Chapter three - The emergence of learning design as a research field

This chapter will discuss the emergence of learning design as a research field. It will summarise some of the key work in the field and draws in particular on two recent edited collections on this topic (Beetham & Sharpe, 2007; Lockyer, Bennett, Agostinho, & Harper, 2008). One of the main drivers for the emergence of learning design as a research field is arguably that teachers are now are presented with many choices in how they can design and deliver their courses (Agostinho, 2008). They are confused by the plethora of technologies and different pedagogical approaches they can adopt. Furthermore, teachers often struggle to implement theory into practice (Fang, 1996).


Littlejohn and Falconer (2008: 20) argue that there are three challenges facing teachers: increasing size and diversity of student body, increasing requirement for quality assurance and rapid pace of technological change. They also argue that there is a gap between the promise and reality of the use of technology in education and that there is little evidence that education has changed fundamentally. Similarly Masterman (2008: 210) argues that the lack of uptake of technologies due to a number of factors: lack of awareness of the possibilities, technophobia, lack of time to explore the technology, aversion to the risks inherent in experimentation and fear of being supplanted by the computer.


Learning design has developed as a means of helping them make informed choices. Learning design representations enable teachers to document, model and share teaching practice. It is also as a process of designing learning experiences and as a product i.e. outcome or artefact of the design process. A learning design can represent different levels of granularity – from a whole course down to an individual learning activity. In addition it can be a formal representation, which is computer runnable or simply a formal way of describing the learning intervention. Goodyear and Yang (2008: 167) use the related term educational design, which they define as the set of practices involved in constructing representations of how to support learning in particular cases. They argue that educational design takes time it rarely starts with a clear complete conception of what is desired. The process of iterative clarification of the nature of the problem and its solution involves complex thought. Beetham and Sharpe (2007: 7) prefer the term ‘designing for learning’, which they define as ‘the process by which teachers – and others involved in the support of learning – arrive at a plan or structure or design for a learning situation’. Like Goodyear and Yang, they believe that learning can never be wholly designed, only designed for (i.e, planned in advance) with an awareness of the contingent nature of learning as it actually takes place.


The JISC-funded MoD4L[1] project conducted a series of focus groups with practitioners to elicit the types of representations that they used in their design practice. The representations that teachers use include: module plans, case studies, briefing documents, pattern overviews, contents tables, concept maps, learning design sequences, story boards, and lesson plans. The project concluded that no one single representation is adequate. Similarly Conole et al. (2007: 13) argued that practitioners use a range of tools to support and guide their practice.


Agostinho (2008: 14) review six commonly used learning design languages categorising them as follows:

1.     Pedagogical models – academic literature

2.     Generic learning designs – patterns and generic LDVS

3.     Contextulaised learning design instantiations – LDVS, LDLite and E2ML

4.     Executable runnable versions – IMS LD, LAMS


Harper and Oliver (2008: 228) developed a taxonomy for learning designs arising out of the AUTC Learning Design project[2] which gathered over 50 exemplar learning designs. The AUTC designs were categorised into five types of design: Collaborative designs, concept/procedure designs, problem-based learning designs, project/case study designs and role-play designs. The AUTC Learning Design project drew heavily on the work of Oliver and Herrington (2001), who described the three key aspects of a design as: the content or resources the learners interact with, the tasks or activities that the learners are required to perform and the support mechanisms to provided to assist learners to engage with the tasks and resources. Harper and Oliver argue that there has been little work to provide a means to classify and categorise learning designs. The designs were evaluated using an adapted version of the framework developed by Boud and Prosser (2002):

·      Learner engagement

·      Acknowledgement of the learning context

·      Learner challenge

·      The provision of practice

And they identified the following four types of learning design

1.     Rule focus – based on the application of rules

2.     Incident focus – based on incidents and events

3.     Strategy focus – that require strategic thinking, planning and activity

4.     Role focus – where the learning outcomes are based on learners’ performance and personal experiences.

Falconer and Littlejohn (2008: 23) argue that there are a number of challenges with representing models of practice. These include:

·      Ownership of representations:  different representations are effective for different communities, and there are a number of different purposes a representation needs to fulfil.

·      There are issues around the community and purpose of representations – in terms of being generic or a detailed sequence and use for orchestration and offering inspiration to teachers in terms of implementing them and hence changing practice.

·      Designs as both product and processes

·      The degree of granularity of the design, Littlejohn and Falconer found the the most common level of granularity is around a lesson plan for 1 – 3 hours of learning.


