Archive for the ‘Learning design’ Category

7 principles of learning design

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012


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.






E-learning papers: learning design

Thursday, December 15th, 2011


Chapter 16 Conclusion

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

And I am nearly there! Here is a draft of my concluding chapter!


In this final chapter I want to summarise the key messages conveyed throughout the book, along with considering the implications of each topic. I will critically reflect on the implications of each of the topics and, in particular, what impact the Learning Design methodology described in this book is likely have on learning and teaching and how it can help to change the way learning interventions are designed. The central thesis of this work is that we need  new approaches to design in order to make more effective use of new open, social and participatory media. 

This book has argued that designing for learning is the key challenge facing education today. To make effective use of the affordances (Conole and Dyke, 2004; Gibson, 1977; Gibson, 1979) of open, social and participatory media, learners and teachers need guidance and support. They lack the necessary digital literacies skills (Jenkins et al. 2006; Jenkins, 2009) needed to embrace the full potential of these technologies. The book has described a new learning design methodology, which aims to provide this support, through: visual designs (to enable teachers to think beyond content to learning activities and overall learner experience), pedagogical planners (which guide the teacher through the design process and provide templates that they can adapt and repurpose) and effective use of social networking tools (so that learners and teachers can be part of a global, distributed Community of Practice (CoP) network) (Wenger, 1998). The visual designs, pedagogical planners and social networking tools, are essentially Mediating Artefacts (Conole, 2008) that can guide practitioners’ design practices and make them more explicit and sharable with others. A key intention of the learning design approach is to shift teachers’ design practice from being implicit and belief based to one that is explicit and design based. 

As discussed in Chapter 3, the learning design research work described in this book is located alongside related research fields, such as instructional design, the learning sciences, pedagogical patterns and research on Open Educational Resources (OER). It has shown how learning design is aligned to these, but is also distinct from them.

Open, social and participatory media

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 has been 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. 

Therefore there is little doubt that open, social and participatory media enable new forms of communication and collaboration for both learners and teachers. They can provide us with mechanisms for sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas. However, as discussed in Chapter 14, the nature of online communities and interactions in these spaces is complex, evolving and distributed. Learners and teachers need to develop new digital literacy skills to effectively participate in these spaces, as well as an understanding of the nature and form of their digital identity. How do they want to be represented in these spaces? To what extend do they want to adopt open or more closed practices? The implications of fully harnessing new technologies in an educational context are profound. We are seeing a blurring of boundaries: learners and teachers, learning and teaching, formal and informal modes of learning, and real and virtual spaces. We need to rethink all aspects of learning and teaching; how courses are design and delivered, the ways in which learners are guided and supported, and the mechanisms for assessment. Old practices of assessment strategies are no longer appropriate and indeed are woefully inadequate in terms of providing learners with the necessary skills and competences to participate in an increasingly complex and global societal context. Institutions are also being challenged by these new technologies. 

Firstly, increasingly researchers are opting to make their research publications publicly available, often via institutional repositories. Some are going further by making their actually data available. Initiatives such as the Open Access Movement (OEM) and tools such as the ePrints repository  (Harnard and Hey, 1995; Harnard et al., 2004; Hey, 1997, Hey, 2004) have changed the ways in which researchers are distributing their findings. Indeed, many institutions now require academics to deposit their outputs in institutional research repositories and national level research assessment exercises add an additional pressure in terms of academic accountability and measure of the impact of their research.

Secondly, sites such as iSpot

 and Galaxy Zoo

 (discussed in Chapter 11) demonstrate that researchers are beginning to harness the collective wisdom of the crowds (Surowiecki, 2004), through use of distributed networks of users to collect data on a global scale. Such sites play a dual function; in terms of raising awareness of science and as a mechanism for researchers to gather data on an unprecedented scale.

Thirdly, as Weller argues (2011), digital scholarship is becoming increasingly important and is changing the way in which academics communicate, as well as how they disseminate their teaching practices and research findings. All of these are challenging traditional publication mechanisms. Publishing houses need to develop new business models to take account of this. 

Fourthly, more open practices (in terms of the use of Open Educational Resources and the growth of ‘free’ courses such as the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) discussed in Chapter 11) are challenging traditional educational offerings. In a world where content and expertise is free, what is the role of traditional educational institutions? As with the publishing houses, institutions will need to develop new business models. Nascent work is already occurring in this respect. For example, in terms of OER, Downes (2007) has described a number of new business models that have emerged in recent years. Arguably, institutions need to shift away from a focus on content as a commodity, to providing effective learning pathways for learners, along with flexible accreditation models. A number of new types of organisations are beginning to emerge that adopt more open and flexible offerings. For example, the OER University,

 a consortium that provides a mechanisms for members to flexibly accredit learners who are using OER and the peer-to-peer university,

 which has developed a peer-support ‘badging’ system to recognise learners’ competences. 

Fifthly, learners are also changing (Sharpe et al., 2010), embracing new technologies to support their learning and adopting more just-in-time and collaborative approaches to learning. However, despite the fact that today’s learners are indeed technologically immersed, it is not evident that all of them have the necessary skills to make effective use of technologies to support their learners. Many are confused by the plethora of resources and tools, and lack the necessary academic skills to make effective choices about which resources and tools to use. They need guided learning pathways to help them and this is clearly a role that educational institutions can provide. 

Sixthly, legacy institutional systems are at odds with the tools and services that are now available in the cloud (Katz, 2009). What services should institutions be providing and what should they be outsourcing? What is the relationship between institutional Learning Management Systems (LMS)  and freely available tools and services? Learners are now creating their own personalised digital learning environment, mixing institutional systems with their own choice of tools. 

The learning design methodology introduced in this book aims to address the challenges described above. A number of recommendations can be made for the key stakeholders involved in education. 

For learners, institutions and teachers, in particular, need to provide appropriate support mechanisms to enable learners to develop the digital and academic literacies they will need to effective engage with new technologies. Enabling them to see the opportunities that social and participatory media afford in terms of adopting more constructivist and socially situated pedagogies. In this respect, teachers need to facilitate more learner-centred approaches. Also we need to think of how technologies can be harnessed to encourage communication and collaboration amongst learners and their peers. Finally, we need to shift from a focus on content to activities.

For academic staff, we need to recognise that these new technologies provide a plethora of new approaches to learning, teaching and research, and hence we need to be aware of and take account of these. Academics need to adopt more explicit and reflective practices and embrace the full potential of the notion of digital scholarship. Engagement with new technologies cannot be at arms length; it is only through technology immersion - learning by doing and through the technologies - that academics will come to understand how they can appropriate their technologies to support all aspects of their practice. We need also to use the technologies to encourage a networked community of academics, sharing and discussing learning, teaching and research ideas. 

At an institutional level, we need to put in place appropriate strategies and policies that reflect the changing context of education, and that take account of the implications of using technologies for learning, teaching and research. We also need to have adequate resources and support to facilitate the shift in practice needed. Strong leadership, with an understanding of the issues (pedagogical, technical and organisational), will be needed, along with a re-visioning of institutional structures and processes. Alongside the strategic directives, institutions will need to have in place appropriate  professional development and incentives for academics, to help them make more effective and increase use of technologies. 

Finally, at a national level, we need to develop an infrastructure to support the growing range of free resources, tools and research outputs. We need also to facilitate the creation of a distributed professional networks and communities to promote and share case studies of good practices. As at the institutional level, nationally there will also be a need for appropriate strategies and policies (and associated funding) around using technologies. Finally, we need mechanisms to support the an ongoing horizon scanning of technology trajectories, so that we can future proof how emergent technologies might be used for learning, teaching and research and what might the implications be for individuals and organisations.  

