25YearsOU,  Learning Design

25 Years of OU: 2009 – Learning Design


Before Jisc went all neo-liberal and started selling corporate services, they used to fund interesting schemes in UK further and higher ed. One of these was a round of Learning Design projects. With Patrick McAndrew I had some small funding via this route. Grainne Conole was the recipient of a larger grant, the OULDI project, which really helped kick off Learning Design at the OU.

Now we have a Learning Design approach that is embedded in all module production. It requires designers to consider student activities using six categories which arose from Grainne’s work in her time at the OU. There are also a set of other tools, and activities, which you can find here. But it was no easy path to get here.

The Learning Design project itself grew out of a previous one called Curriculum Business Models, which tried to rationalise the many different design approaches to courses we had at the OU. I was the Academic Director for a while after Grainne left, but the hard work was really done by Rebecca Galley and the LD team.

We didn’t have a uniform design approach at the OU, which may seem surprising, but we had a uniform production model. However, as new media became available, we wanted module teams to take a step back from deciding the what (the printed units, simulations, etc) and think about the how. We developed nice tools and after a long process, got it embedded in the stagegate process so all new modules have to go through a learning design step.

My experience is that the actual model you use isn’t as important as the step in thinking about different approaches. We retrospectively mapped a number of existing modules and academics were often surprised to see just how much they relied on assimilation. This is one of the six categories of student activity, and by creating a dynamic bar chart for these as you enter suggested study times, it has the implicit suggestion to create a more balanced approach.

Rebecca gave an excellent presentation on the trials of bringing Learning Design to fruition. It took something like 10 years to really get it embedded. Change in higher ed is no game for the impatient. Having learning design in place now though gives us a language and vehicle through which we can apply other developments, for instance designing for retention or designing for equity and inclusion. But without a shared framework it is difficult to implement these.

There was a lot of resistance to learning design (there may still be). Quite the most aggressive, unpleasant session I’ve ever run was in one faculty where the Dean introduced us by saying “we don’t need you telling us what to do” and then encouraged his staff to attack us. But in less than a year some of those same staff were asking if we could come in and help out with a module they were having problems with. So, institutional change requires thick skin and forgiveness as well as patience.

Covid 19 bit: Our learning design approach may not be perfect, but I think it stands us in good stead now for adapting to different demands, for example designing MOOCs or microcredentials. As many HEIs shift online now they often lack such a universal approach, and thus don’t have a shared language and model for thinking about how to design for things such as student engagement, interaction, new forms of assessment, support and diversity. I usually recommend they start adopting some form of learning design, which one doesn’t really matter, that allows them to take a step back from the ‘putting lectures online’ default.


  • Vicky Devaney

    Thank you for sharing this. I often hear conflicting thoughts and opinions on learning design and sometimes challenge myself on this (I am a learning designer).

    Using it as a vehicle for positive and progressive change is an excellent point and one I will remember.

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