A learning design team working collaboratively across spaces

Does learning need to be designed and what roles are involved in learning design? Initial reflections of #LTHEchat

I was delighted to be asked to work with Sandra Huskinson to pose the questions for a #LTHEchat on Twitter on 8 October 2020 exploring learning design. Particularly when many educators are shifting to online learning, by choice or necessity, the role of critical discussions about what works, and what doesn’t, in different modes of learning has never been more important. I encourage learning designers, learning technologist and educational developers to use these questions with their colleagues. The discussions that follow may provide ways, within your own context, to address the very practical challenge of changing the way we teach in times when face-to-face education is under strain.

Over the six questions we posed, our aim was to challenge thinking and raise awareness that learning design provides a method for establishing a scaffold that supports learners to progress through activity-based learning (Huskinson and Cornock, 2020). In this post, I’ve selected one contribution from the #LTHEchat for each of the questions we posed. There are other discussion points that I’m sure Sandra and I will address through other blog posts in the future.

Q1. What does ‘learning design’ mean to you?

The definition of Learning Design (note capitalisation) comes from the work by Dalziel, et al. (2006), and in summary is about providing transferable patterns of learning and teaching by using a standard mechanism for notation, a “descriptive framework” (p.6). As they describe, “the ultimate goal of Learning Design is to convey great teaching ideas among educators in order to improve student learning” (2006, p. 2). However, rather than exploring Learning Design as an academic discipline, the purpose of this question was to explore how learning is designed for, or the processes that educators go through in planning for learning. There were some excellent contributions in answer to this question, including reference to aligned learning (@elaines), drawing upon what students know and where they will go next (@MRGSheffield) and consideration of longer-term learning alignment through skills (@james_youdale). I’ve selected a response by @ColinHickie with the explicit reference that learning design involves consideration of not just the learning aligned to assessment, engagement and challenge, but also the environment in which learning takes place.

Personally, I am strongly influenced by social constructivism and active learning approaches in my learning designs. This is because I believe that learning is an inherent social experience, whether in the process of learning or applying that learning, an individual is interacting in some way with other people. Hickie’s tweet puts #edtech within that design mix, as that influences how educators and learners interact. I regularly hark back to Anderson (2003) referencing the idea of meaningful interaction between those involved in the learning process and learning content. That still underpins learning design today, just with a greater variety of interactions, with new forms of content and in a blend of online and offline spaces.

Q2. Who is involved in the design of learning in your educational context and what skills/knowledge do they bring?

This second question was deliberately placed to encourage educators to think about the role of others in creating learning experiences. Whether at the activity, module or programme level, rarely is learning designed in isolation. As a learning designer and learning technologist, I aim to bridge both pedagogy and choice of #edtech, with learning outcomes (what learners are expected to be able to do after a sequence of learning) driving decisions for both of these. Rebecca Broadbent (@STEM_Becky) emphasised how involving others brings different perspectives and expertise.

As a proponent of the view that learning is situated in context, bringing in expertise to frame content and learning activities within both a discipline and broader context adds depth to the learning design. There is also greater scope for students to have ownership over their learning if they can see where learning fits in their own personal or professional context. Broadbent alludes to this through noting the roles in educational teams that contribute expertise in employability (thinking both of transferable and subject-specific graduate attributes) and use of technology (as a means for teaching and learning, as well perhaps development of digital capability). I also noted Broadbent’s reference to how supporting study skills is part of the learning design process, something we pick up on in the final choice of question.

There’s a parallel here to Bruce, et al. (2006), who provided six frames through which to view education (in their context information literacy). Conole’s (2006, p.126) visual representation of the relationship of these six frames groups content, competency and learning to learn together “associated with the learning process” and personal relevance, social impact and relational (linking and conveying perspectives) as “contextual” of the learning. In the learning design process then, in order to view learning and teaching through each of these six frames, it would be advantageous to involve people with expertise in such perspectives.

Q3. What methods or approaches do you use to design learning activities in your educational context?

In my role I use an adapted version of the ABC learning design approach (Young and Perović, 2016), which has a particular focus on what students are doing during a course of study. The emphasis on activity needs counterbalancing with the content required to undertake that activity, but through the design process the discussion between educators and others involved in the learning design is incredibly valuable. In response to this question in the Twitter chat, various approaches and frameworks were mentioned, including a focus on Meyer and Land’s (2003) “threshold concepts” (@VirnaRossi), Salmon’s (2013) Carpe Diem (@_Daniel_Scott) and flipped learning (@MRGSheffield). Key to all these approaches is discussion, and from the point of view of a learning technologist or learning designer, the ability to listen and provide challenge.

This point was brilliantly captured by @james_youdale, particularly around being a critical friend to educators. I have championed for some time the need for awareness of discipline-specific pedagogical approaches, rather than blanket application of pedagogical frameworks. By listening, challenging justifications of approach and providing new perspectives or ways to implement approaches, the learning designer and learning technologist roles work in partnership.

Q4. Can you design learning activities that are agnostic of the mode of teaching (face-to-face, online)? If so, or if not, why?

This was a deliberately provocative question, particularly in a year when many educators have had to shift to online learning and remote teaching with little or no time to adapt materials appropriately for the different mode. It was a fascinating part of the Twitter chat, with perspectives on either side of the debate.

I’ve selected Kate Lindsay’s response (@KTDigital) as an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of both offline and online learning spaces impacts on decisions over what content and activities form the learning design. Even if the same type of activity can be reframed to work online/offline or synchronously/asynchronously (for example @suebecks suggestion of a quiz or group discussion), the scaffold for the learning will be different. It may involve different expectations over the form, quantity and frequency of engagement. It may lead to different forms of learning output, formative assessment and responses from the educator.

