E-learning papers: learning design

Tapio Koskinen from Aalto University in Finland and I launched the 27th issue of the e-learning papers at Online Educa in Berlin this year. The issue focused on learning design. This blog post gives the background to the call for paper, along with a summary of the papers that were included.



New open, social and participatory media clearly have significant potential to transform learning and teaching. The emergence of these technologies has shifted practice on the Internet away from passive, information provision to active, user engagement. They offer learners and teachers a plethora of ways to communicate and collaborate; to connect with a distributed network of peers, and to find and manipulate information. In addition there are now a significant range of free educational resources and tools. However despite this, technologies are still only used marginally in an educational context. Learners and teachers lack the necessary digital literacy skills to harness these new technologies.

This new learning context raises some thought-provoking issues. In a world where content and services are increasingly free, what is the role of formal education? What new teaching approaches and assessment methods are needed? How can we provide effective learning pathways to guide learners through the multitude of educational offerings now available? How can teachers develop new approaches to the design of learning activities and whole curricula that takes account of this new complex, technologically enhanced context? What assessment strategies are appropriate?

Falconer and Littlejohn (2008, p. 20) argue that there are three challenges facing teachers: i) the increasing size and diversity of the student body, ii) the increasing requirement for quality assurance, and iii) the rapid pace of technological change. Conole (2004) has argued 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. Much use of technology appears to simply replicate bad classroom practice resulting in simple Web page turning (Oliver, 2000). Similarly Masterman (2008a, p.210) argues that the lack of uptake of technologies is due to a number of factors: lack of awareness of the possibilities, technophobia, lack of time to explore the use of technologies, aversion to the risks inherent in experimentation and fear of being supplanted by the computer. Agostinho et al. (2008: 381) suggest that the uptake of the use of high-quality ICT-based learning designs in higher education has been slow. Factors include: low levels of dissemination of ICT-based learning projects, lack of ICT-based learning examples to model, lack of time, support and training. Sawyer (2006, p. 8) argues that the impact of the significant investment in computers in schools has been disappointing. There are few studies that show that computer use is correlated with improved student performance. Similarly Koedinger and Corbett (2008, p. 61) write that as new technologies have emerged many hoped that they would have a radically transformative effect on education, but in reality the impact was much less than expected.

The gap between the potential and actual use of technology is a paradox and this is at the heart of the growth of a new area of research that has emerged in recent years. Learning design research aims to better understand this mismatch. It focuses on the development of tools, design methods and approaches to help teachers design pedagogically effective learning activities and whole curriculum, which make effective use of technologies.

Two edited collections provide a useful overview of the field of learning design (Beetham and Sharpe, 2007; Lockyer et al., 2008). In my forthcoming book, ‘Designing for learning in an open world’ (Conole, forthcoming), I define learning design as:

A methodology for enabling teachers/designers to make more informed decisions in how they go about designing learning activities and interventions, 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 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 understand the design process, as well as the development of a range of  learning design resource, tools and activities.

The call for the special issue focussed on learning design. I have previously argued that designing for learning is one of the key challenges facing education today; it offers a potential solution to address some of the challenges outlined above. It provides a methodology to help guide and support teachers in the creation of effective learning interventions and resources that harness the potential of social and participatory media. The special issue invited papers addressing the following questions:

·      What are the implications of new social and participatory media for education and how can they be harnessed more effectively to support learning?

·      What are the different ways in which learning interventions can be represented?

·      How can social networking and other dialogic tools be used to enable teachers to share and discuss their learning and teaching practices, ideas and designs?

·      What are the implications for learners, teachers and institutions of new social and participatory media?

·      What new pedagogies are emerging as a result of the use of new social and participatory media?

·      How are Open Educational Resources being design, used and repurposed?

·      What are the implications for formal institutions of the increasingly availability of free resources, tools and even total educational offerings, such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)?

The papers

Six excellent papers were included in the issue; the following is taken from the editorial for the special issue.

Eva Dobozy explores the need for greater clarity in the conceptualisation of Learning Design (LD). A three-tiered LD architecture is introduced. It is argued that this conceptualisation is needed in order to advance the emerging field of LD as applied to education research. This classification differentiates between LD as a concept (LD Type 1), LD as a process (LD Type 2), and LD as a product (LD Type 3). The usefulness of the three types is illustrated by a case example of a virtual history field-trip module constructed in the LAMS learning design tool as Type 2 LD. This case shows the workflow from LD Type 1 to LD Type 2, followed by LD Type 3 research and development data. The purpose of LD as process is to inform other teachers of the affordance of LD, providing contextualised data and to invite critique of particular TEL practices.

