Portfolio Mix - Combining different educational experiences through learning design

Online education portfolio strategy and learning design

This article explores the relationship between online education portfolio strategy and learning design within higher education. It suggests four groups of learning experience aligned to addressing professional learning needs and the relationship between different learning experiences as part of a portfolio or product mix.

Online education portfolio strategy

An online course portfolio represents the combination of different online education experiences, their reflection of institutional expertise and their applicability to learners and industry. In a commercial setting, developing a portfolio, or the product mix, is the positioning of different products to meet different audience needs. Within higher education, the portfolio of online educational experiences may include: fully online degrees (both undergraduate and postgraduate), diplomas and certificates, stand-alone modules, micro-credentials (any credit-bearing award less than a certificate), non-credit bearing short courses and sequences of short courses, executive education, professionally-accredited CPD, webinars and open-access content. This is not an exhaustive list, and undoubtedly new forms of educational experience in fully online, hybrid and blended modes will develop.

For clarity, the adoption of ‘portfolio strategy’ or ‘product mix’ language is not to suggest a model of students as consumers. Education, particularly from a social constructivism view point, is about what each party in the educational process brings to the shared experience of learning. The experience is therefore not transactional, but collaborative and transformational, dependent on participation, contribution and responsibility for one’s own learning. The attitudes, behaviours, experience and knowledge that each learner contributes to a course is part of the collective learning experience. Learning outcomes may be defined by educators, but the relevance, motivation and long term impact is individual to the learner. Indeed, as Calma and Dickson-Deane (2020, p.1228) argued, drawing upon systems theory, “students are part of the system and need to work together with academics in order for the ‘product’ to be successful.” However, what this language of portfolio strategy does offer is consideration of how presentation of educational experiences can be navigated by prospective and current learners, from an understanding of how higher education can play a significant role across career lifetimes. 

How institutions present their full portfolio of courses may also encourage what Balogh and Sipos (2020) identify as ‘diversification’ of study. Their exploration of how students change their field of study between undergraduate and postgraduate courses suggested a conscious decision by students to “reduce labour market uncertainty, which adds further motivation to a diversified career strategy” (Balogh and Sipos, 2020, p.1390). The paths between related and potentially tangential subjects may therefore be of interest when forming a portfolio strategy, and preparing students for long standing rhetoric of the uncertainty over the nature of jobs in the future (UKCES, 2014) and emerging professions or new jobs that are yet to be defined (World Economic Forum, 2018). Study paths are therefore not necessarily discipline-fixed and each learner will bring their own context to the decisions they make over the level of specialism or generalism in their educational journey.

Positioning educational experiences

Defining the relationship between educational experiences provides significant opportunities to consider lifelong learning and career-wide programmes of study. The educational provision from a higher education institution, as already suggested, is much greater than a single degree programme. In many ways, a degree programme should not be seen as the end-point of a learners’ educational journey, yet in higher education is often seen as the goal for recruitment funnels and academic achievement. However, degree participation has a high barrier to entry. Cost, time, socio-economic background, perceived relevance of programme, family commitments and risk to employment stability are just a few barriers that limit individuals opportunities to engage with full degree study, particularly mid-career (MacMahon, et al., 2018). Universities have a responsibility to open knowledge and skills through the broader palette of educational experiences, especially those that are online, to be accessible to a diverse and inclusive learner base. To achieve this, there is a relationship to be established between learner needs and educational experiences on offer. 

Educational experiences for learner needs

The following table presents four groups of educational experience. Starting with microlearning defined as “an educational experience that is short, focused and effective” (Torgerson, 2021, p.20), through to short courses, microcredentials and degree programmes.

‘Barriers to engagement’ is a representation of the relative ease and immediacy of access, which will vary by individual, but are also reflective of the commitment required to enter and sustain that form of educational experience.

‘Participation’ reflects the approach to selecting experiences and activities, participating (including the learning skills required) and the structure of the learning experience. This is arbitrarily from informal which may be self-selected, self-paced and without formal assessment, to formal which is a highly regulated educational experience, with structured patterns of engagement and formal, credit-bearing assessment. It is, however, important to note that this categorisation is not about ‘flexibility’, with emerging approaches to formal education through unbundled degrees and competency based degrees allow flexibility over time and place. 

Educational experienceBarriers to EngagementParticipationScope of learning need
Short courseLowSemi-formalResponsive
Degree programmeHighFormalAdvancement or Change
Table 1. Summary of four groups of educational experience

There is alignment here of the ‘Scope of learning need’ to a professional context, with a view that the educational experiences empower and enable individuals to succeed in a professional capacity. This is not the sole purpose of higher education, and equally there is an interpretation for societal outcomes that arise from individuals completing study and affecting change beyond individual career achievement, financial reward or professional goals. The four levels of scope selected are indicative, and not necessarily mutually exclusive, however imply a level of depth and immediacy of application of learning. 

