Key themes and issues from current research in learning design

  • describe and discuss the issues involved in designing activities for learning, especially those making use of new technologies
  • design activities for learning, through the application of a range of approaches and the use of publicly available resources and tools
  • make explicit the process of designing activities for learning, through the use of technical vocabulary, pedagogic models and tools
  • explore the use of different tools for planning designs and considered how designs can be represented in different forms.

Learning activities are those tasks that students undertake to achieve a set of intended 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 specific interaction of learner(s) with other(s) using specific tools and resources, orientated towards specific outcomes (Beetham in Beetham and Sharpe, 2007, p.28).

Learning design refers to the range of actions associated with creating a learning activity and crucially provides a means of describing learning activities. Agostinho (2006) describes it as ‘a representation of teaching and learning practice documented in some notational format so that it can serve as a model or template adaptable by a teacher to suit his/her context’.

Learning design provides a means of guiding the creation of learning activities, as well as representing learning activities so that they can be shared between designers. For example, this might consist of illustrating learning activities in an easy to understand way (as a diagram and/or text) so that they can:

  • be shared between an educator or trainer and a designer
  • be repurposed from one educator or trainer to another
  • serve as a means of scaffolding the process of creating new learning activities.

A1: Design narratives

Herbert Simon (1969) said ‘everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into desired ones’. If learning is the process of changing knowledge, skills or behaviour, then anyone who has devised a course of action aimed at such change is a learning designer.

Your first activity is to document and reflect on such an experience. To help you do this we would like you to use a format called a ‘design narrative’ (Mor, in press; Mor, 2011). As I wrote in the Learning Design Grid

‘Design narratives are accounts of critical events in a design experiment from a personal […] perspective. They focus on design in the sense of problem-solving, describing a problem in the chosen domain, the actions taken to resolve it and their unfolding effects. They provide an account of the history and evolution of a design over time, including the research context, the tools and activities designed, and the results of users’ interactions with these. They portray the complete path leading to an educational innovation (not just its final form) – including failed attempts and the modifications they espoused.’

The Learning Design Grid provides a detailed description of design narratives, a template for writing one and an example of a design narrative for one particular activity. You may find it helpful to explore this material before writing your design narrative but you can also proceed without reviewing these resources.

Activity 1a

To do this activity, if you don’t have a Cloudworks account already, you will need to register at http://cloudworks.ac.uk/ auth/ register.

To get you comfortable with this tool, we would like you to explore the Cloudworks site in more detail by taking the H800 Cloudquest Challenge. All the instructions you need to complete the activity are available within Cloudworks, along with instructions on how to use the site. Once you have completed the challenge, you can apply for the Cloudquester badge. If you have never used Cloudworks before, you should find these resources helpful:

We’d like you to think of a design narrative as a semi-structured story recounting the history of a learning design, from inception to completion. You will start by providing a detailed description of the context in which your design was situated and the objectives you set out to achieve. You will then list the actions you took and their expected and unexpected results. You will note the extent to which you met your objectives, and conclude with your reflections on the experience.

Activity 1b

  • Go to the Design narratives cloudscape in Cloudworks and create a cloud in your name. For example:
    • John Doe’s design narrative: Title of your design narrative.
  • Edit your design narrative cloud to tell the story of your personal learning design experience. We suggest you use the structure outlined in the template provided. If you edit your narrative in Word and then copy it to a cloud, be sure to use the ‘copy from Word’ button in the Cloudworks’ editor toolbar.
  • Review two design narratives posted by other students, and comment on them. Particularly, note any unclear or ambiguous details.
    • Is the narrator making implicit assumptions?
    • Are her or his claims regarding the effects of their design grounded in evidence?
    • Are their conclusions well-founded?

Cloudworks is quite easy to use but I don’t think it has much value because it relies on people like me to organise and share their ideas, but why would I if I wasn’t asked to by the OU ? It seems to be most useful for people who need ideas and lack prof. dev. support, rather than those who have sufficient experience to be able to evaluate what they do successfully.