On a positive note, social and participatory media provide learners and teachers with a rich set of multimedia representations of content and multiple communication challenges. Learning resources can be accessed anywhere, anytime to support flexible and personalised learning. There is now an abundance of free tools and resources that learners and teachers can use. Access on a truly global level means that learners and teachers can connect with each other on an unprecedented scale and for researchers the new media mean that their research outputs can have far greater impact to a wider audience almost immediately. 

On a negative note, the digital divide (Warschauer, 2004) is still present; narrower but deeper; whether this is because of lack of access or skills or through personal choice not to engage with these technologies, it is a reality and needs to be taken account of when designing for learning. The very richness of the online digital space means that is is complex and difficult to traverse, it may be true that everything a learner or teacher might need is on the Web, but finding what is appropriate for a specific purpose is far from trivial. There are also access, privacy and ownership issues; whilst licenses such as Creative Commons have gone some way towards addressing the copyright issues associated with resources, it has not answered all the concerns many still have. Many social networking sites are using personal data in convert ways, unknown to the users. Furthermore, this form of re-appropriation of data and digital surveillance is only likely to increase as the data mining tools behind such services become ever more powerful. A digital equivalent of Foucoult’s Panopticon (Foucoult, 1977) is now very much evident. 

Future research directions

Arguably we are now at an important watershed in terms of learning design research. Over the last decade or so, research in this area has given us rich insights into practitioners’ design practices, along with an indication of the barriers they face. A number of distinct sub-research areas have emerged (principally on design languages and visualisations, pedagogical planners and the use of social networking tools to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas and designs). There is now a need to build on this work and develop a more coherent learning design framework, which will enable practitioners to use all of these approaches in a seamless and holistic fashion. Achieving effective uptake of these approaches, beyond the early adopters, will require systemic change. Therefore, learning design approaches will need to be embedded in institutional systems and processes; in particular; the course approval process and course quality assurance mechanisms. This is the only way that wide scale change in practice can be achieved.  Learning design needs to address the needs of all stakeholders involved in education; learners (in terms of the way in which the intended design can be made more explicit to them, in order that they can use this effectively in undertaking their learning activities), teachers (in terms of guiding and making the design process more explicit and hence shareable with others), institutional manages (in terms of design being an embedded part of institutional systems and process) and policy makers (in terms of future directions for policy and strategy to promote effective and innovative pedagogical processes and associated funding and initiatives). 

A series of themes are interwoven across the book. These include: the nature of openness, promoting creativity, new ways of thinking about design, issues around social inclusion and exclusion, and new practices and pedagogies. So what might an agenda for future learning design research look like? Here is a list of some of the key questions I think as a research community we should be addressing in the coming years:

  1. What might a coherent learning design language look like and how might it be shared?
  2. What other Mediating Artefacts do we need to develop to enable learners and teachers make more effective use of technologies to support learning? What are the different ways in which learning interventions can be represented?
  3. How can we foster a global network and Community of Practice to enable learners and teachers to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas? 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?
  4. What tools do we need to guide design practice, visualise designs and provide a digital environment for learners and teachers to share and discuss?
  5. What are the implications and likely impact of social and participatory media for education and how can they be harnessed more effectively to support learning?
  6. What will be the impact of new emergent technologies on the stakeholders involved in education? 
  7. What new pedagogies are emerging as a result of these new technologies?
  8. What are the implications for learners, teachers and institutions of new social and participatory media?
  9. How will the processes of supporting learning (design, delivery, support and assessment) change as a result of new technologies?
  10. What social exclusion issues are arising with the increased use of new technologies? How can we promote more socially inclusive practices?
  11. How are Open Educational Resources being design, used and repurposed?
  12. 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)?
  13. What digital literacy skills do learners and teachers need to make effective use of these technologies and resources? To what extent are they evident and how can they be developed?
  14. How are the ways in which learners and teachers communicate and collaborate changing with the use of these technologies?
  15. How can we create effective new digital learning environments to promote the use of social and participatory media and OER?
  16. How can informal learning using OER be assessed and accredited?
  17. What kinds of policy directives are in place to promote social inclusion through the use of OER and how effective are they?
  18. What new methodologies and theoretical perspectives will be needed to address these research questions and to interpret the findings?


Applying the learning design methodology described in this book, I argue, will enable teachers to harness the power of new technologies, resulting ultimately in a rich, learner experience. This aspiration is echoed in the National Science Foundation Cyberlearning report (Borgeman et al., 2008): which begins with a scenario of a learner of the near future:

Imagine a high school student in the year 2015. She has grown up in a world where learning is as accessible through technologies at home as it is in the classroom, and digital content is as real to her as paper, lab equipment, or textbooks. At school, she and her classmates engage in creative problem-solving activities by manipulating simulations in a virtual laboratory or by downloading and analyzing visualizations of real- time data from remote sensors. Away from the classroom, she has seamless access to school materials and homework assignments using inexpensive mobile technologies. She continues to collaborate with her classmates in virtual environments that allow not only social interaction with each other but also rich connections with a wealth of supplementary content… (Borgeman et al., 2008: 7).

These are exciting, but also difficult times for education. Learners and teachers have a wealth of tools and resources to draw on to support innovative and effective pedagogies. But education is operating in a climate of increasing financial straits and it is becoming more and more evident that traditional educational offerings are inadequate and do not provide learners with the necessary skills they need to be part of an increasingly complex, globally networked society. Educational establishments therefore, I would strongly argue, must change; the way in which we support and assess learning must change. We need to recognise the implications of social and participatory media and harness their potential. The learning design methodology presented in this book aims to help teachers make effective use of these technologies and to rethink there design practice. We cannot predict the future, but we can say with certainty that technologies will continue to develop at an exponential rate and that change is the norm. Let’s see what the future brings.


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. 

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

Borgeman, C.L., Abelson, H., Dirks, L., Johnson, R., Koedinger, K., Linn, M. C., Lynch, C.A., Oblinger, D.G., Pea, R.D., Salen, K., Smith, M. and Azalay, A. (2008). Fostering learning in the networked world: the cyberlearning opportunity and challenge, Report of the NSF task force on cyberlearning, available online at , accessed 7/10/11.

Conole, G. (2008). Capturing practice, the role of mediating artefacts in learning design, in L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinho and B. Harper (Ed.s), Handbook of learning designs and learning objects, Hershey: IGI Global.

Conole, C. (2004). E-Learning: The Hype and the Reality Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2004 (12), available online at .

Conole, G. and Dyke, M., (2004a). What are the inherent affordances of Information and Communication Technologies?, ALT-J, 12.2, 113-124.

Downes, S. (2007). Models for sustainable open educational resources. Interdisciplinary journal of knowledge and learning objects, 3, 29–44, available online at , accessed 7/10/11.

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, Idea Group.

Foucoult, M. (1977), Discipline and punishment - the birth of the prison, NY: Vintage books.

Gibson, J.J. (1977). The Theory of Affordances. In Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing, R. Shaw and J. Bransford (Eds),  pg. 67-82, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associated.

Harnard, S., and Hey, J. (1995). Esoteric knowledge, the scholar and scholarly publishing on the Net. London: Library Association Publishing.

Harnard, S., Brody, T., Vallieres, F., Carr, L., Hitchcock, S., Gingras, Y, Oppenheim, C., Stamerjohanns, H., and Hilf, E. (2004). The Access/Impact Problem and the Green and Gold Roads to Open Access . Serials Review, 30 (4), 310-314.

Hey, J. (1997). E-Journals for research: the user perspective. Serials, 10 (1), 65-68.