As Lindsay suggested, the application of a high-level learning design is going to be dependent on the space in which it is enacted, whether that is face-to-face or online. It is this influence of the learning space as one of the factors, both in the implementation and the shaping of a learning design, that our next question tried to unpick.

Q5. What is the most important element of a learning design to focus on: the content, the activities or the learning space?

Another question with no one right answer, and to try to avoid the answer of ‘all of them’, the point of the question is to challenge the thinking of why each of these are important in a learning design. Kate Wright (@kateawright) and Maddy Page’s responses (@TheMadPage) grounded any choice in the learning objective (or learning outcome if we think of specific actions students will be able to do after the sequence of learning), and the long term goals of the students. There were also many responses which referred to ensuring students were the focus of the learning design (@KiuSum; @EdTechYogi; @DrPaulKleiman). Students, what they bring, what they will experience and what they will take aware, are of course core to the process of learning design, however this question looks at what will be designed for those students. Absolutely, there will be influence of the students’ backgrounds, meta-cognitive abilities, prior learning and personal learning goals, but a learning scaffold can still be designed to allow for each of these student factors. Whilst knowing who your students are is important, often at the point of design educators are not fully are of the individual personal interests of their students. That’s the difference between design and actual teaching activities.

Recently documented approaches to learning design, such as informed learning design (Maybee, et al., 2019), show how content and activity are closely intertwined. Maybee, et al. described “informed learning design process begins with determining what students are meant to learn from the course… in practical terms, this means defining objects of learning for the course, which encompass both the content and the process of learning” (2019, p.586). At first glance this prioritises content or artefacts of learning over activity. What is to be learnt appears to be focused on the information provided by the educator. Yet, Maybee, et al. continue “informed learning design guides this process by focusing on the development of activities to enable the students to become aware of critical aspects and features associated with using information and content” (2019, p.587). Even with discipline knowledge and concepts as the central structure of the design, it is learning activity that determines how students will engage with that material and through which process they will build their understanding.

I’ve selected Dale Munday’s response (@Dale_Munday) as it implies an aspect of the learning design that can be missed by focusing on only student activity. Any learning design has to involve planning the activity of the educator too, and what the educator brings in a dialogic learning process (rather than just conveying of information or scaffolding of tasks). the process of formative assessment and feedback, where the learning and teaching is adapted based on the needs of the students, should be a priority of any learning design. This is why in the most basic form of learning design, the swim-lane of educator activity, student activity and resources, there is ample scope to consider the relationship between what students and educators both are doing in response to each other.

Q6. How do you support your students, through your learning design, so they can understand their role in learning and make progress?

The final question is not about generic study skills, but about how the actual design of teaching and learning enables students to make progress through that design. As an example, flipped classroom pedagogies tend to be radically different to what students are used to based on traditional education. Greater ownership and motivation to engage with content prior to face-to-face time is often in conflict with other modules in the programme, and so scaffolding that process of learning in a new way is equally important as scaffolding the learning of subject content.

Kiu Sum’s additional questions on this theme (@KiuSum) tap into two aspects of scaffolding for learners to understand how to progress: their role and the expectations of them. Going back to Engeström’s (2001) adapted activity theory model, ‘rules’, ‘community’ and ‘division of labour’ form part of the activity framework. These can often be missed in learning design, but form a key part of the motivation of engagement in learning, stemming from a clarity of expectations. Including ‘how to learn’ and ‘expected behaviours’ as part of the learning design ties directly into the discipline-specific nature of applied learning designs. As an educator within a discipline, you can guide students to become part of that discipline, understanding the thought processes and application of knowledge in that discipline space. Much of this is captured in learning outcomes. Learning design is about how the knowledge, skills and actions required to achieve those outcomes can be met through a range of learning spaces and learning interactions.


  1. Anderson, T. (2003) Getting the mix right again: an updated theoretical rationale for interaction, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2).
  2. Bruce, C., Edwards, S. and Lupton, M. (2006). Six Frames for Information literacy Education: a conceptual framework for interpreting the relationships between theory and practice, Innovation in Teaching and Learning in Information and Computer Sciences, 5(1).
  3. Conole, G. (2006). The 7Cs Of Learning Design, in Dalziel, J. (ed) Learning Design: Conceptualizing a framework for teaching and learning online. London: Routledge.
  4. Engeström, Y. (2001). ‘Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization’, Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.
  5. Huskinson, S. and Cornock, M. (2020). Does learning need to be design and what roles are involved in learning design? #LTHEchat blog.
  6. Maybee, C., Bruce, C.S., Lupton, M. and Pang, M.F. (2019). Informed learning design: teaching and learning through engagement with information, Higher Education Research & Development, 38 (3), 579-593.
  7. Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003). ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising’, in Rust, C. (ed.). Improving Student Learning – ten years on, Oxford: OCSLD.
  8. Salmon, G. (2013) Carpe Diem: A Team Based Approach to Learning Design. Gilly Salmon.
  9. Young, C. and Perović, N. (2016) Rapid and Creative Course Design: As Easy as ABC? Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 228, 390-395.





One response to “Does learning need to be designed and what roles are involved in learning design? Initial reflections of #LTHEchat”

  1. […] on from a Twitter chat on the role of learning design that took place in 2020, I was invited back to follow up on one of the questions which focused on […]

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