Online and Digital Learning

Enabling professional development by letting go of the pedagogical paradigms: considering the role of learning design, data and research in my practice (part 1 – dilemma and direction)

This reflective article is a version of my paper presented at the ALT Conference, 3-5 September 2019, Edinburgh (abstract, annotated slides, video recording), exploring the ideas that have influenced how I view online learning design for open online courses. It draws upon my experience as programme lead for online CPD at the National STEM Learning Centre. In terms of my practice context, I am responsible for learning design and delivery of a programme of over 20 free online courses on the FutureLearn platform, for teachers, technicians and industry volunteers working with young people in STEM subjects. The online programme forms a key part of the STEM Learning vision for a world-leading STEM education for all young people across the UK, as well as wider reach with a significant international audience.

In this first part I look at three perspectives which inform professional development learning design, specifically for the teaching profession.

The dilemma in the design of open online courses: learning designed vs. learning experienced

The research literature, learning designs and theoretical frameworks that have influenced my role, largely come from technology-enhanced learning and online learning contexts. They characterise the type of learning that learning technology may enhance, enable me to design activities or review the way both learners and educators can interact in an online space (for further discussion, see my SCMALT Portfolio). In many cases, this body of literature and the theoretical frameworks described within, are being transferred, sometimes uncritically, to open online course design. The more I consider the distinctive nature of MOOCs (massive open online courses), the more I consider how pedagogical approaches, common to other forms of face-to-face and online learning, cannot be defined in the same way.

Throughout, I’ve been grappling with the dilemma that the ‘learning designed’ is not necessarily the ‘learning experienced’, particularly for open online course. What the educator intends, may not be what the learner achieves. This thought started to pose existential questions to me as a learning technologist about the role of learning design, theoretical bases and in particular activity-driven, learning-outcomes based course design.

As I explored some of the literature specifically written about open online courses, I became increasingly sceptical about how particular pedagogies were being evidenced through learning designs, in an almost deterministic fashion. Only recently have more critical perspectives surfaced, for example on whether social learning is actually taking place on social learning platforms. This may be in part due to the hype of MOOCs subsiding, as the real needs that open online courses can address are evidenced, and so within the research literature a more critical understanding is formed to justify this particular form of online learning for particular audiences.

Open online courses for teacher professional development: direction from literature

I have previously indicated how the learning design for online professional development courses I manage have been influenced by activity theory, ideas around interaction and positioning of learning activities according to frameworks. For this reflective paper I draw more specifically on frameworks stemming from literature in teacher professional development and national sector guidelines. Each of the three sources I’ve selected below offer insights into how open online courses may be most effectively created from a learning design perspective, addressing learner needs and as part of professional practice.


Collaboration, discussion, reflection and evidence-based activities form some of the underlying design principles common to both face-to-face and online learning within the organisation I work for. Whilst there are many frameworks that explore this, there is one type of pedagogical approach that seems to suit the teacher professional development courses as explained by Laurillard (2016). Through a case study of a teacher professional development course delivered as a MOOC, Laurillard cited Avalos (2011) with “co-learning” as an approach, defining this as:

“networking and interchanges among schools and situations and is strengthened in formalised experiences such as courses and workshops that introduce peer coaching or support collaboration and joint projects… the lesson learned is that teachers naturally talk to each other, and that such talk can take on an educational purpose.”

Avalos (2011:18)

The organisation I work for facilitates this co-learning on a massive scale across a national network of partners and local partnerships in the face-to-face mode. In the translation to the online professional development experience, Laurillard (2016) related co-learning to “peer community learning” (which has a looser definition than Lave and Wenger’s (1991) ‘communities of practice’). Yet, the sense of community comes from reaching out of the confines of the MOOC itself, due to platform limitations, and I assume also the spaces in which the learners were more comfortable with smaller group interactions. Some of these spaces could also be offline for teachers in the same geographic location taking the course together. Here then the ideas of bridging online and face-to-face spaces are starting to be discussed, and this theme is one that I feel is becoming all the more relevant to the professional development sector (with the acknowledgement it is very much present already in higher education).

Drawing upon some of the specifics of the learning design, what is particularly telling is how Laurillard described the online course in the case study as “curated digital resources with orchestrated peer collaboration.” (Laurillard, 2016:5). There may be some criticism here that resources implies an online textbook, but I would argue that the collaborative aspect takes such content a step further. Indeed, the use of the word “orchestrated” through a more literal interpretation suggests controlled bringing together different parts to produce a whole, an experience which could not exist without contributions from each learner. To put this into practice, the technology and technology-enhanced learning approaches from the case study which typify co-learning are:

“Issue-focused discussion forums that elicit valuable community discussions.
Peer-assessed assignments that enable teachers to learn from each other.
Discussion forums linked to off-platform tools for sharing resources and ideas.”

Laurillard (2016:14)

Focused discussion is a foundation of online learning design, encouraging a wide range of perspectives to be considered on a specific topic. This, by far, is where the value of peer learning comes into professional development and is well-evidenced in our own online programme. Whilst assignments are not used in the course designs I lead on, we do have structured tasks that encourage review of peer work. In some instances, examples are provided from course authors as part of course content rather than peers, and in other cases through sharing of artefacts created through online activities on Padlet.

Where the educators on a course are themselves teachers, or former teachers, and therefore part of the professional culture of the learners, I argue the co-learning concept should extend to treat educators and learners as peers for each other. This leads to co-learning as a useful concept to position online professional development design, where the purpose of learning from others, in a deliberate and structured way, furthers the independent learning of an individual.