Hey, J. (2004). Targeting academic research with Southampton’s institutional repository. Ariadne, 40.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century, MIT: Mit Press.

Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A.J. and Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st Century, MacArthur commissioned report, available online, accessed 11th August 2011.

Katz, R. (2008). The tower and the cloud: Higher Education in the age of cloud computing, an Educause ebook, available online at , accessed 11th August 2011.

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). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.

Masterman, L. (2008b). Phoebe Pedagogy Planner Project: Evaluation Report, JISC E-Learning and Pedagogy Programme: 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, accessed 7/10/11.

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

Sharpe, R., Beetham, H. and De Freitas, S. (2010). Rethinking learning for the digital age: how learnes shape their own experiences. London: Routledge.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The Wisdom of the Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, New York: Doubleday. 

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide: the MIT Press. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weller, M. (2011). Digital, networked and open, UK: Bloomsbury Academics.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Community engagement

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

I’ve been putting up draft chapters of my book for people to comment on in Cloudworks and on my blog. Today I set up a drop box folder and put up the lasted versions. I invited people to join the space via fb and Twitter and have been amazed by the response so far! I have already had some useful feedback and Dominic Newbould has kindly offered to give it a ruthless edit. I can’t believe how generous the research community is, doctor real peer learning! I am certain the book will be much better as a result. Email me if you want an invite to the space.

Why am I writing a book on learning design?

Sunday, May 8th, 2011


So what on earth promoted me to write a book on learning design? I think the origins to this work stretch back to my initial experience of teaching in the early nineties. I started my career as a lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry. Soon after I took up the post, a number of my colleagues, past on some of their courses for me to take over. My experience of education was solely based on my own learning at school and as an undergraduate (essentially around lectures, tutorials and laboratory classes). I had no knowledge of educational theories and didn’t even know what a learning objective was I am ashamed to say. In addition to trying to design my teaching sessions based on this woeful lack on experience, I was struggling to build up a distinct research profile through data collection, and the writing of papers and project proposals. 

I attended a staff development session which stated that it aimed to support teachers in developing their teaching practice. It was a disaster. The session was run by a staff development woman, who kept rabbeting on about constructivism and other esoteric educational terms I had never heard of. At the end I was demotivated and frustrated. The session had been no help at all and indeed was counter-productive. 

I suspect my initial experience of being a lecturer is not uncommon. We are primarily hired based on our research expertise and subject domain knowledge, not on our teaching experience. Luckily today many institutions do have in place a professional practice programmes for new lecturers, to introduce them to relevant educational theories and expose them to examples of good learning and teaching practice. 

Nonetheless my own experience sowed a seed in my mind around the question: ‘What kind of support mechanisms can we put in place to support teachers in their teaching practice and to enable them to develop effective approaches to the design of learning interventions?’ On reflection I think this question has been at the core of my research work over the last twenty years. It has lead me through a journey of the development and evaluation of the use of different technologies, and ultimately to the development and evaluation of the Open Learning Design methodology outlined in this book. 

This is an exciting time in education, which is operating within an increasingly complex societal context, one of rapidly changing technologies and increasing financial constraints. New social and participatory media have much to offer for learning and teaching, to address this challenging context, however to fully harness this potential we need to radically rethink the way in which we design, delivery, support and assess learning. The tools and methods described in this book are put forward as a means of trying to achieve this, with an underlying aspiration to transform teaching practice and ultimately enhance the learner experience. 

Book structure

Friday, May 6th, 2011

I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough this week with my book on learning design. I wasn’t happy with the structure of it and after some really helpful comments from Martin Weller, I have no radically reorganised it and I think it is much more logical and coherent. Here is an outline of the current structure. Thoughts on this very welcome! Copies of the latest draft chapters are available on the Cloudscape I have set up on Cloudworks.Chapters overview

  • The book begins with this introductory chapter, which provides an overview of the book and a rationale for its relevance. This includes an overview of the context of modern education. I argue that we now operate in a context of rapid technological change, which is influencing the nature of education and its purpose. Boundaries between formal and informal learning are changing, as a result I argue that, within this context, the way in which we design, support and assess learning needs to change and the nature of educatioal technologies. Next the characteristics of today’s learners are discussed drawing on key research in the field. It provides a brief definition of the term ‘learning design and argues for the need for a new learning design methodology is discussed, which is the main focus of the book. Finally the audience and  structure of the book are described.
  • Design languages are the focus of chapter two, in particular the use of design notation in music, architecture and chemistry are described. The chapter discusses the challenges of designing for learning, and then focusses on learning design, along with the spectrum of learning design languages that have been developed. The origins of the OU Learning Design Initiative are described, along with a description of how OULDI adopted a Design-Based Research (DBR) approach.
  • Chapter three situates the Open Learning Design methodology discussed in this book in relation to related research fields such as learning sciences, instructional design and pedagogical patterns.
  • Chapter four provides a review of new open, social and participatory media and gives examples of how these are being used to support different pedagogical approaches. It considers the changing digital landscape of education and provides a review of new technologies, which includes: i) the characteristics of new technologies, ii) the impact of web 2.0 technologies, iii) the use of web 2.0 technologies in education and iv) the impact on practice. Highlights from a review of web 2.0 tools and practices are then discussed.
  • Chapter five describes the key theoretical perspectives and methodologies that underpin learning design research. Chapter five describes how the Open Learning Design methodology described in this book draws on Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and in particular the notion of Mediating Artefacts. It also considers the nature of theory and methodology in the field.
  • Chapter six defines Mediating Artefacts, including the different ways in which practice can be captured and represented. It describes a range of Mediating Artefacts and concludes with an illustrative example that demonstrates how an OER created for use in one contexts can be repurposed.
  • Chapter seven introduces the concept of affordances, discussing the range of definitions for the term. It goes on to discuss the affordances of technologies and argues that these can be used as a means of structuring and guiding use of particular technologies for different learning interventions.
  • Chapter eight gives an overview of different design representations and how they can be used to promote new ways of thinking about designing learning interventions.
  • Chapter nine then goes into more detail on different tools that can be used to visualise and represent designs, and in particular on the CompendiumLD tool that we have developed. It begins with a description of the ways in which practitioners currently go about designing learning interventions.
  • Chapter ten critiques the notion of ‘openness’ in terms of open design, delivery, evaluation and research. An important aspect of open delivery is the use of OER, chapter nine gives an overview of the Open Educational Resource movement
  • Chapter eleven outlines two recent OER initiatives, namely Olnet and OPAL.Chapter eleven provides a review of the Open Educational Resource movement. This includes a review of OER initiatives and a description of four illustrative examples.
  • Chapter twelve discusses the outputs and findings from the work being undertaken as part of the Olnet and OPAL initiatives.
  • Chapter thirteen returns to the ways in which open, social and participatory media are resulting in new forms of online communities and interactions.  It defines the terms and looks at different pedagogies of e-learning. It concludes with the introduction of a new Community Indicators Framework (CIF), that can be used to guide the design and evaluation of new social and participatory media.
  • Chapter fourteen describes the Cloudworks social networking site, and in particular the ways in which it is promoting new forms of online interaction, communication and collaboration.
  • Chapter fifteen reviews a number of pedagogical planners that have been developed to guide practitioners in making informed learning design decisions. These planners, the chapter argues provide more structured support for the design process than the visualisation representations and the use of social and participatory media discussed in earlier chapters.
  • Chapter sixteen is the conclusion chapter, which provides a summary and overview of the book. It also looks at the implications of this work, along with reflections on its importance and the associated challenges.

Musing on ‘the book’….

