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.