Online Learning Summit Leeds - Opening day 2 to interest excitement and inspiration

Thinkingful design: finding more to learning design through the Online Learning Summit

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I attended and contributed to the Online Learning Summit at the University of Leeds. Like many, I am still processing the many ideas, methods and challenges discussed and using these perspectives to critically appraise my own work and more broadly that in the online education sector.

I found the event illuminating in terms of new ways to think about my role as a learning designer and how to push forward online education. Indeed, I wasn’t expecting to discover new ways of thinking and new approaches to educational design that would bring hope to what can be achieved through our work. One of my pre-event questions (an approach I use to in advance of multi-day events) was:

How is learning design evolving to reflect the unique opportunities of the institution and meet the needs of learners?

I was concerned that we (the online learning sector) had fallen into a rut of reinventing the wheel, endless pedagogical models all doing the same thing, and learning design becoming just a process rather than a mode for innovation and effective learning experiences. I wanted ways to bring enjoyment into learning design, to balance the procedural and output-driven demands required of learner designers, with collaborative exploration of the unknown. Perhaps even emphasising ‘learning’ in learning design as a verb and not a noun.

Three ways of thinking

In exploring systems thinking, design thinking and futures thinking methods I found the ideas from these three perspectives complementary and enabling both holistic and granular design discussion, creativity and decision-making. Joann Kozyrev, from Western Governors University, summarised these as:

The links above provide the definitions selected by Kozyrev in her presentation.

Futures thinking

Futures thinking I find particularly enticing as a method. Leah Henrickson led delegates through their own imagined futures of ChatGPT with a carefully constructed series of questions (slides available). In introducing this process Henrickson quoted:

“… implausibility needs to be brought in as a lens to look at problems and challenge the very logics through which we understand them. Doing so may bend implausible ideas into workable possibilities.”

(Wilkins, et al., 2023, p.234)

In part, the futures thinking approach encourages extreme dystopia or utopia, the implausible as well as likely, opening up visions so that action can be taken in favour or against them materialising. I found it a highly effective way to conceive long term goals and focus on what to do in the here and now to realise them. 

Learning engineering

Alongside thinking there needs to be action. Aaron Kessler shared Learning Engineering as a methodology developed by a comparatively small Learning Science and Teaching team at MIT. Building on established principles of learning design, iteration and design processes within a context, how Kessler and colleagues’ model stands out is what is placed at the centre. As Kessler explained, sometimes there is a tendency to focus on a solution. For example, a prescribed pedagogy, specific platform or tool, or even assumptions stemming from student feedback. In the Learning Engineering process, a challenge is defined at the start and remains the central reference point throughout design, development and implementation. As Kessler explained, defining a challenge is to “understand the opportunity to improve learning or learning conditions.” This echoed a point made by Joann Kozyrev for learning designers to present themselves as someone who will bring ease to an identified challenge. There is a need to have a shared problem, otherwise the solution proposed is not going to meet the needs of the educator, or for that matter the students.

With a focus on a challenge to solve, rather than an approach towards a pre-determined solution, the dialogue between action and end goal is prioritised. At each stage design teams are referring back to the challenge, refocusing work, within the established context of the problem. This is further represented in the Learning Engineering process with two-way interaction and communication between each of the three phases: investigation, creation and innovation. Data is a factor in each, informing decisions along with sound learning science. Techniques such as design decision tracking further explicate justifications over the project lifecycle. A focus on the project team bringing discrete expertise, working collaboratively and with a shared understanding, aims to meet student and other stakeholder needs. 

“An engineering design methodology particularly suited to learning engineering is called human-centered design, a problem-solving process that begins with empathetically understanding a challenge people face and then iteratively developing and discovering a best fit solution for a given person or group to meet a specific need within a specific context.”

(Goodell, 2023)

This highly iterative and dialogical process raises the expectation that educational experiences are not to be fixed and in my interpretation, thankfully, begins to smash the ‘online education as publishing’ model. Far more interesting and effective in my view is ‘online education as responsive’ and this opens up opportunities to innovate in learning design that is flexible, adapting to cohorts and empowering for both educators and learners alike.

Thinking in learning design

Going back to my original preparation question then, the approaches briefly explored above give learning designers latitude to really think about what challenges exist for institutions in innovation and impactful online education. They aid institution leaders in thinking where their university needs to be in five or ten years, but equally empower educators and designers to nudge ahead of the curve. These ways of thinking ask what are the systematic challenges to collaborate on (such as accessibility, as the focus of the panel I chaired) and what teams need to work together to solve these challenges? They place education within a broader context, of political, social and environmental change, and therefore enable educational opportunities to reside within the context of learners. In learning design, I’ve always said one of the most important parts of the role is to ask questions and listen, and these approaches to thinking expand our toolkit to facilitate rich collaboration.

It’s an exciting and difficult time to be working in education, particularly online education. With so much uncertainty in the world, post-truth and post-pandemic digital exhaustion, we can sometimes lose sight of the importance of learning and empowering others through education. Discovering ways of thinking about what we can achieve through our work as learning designers can offer us a positive and creative outlook. Design is to make better; let us find space for thinkingful learning design.


  1. Goodell, J. (2023). Introduction: What is learning engineering? In: Goodell, J. and Kolodner, J. (2023). Learning Engineering Toolkit. Abingdon: Routledge. (preview).
  2. Henrickson, L. (2023). Stories of Artificial Intelligence: Imagining Our Technological Futures. Online Learning Summit, University of Leeds, 10-11 July 2023.
  3. Kessler, A. (2023). Applying the Learning Engineering Process: Continually and Iteratively Supporting Online Learning. Online Learning Summit, University of Leeds, 10-11 July 2023.
  4. Kozyrev, J. (2023). Bringing Wicked Education Problems to Heel: Three Ways of Thinking. Online Learning Summit, University of Leeds, 10-11 July 2023.
  5. Wilkins, K., Bennett, L. and Marshall, H. (2023). Calibrating Possibility. Possibility Studies & Society. 1(1-2), 230-235.


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