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Got some fresh ideas for more chapters/content for my learning design book, there perhaps inspired by recent meetings and conferences. I think I need to put more in about the different ways in which people are using social media to support their practice - such as Twitter, link facebook, healing ning, Elgg etc. Was impressed by the presentation recently about a social network for teachers in Finland. Also think I need to include a chapter on metaphors for describing new digital landscapes and practices, going back to Morgan’s work on metaphors such as the brain, ecology system, political system etc., as well as more recent notions of trying to describe both real and virtual interactions. Another idea for a chapter centres around approaches for transferring innovation and here I would like to draw on the experiences we have gained in particular from our OULDI and Design-Practice projects. I wonder also if I should expand the theoretical chapter - and perhaps suggest theoretical perspectives we should be considering but aren’t drawing on much….

Adopting a Design-Based Research approach to harnessing the power of social and participatory media

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

 Here is a draft of a peper we are writing: Gráinne Conole, Rebecca Galley and Juliette Culver, The Open University, UK


This paper describes a new social networking site, Cloudworks, which has been designed to support the sharing and discussion of learning and teaching ideas and designs. A new framework on community indicators for describing and evaluating user behaviour will be introduced. The paper will describe the development of the site and outline the new emergence patterns of behaviour we are observing on the site and associated discourses.


The affordances of new technologies appear to offer much to support learning, however there is a gap between this potential and their actual use in practice. Jenkins et al. (2009) argue that there are twelve skills needed for full engagement in today’s participatory culture: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation, and visualization - the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying.

To make full use of the potential of new technologies both teachers and learners need to reskill to embrace these new literacies. This paper contends that learning design can be used as a methodology to help teachers and learners to develop these new skills. It will outline some of the research in this area being undertaken by the OU Learning Design Initiative ( It will focus on one aspect of this work – the development and evaluation of a new social networking site (Cloudworks) for discussing and sharing learning and teaching ideas and designs.  It will describe how Cloudworks is attempting to harness the power of new technologies and in particular web 2.0 practices for an educational context; specifically as a means of facilitating greater discussion and sharing of learning and teaching ideas. The site is attempting to address three inter-related issues:

·        The lack of uptake of technologies for learning and teaching (despite the fact as outline above that they have immense potential).

·        The new skills needed for engaging in a participatory digital landscape.

·        When asked the question ‘what do you need in order to make better use of new technologies in your teaching?’ teachers invariably say they want examples and they want to be able to share and discuss their ideas with others.

We have developed a social networking site (Cloudworks) to enable teachers and learners to discuss and share learning and teaching ideas and designs to address these issues. An overview of Cloudworks will be provided, along with a definition of key concepts associated with the site. We will focus is on the new patterns of user behaviour that are emerging through use of the site, along with mapping these to a number of theoretical perspectives. We have adopted a Design-Based Research approach, which is closely aligned to agile development described by Cockburn (2001) to development of the site. The initial phases of development and evaluation of the site are described elsewhere (Conole & Culver 2009; Conole and Culver, 2010).  The initial underpinning theoretical basis builds on Engeström’s (2005, 2007) notion of social objects and Bauman et al.’s (2007) framework for sociality the site. We have recent begun exploring other theoretical perspectives to consider how they might help us explain the patterns of user behaviour we are seeing in the site (Alevizou et al., 2010). We argue that Cloudworks represents a new direction for designing for learning; by providing a space for both learners and teachers to make learning designs more explicit and sharable, and as a web 2.0-based dialogic space for critiquing learning and teaching ideas.

The OU Learning Design Initiative

Despite the fact that there are numerous repositories of good practice, case studies, learning objects and Open Educational Resources (OER), their impact on practice has been limited (McAndrew et al., 2009). The vision behind the development of Cloudworks was to harness web 2.0 practices specifically to foster dialogic exchange between educational practitioners. In order to get a better understanding of the extent to which technologies were being used across the university, a set of 45 case studies were captured (Wilson, 2007). In addition a series of semi-structure interviews were carried out with 12 teachers across the university to get a more in-depth understanding of they design practices (Clark and Cross, 2010). The interviews focused around a number of themes: i) how teachers went about the design process, ii) where they got ideas or inspiration from, iii) how they represented their designs, iv) how and with whom they shared their design with, v) where they got additional help or support, and vi) what kinds of evaluations activities did they undertake to access success.  From the case studies and the interviews it was evident that teachers design practices were creative, messy and iterative; and primarily based on prior experiences and inherent believes, rather than any formal, set of design principles. Resources and more information on the OU Learning Design Initiative are available at and Conole (2010) provides a detailed description of the theoretical underpinnings of the initiative and describes the various tools and resources we have developed.

Part of the aspiration of the OU Learning Design work was to help make the design process more explicit and hence sharable. We have developed three types of tools/resources with this in mind. The first is a set of conceptual design tools – to help teachers think beyond content when designing learning activities. We have developed a series of ‘views’ which foreground different levels of design and aspects of the design (See Conole, 2010 for a more detailed discussion and also The second, CompendiumLD, is a visualisation tool for guiding teachers through the design process (See Conole, Brasher, et al., 2009). It includes templates of the conceptual tools, as well as in-built help and guidance. The third, Cloudworks, is a collaborative tool, aimed at helping teachers to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas and designs. This paper concentrates on Cloudworks and in particular some of the dialogic discourses and practices, which are now emerging on the site.

An overview of Cloudworks

Cloudworks is a specialised social networking site for sharing, debating and co-creating ideas as well as designs and resources for teaching, learning and scholarship in education. Conole and Culver (2009) provide a description of the original vision behind the development of Cloudworks and the associated theoretical underpinnings. The site is essentially object- rather than ego-centered in nature (Dron and Anderson, 2007). Figure 1 provides a screenshot of the homepage. The core object in the site is a ‘Cloud’, which can be anything to do with learning and teaching (a description of a learning and teaching practice, an outline about a particular tool or resource, a discussion point).


Figure 1: Screenshot of the Cloudworks homepage

Clouds combine a number of features of other Web 2.0 technologies. Firstly, they are like collective blogs, i.e. additional material can be added to the cloud, which appear as sequential entries under the first contribution. Secondly, they are like discussion forums, there is a column under the main cloud where users can post comments, i.e. they are ‘social’. This aligns with Engestrom (2005) notion of the importance of social objects as the key focus of social networks. Thirdly, they are like social bookmarking sites, i.e. links and academic references can be added. Finally they have a range of other functionalities common on Web 2.0 sites, such as ‘tagging’, ‘favouriting’, RSS feeds, the concept of following, and activity streams (See Conole and Alevizou for a review of Web 2.0 practices). Collectively these features provide a range of routes through the site and enable users to collectively improve clouds in a number of ways. Clouds can be grouped together into aggregations, termed Cloudscapes. The homepage of the site, in addition to providing standard navigation routes (such as browsing of Clouds, Cloudscapes and People and searching), lists currently active Clouds and five featured Cloudscapes. All recent activities on the site (newly created Clouds and Cloudscapes, comments, additions, etc) are listing in a site Cloudstream.

The Community Indicators Framework

A key issue in the evaluation of social and participatory sites, such as Cloudworks, is understanding what types of user behaviour are emerging. In order to understand this we have reviewed the literature on different frameworks for describing ‘communities’ in online spaces (Galley, 2010a; Galley et. al., 2010). Galley et al. (2010) suggest that the notion of ‘communities’ in social and participatory spaces is different and argue that:

participatory web processes and practices have more recently opened up new spaces for, and styles of, interaction - social spaces which enable transient, collaborative, knowledge building communities, and the development of shared assets such as interests, goals, content and ideas.

