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Part 2: Learning Design

April 16, 2013

The new field of Learning Design seeks to develop a descriptive framework for teaching and learning activities (“educational notation”), and to explore how this framework can assist educators to share and adopt great teaching ideas.

While there has been work on standardised lesson plans formats and re-usable educational software over several decades, the field of Learning Design has its origins in four somewhat distinct projects around the turn of the millennium. While the concept of a descriptive framework is applicable to all kinds of education – including online education and face-to-face activities – early work in this field was heavily focussed on technological implementation.

The first foundational project was the development of the Educational Modelling Language (EML) by Rob Koper and colleagues at the Open University of the Netherlands (Koper, 2001), which subsequently was adopted as the basis for the IMS Learning Design technical specification in 2003 (IMS GLC, 2003). The second was a diverse body of research on technology in higher education in the UK, particularly the SoURCE project (e.g., Laurillard & McAndrew, 2002) and the work of Diana Laurillard, Grainne Conole, Helen Beetham and others. The third project was the Australian Universities Teaching Council (AUTC) Learning Design project based at Wollongong University, led by Ron Oliver, Barry Harper, John Hedberg and Sandra Wills (this project had explicit links to the second project). The fourth project was the “Learning Activity Management System” (LAMS) project led by James Dalziel at Macquarie University, Australia (Dalziel, 2003).

All four projects had a similar underlying vision of improvement of teaching and learning through the development and implementation of a descriptive framework. For EML and LAMS, this led to a technical language for describing and sharing sequences of online learning activities (IMS LD and LAMS LD respectively) and software systems for teacher authoring and learner implementation of activities (ReLoad/CopperCore/SLeD and LAMS). To continue the music notation analogy, the technical language for implementation by an educational software system could be compared to using a piano roll with a mechanical player piano (or MIDI in modern electronic instruments). These projects also developed online communities for sharing of sequences (Unfold and the LAMS Community).

The SoURCE and AUTC Learning Design projects both developed exemplars of software systems, but not to the same level of implementation as the other two projects. However, these two projects included a strong focus on describing and sharing pedagogically effective sequences of activities – particularly the third project through an online library of examples (see

From these origins, a wide range of related projects, conferences and research activities arose, with a growing breadth of interests that incorporated not only technological issues but also support for educators in adopting innovative teaching methods – see Table 1 for a sample of areas and early examples.

Areas   of Application of Learning Design


Foundation   projects EML/IMS Learning   Design, SoURCE, AUTC Learning Design, LAMS
Advice to   educators on adopting new teaching ideas DialogPlus,   LearningMapR
Description and   sharing of particular teaching methods EnRoLE (Role Plays),   COLLAGE (e.g., Jigsaws)
Adaptation of   existing technologies to implement Learning Design MOT+, Grail   (adaptation of .LRN)
Technology to   support reflection on the design of teaching and learning London   Planner/Learning Designer, Phoebe, LAMS Activity Planner
Communities   and/or repositories for Learning Design Unfold, LAMS   Community, Cloudworks
Major Learning   Design-related funding programs JISC Design for   Learning, EU TenCompetence
Learning Design   Conferences LAMS   Conferences, CETIS DesignBash, TenCompetence Conferences

Table 1: A sample of different areas of the growing field of Learning Design including early examples.

As at 2012, the body of work on Learning Design is beyond easy summary within the constraints of this article, so as an aid to those who are interested in understanding the field to date, we have developed a timeline of Learning Design-related initiatives/projects, communities, software tools, conferences and other key events and publications – this is provided in Figure 1, with more detailed information about the elements of this figure (as well as the projects noted in Table 1) available at the Larnaca Declaration website.

LD timeline

                        Figure 1: Timeline of developments in the field of Learning Design – dates are approximate

Part 2.1: Example of a learning design

Given the range of projects and software systems noted above, there are many ways to describe a particular learning design, but for the sake of clarity we provide one example below to provide a concrete illustration.

An innovative, potentially effective teaching strategy is a “Role Play”. In this strategy, learners are presented with a scenario in which they take on different roles and then “play out” the scenario based on their allocated roles, with facilitation by the educator as required. Role Plays have been prominent in many discussions of Learning Design, such as the Versailles Use Case in IMS Learning Design, the six Role Plays in the AUTC Learning Design project, the EnRoLE Project, the Role Play Pattern in the COLLAGE project, and others.

There are some narrow types of Role Plays used in specific disciplines, such as practicing conversation in language learning or practicing a business interaction (e.g., a call centre conversation). However, the more general kind of Role Play typically involves a complex scenario in which learners take on a role that is unfamiliar to their normal life, and hence they need to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective. This “walking in the shoes of another” is the most powerful quality of Role Plays as a teaching strategy as it can assist development of self-reflective/meta-cognitive skills. While Role Plays may not be suitable in some disciplines (e.g., mathematics), they can be used in many disciplines where understanding of different perspectives is relevant.