Activity 2a

I did the first two because they appealed to me as being number 1 and 2. 😉 The first one is a straightforward lesson plan but it lacks reflective aspects. The second looks like some verbose IT teacher doesn’t know that a lesson needs aims and objectives. Anyway, I did the cloud on this and found an editing bug on the site. No thanks.

Activity 2b

  • Your tutor may assign you to groups of four or five students. Use the tutor forum to agree on your mode of collaboration: you can schedule an online meeting, or use the forum, email or a shared document for asynchronous collaboration.
  • Read and comment on your group members’ clouds from Activity 2a.
  • In your group create a page for your shared report on the various representations you reviewed. We suggest you use the module wiki but, if you prefer, feel free to put a shared document in Google Apps [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . If you choose to use Google Apps, please read the information in the OU’s Computing Guide on how to access Google Apps and how to share documents.
  • In your report, fill in a table similar to the one below for the various representations you reviewed.
  • Add any notes you have below the box. You should be aiming for agreed statements, but if you do not reach an agreement on any specific point – that’s fine. Simply note the contrasting views.

Representations comparison table

Representation name Advantages Weaknesses Good for Less good for
What makes this representation powerful? Where is it lacking? Where could it be used effectively? When would it not work?

Maija did a great job with a Google Doc and I found it’s very easy to create my own.


After that I created a doc myself and cut and paste (troublesome) Susan’s ideas and added my own. Henry finished it off. Here’s the pdf of it.Representations

Activity 3 – reading

  • Read Beetham’s chapter [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , ‘An approach to learning activity design’, and make notes on the key concepts. Concentrate in particular on these sections: ‘Defining a learning activity’ and ‘Designing with digital resources and technologies’.
  • Read the transcript of John Pettit’s interview with Yannis Dimitriadis.
  • How does the focus of the chapter and the interview compare with your thoughts and discussions in Activities 1 and 2? How persuasive do you personally find the arguments in the interview? For example, how useful do you think Learning Design is for enabling people to create new learning activities? One of the questions asked in the interview is: ‘What’s the role for creativity for the teacher?’

A4: Visualising design

Some of you may have used a design tool before, but we guess that most of you won’t have done so. Activity 4 will give you the opportunity to experience hands-on learning design by creating a visualisation of your own learning activity. You can use either the CompendiumLD design tool or an alternative tool of your choice. We’ll also tell you how to start using CompendiumLD.

CompendiumLD is a software tool for designing learning activities using a flexible visual interface. If you have ever used mindmapping tools, you will notice that CompendiumLD is similar in many respects. However, CompendiumLD has the advantage of providing specialised support for the learning design process. It is being developed as a tool to support lecturers, teachers and others involved in education to help them articulate their ideas and map out designs or learning sequences.

Feedback from users suggests the process of visualising design makes their design ideas more explicit and highlights issues that they may not have noticed otherwise. It also provides a useful means of representing their designs so that they can be shared with others. CompendiumLD provides a set of icons to represent the components of learning activities; these icons may be dragged and dropped, then connected to form a map representing a learning activity.

Many students (and learning designers) find CompendiumLD very useful. Some students have even included screenshots from it in their EMA. Other students have felt differently and have proposed alternative (sometimes simpler) tools. We do recommend that you take advantage of this opportunity to get to know a new tool, but if you prefer to work with packages such as PowerPoint or a graphical editor you can download the CompendiumLD icons and stencils [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] to use within them.

What follows are detailed instructions for using CompendiumLD. But use your judgement as to how long you spend on CompendiumLD, bearing in mind the overall purpose of Activity 4 – which is for you to experience and share the process of analysing and capturing the design of an activity. That’s the key learning you need to take away. By experiencing that, you should find you’ve consolidated what you learned from reading Beetham and the Dimitriadis–Pettit interview, and from Weeks 8/9’s web pages so far.

Even if you decide to use a different tool (mindmap, PowerPoint, pencil and paper, drawing package), have a look at – and think critically about – the CompendiumLD visual in the third bullet point below.

