examples include:

  • e-portfolios – constructed from tasks over a course, and with a synoptic piece binding them together.
  • Project based – many of our OU courses have long moved away from an exam and use some form of project.
  • Group projects – with clearly defined roles
  • Focus on ill-structured problems with no right answer
  • Focus on process and reflection

None of these methods is plagiarism-proof if someone really wants to cheat, but then neither is the traditional exam. Most students don’t want to cheat (this seems to be news to some people), but some feel forced to when we make the system too difficult to negotiate or not flexible enough (and some do just want to cheat it has to be said, but a real minority). The system has to contain enough deterrent to prevent this, but also enough engagement to not want to do it in the first place. We tend to focus more on that deterrent part. What a lot of the methods above have in common is that through negotiation around questions and interaction over time an educator gets to know a student and can usually tell when their assessment is authentic.

Most institutions and academics are already engaging in this shift, but the effect of the online pivot accelerates the need for this change. And hey, it may be one of those good changes.

Good online learning – affordances and the online shift

This is the concluding post in my mini-series of Good Online Learning. I looked at groupwork, asynchronous delivery, learning design, assessment and resources. I could have covered many more topics – accessibility, pedagogy, new technologies, community, etc., but let’s stick with these five as a good basis to start considering developing online courses.

Essentially I’ve been saying the same thing in each post, which is “consider what you can do differently online rather than just replicating f2f”. A few years ago we used to talk a lot about “affordances“. This came from the psychology work of Gibson, but found more popularity from the design application of Donald Norman. It is a term that can generate lots of argument, but in our context we can take it to mean something like “the behaviour that a technology suggests or more readily lends itself to”. It doesn’t bear up to much detailed investigation, but as a loose concept it can be quite useful (if a bit behaviourist).

In our loose, sloppy sense we can think of online education in each of our examples as having some things it is good at, and some it is less good at, as having some form of educational affordances. For instance, asynchronous discussion is good at detailed dissection and analysis of a document, but not very good compared with synchronous tools for decision making.

So, for each of the five elements I’ve covered, we can think of a scale when creating an online course. At one end there is what we can think of as the “face to face equivalent, but online”. At the other end is what we might term “designed for fully online”. For example, in assessment we might have “online proctored exam” as the face to face equivalent and something like “co-created open resource” at the other end. You can imagine examples of the others also (eg learning design might have “plan lecture series” – “multi-disciplinary design team”). The actual examples at each end of this spectrum will depend on your context.

This is not to suggest that one end is necessarily better than the other, but in any one online course you might consider them sliders and have a different range for each. For example, you might want to have largely asynchronous delivery, a face to face group element, a light touch individual learning design approach, with an eportfolio and a set of pre-recorded lectures accompanying and open textbook.

I’ve mocked up the model (see Interactive Version) just as a way of thinking below (yes I am still learning how to use Canva).

So if you’re considering developing an online or hybrid course, one way to start might be to do the following:

  • Start with these five elements – consider what is at the end of each spectrum in your context. Think of the affordances of online delivery in each case.
  • Do any research into elements and examples of good practice.
  • For each element determine what is feasible, ie how far along you want to shift each slider.
  • Consider if there are other elements beyond these five that it would be meaningful in your context.

Anyway, I hope this series has been helpful, and if not, it’s been useful for me as an antidote to the “online learning is inherently evil” narrative that is coming to dominate in popular media.

[UPDATE – Tom Woodward made a lovely interactive version of the sliders]

Good online learning – resources

When it comes to online learning one of the real advantages is embedding a range of resources in the environment students are engaged in. This is distinct from the lecturer using some videos in their presentation or providing a range of resources in the reading list. It gives an opportunity to interact with and experience a range of different media, opinions and voices as you are learning.

This is not to absent the educator – a course is more than just a bunch of resources. But rather it allows the educator to concentrate on the areas where they add value such as explanation, support, discussion. Since the days of learning objects we have been arguing that there really is little point in every maths lecturer teaching calculus (or pick a similar well understood subject). And we have since developed OER repositories, and seen some success with open textbooks, particularly in North America.

But the tendency is still to create content from scratch, and I would argue that this is driven in main by the lecture focused model of higher ed. Creating your own lectures is what it means to be a lecturer, so if we use the lecture as the base model for online education, we transfer across the same mentality.