They looked at various frameworks for describing communities such as: Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998), ‘Networks of Practice’ Brown and Duguid (2001), ‘Network Sociality’ Wittel (2001), ‘Communities of Inquiry’ (Garrison et al., 2000), and ‘Communities of Interest’ (Fischer, 2002). From these a new Community Indicators framework has been developed, which consists of four broad aspects (or indicators) associated with: behaviours and attributes of participants (e.g. turn taking, tolerance, and playfulness), situational factors (e.g. clarity of purpose, cross-boundary participation, culture) and how participants feel (e.g. sense of ownership, trust, enjoyment or engagement). Each of these aspects is interrelated and the whole reflects the multifaceted complexity of what we experience as community.


Figure 2: The Community Indicators Framework

Figure 2 illustrates the framework. The indicators are: participation, cohesion, identity and creative capability. Users participate in different ways in social and participatory spaces; it is often important to have someone adopting a leadership role, whilst others might comment or post links and some choose to simply read and not post. The cohesion indicator is concerned with the types of social interactions that occur and highlights the importance of emotional and peer support in such spaces. Identity relates to the groups evolving self-awareness. Galley et al. (2010) draw on Bouman et al’s (2007) notion of sociality, which argues that that: online environments, like Cloudworks, need to accommodate both the evolution of practices and the inclusion of newcomers, both individual identity and group formation are important and people are more inclined to use software systems that resemble their daily routines, language and practices than to adopt whole new concepts. Finally, creative capability relates to how far the community is motivated and able to engage in participatory activity, and is of particular importance to us in our work in terms of helping teachers think differently and enabling them to be more creative in their practice. This theme relates to participants’ skills, qualities and experience (including those relating to digital literacy and inter-and intra-personal skills - such as conflict management), community and individual motivations, and the capacity of the emerging community to mediate between these aspects, and exploit the cultural, ethnic, social, and personal differences between participants within the community.

Evaluation of Cloudworks

Use and development of the site is being monitored in a number of ways. We have adopted a Design-Based Research (DBR) approach to the development of the site, through a series of design phases, where each phase has consisted of a series of design decisions and subsequent evaluation (Conole and Culver, 2010). Data collection has included web stats and Google analytics, analysis of site activities and discussions, collation of references to Cloudworks elsewhere (such as in the blogosphere and Twitter), and use and evaluation of the site at workshops and conferences. A Cloudworks questionnaire is also available online. This multi-faceted evaluation strategy has gathered data that has then been used to inform the next design phase, thus ensuring an alignment between technical developments and user needs. The data, and particularly the user feedback, has given us a rich understanding of how the site has evolved and how it is being used. At key points we have commission an expert review of the site and have to date undergone three site redesigns, commissioning an expert external designer.

A range of standard statistics is gathered routinely (Figure 3), along with an administrative Cloudstream, which in addition to listing activities on the site chronologically (in the way that the main site Cloudstream does), it also documents when new users register with the site (the site is open, but users need to register if they wish to post anything or create Clouds or Cloudscapes) and when users choose to ‘follow’ others. We will also be capturing on a 6 monthly basis: the number of users who have posted clouds, the number of users who have posted comments, and the number of unique users posting a cloud or comment in last 60 days. To measure sustainability and longevity of contribution, we are also capturing: the number of registered users who have posted a cloud or comment at least one month after registration (this way we don’t count the initial use of the site for say a conference or workshop) and the number of registered users who have posted a cloud or comment at least a year after registration.


Figure 3: Statistics for the site – 01052010

The site is also linked to Google analytics (Figure 3), which shows the growth of the site since its launch in July 2009. As is evident with other Web 2.0 sites, the number of active contributors to the site (currently 2, 275 registered) is less than the number of unique visitors (59, 171 visits from 163 countries). The top five countries are UK, United States, Canada, Australia and Italy). We have also undertaken a number of qualitative studies of the use of the site; including explorations around how the site is being used by a particular community or theme and through a series of interviews with users. 


Figure 4: Google analytics July 2009-April 2010

Users of Cloudworks have been encouraged to complete an online survey after workshops and conferences, and in April 2010, 299 people registered on the site were randomly chosen to participate in a survey. In total, approximately 100 surveys have been completed during phase-one and two. All data used from the surveys is anonymous. A series of interviews have been conducted, these include some short unstructured three-minute interviews asking for perceptions of the site (where permission was given these are publically available here: Other more in-depth, semi-structured interviews have also been conducted particularly with established users, with a focus on exploring how Cloudworks is used, and the perceived advantages of using the site. Two usability tests of the site have also been conducted. We have kept reflective logs, documenting the process of development and use of the site. These reflections are available in public blogs and links to the full postings have been included where extracts have been used in reports and evaluations. Occasionally users will also discuss their perceptions of Cloudworks in their own publicly available blogs or on the site itself, where these have been referred to direct links have not been made in our reports or papers as we recognise that our use of the postings in this way could not have been anticipated when the posting was made. In these cases we have also removed names and any identifying information. User activity data has been collected from the site relating to: content: number of Clouds in the Cloudscape, items of extra content, embeds, comments and links, people: number of followers, distinct people contributing, number people marked as attending and views: number of views of the Cloudscape page, number of distinct people logged in and viewing Cloudscape Clouds, number of distinct guests (i.e. distinct IP addresses) viewing Cloudscape Clouds. Types of interactions have been collected and analysed, with a focus on those that may indicate increases of knowledge and understanding, and sense of community. Interactions will be categorised into the following types:

·        informational (sharing of resources, links, annotations of presentations, live blogging, etc)

·        practical (sharing of practice or experience)

·        social (information modes of address, personal narratives, suggestions to recommendations), that lead or relate to:

o    discursive (affirmations, welcome notes, supportive interchanges, humour and word plays, etc)

o    deliberative (instigating debates, asking probing questions etc)

The Design-Based Research Approach

We are adopting a Design-Based Research (DBR) approach; starting with a stated problem we were trying to address, a proposed solution and then an iterative cycle of developments and evaluation. Design-Based Research has emerged in recent years as an approach for studying learning in context through systematic design and study of instructional strategies and tools (Brown, 1992; Collins, 1992 cited in Design-Based Research Collective, 2003). Wang and Hannafin (2005:5-6) define it as ‘a systematic, but flexible methodology aimed to improve educational practice through iterative analysis design, development and implementation, based on collaboration between researchers and practitioners in real-world settings, and leading to contextually-sensitive design principles and theories’. Reigeluth and An (2009:378-379) articulate the following set of characteristics of DBR. We map the ways in which we are addressing these principles for the design of Cloudworks.

1.       It is driven by theory and prior research. In our work, we are building on the substantive body of prior research on instructional design, learning sciences, learning objects/Open Educational Resources and more recently learning design. The approach we adopt is socio-cultural in nature, with a focus on the design and use of a range of mediating artefacts involved in teaching-learning processes (See Conole, 2008 for a more detail account of this). Cloudworks is an example of a mediating artefact that can be used to facilitate the discussion and sharing of learning and teaching ideas.

2.       It is pragmatic. Our aim is to develop tools and resources that are useful in actual practice by practitioners to address real educational challenges. Our intention is to be theory-driven, but pragmatic, recognising the complex, messy and often craft-based nature of teaching practice. Cloudworks has been designed based on a number of theoretical frameworks, including Englestrom’s (2005) notion of social objects and Bouman et al.’s (2007) concept of sociality.  

