Archive for May, 2009

OER, Patterns and Learning Design

Monday, May 11th, 2009

I’m doing a keynote today at the University of Limerick, Maggie McPherson from Leeds University is doing the first keynote. It’s timely as preparation for it has enabled me to write down some thoughts following on from a number of really excellent discussions over the last couple of weeks with Patrick McAndrew, Yannis Dimitriadis, Andrew Brasher, Juliette Culver, Martin Weller, Niall Sclater and Niall Winters. Here are my notes for the presentation, the powerpoint is on slideshare.

Blues skies thinking for design and Open Educational Resources 

Gráinne Conole, The Open University, UK (


Technology and Learning: Defining Quality in Research, Theory and Practice

Institute for the Study of Knowledge in Society Symposium, 2009

University of Limerick, 11th May 2009


·        The focus of the talk is at the intersection of Design and Open Educational Resources (OER).

·        It will consider why the wealth of free tools and resources now available, that could be used to support learning and teaching, are not being used more extensively and will suggest that teachers and learners lack the time and necessary skills to harness them effectively.

·        It will highlight current research on Pedagogical Patterns, Learning Design and OER and will suggest that together these three areas provide a possible solution to the mismatch between the potential of new technologies and use in practice.

·        It will conclude with an illustrative example being developed as part of a new initiative, Olnet ( (See Conole and McAndrew (submitted) for an overview of the background to OLNet).

Redefining openness

·        I will argue that we need to expand the notion of openness…

o    There has been a growth in recent years in activities around the Open source movement and the development of open tools and services, also the open educational resource movement.

o    These have a common set of principles and practices: free, shared, collaborative, cumulatively better…

o    The next logical step is a more “open” approach to design (Open Design) – where the inherent designs within learning activities and resources are made more explicit to learners and to other teachers; so that they can be picked up discussed and adapted.

·        I will argue that education is now faced with a challenge… We are operating in a context that is increasingly:

o    Open – In terms of free resources and in terms of public gauze/scrutiny and can no longer ignore this.

o    Abundant - There are now a wealth of tools, services and resources available to support education. If tools and resources are freely available, what is the purpose of formal educational institutions?

·        Examples include

o    The open source moment in general and the phenomenal success of Moodle as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)/Learner Management System (LMS).

o    There are increasingly sophisticated free generic tools available - Google apps, Gmail, free blog and wiki services, communication tools from Skype to Twitter.

o    There has been a noticeable shift in the last few years in terms of the use of technologies

§   Now have near ubiquitous access – internet and mobile technologies

§   New generation phones such as iPhone – the world in your pocket

§   Today’s students have grown up surrounded by a technologically mediated world.

§   The growth of the OER movement, supported by the Hewlett foundation and OECD and marked by the announcement by MIT that it was making its educational resources freely available. A range of different types of OERs and models are available which differ in terms of level of granularity, format and media richness, and type of pedagogy. The Open University launched Openlearn ( in 2006 with funded from the William and Flora Hewlett foundation.

o    Good sources of further information on current technology trends and use in education include: Review of learning 2.0 (Ala-Mutka, 2009), Learner experience work (Conole, De Laat et al., 2008), NSF cyberlearning task force report (NSF, 2008), review of OER movement (Atkins et al., 2007)

Education for free

Theoretically one can now put together totally free course offerings using free tools and resources.

·        George Siemens and Stephen Downes ran an ambitious course last year – not only were the tools and resources they used in the course free, but so was the expertise!. See for a reflection on the experiment by George Siemens. The twelve-week course was called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Online Course’.[1]  They described the course as a MOOG (Massive Open Online Course). The content, delivery and support for the course was totally free, anyone could join and an impressive 2400 did, although the actual number of very active participants was smaller (ca. 200). The course provides a nice example of an extension of the open movement, moving a step beyond the Open Educational Resource movement to providing a totally free course.

·        George Siemens and Martin Weller are delivering something similar this week, in the form of an ‘un-course’ conference (“From Courses to Dis-Course (yes/no? Am I being too cute-sy?”). See for further information.