How the independent learning of an individual is supported within a preset of learning activities and designed experiences often leads to discussions of personalised learning, whether in the environment, pathways of learning or choices of activities. Within FutureLearn, the platform used for the online programme I lead, there is no software-based mechanism for filtering which parts of the course meet certain learning needs. Therefore, how a learner identifies their needs and the activities to help them meet their professional development goals, is achieved only through activities and self-regulation.

In exploring teachers’ “preferred learning domains (‘what’), their preferred learning activities (‘how’), and their reasons to learn about a selection of learning domains (‘why’)”, Louws, et al, (2017:171) illustrated the diversity of individual development needs. More significantly, the point that Louws, et al. explored is how these needs may vary due to stage of career. Broadly categorising the goals (learning domains) relating to classroom management, subject matter and student care, the only statistically significant relationship showed classroom management as a priority for both newly qualified and the most experienced teachers (Louws, et al., 2017:177), with other aspects applicable across the career range.

A similar picture is described by Louws respective to means of professional development, with ‘reflection’, ‘keeping up to date’ and ‘experimenting’ all present but having no significant difference in preference across the range of teachers. Whilst this research is not concerned with online learning, the presentation of a broad range of goals and methods makes designing professional learning for even a specific audience of teachers very challenging.

“For many of the learning domains [goals] we did not find any significant relationships with years of experience. This may be due to the large variation in the data. Teachers’ self-directed learning is influenced not only by their experience in teaching, but also by current national policies and societal discussions in education…, by school context, and by individual factors related to teachers’ professional and personal lives.”

Louws, et al. (2017:181)

In part, this challenge is answered through social learning designs that enable the tailoring of the learning experience and bending of course content to the personal level through mediated discussions. Designing activities that allow learners to extrapolate from the content, reflect within context and evaluate the relevance of theoretical ideas through practice permit the personalisation. However, it cannot be underestimated the amount of self-direction required to achieve this level of ‘higher order’ learning.

“Previous studies have already shown that teachers do set their own learning goals and direct their own learning, although they might need some assistance in this process of reflection and enactment.”

Louws, et al. (2017:182)

The skills required to self-direct professional learning, motivate and sustain development are particularly important in the teaching profession. Within the classroom environment, teachers need to make judgements about their students learning and the actions they take as a teacher to support that learning. It requires a reflective and analytical perspective on practice. The same degree of reflection and analysis must apply through the learning experience of professional development.

Sustained and embedded

Self-directed learning is also pertinent within UK frameworks, with the Department for Education Professional Development Standards emphasising the need for sustained and embedded programmes of activity. When this is applied to open online learning, the choice of courses and sustaining engagement in these courses often falls very much down to the individual learner, where course deliverers provide support at a distance. Over the last 18 months, the online programme I lead has established pathways through courses, where courses may work best for the learner if taken in sequence or at stages of their career. Though the courses do not sit within a formal or accredited programme, they can be used by individual teachers, departments or whole schools to create bespoke programmes of development.

“Professional development is most effective when teachers: seek programmes that typically last at least two terms and which provide a sustained rhythm of ongoing support; translate ideas into relevant practice and knowledge for specific classes and pupils, making time for ongoing practice and review… [And] providers of professional development: … support participants and their schools to sustain and embed change and link shorter activities with sustained programmes.”

Department for Education (2016:10)

There are other aspects of the Department for Education guidance which, whilst not referring to any form or method of professional development, appear to transfer well across both face-to-face and online learning spaces.

Traits of professional practice

Combining the three perspectives of ‘co-learning’, ‘self-directed’ and ‘sustained practice’, it is clear that these are traits of professional learning. Yet, the means for supporting individuals to develop these traits, particularly at a distance, is poorly researched.

With the increasing emphasis on digital competencies, learning at a distance, self-regulated learning, and online communication skills, to name but a few, are all needing to be developed by learners with as much focus as their professional development goals.

As I will explore in subsequent posts, the underlying pedagogy of ‘social learning’ which is an embedded part of the FutureLearn platform should not necessarily be the only pedagogy that courses are designed for. Social learning itself requires skills and competencies of online learners, perhaps not addressed through previous formal education. Further, the research basis to justify particular pedagogical decisions often stems from analysis of platform data which I will argue is rarely viewed critically.

As I aim to best support my learners in meeting their professional development goals through online learning, I see many contradictions in open online course design. What I am debating at the moment is how far the existing research and perspectives can inform learning design decisions.


  1. Avalos, B. (2011) ‘Teacher professional development in Teaching and Teacher Education over ten years’, Teaching and Teacher Education, 27, 1020. (Cited by Laurillard, 2016).
  2. Department for Education (2016). Standards for teachers’ professional development: implementation guidance for school leaders, teachers and organisations that offer professional development for teachers.
  3. Laurillard, D. (2016). ‘The educational problem that MOOCs could solve: professional development for teachers of disadvantaged students’, Research in Learning Technology, 24(1).
  4. Lave, J., and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Louws, M.L., Meirink, J.A., Van Veen, K. and Van Driel, J.H. (2017). ‘Teachers’ self-directed learning and teaching experience: What, how, and why teachers want to learn’, Teaching and Teacher Education, 66, 171-183.

Next: Part 2: Contradictions

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