The online pivot may change some of this (or it may reinforce it). OpenLearn, the OU’s OER site, saw almost a doubling in traffic during the pandemic. This may be mostly individual learners, but there will be some educators in that 24 million also, hoping to learn from or reuse content. Many HEIs are now caught in something of an economic bind – they are deeply rooted in the face to face model, but know that in the long term they need to develop a robust hybrid model. These operate on different economic models, and so bridging the gap between the present and the desired future is tricky to negotiate. The original economic argument for learning objects, shared content, reuse and adaptation may come in to play here as a means of achieving this shift.

But even ignoring the bigger picture, and the various OER arguments, creating an online course allows educators to embed videos, podcasts, blogs, and interactive tools creating a richer environment. There is an argument around cognitive load for not overdoing this, but also one around engagement for not repeating the same approach. So, with this opportunity at hand, why replicate the limitations of the lecture model?

10 years since the Year of the MOOC

Ah, 2012, Brexit and Trump were but ill-conceived jokes, and we were all bopping along to Carly Rae Jepsen on our way to see Skyfall. And MOOCs, they were everywhere. Suddenly online learning was hot news, and the New York Times declared it “the Year of the MOOC”. Heady days.

So, a decade on, after all those promises, that hype, investment, huge learner enrolments, and endless thought pieces, where are we with MOOCs? It’s a good question, and one my colleagues Katy Jordan and Fereshte Goshtasbpour have gone some way to answering in a special collection of JIME.

They have republished 25 articles from the JIME archives, spanning the entire period. This in itself is interesting, to resurface and repackage content with a more historical perspective. But what is really valuable I think is the editorial they have written to accompany these articles, which analyses some of the trends. I recommend you read it all, but here are some key snippets:

“Pappano’s article was published in the fourth quarter of 2012 (November), just before levels of interest in MOOCs in news articles reached its peak, which followed in the first quarter of 2013. Over the next two years, interest levels fell at a steady rate

” While the early news articles reflected an obsession with metrics and scale – a fascination with the sheer numbers of students signing up – those early figures are completely dwarfed by the numbers of users now associated with the major platforms.

They identify 11 major themes in the JIME MOOC papers:

These are grouped into four major clusters:  situating MOOCs; MOOCs and languages; learning design and roles; and accessibility and inclusion.

They conclude on a fairly positive note, saying:

the recent focus on the use of MOOCs to facilitate social inclusion and promote social justice, it seems that one way that these courses will continue to support education is to help equity and equality be it in addressing the needs of learners with disability, widening access and participation, giving marginalised group such as refugees access to education and the opportunity to develop their skills to help their independence and voice.

Someone suggested to me that repackaging old articles is not what a proper journal should do. Which means I want to do it all the more, I mean what’s the point in having a small scale in-house journal if you can’t use it for innovation? But actually, I think it’s exactly what we should do with journals, particularly in ed tech, where there is a tendency to forget our recent history. in my Metaphors book there is a chapter on the Digital Mudlark, where I make the claim that educational technologists are like mudlarks coming in after a large tide (like the Year of the MOOC) has passed and salvaging interesting artefacts. The analysis and collection by Katy and Fereshte is an excellent example of this practice.

Good online learning – assessment

One of the potentially positive aspects of the online pivot has been the manner in which it has forced educators and institutions to at least consider whether the face to face exams is the only method of assessment. Even quite conventional universities have decided that online exams (eg giving students a set time period to complete essays which can range from a few hours to a few weeks) is going to be the default mode from now on.

In less imaginative forms this has has taken the form of remote proctored exams, with AI or remote proctoring replacing the exam invigilator. This is problematic in a number of ways I won’t go into here. It’s also missing an opportunity to rethink what assessment is and how we do it (although I have sympathy when professional bodies demand it for accreditation). Replacing the 3 hour timed exam with the longer time period to complete an essay, that allows for online research is a more realistic task approximating to what a student might have to do in ‘real life’. Although it does raise the spectre of plagiarism, and with time and access students swarm to places like Course Hero (which is in no way an essay ponzi scheme, no sir).