Clearly all this has profound implications for institutions (Conole, in press).

1.      For students in terms of the skills and experiences they come with and their expectations in terms of technologies (Conole, De Laat, 2008).

2.      For teachers in terms of how they design courses for students.

3.      For institutions in terms of how they support and assess students.

But there is a catch – the hidden conundrum

·        To what extent have all these free tools and resources impacted on mainstream education? To what extent are the majority of teachers capitalising on these? How much are mainstream courses changing as a result?

·        In reality uptake of new technologies and free resources had been slow. A lot of use of new tools mirrors existing face-to-face practice. There is little evidence of major innovations or new forms of pedagogy.

The complexity behind the simplicity

The reasons for the lack of impact of these new technologies are complex and multifaceted. But one of the key ones is that teachers lack the time and expertise to make best use of new tools and resources. Faced with a new tool – say a wiki or twitter - there are a number of questions a teacher (or indeed a learner) needs to consider:

·        What are the special features of the tool?

·        How can it be used to support learning?

·        How have others used the tool?

·        What are the implications in terms of designing and delivering a learning activity using this tool – for the teacher, for the student?

Similarly just having freely available OERs is not enough, a series of similar questions arise:

·        What is the quality of the resource?

·        How has it been used elsewhere?

·        How can it be incorporated into my teaching context?

·        Am I able to adapt it; how much do I need to change to suit my teaching context?

All of these are non-trivial and time-consuming questions.

The mediating layer

My argument in this talk is as follows:

·        Given this conundrum of a vast wealth of tools and resources, but teachers and learners lack the skills to make use of these, I will argue that there is a need for a mediating layer to support teachers and learners in making best use of these tools and resources.  See Conole (2008a) for a description of what is meant by a mediating layer and examples of mediating artefacts.

·        A mediating layer that provides mechanisms to help them answer questions like those posed above, to help them make decisions on which tools and resources to use and in what ways. For example mechanisms to provide them with access to help and advice, expertise and peer support. Mechanisms to enable them to become part of an evolving peer community committed to discussing and sharing learning and teaching ideas.

·        I will argue that this mediation is through more explicit articulation of the inherent designs associated with a particular learning activity and the way in which tools and resources are used in that particular learning activity. If we can abstract these designs and represent them in a meaningful and understandable way there is a greater chance of them being picked up, used and adapted by others, which, in turn, over time is likely to lead to an evolving understanding of how new tools and resources can be used.

Converging schools of thought

Three parallel areas of research have being working on aspects of this mediating layer – learning design, pedagogical patterns and OER research. There are signs that these areas are beginning to converge. In particular a clearer understanding of the different types of design representations is emerging.

Pedagogical patterns

·        The concept of Pedagogical Patterns derives from Alexander’s work in Architecture, towards pattern languages for buildings. 

·        Applied to an educational context – can we generate a set of ‘patterns for good practice’; i.e. here is a problem and here is a tried and tested solution.

·        There is now a considerable body of research on Pedagogical Patterns, such as the work of Yannis Dimitriadis and colleagues in Spain, Peter Goodyear in Australia and the Planet project in the UK. There are a number of repositories of patterns with surrounding communities of interest, see for example and

·        Two well-known examples of patterns for collaborative learning are: “Think, Pair, Share” and “Jigsaw”.

Benefits of the pedagogical patterns approach: derived from know, tried and tested examples, building on existing good practice, shared format of representation – problem + solution, and the power of visual metaphors.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

·        OER research has concentrated on developing open educational resources and studying the ways in which they are used and/or adapted by learners and teachers (See for example McAndrew and Santos, 2008).

·        Benefits: building a wordwide set of high quality free educational resources, opportunity to build a community around this to share and critically discuss good practice in learning and teaching.

Learning design

·        Learning design – in our own work as part of the OU Learning Design Initiative (OUDLI) we are developing a suite of tools and methods to help teachers with the design process and in particular to enable them to create more pedagogical informed learning activities and make better use of new technologies.

·        Our work is focusing on three aspects of the design process: ways of representing pedagogy (and in particular visualising it), providing guidance and advice, and mechanisms to enable teachers to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas.