  • Functional needs are those which enable an individual to complete a task, for example needs relating to skills, software, tools, approaches. A typical example may be a short ten-minute e-learning package or a YouTube video. 
  • Responsive needs are those which emerge through identification of needs in the short term, for example a deeper dive into a particular skill or knowledge area. Sequences of short courses might also be related to professional accreditation, for example alignment of course content and outcomes with accreditation frameworks. 
  • Milestone learning needs characterise when a learner aims to gain recognition at a milestone point in their career, for example as a step-up or step-into a new role requiring a transition in their own knowledge and understanding. One such approach is the use of microcredentials to reflect competency milestones (Gauthier, 2020). 
  • Advancement or change aligns to the most substantial of educational experiences. Degree programmes reflect the largest scope of professional learning needs, including those needs as yet unknown at the point of enrolment. Indeed, the typical degree programme curriculum is based on established theory and cutting-edge research, combining critical thinking, problem solving, interpersonal and discipline-specific skills with alignment across modules and at the programme level (Sharpe and Armellini, 2019). Graduate attributes therefore are both discipline specific and transferable to a range of careers. Individuals looking to significantly and holistically change their professional skills, knowledge and attributes will have needs met by a full programme.

Immediacy of application is one of the key distinguishing attributes between the educational experiences. An emphasis on formal, predetermined curricula has its challenges when aiming to develop learners ready for the workplace. There is a need therefore for a concerted effort to consider the broader forms of learning to establish a lifelong learning course portfolio. Wheeler (2019) characterises three levels of ‘just in case’ for a defined curriculum, ‘just in time’ for a bespoke curriculum, and ‘just for me’ for personalised learning. 

“The ‘just in case’ curriculum taught in schools is crammed full of content, a proportion of which will be out of date or superseded in a relatively short time. Many new employees arrive in roles without the prerequisite skills for optimal performance… And yet learning ‘just enough’ and ‘just in time’ is realistically the only way workers can adapt in a world of constant change. Our best strategy is to promote constant, relevant and authentic learning, within a customized and personalized ‘just for me’ strategy.” 

(Wheeler, 2019, p.91)

There are similarities therefore in how educational experiences, the level of personalisation over how, when and what to engage with, and the structure around the educational experience determine the immediacy of application. The figure below represents this as a spectrum from immediate application and immediate task-oriented needs, through to planned objectives which ‘future-proof’ an individual to tackle unknown challenges and problems.

One-axis spectrum from Immediate Needs to Aniticipatory Longer Term Objectives. Microlearning (immediate needs), Short courses, Microcredentials, Degree (anticipatory).
Figure 1. Educational experiences aligned to immediacy of learning need

Developing an educational portfolio requires a mix of experiences that enable the full spectrum of application of learning. Even within individual experiences, the relationship between the immediacy of application and longer-term potential needs to be clear. There is a significant opportunity therefore for learning designers to be part of the discussion of portfolio creation.

Relationship between learning design and portfolio mix

In learning design, decisions are made around the combination of pedagogy, discipline, learning environment, teaching approach, activity and assessment. The analysis of students’ learning needs, the definition of learning objectives and the design of learning activities towards learning outcomes that is proportional to those needs forms the start of the learning design process (Laurillard, 2012). This design process typically positions itself in the scope of module design, yet there is potential to consider the learning design with a much broader frame. 

There is an obvious, though perhaps unrealised, relationship between learning design and portfolio creation, considering how multiple forms of educational experience can share, reuse and repurpose courses, content and activities. Proactively designing for a broader portfolio, the structure, engagement patterns and scope of learning activities can be considered as experiences that transcend individual courses but form part of a larger tapestry of learning over time. Adopting a responsive approach, needs that arise from student cohorts shared through teaching interactions, activities and post-course feedback can inform future portfolio direction. 

Awareness of how individual courses fit within the broader portfolio also enable learning designers to make more explicit the connections between educational experiences, outcomes and stages in learners’ careers. Each experience is then placed within a study path, which does not need to be pre-determined by the educator, but can be considered by the learner within their own context. This leads to designing for transition points in learning, scaffolding reflection and supporting learners to identify their next development goal. 

The process of identifying opportunities to follow-on or feed-forward learning mitigates the portfolio trap of only developing courses based on known high-reach market areas and pre-existing programmes. Instead, new opportunities that arise from design-led discussions, exploration of learner needs and creativity from learning design methodology provide room for portfolio innovation. In turn, considering how, when and why learners engage, what their motivations are and designing for these across a range of educational experiences will broaden portfolio relevance and utilise the advantages of the many forms of digital and online education available.


  1. Balogh, G. and Sipos, N. (2020). Is it worth for bachelor graduates to diversify study programme for master level?, International Journal of Educational Management, 34(9), 1387-1401.
  2. Calma, A. and Dickson-Deane, C. (2020). The student as customer and quality in higher education, International Journal of Educational Management, 34(8), 1221-1235.
  3. Gauthier, T. (2020). The value of microcredentials: The employer’s perspective, Competency-based Education, 5(2), e01209.
  4. Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a Design Science. Abingdon: Routledge.
  5. Sharpe, R. and Armellini, A. (2019). Designing for learning within an organisational context, in Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (eds.) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Principles and Practices of Design. Abingdon: Routledge.
  6. Torgerson, C. (2021). What is microlearning?, in Corbeil, J. R., Khan, B. H. and Corbeil, M. E. (eds.) Microlearning in the Digital Age. Abingdon: Routledge. 
  7. UKCES (2014). The Future of Work: Jobs and skills in 2030. UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
  8. Wheeler, S. (2019). Digital Learning in Organisations. London: Kogan Page.
  9. World Economic Forum (2018). The Future of Jobs Report 2018. Centre for the New Economy and Society, World Economic Forum.






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