Learning design as aspirin for the web 2.0 headache

In the last couple of posts I talked about some of the ways being online, and web 2.0 in particular, challenges some of our assumptions of higher education. The whole web 2.0 thing represents something of a problem, or headache if you will, for higher ed. On the one hand we can see how enthusiastic people are for it, and how it genuinely creates user participation, community, and quality content. All things we’d like to have in higher ed. And on the other we cherish lots of aspects of higher ed that seem at odds with it, such as the quality assurance of content, careful support and structure, hierarchical structures, etc.

So, one of the things I’ve been working on at Macquarie is how we can bridge this gap. I’ve been focusing on learning design (in its broadest, not IMS sense), but I would see that as only one means of attacking the problem. I’ve written a paper for the LAMS conference on this with James Dalziel, so when I give that I’ll post the slides and do slidecast, and I’ll also work it up into a longer chapter.

For now though, here are some ways in which learning design could help ease the 2.0 headache:

  • Meno’s paradox – or, the need for guidance if you prefer. Learners still often seek guidance and structure. For some subjects they are satisfied with creating this structure themselves, for example by finding resources such as blog postings, tutorials, articles, podcasts and video clips. For other subjects, particularly when the subject is itself complex, or the learner feels less confident in the subject area, then providing a scaffolding structure is essential to help the learner build concepts and skills in a robust manner.
  • Granularity of learning – in the post on granularity, I argued that the size of educational unit we commonly recognise has been largely determined by physical factors. If learning designs were created and shared by a community of users, what might be thought of as a Flickr for learning designs, and these could be run by individuals, or by groups of interest, then many of the restrictions on size which derive from a hierarchical, centralised model disappear. I’ve used the the music industry as an analogy previously, but in education perhaps a more relevant model is that of blogging. Prior to the advent of blogs, the type of academic output was usually limited to books or journal articles. The granularity of these was partly driven by the economics of publishing, as Shirky argues:
    “Analog publishing generates per-unit costs — each book or magazine requires a certain amount of paper and ink, and creates storage and transportation costs. Digital publishing doesn’t. Once you have a computer and internet access, you can post one weblog entry or one hundred, for ten readers or ten thousand, without paying anything per post or per reader. In fact, dividing up front costs by the number of readers means that content gets cheaper as it gets more popular, the opposite of analog regimes."
    With the advent of blogging, academics (as well as many other bloggers) have found the format liberating, so that blog posts can vary in size from small links with comments to full essays.
  • Topography of formality – as with granularity, a set of user generated learning designs allows users to bundle their recent experience together into a course which can be formally recorded more frequently. This would be possible not only because the monopoly of formality is removed from universities, but also because a distributed model of learning design production is the best way to attack the long tail of possible learner interests. If a user wants to find small courses to formally accredit their understanding of highland knitting patterns, history of Sydney in the 1960s or anthropology amongst football fans, then most current formal providers will not meet their requirements, but a sufficiently distributed pool of user generated designs might.
  • Web 2.0 quality – much of the concern educators have around web 2.0 is of the quality, and how it can be assured. A set of user generated learning designs could go someway to addressing this by providing a pedagogical structure around resources, and those resources are then changeable. Users can see who has created any given learning design, so some designers may be trusted more than others, rather like sellers and buyers on eBay gain reputational status by recommendations from other users. Similarly, users will be able to comment on designs, thus providing information and context for other users. However, by allowing users to create and select learning sequences it is necessary to accept some of the bottom-up metrics mentioned previously, as the ‘filtering on the way in’ approach currently used in education is replaced by filtering on the way out. This is necessary to encourage participation.
  • Personalisation – if a learning design pool reached a sufficient critical mass, then users will be able to select designs that are appropriate to them in a number of different ways: subject area, style of learning, level, range of resources, duration, assessment method, etc.

For these to be realisable we would need very easy means of generating and sharing learning designs, which is where tools such as LAMS and also the OU’s Compendium (we have adapted a prototype of this for learning design, which I’ll release soon).

Last in the series, gratuitous Home and Away daggy tourist photo:




  1. Where are the socks to go with your sandals???? Call yourself a British tourist? And there I was about to reference you in an assignment as a serious source… and this lack of attention to detail happens. It’s all for nought… :o)

  2. Working at the OU I decided long ago to be a rebel and eschew socks with sandals. Sadly though it does look as though I am wearing a button down collar in this photo – for the record it’s just the collar of my jacket folded in. Now I think of it, sandals with socks, shorts, shirt and tie would have given me that OU Professor look…

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