Understanding learning design

My previous post acknowledged that a number of UK universities that primarily teach in a face-to-face mode develop distance learning as a cottage industry. It is often the case that distance learning is developed in a manner that adheres to traditional teaching models, in which the educator researches the area, develops the curriculum, delivers the learning and performs the assessment. This practice is expensive, inefficient, time consuming for academics who are increasingly time poor and does not always result in the best learning product.

David Sewart (2010) suggested that the development of distance learning should be more akin to an industrialised process. Let’s consider distance learning development as similar to a car going through a manufacturing process. The car chassis is placed on a conveyor that then moves from area to area in order for different components to be added until there is a final product for testing and delivery. Each person who works a particular area is an expert in their area and is consequently quick and good at what they do. The development of distance learning is done effectively in a similar way in many institutions around the world. The educator provides the content for the distance learning course, this is then handed over to a learning design specialist who plans the sequencing and presentation of the content and the communication, assessment and feedback opportunities. Once this is agreed, learning technologists (assuming the course will be delivered online) then implement the technical build of the course until it is ready for developmental testing and, finally, delivery. Quality assurance processes should be built in at every opportunity and ultimately the educator should have the final ‘sign off’ of the course. This way of working has numerous benefits, including:

  • the distribution of workloads
  • rigorous education that has been peer reviewed
  • improved cost efficiency
  • ultimately a better final product.

However, this kind of working quite often involves a big shift in thinking, and a big part of this involves educating people about the roles of learning design specialists and learning technologists. An article by Clifford Omodele Fyle et al. from the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman and the University of Leicester, entitled ‘Troubles Times: The role of instructional design in a modern dual-mode university’, published in Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning in January 2012 (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02680513.2012.640784 [accessed 4 May 2012]), goes a long way to explaining the role of learning design and uses case studies with and without learning design to demonstrate the importance of the role in developing distance learning.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this article and the role of learning design specialists. What do you perceive to be the benefits to this kind of working? What obstacles do you think might need to be overcome in universities primarily delivering face-to-face learning?


About Cathy Thomas-Varcoe

I have a passion for distance learning and the opportunities it provides for lifelong learning. I have spent the past 11 years focussing on delivering quality distance learning. Drawing on my nursing background, I initially worked for the Royal College of Nursing Institute who ran undergraduate and postgraduate distance learning programmes validated by the University of Manchester and then for The Open University Health and Social Care Faculty. More recently I was a learning solutions consultant for The Open University’s Centre for Learning and Professional Development. In January 2012 I was appointed as the Distance Learning Lead for the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I have been involved in courses from concept to delivery, but the bulk of my work has focussed on writing and conceptualising distance learning courses.
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2 Responses to Understanding learning design

  1. Liz says:

    Instructional designers.
    1. Frees up academic time during course design and development and its transition to the VLE. Also, v good if support is given for technical problems.
    2. Provides an easily transferrable template to give continuity of style within modules and courses delivered by the same department/university. Also, may help to provide an appropriate, accessible method for formative and summative assessment that won’t be restricted by an increased volume of students (I’m not sure about this in reality, though).
    3. Provides administrative help

    1. An acceptance by the university of the need for an instructional designer with a sufficient technical support team, and a commitment to funding – this will be particularly acute in the start-up phase when the financial outlay is likely to exceed the returns.
    2. How much can an instructional designer do? Can they be interpersonal, professional, institutional and societal all at the same time? I see the instructional design as a team rather than a single individual – see my comment 1.
    3. It may be that some universities or departments will decide to set up specialist instructional design units that charge programme directors for their services. While its almost inevitable that the costs of the set-up, its administration and long-term technical backup will be met by the student fees generated, it could put an extra burden onto the individual programme to find the start-up costs, and create uncertainty for the team in the long-term if their income relies on the development of new programmes and the support for existing ones.

  2. Thank you for your comment Liz. I think it summarizes a lot of people’s thoughts. I’m particularly interested in your third obstacle. I personally feel that if there is a commitment from the organisation to develop distance learning that there should be an understanding that learning design costs are built into the business plan and will be recouped over a five-year (or more) period from student fees. If there is a need to find start-up funds to develop distance learning then it is likely to be a non-starter.

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