3.       It is collaborative. We see working in close connection with end users as a vital part of our approach. Our initial interviews with teachers confirmed our view that teaching practice is complex and situated. Changing practice will only occur through close working with and understanding of practitioners’ needs. Cloudworks provides a space for practitioners to communicate (through the discussion spaces) and share/collaborate (through the notion of adding resources and references).

4.       It is contextual. Our vision is to change actual practice, to achieve this it is important that the development activities occur in real, authentic contexts. In analysis of user behaviour in Cloudworks we are seeing examples of this; users are supporting each other in the development of knowledge co-construction; through building on the discussion of others and providing back up evidence to support arguments through the sharing of resources and links.

5.       It is integrative. Wang and Hannifin (2005: 10) state that ‘DBR uses a variety of research methods that vary as new needs and issues emerge and the focus of the research evolves’. We have adopted a mixed-method approach (see below for more details) to evaluating our developments, matching the methods we use to the specific sub-research questions and the context that we are focusing on.

6.       It is iterative. Our approach consists of an interactive cycle of identification of problems to be addressed, suggestion of proposed solutions, development, use, evaluation and refinement. Because user behaviour co-evolves in social and participatory media like Cloudworks, it is important that we adopt an iterative approach, with evaluation of emergent patterns of user behaviour informing future social and technical interventions developed for the site.

7.       It is adaptive and flexible. Because our work is closely tied to actual practice, we need to ensure that the approach we are adopting is agile in nature, so that we can adapt based on evidence from changing practice. As above we need to be responsive to the ways in which users are using the space.

8.       It seeks generalisation. In addition to the practical, pragmatic nature of our work, we are also attempting to develop a coherent underlying learning design framework of concepts and approaches. We believe the Community Indicators framework we have developed to inform the design and evaluation of the site has relevance for other social and participatory media. In addition, the underlying architecture could be applied for other topics around sharing and discussing ideas and to this end we now have an open source version of the site (available to download from

Emergent patterns of behaviourAs a result of the new functionality and redesign we have seen a significant increase in use of the site, new patterns of user behaviour emerging and evidence of the site acting in distinct ways. It has been possible to identify eight types of Cloudscape emerging, although it is worth noting that some Cloudscapes fall into more that one category:

·        Event Cloudscapes. The site provides an excellent mediation space pre-, during and post events. These can include both face-to-face and virtual events, such as one-day seminars, workshops and conferences. Conferences have also been a highly effective way of securing new community engagement. We know that using Cloudworks to support events is a highly effective way of introducing new users to the site and showcasing functionality. Clouds can focus around presentations; to enable live blogging about the talk, a shared discussion space, or a mechanism for aggregating related links or references. Clouds can also be set up to support workshop activities or to act as discussion spaces for particular topics. A recently added feature of the site is the list of ‘events’ ( At the time of writing thirty-eight events are listed between May –December 2010, and fifty-two Cloudscapes have been labelled as past events.  Cloudworks has been used to support more than 25 conferences this year. These Cloudscapes tended to grow organically as participants added Clouds and related materials, as they needed to, and consisted, primarily, of informational postings and archival content – for example live-blogs and links to papers.

·        Debate Cloudscapes. A number of Cloudscapes have now been established acting as discussion spaces. ‘Flash debates’ are sparked from questions that aim to provoke and began to appear on the site in September 2009. Most typically a range of comments and activities will erupt almost immediately after initial postings, and will cross a variety of different communication platforms (e.g. Twitter, email lists, blogs, Facebook). The Flash Debate Cloudscape ( includes a range of topical issues such as ‘Citizendium versus Wikipedia’, ‘Has Twitter already peaked?’, or ‘What will the University of Tomorrow look like?’ The first example of this use was a cloud entitled ‘Is Twitter killing blogging?’ ( This was set up following a Twitter posting on this topic and had 719 unique views at the time of writing. Quickly the Cloud became a shared space for people to discuss the topic and to aggregate resources. Many of them then went to their own personal websites such as blogs to write more individual reflective pieces, posting links back in the Cloud:


Twitter is increasing the connections between us and in effect bringing more people into the conversation which can only be a good thing.  The recent VLE-PLE debate is a great example of this.  XX kicked off the latest round on his blog but it was his (& others) use of Twitter that brought people into the conversation, some of whom went on to blog, including myself, with that blog post I’d saving up since April (see above)!


The blog-twitter discussion was an appetiser for the Great VLE-PLE Debate™ at ALT-C 2009.  Having eaten too much of the appetiser I opted out of that session but what has been great is the way I have been able to re-visit it thanks to Cloudworks”.


·        Design Cloudscapes. Part of the original aspiration around the development of the site was to act as a channel for fostering more debate around design practices. A number of Cloudscapes have now been established that are focusing on learning and teaching issues around a particular course. These include spaces for those involved in designing courses (see for example as well as those who have a tutoring role in delivering courses ( There are also some good examples of design collaboration (for example see, however these examples have all been stimulated by a face-to-face learning design event, and are not yet happening spontaneously. To date, although there has been a great deal of very productive sharing of ‘snippets’ of practice on Cloudworks (discussing and sharing a new teaching tool, or a teaching and learning experience, or asking a tricky and interesting pedagogical question) there has been little sharing of what might be described as ‘worked designs’.

·        Learning and teaching Cloudscapes. The site is also being used to some extent to support learners. For example students on the Masters in Open and Distance Education course at the OU have been exploring the site by taking part in a Cloudquest challenge (, contributing H800 flash debates ( and using the site to find relevant resources for particular teaching contexts ( In addition to these, there are a number of Clouds aggregating resources for informal professional development/ teacher education courses both across the HE and FE sectors. We recognise that use of the site in such courses will be important in supporting sustainability and use. We see Cloudworks as a space which offers excellent opportunities to engage learners in the learning design/ re-design process through sharing visualised designs and pedagogical discussion, checking assumptions and collaborative, co-creative development.

·        Reading Cloudscapes. A relatively new type of Cloudscape to appear on the site is reading Cloudscapes. For example the 800-strong community of researchers interested in exploring students use of technologies have set up a space to aggregate and discuss relevant readings from the field ( Users post references to papers as Clouds and then use the Cloud to discuss the paper and add relevant links and references, essentially acting as a form of virtual reading circle.

·        Resource or topic Cloudscapes. Cloudscapes have also been established that act as aggregators around particular topics or resources. Examples include the Horizon report Cloudscape (, the online research tools Cloudscape ( and the Learning Design toolbox (

·        Open reviews. The site has been used successfully a number of types to support ‘open reviews’, whereby a Cloudscape is set up to support a standard literature review process. The core questions being explored are posted, along with a space to aggregate resources and references. Examples include a review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in HE ( and a review of pedagogical models ( At the time of writing, the Web 2.0 Cloudscape has generated 465 views, and 9 comments. This includes descriptive content, an embedded video showcase and a link to a video that provided the inspiration for repurposing. Six months later, the same lecturer repurposed this Cloud as an entry for a virtual conference on teaching and learning that was organised by the Open University, and which was supported by Cloudworks. The new Cloud: ‘Experimenting with the pedagogy of creativity and openness’ has generated 256 views, and contains 9 comments, 3 embedded videos, and 6 references and links. This use of Cloudworks is similar to use observed on other social sites. Twitter for example enables ‘just-in-time’ learning moments where a query can be posted and several suggestions or explanations posted in response within minutes. This kind of interaction replicates the important and informal ‘coffee conversation’ that is such a core part of teacher practice. Sharing ideas and short snippets of practice is a very valuable way that teachers get new ideas, develop their practice and inform their learning designs (Conole, 2009).

