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Part 3: Definition Problems

April 16, 2013

Many in the field of Learning Design currently feel that the foundational ideas and definitions are not sufficiently clear and that there is a need to create clearer conceptual foundations in order to foster the next generation of research and development. A number of meetings of experts held over several years have wrestled with these problems without clear solutions until recently (see Acknowledgements for details).

For example, the term “Learning Design” itself has a variety of meanings. In the early days of the field there was debate over whether IMS Learning Design was “the” Learning Design or just one example of these concepts. One early attempt to resolve this difficulty was to use a capitalised “Learning Design” to refer to IMS Learning Design and a non-capitalised “learning design” to refer to the wider concept (Britain, 2004). While this idea may have been useful in the early years, it is less useful today where many researchers wish to use the capitalised format (i.e., “Learning Design”) to refer to the field as a whole, and then use “IMS Learning Design” to refer only to IMS Learning Design. We have followed this usage in this article and recommend it for the future to avoid confusion.

A related problem is that a particular sequence of teaching and learning activities that has been constructed using the ideas of Learning Design is often called “a learning design” or “a design”. While this re-use of the same words to refer to both a whole field of study and a specific instance of work can be confusing, it has become sufficiently common practice that we would recommend the phrase “a learning design” or “a design” (uncapitalised and singular) for future use. We would recommend avoiding the term “learning design” (uncapitalised) for the whole field – we recommend “Learning Design” for the whole field and “a learning design” for an instance. In some contexts the words “a sequence” are used instead of “a learning design”, although “a sequence” has the limitation that it may be taken to imply only a simple linear sequence. Nonetheless, “a sequence” is sufficiently common in some areas of Learning Design (especially those associated with LAMS) that it is worth noting as an alternative to “a learning design”.

One of the core innovations of Learning Design software systems is that a sequence of teaching and learning activities is created independent of its implementation context (i.e., independent of a class of learners), and hence it is automatically shareable and can be used in other learner contexts. It is this characteristic that most clearly illustrates how a learning design implemented in a Learning Design software system is different from a collection of learning activities inside a class/course within a Learning Management System (LMS[1]). The learning design is created from the ground up as shareable and re-usable and then later applied to a particular class; whereas the activities in the LMS are locked to a specific class of learners, and often difficult or impossible to extract in a shareable format.

In practice, this feature of Learning Design software systems means that a learning design must be applied to a particular class of learners (which may require related tasks such as setting up learner accounts or assigning learners to a sequence; assigning specific learners to groups used within a sequence, etc.). Hence, there is a need to identify the difference between a learning design as an abstract set of activities (independent of a class of learners) and a learning design that has been implemented with a specific group of learners. While there has been less discussion of this issue to date, the most common phrasing for a learning design implemented with learners is “a running learning design”, or alternatively “a running sequence” – these phrases are recommended for the future. To continue the musical analogy, a running learning design is equivalent to the performance of a piece of (notated) music. Another word used to describe the implementation of learning designs is “orchestration” (Prieto-Santos, Dimitriadis & Villagrá-Sobrino, 2011). In the context of LAMS, a running sequence is also called a “lesson”, but given the other connotations of this word, it is not an ideal term here.

From an educator’s perspective, the creation/authoring of a learning design is different from the task of monitoring learner progress through a running learning design. From this distinction it can be noted that “evaluating” a learning design can have two (complementary) meanings. The first is that an educator could evaluate a learning design that was authored by another educator (e.g., acquired via a learning design repository). This evaluation would be based on assessing the way the activities have been constructed and the educator’s opinion of their coherence and potential effectiveness – but the key issue to note is that this evaluation can be conducted independently of any data about actual learner behaviour. The second kind of evaluation is to look at learner activity data from a running version of the same learning design (or across multiple running versions of the same design where available), as this may provide additional insights into the potential effectiveness of a learning design based on learner behaviour.

The above discussion offers clarification of some existing definitional challenges within the field. At the end of this paper we will return to some broader definitional issues for the future.

Part 3.1: Pedagogical neutrality and Learning Design

While the definitional discussion above may help to clarify the meaning of key terms within the field of Learning Design, a deeper conceptual problem remains – the idea of Learning Design as a “pedagogical meta-model” (Koper, 2001), or more provocatively, that Learning Design is “pedagogically neutral”.

Learning Design is not a traditional pedagogical theory like, say, constructivism. Learning Design can be viewed as a layer of abstraction above traditional pedagogical theories in that it is trying to develop a general descriptive framework that could describe many different types of teaching and learning activities (which themselves may have been based on different underlying pedagogical theories). For example, a class taught using direct instruction methods would have a different activity structure to a class taught using constructivist methods, but Learning Design seeks to provide a single notational framework that could describe both sets of activities.

It is crucial to note at this point that unlike constructivism or instructionism, Learning Design does not put forward a theory about how learners learn, and hence how teachers should teach. There is no “should” in Learning Design as a descriptive framework – merely a description of what activities happened in the classroom or online (or both).

By comparison, music notation provides a single framework for describing many different styles of music (Classical, Romantic, Modern, etc.). A given instance of any one of these styles could be a beautiful or mediocre example of this style. Hence, Learning Design as a “pedagogical meta-model” is attempting a similar goal as music notation – a general framework for describing many different styles/pedagogies, and any given instance of a style/pedagogy could be assessed as beautiful/effective for learning or mediocre/ineffective for learning. In this sense, the descriptive aim of Learning Design is pluralism rather than neutrality.

Going further with the music notation example, no descriptive framework is absolutely neutral – even a successful, widely used framework (such as the Western music notation tradition) will have weaknesses in certain contexts (e.g., quarter-tone singing), and there are other music notation traditions that have different strengths and weaknesses in describing musical ideas. While a widely adopted system of notation will have many strengths in representing the music of its community of origin, its success as a framework is a complex mixture of accuracy and expressiveness of representation, ease of understanding and historical factors. Hence, Learning Design could never be pedagogically neutral in an absolute sense – any system of description will have certain biases in its descriptive framework.

However, we believe that given these caveats, it is possible to conceive of a framework for describing many different types of teaching and learning activities, and that this framework could appropriately aspire towards being pedagogically neutral, even if this goal is unachievable in an absolute sense. The practical goal is a framework of sufficient accuracy and expressiveness that it can describe many different examples of teaching and learning activities (which are themselves based on different pedagogical theories). Any given instance may be an excellent or mediocre expression of a particular underlying pedagogical theory, and hence more or less effective for student learning.

While we believe that the phrase “pedagogical neutrality” can be useful as a debating point for illustrating how Learning Design is different to traditional pedagogical theories, in practice we prefer phrasing such as “Learning Design frameworks can describe a broad range of teaching and learning activities” so as to avoid unnecessary consternation among colleagues who experience visceral reactions to “pedagogical neutrality”. Hence, we recommend the less provocative formulations for future general purpose discussion of Learning Design, while acknowledging the occasional use of the more provocative form in the narrow case of debates that compare Learning Design to traditional pedagogical theories.


[1] Learning Management Systems (LMSs) are sometimes called Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)

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