Activity 4

  • Go to the CompendiumLD website, which will provide details of how to download CompendiumLD and how to use the tool.
  • There is lots of help and advice on the site; see the Getting started and Documentation sections.A couple of the CompendiumLD videos you may find particularly helpful are included below.

Here’s my first effort with the software, which is designed to represent the cloud I posted about a learning design activity.

Using CompendiumLD for course design
  • Take a look at this simple visual design, which has been created using CompendiumLD. We call this kind of visual representation a ‘Task swimline’ representation because each role (learner, tutor, etc.) involved in the activity has an associated line of ‘tasks’. Each task is connected to any associated ‘tools’, ‘resources’, etc.
  • Download CompendiumLD.
  • Then click on the CompendiumLD icon and explore the software. You will find there is further help within the software itself, including links to various short video slidecasts.
  • Once you are comfortable in general with the software, you can start on the main focus of the activity, which is to map the learning design described in your design narrative in Activity 1. Imagine you were planning to run that activity again. How would you structure it? If you do not think your learning design is suitable for this activity, you can use the Healthy Eating example from Activity 2, or any other learning activity you are familiar with from your experience as a teacher or as a student.
  • Important note: If, having explored CompendiumLD, you decide you do not want to map your design using this tool, you can choose to use either an alternative mindmapping, concept mapping, drawing or presentation tool or simply represent your design using pen and paper. Whichever option you choose, you will need to ensure you can create a digital version of the design. Most tools have an option to export as an image, such as a jpeg. If you do a pen and paper version you will need to take a picture of it using a digital camera, or scan it. For a list of commonly used mindmapping and concept mapping tools and some good discussions of their pros and cons, see the Good examples of mindmapping in teaching? cloud.
  • Now start to map out your learning activity in CompendiumLD. Reflect on your experience as a student working through your activity as you map out the design.
    1. What isn’t represented?
    2. How much does the design match to your own experience of working through the activity?
    3. Is there a difference between representation of an activity as a design and as something a student actually works through?
  • Keep a note of what you like and dislike about using this tool and think about how you might use this (individually or within a team) in your own context of practice, or whether it might be helpful when teaching family or friends.
  • You may like to save your visualisation as a jpg file and upload it to an image-sharing site, such as Flickr or Picasa Web. Alternatively, you could save your visualisation as a pdf and upload it to SlideShare. Whatever you decide, embed the image in the cloud you created for Activity 1.
  • In the forum, discuss what you liked and disliked about CompendiumLD.
    1. What do you think are its main strengths and weaknesses?
    2. Can you see yourself using this in the future?
    3. If so, how?
    4. If you choose to use an alternative tool or to simply represent the design using pen and paper, explain your reasons.
  • Look at some of the designs other students have posted and note commonalities and differences.
  • Discuss the different designs that have been posted and their commonalities and differences.
  • Discuss to what extent this visual representation can actually represent what you (or the designer of the activity, if you mapped someone else’s activity) may have originally intended the design to be.
    1. What’s missing?
    2. Can you think of other ways in which the design could be represented and shared?

When Weeks 8/9 have finished, IET’s Andrew Brasher will be looking in detail at the comments in the tutor group forums that students have made about the tool. This will help him with his forthcoming work on future development of the tool. (Andrew is not involved in any way with assessing your work: he is interested solely in gaining additional insights from a group of critical and insightful users – you. He requests that, now you know he will be reading your comments, you should not reduce any of your criticisms! He genuinely wants to see what your reactions are.) In addition, if you would be prepared for your comments and/or designs to be used anonymously in reports or publications, please email Andrew (andrew.brasher@open.ac.uk) to let him know that you are happy for this to happen.

A5: Using a learning design tool

At the beginning of these two weeks, we noted the importance of sharing and building on previous examples of good design. Indeed, one of the main reasons to seek representations of learning design is to enable such sharing and reuse. Having inspected a high-level visualisation of a learning design, we need to move to a more detailed view. This is a good time to consider how your design can be enhanced by adopting effective patterns derived from other designs, and by considering which elements in your design can be generalised and reused elsewhere.