·        In particular we have developed two tools – CompendiumLD for visualising and guiding the design process (Conole, Brasher et al., Submitted; Conole, Brasher et al., 2008), and Cloudworks a social networking site for finding, sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas (Conole and Culver, submitted; Conole, Culver et al, 2008). In addition we have been developed new schema for mapping pedagogies and technologies (Conole, 2008b).

Benefits of the Learning Design approach: range of tools, methods and approaches to help teachers think differently, making the design process more explicit, means of sharing good practice.

A new understanding of design

What we can see across these three areas of research are different types of design

1.      Pedagogical patterns – describe a learning and teaching activity or strategy according to a predefined template – what’s the problem? Here’s a tried and tested solution.

2.      OERs – might be considered as ‘designs in action’ – with content.

3.      Learning design – better understanding of the broad ways in which learning and teaching activities or strategies can be represented from narrative case studies or descriptions through to visual designs.

Can we start to put these together?

·        Can we combine these learning design tools with the documented good practice, which has been developed in the pedagogical pattern community, with the real exemplars available in the OER world?

·        This is the focus of a new Hewlett funded project – Olnet which aims to create a global to help researchers and users of OER to work together – so that research outputs inform practice and vice versa.

·        We are interested in exploring how explicit designs might be used to help learners and teachers. How existing designs – available through sites like Cloudworks, via OER repositories such as Openlearn or via Pattern communities like Planet – might feed into an evolving network connected researchers and users of OERs.

An illustrative example

The following scenario provides an example of how this might work. (Figure 1).

Figure 1 

Teacher A: The design phase

Context: A teacher is putting her beginners’ level Spanish material for the OU course L194 online in the Openlearn repository. She uses the CompendiumLD tool to articulate different ways in which she thinks the materials can be used. In particular she is interested in showing how the materials can be used as both a revision exercise for an individual student and at a more advanced level for a group of students working collaboratively. Whilst developing her design in CompendiumLD she has access to ideas and tips and hints from the Cloudworks site, as well as from a range of OER and Pedagogical Pattern repositories. These help her to refine her design thinking, to get ideas about how to structure activities in the sequences and suggestions of tools that be used for example for supporting a diagnostic e-assessment test or to enable students to communicate synchronously.

Learner A: Use Scenario 1 – beginners’ route

Context: A Learner doing Spanish.  She is a few weeks into the intermediate level Spanish course. The topic she is currently working on is ‘describing places’, she is looking for freely available tools or resources that might help her, she is also interested in finding study buddies to work with, who are at a similar level.

1.      Explores the openlearn site

2.      Finds a set of OERs for a beginners’ Spanish course – L194 – Portales from the Open University, UK.

3.      Finds alongside these resources a visual design – which provides an example of how these resources might be used. The design consists of the following aspects:

a.       A diagnostic e-assessment test to assess her level of understanding of the topics covered in the course

b.       Two potential pathways: a) a beginners route where the learner works individually through the L194 OER material, b) an advanced route where the learner is assigned to a study group to work collaboratively around 1 aspects of the L194 OER material, Activity 2.1. In this advanced route, the existing activity (categorise 3 pictures of buildings as Latin American or Spanish) is replaced with one where the learner has to describe and compare the buildings, working collaboratively with other students and interrogating an expert for information. The activity exploits the jigsaw pedagogical pattern and also uses a free video conferencing tool to enable the study group to speak with a Spanish cultural expert. 

4.      She takes the diagnostic tests and the advice is that she takes the beginners’ route and completes the L194 OER material.

Learner B: Use Scenario 2 – advanced route

Context: Same context as above, but in this case after taking the diagnostic test the advice is that he takes the advanced route and focuses in on the adapted activity 2.1 as a collaborative exercise with other students.

Teacher BL Use Scenario 3 – repurposes

Context: an associated lecturer teaching on the intermediate level Spanish course at the Open University, En Rumbo – L140, preparing for a face-to-face tutorial with his students. The topic is describing places. Finds the design described above and adapts it to produce two new variants of the design 1. a classroom-based activity where the students describe the pictures using the Think-Pair-Share pattern and provides, 2. A similar exercise in terms of comparing three buildings but the students are asked to describe buildings from their town and then talk with an expert (a student in Spain) who then describes their home town. The activity is set as a precursor to the first assignment exercise for the course.

