7 principles of learning design



In this blog post I want to describe seven principles of learning design. I would welcome comments. Are there any others I have missed for example?

The first is that teachers are bewildered by the plethora of tools available and lack the skills necessary to make informed learning design decisions. Therefore a key facet of all the tools is that they attempt to provide practitioners with some form of guidance and support around their design practice. The aim is to help them shift from an implicit, belief-based approach to design to one that is more explicit and design-based (Conole 2009). Evidence of the evaluation of the use of these tools shows that they do help shift practitioners from a focus on content to activities and the learner experience.

The second is that many of the tools use the power of visualisation as a means of representing the designs. These can then be shared and discussed with other.

The third is that there is a tension between design representations that are rigorous, precise and perhaps machine runnable and those that are more creative, ‘fluffy’ and nearer to real practice. Derntl et al.  (Derntl, Parish et al. 2010) argue that designing for learning needs both ‘beauty’ and ‘precision’; and they show how different design languages can be used to present these. They state that:

We are in no way suggesting that beauty and precision are in opposition to one another, nor even that they are mutually exclusive concerns. We make the distinction merely to further stress the competing demands on instructional designers for maintaining a grand view of the learning experience while also addressing the myriad details of an effective end product.

The fourth is that there is an issue about what level of in-context support and guidance is provided to the designer and how such support can be created on the fly from up-to-date and authoritative sources. The CompendiumLD tool includes a walled garden Google search, which searches across a number of predefined well-known and validated sources against a set of keywords(Brasher, Conole et al. 2008). However, in the future much more sophisticated personalised help needs to be developed.

The fifth is the fact that learning designs are both a produce and a process. In the first instance the designer engages with various learning design Mediating Artefacts to guide their design process, through a creative, iterative and messy process. Then their final design is a product, which represents a particular moment in time in the design process.

The sixth is that, as Liz Masterman articulates, there are two dimensions of learning design: i) the creation of structured sequences of learning activities, and ii) a way to represent and share practice.

Finally, it is clear that the inherent affordances of different learning design tools will have an impact on how the practitioner goes about the design process. For example, because the LAMS tool focuses on tools as conceptual elements, the design process is likely to be tools focused. In contrast, the social networking site Cloudworks focuses on sharing and discussion and so emphasises the practitioner, dialogic aspects of design.

I believe we are at an interesting watershed in terms of learning design research. We have made significant steps forward in the field over the last ten years or so and now have a much richer understanding of design practices and mechanisms for promoting them. The tools developed along the way have enabled us to explore these in real-world contexts; some focus on visualisation, others on dialogue and sharing, and others on guidance/support. All three of these different types of scaffolds are important and support the practitioner in different ways.  What is needed next is to try and combine these elements, not necessarily into one monolithic tool, but through the creation of some form of dynamic learning design ecosystem. As a first step towards this, the key researchers in the field have being meeting as part of an EU-funded group, the LDGrid.[1] A key output of the group is to produce a concise, comprehensive and accessible set of resources for practitioners and learners to help them adopt more learning design based thinking and practices. The group has held a number of workshops and has an evolving set of learning design resources.


Brasher, A., G. Conole, et al. (2008). CompendiumLD – a tool for effective, efficient and creative learning design.


Conole, G. (2009). Capturing and representing practice. In A. Tait, M. Vidal, U. Bernath and A. Szucs (Eds.) Distance and E-learning in Transition: Learning Innovation, Technology and Social Challenges. London, John Wiley and Sons.


Derntl, M., P. Parish, et al. (2010). “Beauty and precision in instructional design.” Journal on e-learning 9(2): 185-202.





[1] http://www.ld-grid.org/

9 Responses to “7 principles of learning design”

  1. Elaine Pearson Says:

    I think some of the statements are not so much principles as observations - in particular the first and second one. Perhaps it is the way in which they are expressed. I understand Principles to be ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ that can be followed in order to acheive a particular outcome - in this case effective learning designs. So these statements might be (in the main) the conflicting characteristics of learning design *tools* but they don’t give me, personally a set of principles that I could follow in order to create an effective learning design, although it may give me some guidance on the factors I may need to consider when selecting a tool or tools to support the process of developing my learning designs. Maybe the two need to be separated? Thought provoking!

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks Elaine yes to be honest I was wondering about whether all of these were in fact principles - will need to ponder a bit more on this one… Just initial thoughts anyway!

  3. Doc D Says:

    In response to Elain and Grainne - and how principles work in designing learning environments: principles are not only “rules” or “laws” but any steps or processes that can be taken that would be applicable to designing effective instructional events. If we look at them that way - observation would be considered a principle. It would provide additional insight into what is enhancing the learning; thus being an effective “principle”. Thorndike is considered the “inventor” of the first principles of learning and not all of his were actual “steps” or “rules” but more of guides to assist in the transference of knowledge. Rules or laws would be considered strategies, do you not think?

  4. Richard Bernato Ed.D. Says:

    Interesting for conversation. Always struck by the lack of conversation re these issues. I have three blogs on my home page that speak to some of these especially seriousgamesdotme.wordpress.com

  5. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks for the clarification Doc!

  6. Anne Whaits Says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and research Grainne. As a practitioner keen to improve the design of learning activities leveraging the tools available in my context, I must ask where measures of effectiveness and assessment fits in design based thinking? How do we know how well the design is in meeting the intended learning outcomes or how effective the design of the instructional event is without having to wait until it has been tested in practice? What principle would serve to guide that aspect of design based thinking and practice?

  7. Sheila MacNeill Says:

    Hi Grainne

    Great starting point to some common principles for learning design. I agree with some of the other comments re differences in observations and principles. I’m also wondering if these are more for the learning design researcher than an everyday practitioner? I wonder if when developing some high level principles we need to have some more examples of practice? That might also start to address the effectiveness and assessment issues? Would love to discuss more - wonder if this would be a good topic for a design bash or something similar? Peter C and I wondering about doing something for the JISC online conference later this year - this could fit?


  8. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Sheila

    yes think this needs more thought and would be great to have it as a discussion topic at a design bash!

  9. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Anne

    yes good points - haven’t got the answers yet but will think about your questions!

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