Putting aside the rationale for choosing a Role Play as a teaching strategy (the “why”), a Learning Design approach would seek to describe the sequence of teaching and learning activities that make up the Role Play experience (the “what and how”). Following the analogy with music notation, the goal of this description is to provide educators with enough information that they could replicate (“play”) this teaching and learning experience. In broad terms, a Role Play typically involves four main “phases”:
1)     A description of the scenario and the roles within it
2)     Allocation of learners to roles, then learners prepare for the Role Play proper by seeking to better understand their allocated role. As multiple learners are often allocated to each role, this can involve each role group discussing their ideas about their role (privately).
3)     The “Role Play proper”, in which all learners come together to play out their roles in the given scenario.
4)     After conclusion of the Role Play proper, learners debrief on the experience of playing their role and reflect on what they have learned from “walking in the shoes of another”.

To give a concrete example of a Role Play in a school-based teacher training course:
1)     The scenario is about the adoption of interactive whiteboards in a typical school. There are four roles in the imaginary school (teachers in favour of interactive whiteboards, teachers with concerns about interactive whiteboards, school management and school students).
2)     Each trainee teacher is allocated to a role, and then each role group gets together privately to discuss their role and their ideas about the scenario, and how they could respond to the other role groups. They may also conduct research on the scenario as it relates to their role and discuss this within their role group.
3)     All role groups come together to discuss/debate the merits of adopting interactive whiteboards in the imaginary school. Trainee teachers in each role group make their case, and interact with other roles as they play their own role while debating the merits of adopting interactive whiteboards.
4)     After concluding the Role Play, the trainee teachers debrief as they “return to being themselves” and reflect on the discussion in the Role Play proper, and on how their personal views compare to those expressed in their role.

There are still many practical issues to be considered in implementing this Role Play – such as the timing of each activity, any particular tasks or resources required within each phase, the readiness of the learners to participate in this activity in the expected way, the role of the educator as facilitator/umpire, etc. An experienced educator may be able to make judgements on these issues from existing experience without requiring detailed descriptive information, whereas a novice educator may need more comprehensive advice on these details prior to implementation (just as an experienced musician can read music notation and infer how to interpret the music for a performance, but a novice musician may need more advice on interpretation).

One way of implementing this Role Play is in an online environment where discussion is conducted through an online forum (or similar tool). Figure 1 provides an example of the interactive whiteboards Role Play as represented in the Authoring environment of the LAMS Learning Design system. In this example, the first phase corresponds to a number of instruction pages about the scenario, then learners split into role groups, and within the “branching” area learners conduct a number of reflection and discussion tasks about their role (task detail not shown). Later, the educator/facilitator opens the “stop” gate so that learners enter the Role Play proper in a discussion forum. After concluding the Role Play proper, the educator/facilitator opens the second “stop” gate to provide learners with a series of reflective activities for debriefing.

 LAMS Authoring view

Figure 2: LAMS Authoring view of interactive whiteboards adoption Role Play, with phases added (right side).

For those familiar with LAMS, the colour and icons of each activity (i.e., each box) provides information about the type of online tool being used at each stage (e.g., information page, discussion forum, voting tool, shared question and answer). This means that the visualisation provided in Figure 2 conveys information about the structure and sequence of this learning design and the nature of individual tasks within it. Double clicking on a box provides information about the content of the relevant task and the settings for the tool.

Hence, Figure 2, together with other supporting advice, provides a description of the teaching and learning activities for this Role Play. It contains information at three levels of description – a visual representation for the sequence of learning activities (shown), a second more detailed level of instructions/content and settings within each individual tool (accessed by double clicking), and a third underlying technical description (in XML) that provides all the relevant information that a Learning Design software system needs to implement this learning design as a set of “live” activities for a group of learners (e.g., it provides the technical information about how to configure the forum for phase 3).

All of this information is contained in a single file that can be given to other educators who could then run this set of activities with their learners (given access to the appropriate Learning Design software system). This particular file is available at
Even if the file is not run with another group of learners, it provides information to other educators to help them understand the structure of teaching and learning activities in the Role Play, which could assist other educators to implement variations of this approach if desired (whether online or face to face).

In this example, the LAMS Authoring environment provides a framework/descriptive language for notating this learning design. There are other attempts at a descriptive framework within Learning Design research (four further examples are given in the “Conceptual Map” section below). At a technical level, there have been several XML-based approaches (IMS LD, LAMS LD, Learning Design Language). At a written level, there are many types of lesson plan formats, as well as explicit Learning Design written formats such as LD_Lite (Littlejohn & Pegler, 2007). From another perspective, educational patterns can be viewed as a type of written Learning Design (McAndrew, Goodyear & Dalziel, 2006). There are also various visualisation approaches, particularly the Learning Design flow diagram from the AUTC Learning Design project. Finally, there are software systems that provide an integrated technical, “written” and visual approach, such as LAMS and COLLAGE (Hernandez-Leo et al, 2006).

Each of these attempts at devising a descriptive framework for teaching and learning activities is analogous to a system for music notation. More precisely, each example is like one of the attempts at music notation prior to the development of the standard Western music notation approach – that is, it captures some aspects of the teaching and learning process, but it is not yet sufficiently comprehensive or widely adopted to become a standard for “educational notation”. Figure 3 gives two examples of music notation – the example on the left predates the standard Western approach but gives glimpses of what the future will be (and hence may be analogous to Figure 2), while the example on the right is based on the standard approach that has been central to Western music notation for hundreds of years (there is no analogy to this in education – not yet).

LD Music Notation

Figure 3: Examples of music notation from before the development of the standard Western notation tradition (left) and after its development (right).

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