The Pedagogical Patterns Collector suite of tools is an output from the TLRP-TEL research project on a learning design support environment [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (LDSE) for teachers and lecturers, funded by the ESRC-EPSRC. It enables teachers and trainers to share their good teaching ideas. It is intended to help a subject teacher see how a particular pedagogic approach can be migrated successfully across different topics. There are sample patterns to browse and edit, or you can design your own from scratch.

In this activity, you will use the Pedagogical Patterns Collector to further develop your learning design before writing a collaborative report on the tool.

Activity 5

  • Read the Pedagogical Patterns Collector user guide. Optionally, you can also watch the following videos of the user guide and tutorial sessions. Note that the tutorials do not have transcripts but they do offer an animated walkthrough of the tool.
  • Go to the  Pedagogical Patterns Collector online tool.Begin in ‘Browser’ mode by clicking the Browser button. The browser mode allows you to review examples of well-tested designs and adapt them to your needs.
  • Review the patterns in the top right-hand box, and select one that you think can improve the design of the activity you visualised in Activity 4.
  • Enter suitable values in the parameter boxes at the top left of the screen, and click ‘Adapt this pattern’ (at the top of the screen).
  • Edit the activity steps by adding or removing elements as necessary.
  • When you have finished, you can save your design in any of three forms:
    • As a PPC file: use the ‘Save as…’ button. This will allow you to share this design with other users of this tool.
    • As a screen shot: this may be the easiest way to share with others, but it is not amenable to further editing
    • As a text (e.g. Word) document: click ‘Abstract into pattern’. This should convert the design into linear formatted text. Copy and paste the text into a word processor package of your choice.
  • If you wish, you can now try the ‘Designer’ mode: press the home icon (at the top left of the screen, next to the PPC browser label) and then click Designer. The designer mode allows you to record your learning design from scratch, and then abstract reusable patterns from it. Use this mode to record and refine the learning design you visualised in Activity 4.
  • Add your designs to your learning design cloud: we suggest you upload your files to a file-sharing service (such as Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive) and either embed or link to them from your cloud. Send a link to your cloud to your tutor group forum.
  • Review the design of another student in your tutor group.
    1. Is it coherent and easy to understand?
    2. Does it appear to achieve its objectives?
    3. How have they used the tool differently from you?
  • Discuss the Pedagogical Patterns Collector tool in your tutor group forum.
    • Was it useful?
    • Would you use it in the future?
    • What is it missing?
  • Finally, as a group, write a report on the Pedagogical Patterns Collector tool summing up your discussion in your tutor group forum.

Your tutor will set up a shared document/wiki page for you to write a collaborative report on this tool with the other members of your tutor group. At the bottom of the document, please note if you would like us to send this report to the LDSE team so that they can learn from your impressions and suggestions.

This was easy but not as useful as CompLD I guess. I posted the stuff in the forum and not the cloud – why post twice ?

Different schemas for thinking about design

From Activity 1, where you reflected on your own experience, and Activity 2, where you looked at different strategies for design, you will have picked up that design is a complex, messy and creative process! There are several different, but interconnected, things practitioners need to take into account during the design process. Sometimes they will be interested in looking at the learning outcomes; at other times they will want to think about which tools or resources they want the students to use, or the nature of the task they want the students to undertake.

Practitioners might give some thought to the kind of pedagogy the activities embody – encouraging reflection, giving students or trainees an opportunity to apply theory to practice, providing exercises that encourage discussion or collaboration. Design also varies within different stages of the design lifecycle – from formulating an initial idea for a module through to implementing and evaluating it.

Mapping across pedagogy, tools and activities is a key aspect of any design process. What is the relationship between these things? And can understanding/articulation of this relationship help practitioners to design better learning activities?

This section will enable you to sample a number of schemas to help you think about different aspects of the design process and, in particular, to help you make sense of mapping tools, pedagogies and the tasks that students are expected to carry out.

You will look at two schemas that provide ways of thinking about how tools map to particular aspects of pedagogy. In the first example you will use a table to map tools to pedagogy. In the second example you will also map tools to pedagogy, but in this case the schema is a framework with three dimensions.