Learning design as a research field has emerged in the last ten years or so, primarily driven to date by researchers in Europe and Australia. Before describing the methodology we have developed at the Open University, I will provide a brief overview of the development of the field and some of the key features/milestones. The learning design research work has developed in response to a perceived gap between the potential of technologies in terms of their use to support learning and their actual use in practice (Conole, 2004; Herrington et al., 2005; Bennett et al., 2007). Much of the learning design research is concerned with mechanisms for articulating and sharing practice, and in particular the ways in which designs can be represented. Lockyer et al. (2008) and Beetham and Sharpe (2007) have produced edited collections on work in this area. A closely related body of work to learning design is research into the development and use of pedagogical patterns. Derived from Alexander’s work in Architecture, pedagogical patterns is an approach to developing structured case studies of good practice (See for example Goodyear, 2005 for an outline of the field).


Learning Design as a term originated in the technical community and began to gain prominence around 2004, following the development of the educational mark-up language at the Open University of the Netherlands. Since then others have appropriated it in a much broader sense, shifting to the notion of ‘Designing for Learning’. Cross and Conole (2008) provide a simple overview of the field. The focus of the research is to both better understand and represent design processes, along with developing tools and methods to hep practitioners create better designs. A number of benefits of adopting a more formal and rigorous approach to design have been identified (Conole, 2009). In terms of the OULDI research work, we define learning design as:

A methodology for enabling teachers/designers to make more informed decisions in how they go about designing, which is pedagogically informed and makes effective use of appropriate resources and technologies. This includes the design of resources and individual learning activities right up to whole curriculum level design. A key principle is to help make the design process more explicit and shareable. Learning design as an area of research and development includes both gathering empirical evidence to better understand the design process as well as the development of a range of resource, tools and activities.


Arguably the origins of the term can be traced back to work at the OUNL in the Netherlands in terms of the development of a Learning Design specification, which subsequently translated into the IMS LD specification (see From a review of learning theories an Educational Modelling Language was developed (Koper and Manderveld, 2004) and from this a Learning Design specification (see for example Koper and Oliver, 2004). Focusing very much at the technical level, it was claimed that the LD specification was pedagogically neutral and could be used to describe any learning interventions. The specification was based on a theatrical metaphor, describing the roles of those involved in the intervention, the environment in which it occurred and the tools and resources involved. Inherent in the approach was the assumption that educational practice can be represented in a design description, i.e. that underlying design ideas and principles can be captured in an explicit representation. In addition the design of a course is driven by ‘pedagogical models’ that capture the teacher’s beliefs and is a set of rules that prescribe how leaning can be achieved in a particular context. Koper and Oliver (2004: 98) define ‘learning design’ as ‘an application of a pedagogical model for a specific learning objective, target group and a specific context or knowledge domain’. It specifies the teaching-learning process. A number of tools have since been created to run IMS LD specifications, but the work has not had a fundamental impact on changing teacher practice, focusing more on the technical description and running of the designs.


In parallel, work in Australia embraced a broader notion of the term ‘learning design’, which was located more at the level of practice than technical specification. The AUTC Learning Design project aimed to capture a range of pedagogical models as learning design case studies with the intention that these could then be used by teachers to guide their practice and enable greater sharing and reuse of designs (Oliver, et al., 2002, AUTC, nd, Agostinho, 2008). The work was based on a framework for describing learning designs developed by Oliver and Harrington (Oliver, 1999, Oliver and Harrington, 2001). This was based on three critical elements: learning tasks, learning resources and learning supports. The intention was that thinking about and making explicit each of these elements helped to both guide the design process and make it explicit. The approach as used to represent a range of learning designs across different pedagogical models, such as role play, problem-based learning, concept-based learning and collaboration. The AUTC LD project produced detailed guidelines on each of the design case studies they captured, representing these visually using an updated version of the design representation developed by Oliver and Harrington, along with detailed descriptions on how the design was produced and how it can be used. A number of studies have been conducted exploring how the AUTC designs are actually used by teachers. Buzza et al. (2004) focussed on the ‘Predict, Observe, Explain’ design with four teachers and two instructional designers. Overall the participants recognised the value of the designs and how they might be used, although the researchers concluded that widespread adoption of the IMS Learning Design specification would not be possible until a controlled vocabulary can be agreed upon for use in cataloguing and searching for learning designs. Agostinho et al., (2009) explored to what extent the AUTC designs were effective learning design descriptions, i.e. that they provide adequate information that can be easily understood in terms of content and thus potentially reused by a teacher in their particular educational context. Their findings were that there are three important features of an effective learning design description: i) a clear description of the pedagogical design, ii) some form of ‘quality’ rating, and iii) guidance/advice on how the design could be reused.