·        Expert elicitation and consultation. Finally Cloudworks works well as a space to elicit expert views around a topic or as a space to valid and discuss research outputs. One example was a literature review and expert elicitation around the role of educational technologists ( Another example was a major consultation process around Open Educational Resources and their associated practices (, following the gathering and analysis of a set of international OER case studies ( and articulation of a set of associated Open Educational Practice dimensions (

Galley (2010b) maps these types of activities in terms of examples of evolving trajectories of use/activity in the site (Table 1). As can be seen from the table each type of activity has its own particular pattern of behaviour.


Table 1: Evolving trajectories in use/activity

Levels of activity

We are beginning to see evidence of the site being self-sustaining, with the emergence of Cloudworks champions both from within the university and outside who are actively using the site within their community. Use of the site has increased significantly; by the end of July 2010) there were ca. 3000 registered users, on average 4000 unique visitors per month from up to 165 countries each month. There has been steady increase in interest in Cloudworks with numbers of registered users moving from 1005 to 2997 between the launch of the Beta version in July 2009 to the end of phase-two in July 2010 (up more than 198%). The Cloudworks team have gradually reduced their facilitation and moderation of the site over the year, and as can be seen below activity levels have been maintained (not withstanding the seasonal fluctuations over the winter and summer breaks), with non-team members increasingly taking on ‘champion’ roles.

Cloudworks team intervention has been reduced over time and activity has not been significantly impacted but it is evident that Cloudworks team activity continues to impact on non-team activity - for example, when the team is active in creating Cloudscapes and comments in one month, non-team activity can be seen to rise in the following month.  During phase-two of development the site was visited just over 90,000 times from 167 different countries with just over half of all visitors (54.26%) coming from the UK. Take-up in the Open University itself has been slow to be established but can be seen to be increasing as the site is used by more university groups, and for events such as the ‘Learn About Fair’ ( a university staff development event which received 3164 distinct guests (i.e. distinct IP addresses), 179 distinct people logged in and viewing Clouds, and 22 active participants, and the ‘Open University annual Learning and Technology conference’ ( which received 4417 unique guests, 474 distinct people logged in and viewing Clouds, and 54 active participants. During phase-two, the numbers of registered users who told us on registering that their institution was the Open University rose from 208 to 651 (up 213%). However, a number of Open University communities can be seen to be using the site. Some examples include:

·        Mobile technologies special interest group, 26 distinct people commenting, 1922 distinct IP addresses viewing.

·        Olnet, 60 distinct people commenting, 2489 distinct IP addresses viewing.

·        eLearning Community, 3 distinct people commenting, 164 distinct IP addresses viewing.

·        Associate Lecturers, 6 distinct people commenting, 446 distinct IP addresses viewing.

·        Classical Reception Studies Network (CRSN) Learning & Teaching Group, 8 distinct people commenting, 183 distinct IP addresses viewing.

·        K802 Students and staff 8 distinct people commenting, 1009 distinct IP addresses viewing 7 distinct people commenting, 294 distinct IP addresses viewing.

·        Teaching and Learning Librarians 22 distinct people commenting, 2353 distinct IP addresses viewing

Alevizou et al., (2010) looks in more detail at the use of the site by one Open University led group (OLnet) for sharing and the discussion of issues relating to the use and uptake of Open Educational Resources (OERs). They conclude that there is substantial evidence to indicate that Cloudworks is being used by this as a means of sharing and discussing and adopting more scholarly and evidence based approaches to practice.

Applying the Community Indicators Framework

In this section we will show how the Community Indicators framework described above can be applied to the evaluation of the Cloudworks site across the different types of Cloudscapes described in the previous section. Table 1 provides examples of evidence of the four Community Indicators and demonstrates examples evident from our evaluation of Cloudworks.


Table 2: Community Indicators in Cloudworks


The previous section gives some indication of the breadth and richness of the types of activities we are seeing on the site. New practices are emerging as users begin to colonise and appropriate sections of the site for their own interests. We are beginning to apply additional theoretical framework to gaining an understanding of this new patterns of behaviour, such as Goffman’s notion of ritual performance (Goffman, 1974), the concept of collective intelligence (see for example Lévy, 1997) and expansive learning (Engestrom, 1987); see Alevizou et al. (2010) for more on how we are using these frameworks.

Early evidence suggests, that Cloudworks is one of the sites blurring formal and informal cultural and networked learning about being an educationalist, scholar, practitioner or indeed a learner (in limited examples) with online interactions and experiences allowing roles to be learned, experiences to be shared, values to be exchanged and – to an extent – identities to be performed and (re)shaped, and communities to gather (Alevizou et al., forthcoming). It is too early in our research to demonstrate empirically more than glimpses of emerging patterns but we have now developed clear ideas about research questions that will inform Cloudworks position within this landscape of practice, as well as guide implications for further systematic research. 

We continue to recognise the complexity and challenges inherent in supporting and promoting a collaborative and open approach to design and reflection in learning and teaching practices, but also would argue that mechanisms to facilitate these are essential if learners and teachers are going to develop the necessary new literacy skills they will need in order to harness the potential of new technologies. We have argued in this paper that Cloudworks is a platform where we are starting to see evidence of expressive interactions, crowdsourcing and archiving of issues relating to learning designs and the process of design. We are also staring to see new connections and interactions emerging within Cloudworks (on a given time, for a given purpose, or randomly and serendipitously), which we believe are key in supporting the dialogic and creative process of design. The idea of Cloudworks functioning as a hub between several virtual and physical learning design spaces is both powerful and visible: we have pointed to evidence whereby designs can be seen to be both negotiated and improved. We do however recognise that we have significant work to do in encouraging and supporting designers in sharing, discussing and archiving worked designs, and promoting the shifts in culture and practice necessary for many educational practitioners in order to achieve this, and benefit from it.

This paper has attempted to consider the challenges associated with rapidly evolving social and participatory media and has argued that the design and evaluation of such sites needs new approaches. We have chosen to adopt a Design-Based Research approach to designing Cloudworks and have introduced the Community Indicators framework as a mechanism for evaluating user behaviour in the site. We have also strengthened our understanding of interactions on the site through the development and use of the Community Indicators framework described in this paper. We think the Community Indicators framework has a number of benefits. Firstly, it is built on relevant research literature on the development and sustainability of online communities, drawing on related frameworks, but extending beyond these in order to support communities in new social and participatory media. Secondly, it provides a framework for designing social and participatory sites. Thirdly, the framework can be used to map emergent and evolving patterns of user behaviour on the site. We think the framework could be useful in terms of designing and evaluating other social and participatory sites.


The OU Learning Design Initiative was funded through strategic funding from the OU and also the JISC as part of the Curriculum Design programme.


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Alevizou, P., Conole, G. and Galley, R. (2010), Using Cloudworks to support evidence-informed OER activities, Report for the HE Academy commissioned project PearlsintheClouds, The Open University: Milton Keynes.

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Chapter six - design languages

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Design languages

This chapter summarises the research on design languages and considers how this relates to the notion of a learning design language. It provides a useful contextual background to the discussions in later chapters on the visual representations we have developed as part of our work and a tool for visualising designs that we have developed, CompendiumLD. It draws in particular on Botturi and Stubbs (2008) who provide an authoritative account of design language research. Botturi & Stubbs demonstrate that there is a plethora of languages available to choose from; ranging from sketch-oriented languages that facilitate the creation and representation of the grand view of a design to more formal languages that enable detailed representations of specification and/or implementation details of a design. Botturi et al. (2006) define a design language as ‘a set of concepts that support structuring a design ask and conceiving solutions’. They go on to define a design language as a mental tool that can be expressed and hence communicated through a notation system (i.e. a set of signs and icons that allow representing a design problem or solution so that it is perceivable by our senses).