A6: Mapping digital media to four facets of learning

One of the main criticisms levelled at the use of many tools in an educational or training context is that it is technology-driven; i.e. that the focus is often on the tool. Arguably, the focus should be on thinking about the pedagogy and what the student or trainee is supposed to achieve as a result of undertaking the activity, and only then mapping the activity to particular tools.

Activity 6 aims to address this issue through the use of a table or matrix that helps the designer think about how the use of tools maps to different aspects of learning. The matrix maps tools to four simple aspects of learning:

  • thinking and reflection
  • experience and activity
  • conversation and interaction
  • evidence and demonstration (e.g. by synthesising learning through some form of formative or summative assessment).

In other words, any learning activity is likely to include one or more of these elements (see Figure 1 and Table 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] for a mapping of these tools).

Diagram of types of learning

Figure 1: Types of learning

These are, of course, crude simplifications of what actually happens in the learning process, but nonetheless they provide a simple schema for thinking about how tools can be used. Therefore the schema enables the designer to think about how particular tools are being used to promote these four aspects of learning.

Activity 6

  • Think about some specific teaching activities with which you are familiar (for a module on which you teach or support learners, or which you have experienced as a learner) and about the types of learning they are intended to promote or support. Also consider the digital media or tools that are currently used.
  • Then complete Table 1 by describing the nature of the student activity and indicating the extent to which it promotes each of the four types of meta-learning.Some examples of tools have been included in the table as suggestions, but you can ignore any with which you are not familiar and add any others if you need to.

A7: Mapping tools and activities to pedagogy

In Activity 6 you used four broad ‘types of learning’ as a means of looking at tools and how they can be used. In this next activity you will do something similar but using a slightly different schema. Conole et al. (2004) have developed a pedagogical framework that abstracts three main dimensions of learning (see Figure 2).

Diagram of 3D mapping framework

Figure 2: 3D Mapping framework

The three dimensions are:

  • individual–social: any learning activity can be located somewhere along a spectrum from being an individual, isolated experience to being essentially social in nature.
  • active–passive: some learning activities involve active engagement, whereas other aspects of learning may occur through some degree of passive immersion.
  • information–experience: learning activities vary in the degree to which they are information or experience based.

In a way similar to that outlined in Activity 6, where tool use is mapped against four types of learning activity, this framework can be used as a basis for mapping out the use of different tools.

The dimensional basis of the framework means you can consider the three dimensions as spectra – or continua – and hence look at tool use along each of these spectra; i.e. not as a binary decision. So, use of a tool to support an activity does not have to be labelled as simply an individual or a social activity; it can lie somewhere along the spectrum of individual–social.

Tools can often be used for a variety of different educational purposes. For example, a podcast can take the form of a formal, one-to-many ‘lecture’; it can provide informal study advice for a specific, targeted group of learners; or it could be generated by one or more students to demonstrate their response to an extended activity. In designing learning activities it is often helpful to think about the specific ways in which tools might be used, rather than the range of general possibilities.

Activity 7

Timing icon About an hour

  • Try to indicate the location of the following ‘tools in use’ on the three dimensions (or continua) of the framework in Figure 2:
    • A blog as a reflective diary
    • A blog as a collective resource for collating references within a student group
    • A web search: students search the web and collate resources against a given set of criteria
    • A drill-and-practice exercise: students work through a set of resources and then complete a formative self-assessment
    • A structured online debate: students choose a side for or against an issue, post their views and read other postings
    • Use of an eportfolio: students gather evidence against learning outcomes in a portfolio
  • Now list some new tools or ways of using tools and consider the ways they map to the learning. You can either change the tool or the way in which it is used, or both.

A8: Comparing different schemas for design

Finally, to round off your work in these two weeks…

Activity 8

Timing icon About three hours

  • In your tutor group forum, share your views on the following questions:
    1. How did the schemas compare?
    2. Can you imagine using any of them?
    3. How far (if at all) do you think the schemas help in terms of getting teachers to adopt a less technology-centred approach to design?