In the UK the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) funded a series of projects under the ‘Design for Learning programme’ (See Beetham, 2008 for a review of the programme and the lessons learnt). The term ‘Design for Learning’ was used rather than learning design to indicate a broader scope and a more holistic approach. Design for learning was defined as ‘a set of practices carried out by learning professionals… defined as designing, planning and orchestrating learning activities which involve the use of technology, as part of a learning session or programme’ (Beetham, 2008: 3). The programme included a review of e-learning pedagogical models, which classified learning theories into three main types: associative, constructive and situative (Mayes and DeFreitas, 2005). The Mod4L project explored what different types of design presentations were being used by practitioners and concluded that de-contextualised designs or patterns could not in practice form the basis of a generic design typology, in which a finite number of educationally meaningful intentions could be discerned (Falconer, et al. 2007). The programme also supported the development of two pedagogical planner tools, Phoebe (Masterman, 2008) and the London Pedagogical Planner. The programme divided the design lifecycle into four parts: design, instantiation, realisation and review. The granularity of the designs ranged from the design of learning objects or short learning activities up to broader sessions or whole courses/curricula. Some of the key lessons from the programme included the following. Design practices are varied, depending on individuals, subject differences and local cultures. Design tools are rarely perceived as pedagogically neutral and most are not considered flexible enough to match real practice. There were mixed views on what were the most appropriate ways of representing and sharing designs – some wanted rich, narrative representations, others wanted bite-sized representations that could be easily reused.


Design patterns

Closely related to the area of learning design and arguably a sub-set of learning design is the work on pedagogical patterns. Garzotto and Retails, S. (2008: 113) provide a critical perspective on design patterns for e-learning. Patterns originates in the area of Architecture and are defined as follows:

‘A design pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment and then describes the core of the solution to that problem in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice’. (Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein, 1977)


E-learning design experience is often shared informally in the everyday language of teaching practice and arguably patterns provide a means of abstracting and representing good practice.  (2008: 120) cite a number of key projects in the area of pedagogical patterns, include the design patterns in e-learning Pointer project,[3]  the ELEN project,[4] and the TELL project.[5] Goodyear and Yang (2008: 173) also note the Pedagogical Patterns Project (PPP),[6] which developed four pattern languages around: active learning, feedback, experiential learning and gaining different perspectives. Garzotto and Retalis outline a similar taxonomy for elearning design patterns, in terms of patterns about: human actors, pedagogical strategies, learning resources, and technological tools and services.


Frizell and Hubscher (2008: 147) suggest that there are three benefits of design patterns: firstly that they can serve as a design tool, secondly that they provide a concise and accurate communication among designers and thirdly that they can be used to disseminate expert knowledge to novices. They also present a design framework for e-learning patterns (2008: 156) which consists of the following: designing for interactivity, providing problem-solving activities, encouraging student participation, encouraging student expression, providing multiple perspectives on content, providing multiple representations of data, include authentic content and activities, providing structure to the learning process, giving feedback and guidance, and providing support aides. In essence covering the full range of good pedagogical practice.

Origins of the OU Learning Design Initiative

The OU Learning Design Initiative emerged from previous work on the development of a learning design toolkit, DialogPlus (Fill and Conole, 2008). Like the Phoebe and the LPP tools, DialogPlus was intended to act as a step-by-step guide to enable teachers to create learning designs. The tool was based on an underlying taxonomy, which defined the components of a learning activity (Conole, 2008), which was derived through a series of interviews with teachers about their design practices. However, evaluation of the actual use of such design planner tools indicated that they did not match actual design practice closely enough. Their relatively linear and prescriptive structure did not match the creative, iterative and messy nature of actual teacher design practice.


The OU Learning Design Initiative was initiated in 2007, supported through strategic funding from the OU. The intention was to derive a more practice-focussed approach to learning design, identified from empirical evidence of actual practice. This included gathering 43 case studies of the ways in which the then new Learning Management System (LMS) (Moodle) was being used (Wilson, 2007) and a series of interviews with teachers to articulate their actual teaching practice (Clark and Cross, 2010). The key focus of the teacher interviews was to better understand existing practice. The authors note in their introduction that ‘Even experienced academics who have participated in a range of course production tasks find it difficult to articulate how they go about developing a “learning design” that will be transformed into effective learning materials’ (Clark and Cross, 2010). The interviews focussed on five main questions: i) process: how do teachers go about designing a course?, ii) support: how do they generate ideas?, iii) representation: how do they represent their designs?, iv) barriers: what barriers do they encounter?, v) evaluation: how do they evaluate the effectiveness of the design?