Figure 2 provides a conceptual overview and generalisation of this scenario – showing how an initial design can query existing resources such as Cloudworks and Openlearn, use these to help create and populate an OER, along with an associated design, both of which can then be deposited back into sites such as Cloudworks and OpenLearn for reuse.

Figure 2 


The mismatch between the potential of technologies and actual use in practice is I would argue one of the most important key challenges facing e-learning researchers today. The areas of Pedagogical Patterns, Learning Design and OER research have developed a range of valuable tools and resources which have proved effective in supporting teachers and learners and enabling them to decide and use educational resources more effectively. The next stage in the challenge is how to build on this; how to make more effective connections across these three areas of research.


Many people are involved in this work but want to thank in particular:

§   Olnet/Openlearn: Patrick McAndrew, Yannis Demitriadis (who is currently working with us as a visiting Olnet professor), Tina Wilson, Niall Sclater

§   OULDI: Andrew Brasher, Juliette Culver, Simon Cross, Paul Clark, Martin Weller

§   Funders: The William and Flora Hewlett foundation, the JISC, the Open University for strategic funding


·        The Open University Learning Design (OULDI),

·        Cloudworks,

·        CompendiumLD,

·        Olnet,

·        Personal blog,

·        Slideshare,


Ala-Mutka, K., Bacigalupo, M., Kluzer, S., Pascu, C., Punie, Y. and Redecker, C. (2009). Review of Learning 2.0 Practices. IPTS technical report prepared for publication, IPTS: Seville, available online at [18/4/09].

Atkins, D., Seely Brown, J. and Hammond, A.L. (2007), A review of the Open Educational Resource movement: achievements, challenges and new opportunities, report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, available online at, last accessed 5/2/09.

Conole and Culver (submitted), Cloudworks: applying social networking practice for the exchange of learning and teaching ideas and designs, special issue of CAL09, Computers and Education, submitted April 09.

Conole, Brasher et al (submitted), CompendiumLD paper, adaptation of paper presented at Edmedia 08, submitted April 09.

Conole, G. (2008a) ‘Capturing practice: the role of mediating artefacts in learning design’, in Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies, in L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinho, and B Harper (Eds), 187-207, Hersey PA: IGI Global.

Conole, G. (2008b), New schema for mapping pedagogies and technologies,

Conole, G. (in press), Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education in M. Lee and C. McLouglin (forthcoming), Web 2.0-based e-learning: applying social informatics for tertiary teaching, ICI Global: Hersey, PA

Conole, G. and McAndrew, P. (submitted), A new approach to supporting the design and use of OER: Harnessing the power of web 2.0, M. Edner and M. Schiefner (eds), Looking toward the future of technology enhanced education: ubiquitous learning and the digital nature.

Conole, G., Brasher, A., Cross, S., Weller, M., Clark, P. and White, J. (2008), Visualising learning design to foster and support good practice and creativity, Educational Media International, Volume 54, Issue 3, 177-194.

Conole, G., Culver, J., Well, M., Williams, P., Cross, S., Clark, P. and Brasher, A. (2008), Cloudworks: social networking for learning design, Ascilite Conference, 30th Nov – 3rd Dec 2008, Melbourne.

Conole, G., De Laat, M., Dillon, T. and Darby, J. (2008), ‘Disruptive technologies’, ‘pedagogical innovation’: What’s new? Findings from an in-depth study of students’ use and perception of technology’, Computers and Education, Volume 50, Issue 2, February 2008, Pages 511-524.

McAndrew, P. and A. I. Santos (Eds.) (2009). Learning from OpenLearn: Research Report 2006-2008. Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University.

NSF (2008), Fostering learning in the networked world: learning opportunity and challenge. A 21st Century agenda for the National Science Foundation, report of the NSF task force on cyberlearning, available online at, last accessed 8/2/09.