This creates drivers for people to rethink assessment – the face to face exam is unpopular now that its alternative has been tried, and the standard essay based exam is subject to cheating when access is allowed. There are huge disciplinary differences here, and sometimes I think advocates for radical assessment overall (or complete removal) come from a liberal arts perspective and are not always appreciative of the different assessment requirements of say, maths or physics where definite right and wrong answers exist.

But for now, let’s consider some of the alternatives once you move beyond the traditional in-person exam. If students are studying completely online, and remote from a campus, then assessment arguably becomes more important. At the Open University, our tutors (Associate Lecturers) spend a good deal of time giving very detailed feedback on assignments, as these form the main point of contact often. Without the regular interaction students find assessment feedback essential to know if they are on track.

In a similar vein, use of automated assessment, while it can seem pedagogically unsatisfactory (the game of trying to come up with wrong answers for multiple choice can have you questioning your life choices), they fulfil an important ‘checking progress’ function.

More significantly, if students are learning in an online environment then it naturally lends itself to more ‘internet native’ forms of assessment. Here are some examples:

None of these are an answer for every topic, and they are not without their own issues and concerns. But they do demonstrate how the shift to online can open up other avenues for assessment. In higher ed, the exam, like the lecture, has become such a default model in higher education that we don’t often question why it was devised that way in the first place. The answer is in part because it fulfilled a number of logistical constraints. Online learning removes many of those constraints, so why wouldn’t we take the opportunity to reconsider?

Good online learning – learning design

From the Historic Construction Kit

Following my (kinda) series on tips for good online learning

Learning design is one of those terms that you instinctively have a feel for what it means, but for which there can be a wide variety of definitions. For some it is synonymous with instructional design (which I think is more of a North American term). Obviously, as academics we like to debate the definition endlessly, but let’s keep it simple for now. From a lot of the work that JISC led in the 00s, a common definition is:

“the practice of planning, sequencing and managing learning activities, usually using ICT-based tools to support both design and delivery.”

I wrote previously about the history of learning design at the OU, where it has been a prominent approach. This chapter from Lockyer, Agostinho and Bennett gives a good overview of the field I think. There are lots of different ways to think about and implement learning design. The OU’s excellent LD team has some very useful resources based around our approach. Grainne Conole has written extensively about LD, with her 7Cs model being influential. Mikkel Godsk has developed the concept of “efficient learning design” which emphasises how LD can be used to make technology innovations more sustainable and not the ‘one hit wonders’ we often see, allied to one specific educator. There has been a recent move to link learning analytics and learning design, with data helping to inform design decisions. Buus and Georgsen detail how LD can be used to help transition face to face teaching to online.

And so on – there is a lot of LD to choose from out there. Sometimes it can feel like that whatever your educational problem is, then learning design is the answer. Let’s not over-promise for it, but for me the key point about learning design is that it is an intentional design process. The actual learning design model you choose is probably not that important, as long as you choose one.

At this point, many educators will be snorting “what do you think we’ve been doing all this time, just showing up and ad-libbing? Of course we design learning!” While there is of course, some truth in this, the distinction in adopting a specific learning design approach is to consider the what and the how of teaching. The how is often predetermined – a conventional campus based lecture course will have X lectures, Y seminars and maybe Z lab sessions. This wasn’t restricted to face to face education either, at the OU when I joined it was quite common to think of a course in terms of the stuff it was constituted from – printed units, summer schools, home lab kits.

What learning design attempts to do is throw a pause in the implementation, where an educator can consider questions such as: “if I want to teach topic X, what is the best method to do so?”; “I have had a lot of activity type Y, maybe I should vary this?”; “what is the workload of these different approaches on students?”; “what can I do with this new technology that I couldn’t do before?”.

Many educators undertake that sort of analysis instinctively anyway, without the need for a prescribed framework. Adopting an LD approach across an institution has the benefits of legitimising that analysis and also standardising it. By doing the latter, practice then also becomes shareable.

So, while learning design isn’t only applied to online education, the familiarity of the lecture based model means that people tend to operate with an innate LD model that is never made explicit. The transition to online learning requires that these design choices are surfaced, but more importantly it provides an opportunity to rethink how a course can be delivered. The adoption of a specified learning design approach can therefore be seen as both a requisite for online learning and also a benefit.