Gibbons et al. (2008) argue that design languages are an important aspect of instructional design. They define a design language as a ‘set of abstractions used to give structure, properties, and texture to solutions of design problems. Hohanson, Miller and Hooper (2008, p. 19) suggest that a design language is what designers use to communicate designs, plans and intentions to each other and to the produces of their artifacts, citing Gibbons and Brewer (2005, p. 113). Rose (2001) argues that understanding visual representations is a learned skill. Hence visual languages serve several purposes: i) to communicate a message through a visual or functional language, ii) to provide a synthetic idea, image or metaphor of complex ideas and iii) to create a grammar or produce meaning for its use.  Gibbons et al. (2008) argue that design languages: i) encourage disciplined design practice, ii) give organisation to the growth of design fields, iii) helps give historical context to evolving design fields and v) connect practices of a design field to theoretical concepts.

Botturi e al. (2006) argue that educational modelling languages have emerged as conceptual tools to help designers deal with the increasing complexity of designing for learning making effective use of new technologies and pedagogies.  They argue that they allow the development of reflective practice and potentially enhance a more thorough understanding and reuse of elearning. Derntl et al. (2010) suggest that a shared design language is one mechanism for dealing with design complexity and the requirements of communication in interdisciplinary design teams. They argue that designing for learning needs both beauty and precision; and 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.’

Stubbs and Gibbons (2008, p. 35) suggests that visual representations serve two purposes in design: 1) they can be used during design as part of the design process to represent some aspect of instruction before it had to be produced or represented, this may be in the form of storyboards or flow charts and 2) they can be part of the content that is being produced. They also argue that design drawing can aid the designer by reducing cognitive load during the design process and because design sketched are an external representation, they augment memory and support informational processing.  They also suggest that another view of drawing is similar to Vygotsky’s description of the relationship of language to thought. Substituting drawing for words, Vygotky says: ‘Thought is not merely expressed in (drawings), it comes into existence through them.’ Languages in general provide advantages that are particularly useful in design. Firstly, they allow thought to be communicated so that good ideas don’t get lost. Secondly, they provide a focus of attention that permits higher-power processing and anchoring of thought. Thirdly, they provide the ability to question and judge the value of the thought – to construct thoughts about thought. Jackendoff (1996) suggests that there are two stages to the design process: i) sketches to try ideas out and ii) as design progresses the drawings become more formal, more governed by rules and conventions.

Massironi  (2002) has produced a taxonomy of graphic productions, which categorises design drawings by their form and purpose. He distinguishes between representational (physical reality) and non-representational (abstract concepts) drawings. Botturi (2008, p. 112) identifies two types of languages: i) finalist communicative languages, which serve the purpose of representing a complete instructional design for communicating it to others for implementation, reuse or simply archival and ii) representative, which help designers think about the instruction they are designing and support its creation. The ability to express an idea, allows people to better analyse and understand it and to make better design decisions. In contrast, McKim categorises abstract graphic languages into seven types: Venn diagrams, organisation charts, flow charts, link-node diagrams, bar charts and graphs, schematic diagrams and pattern languages, (McKim, 1980)whereas Laseau (1986) categorises them into four main types: bubble diagrams, area diagrams, matrices and networks.

Design languages exist along a range of continua. Gibbons and Brewer (cited in Gibbons et al., 2008) describe several dimensions of design language variation: i) complexity-simplicity, ii) precision-nonprecision, iii) formality-informality, iv) personalisation-sharedness, v) implicitness-explicitness, vi) standardisation-non-strandardisation, and vii) computability-non-computability.

Botturi et al. (2006) described a number of commonly used design languages. A design language of particular importance is IMS Learning Design (IMS/LD), which is based on the Educational Modelling Language developed by OUNL. It describes the roles and activity sequences within an environment of learning objects and services. Properties, conditions and notifications can also be defined to further fine tune and specify the design.  UML has also been adapted for use in elearning contexts. Botturi et al. describe E2ML, which is based on UML, as a simple design language coupled with a visual notation system consisting of multiple interrelated diagrams. At the other end of the spectrum, the AUTC project has developed a design language that is much more practitioner orientated. It is based on work by Oliver and Herrington (2001) who identified three elements associated with a learning design:

1.      The tasks or activities learners are required to undertake

2.      The content resources provided to help learners complete the tasks

3.      The support mechanisms provided to assist learners to engage with the tasks and resources.

These three elements are used to describe a learning design, as a temporal sequence, with the tasks or activities being undertaken in the centre and the associated resources and support mechanism for each tasks or activity represented either side. Agostinho et al. (2008) argue that the AUTC visual learning design representation can be used to facilitate dissemination and reuse of innovative pedagogical strategies in university teaching. Boling and Smith (2008) describe the range of mediating artefacts that are used to support design both as process and product. They highlight the importance of sketching and consider the interplay between the two modes of metal representation required for sketching – propositional (largely symbolic) and analogue (quasi-pictorial, spatially depictive). They reference Goldschimidt (1991) who argues that there is an oscillation between propositional thinking and descriptive thinking during the process of design.


Boling, E., & Smith, K. M. (2008). Artifacts as tools in the design process. In D. Merrill & M. Spector (Eds.), Handbook of research in educational communications and technologies (3rd Ed ed.). New York: NY: Tailor and Francis.

Botturi, L. (2008). E2ML: a tool for sketching instructional design. In L. Botturi & S. T. Stubbs (Eds.), Handbook of visual languages for instructional design: theories and practices (pp. 112-132). hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.

Botturi, L., Derntl, M., Boot, E., & Figl, K. (2006, 5-7th July 2006). A classification framework for educational modelling languages in instructional design. Paper presented at the ICALT 2006, Kerkrade, The Netherlands.

Botturi, L., & Stubbs, T. (2008). Handbook of Visual Languages for Instructional Design: Theories and Practices: Information Science Reference %@ 1599047292.

Derntl, M., Parish, P., & Botturi, L. (2010). Beauty and precision in instructional design. Journal on e-learning, 9(2), 185-202.

Gibbons, A. S., Botturi, L., Boot, E., & Nelson, J. (2008). Design languages. In M.Discoll, M.D.Merill, J. v. Merrienboer & J. M. Spector (Eds.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technologies. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erbaum Associates.

Gibbons, A. S., & Brewer, E. K. (2005). Elementary principles of design languages and design notation systems for instructional design. In J. M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. V. Schaack & D. A. Wiley (Eds.), Innovations in instructional technology. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hohanson, B., Miller, C., & Hooper, S. (2008). Commodity, firmness, and delight: four modes of instructional design practice. In L. Botturi & T. Stubbs (Eds.), Handbook of visual languages for instructional design: Theories and practices (pp. 1-17). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.

Jackendoff, R. (1996). The architecture of the language facility. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Laseau, P. (1986). Graphic problem solving for architects and designers (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Massironi, M. (2002). The pyschology of graphic image: seeing, drawing, communicating. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erbaum Associate.

McKim, R. H. (1980). Thinking visually: a strategy manual for problem solving. Belmont, CA: Lifetime learning publications.

Oliver, R., & Herrington, J. (2001). Teaching and learning online: a beginners guide to e-learning and e-teaching in Higher Education. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: an introduction to the intrepretion of visual materials. Thousand Oaks: CA: SAGE publication.

Stubbs, T., & Gibbons, A. S. (2008). The power of design drawing in other design fields In L. Botturi & T. Stubbs (Eds.), Handbook of visual languages for instruction design: theories and practices (pp. 33-51). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.



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

Monday, December 13th, 2010

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?


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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).


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