A range of approaches to design were evident, including gathering of resources, brainstorming, listing concepts and skills, creating week-by-week plans, etc. On the whole these were paper-based and primarily text-based. There was little evidence of use of alternative, more visual representations or visual software tools. Interviewees wanted help with understanding how to integrate ICT-based activities into courses. Face-to-face workshops and meetings were favoured over online support as they were felt to be the most effective way of thinking about, and absorbing, new ideas and ways of working. Case studies interestingly were considered to be too demanding in time and effort, interviewees wanted just-in-time support to specific queries. The most effective form of support was considered to be sharing of experience with peers. A variety of representations were mentioned from simple textual representations or lists through to more complex and connected mindmaps. The interviewees listed a variety of purposes for the representations, including communicating personal vision, capturing or sharing ideas, comparing with others, viewing the course at different levels and mapping content to learning outcomes. Barriers included concerns about a lack of experience of creating online activities and a lack of successful examples and an OU-specific issue in terms of the difficulty of melding together the innovative (and often idiosyncratic) ideas of course creators with the needs of a production system delivering the OU’s size and range of learning materials and services. A range of mechanisms were cited in terms of evaluation approaches. These included feedback from students and tutors, comments from critical readers, peer course team critiques and comments from external examiners.

This empirical work provided a sound basis for the development of our approach. Our initial focus centered on the following questions:


·      How can we gather and represent practice (and in particular innovative practice) (capture and represent practice)?

·      How can we provide ‘scaffolds’ or support for staff in creating learning activities that draws on good practice, making effective use of tools and pedagogies (support learning design)? (Conole, 2009).


We have identified six reasons why adopting a learning design approach might be beneficial:

1.     It can act as a means of eliciting designs from academics in a format that can be tested and reviewed with developers, i.e. a common vocabulary and understanding of learning activities.

2.     It provides a means by which designs can be reused, as opposed to just sharing content.

3.     It can guide individuals through the process of creating learning interventions.

4.     It creates an audit trail of academic design decisions.

5.     It can highlight policy implications for staff development, resource allocation, quality, etc.

6.     It aids learners in complex activities by guiding them through the activity sequence.


These map closely with the benefits of adopting a design-based approach outlined by Gibbons and Brewer (2005). They argue that the benefits include: improving the rate of progress (in the creation of designs), influencing the designer conceptions through making the design process explicit, helping to improve design processes, improvements in design and development tools, and bringing design and production closed together. Fundamentally, I would agree with their assertion that it opens up new ways of thinking about designs and designing.


We see ‘learning design’ as an all encompassing term to cover the process, representation, sharing and evaluation of designs from lower level activities right up to whole curriculum level designs. In previous work (Conole and Jones, 2009) we identify three levels of design: micro, meso and macro, drawing on Bielaczyc (2006) and Jones (2007). In our terms, the micro-level refers to learning activities (typically a few hours worth of activity), the meso-level to aggregations of activities or blocks of activities (weeks or months worth of activity) and the macro-level to whole curriculum designs. As part of their Curriculum Design programme the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) provide the following definition in terms of curriculum (JISC, nd):

‘Curriculum design’ is generally understood as a high-level process defining the learning to take place within a specific programme of study, leading to specific unit(s) of credit or qualification. The curriculum design process leads to the production of core programme/module documents such as a course/module description, validation documents, prospectus entry, and course handbook. This process involves consideration of resource allocation, marketing of the course, and learners’ final outcomes and destinations, as well as general learning and teaching approaches and requirements. It could be said to answer the questions ‘What needs to be learned?’, ‘What resources will this require?’, and ‘How will this be assessed?’


We were interested in a number of research questions in particular. Can we develop a range of tools and support mechanisms to help teachers design learning activities more effectively? Can we agree a shared language/vocabulary for learning design, which is consistent and rigorous, but not too time consuming to use? How can we provide support and guidance on the creation of learning interventions? What is the right balance of providing detailed, real, case studies, which specify the detail of the design, compared with more abstract design representations that simply highlight the main features of the design? How can we develop a sustainable, community of reflective practitioners who share and discuss their learning and teaching ideas and designs?


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1977). Pattern languages: towns, buildings and construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Beetham, H., & Sharpe, R. (2007). Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital age: Designing and Delivering E-Learning: Routledge %@ 0415408741 %7 New edition.

Lockyer, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S., & Harper, B. (2008). Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies: IGI Global %@ 1599048612 %7 illustrated edition.


Boud, D. and Prosser, K. (2002) Appraising new technologies for learning: a framework for development, Educational Media Internationals, 39 (3/4).


Fang, (1996), A review of research on teacher beliefs and practices, Educational Research, 38(1), 47-65
















[5] http://cosy.ted.unipi/gr/tell



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