Research on designing for learning is a field that has concentrated a lot of efforts in the context of technology-enhanced settings. This scenario has demonstrated the need to represent learning scenarios using a more formal perspective. Félix Buendía-García and José Vte. Benlloch-Dualde reviewed some representation mechanisms which enable the systematic design of learning issues in technological settings, and proposes an approach that applies pattern notations in an effort to better understand and prepare for different learning context. A case study is also described to show the application of these scenarios in a specific technology-enhanced setting for teaching computing curricula. This application is based on the use of digital ink technologies and demonstrates how patterns may be able to mediate between pedagogical and technical issues.

Leanne Cameron and Miriam Tanti describe an interesting case study of students as designers. They argue that the ‘students as learning designers’ approach challenges transmission models of pedagogy and requires teachers to relinquish some control to their students so that they might have the space to experiment and discover how to learn.  This paper outlined the findings of two studies that allowed students to explore new ways of learning, where they were encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, and outlines what potential social media tools may have in facilitating this experience.  These projects demonstrate that when students are empowered to design their own learning activities, they can deeply engage in the learning process.

Ligorio Beatrice and Cucchiara Stefania describe the Blended Collaborative Constructive Participation (BCCP) model is a university teaching model built upon six years of experimentation.  Through a flexible structure and a set of six types of activities, the aim of this model is to put into practice a series of already well-established pedagogical principles, such as the Community of Learners, the Community of Practice, the socio-constructivist dimension, the dialogical perspective, and knowledge building. A three-level system is presented as an assessment tool for web-forum discussions, organized around the contents of the course. This system can be used by teachers and by students to monitor and support the evolution of the discussion.

Gail Casey presents the results of a classroom action research that looked at how one teacher redesigned her curriculum while integrating social media, Web 2.0 and face-to-face teaching in an Australian public high school. It explores the qualities that social and participatory media bring to the classroom while focussing on students as active and valued participants in the learning process.  Building knowledge using the uniqueness of social media enabled students to become active and valued resources for both the teacher and their peers. Designing for learning is a key challenge facing education today; this case offers ideas for learning designers and contributes to a research base that can support educators from all sectors.

Beth Perry, Katherine Janzen and Margaret Edwards argued that effective online learning environments are inviting; infused with respect, trust, intentionality, and optimism. Arts-based learning interventions like Reflective Poetry, Minute at the Movies Analysis, “Our Community” Soap Scenes, and Theme Songs facilitate invitational online classes. These inexpensive, adaptable interventions enhance learning environments by encouraging human connections and creativity.


Agostinho, S., Harper, B., Oliver, R., Hedberg, J., and Wills, S. (2008). A visual learning design representation to facilitate dissemination and reuse of innovative pedagogical strategies in university teaching. In L. Botturi and S. T. Stubbs (Eds.), Handbook of visual languages for instructional design: theories and practices (pp. 380-393). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference. Conole, C. (2004). E-Learning: The Hype and the Reality Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2004 (12), available online at http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/2004/12.

Beetham, H., & Sharpe, R. (2007). Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital age: Designing and Delivering E-Learning, London: Routledge.

Conole, G. (forthcoming), Designing for learning in an open world, New York: Springer.

Falconer, I, and Littlejohn. A. (2008), Representing models of practice” (2008), in L. Lockyer, S. Bennet, S. Agostinho, and B. Harper (eds), Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects, New York: Information Science Reference.

Koedinger, K. R., & Corbett, A. (2008). Technology bringing learning science to the classroom. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 61-77). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lockyer, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S. and Harper, B. (2008), Handbook of research on learning design and learning objects, New York: Information Science Reference.

Masterman, L. (2008a). Activity theory and the design of pedagogic planning tools. In L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinho and B. Harper (Eds.), Handbook of research on learning design and learning obkects: issues, applications and technologies (Vol. 1, pp. 209 - 227), New York: Information Science Reference.

Masterman, L. (2008b). Phoebe Pedagogy Planner Project: Evaluation Report, JISC E-Learning and Pedagogy Programme, Oxford: Oxford University.

Oliver, R. (2000), Where teaching meets learning: design principles and strategies for Web-based learning environments that support knowledge construction, ASCILITE 2000 conference, Coffs Harbour, 9th-12th December 2000, available online at http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/coffs00/papers/ron_oliver_keynote.pdf

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




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