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Part 4: A Learning Design Conceptual Map

April 16, 2013

Descriptive frameworks for teaching and learning activities are one of the core innovations of Learning Design, but there are many related issues. Any particular representation of a learning design can also include advice about the design, including advice about how the design was created (and hence how it could be changed) and also advice about implementing the design with learners. Another central element is that of sharing – as the reason for describing good teaching ideas is to propagate these ideas among educators, in order to ultimately improve teaching and learning widely.

But even these core concepts are only a small part of the wider field of Learning Design. In Figure 4 we have tried to capture the broader education landscape and how it relates to the core concepts of Learning Design. We have called this a Learning Design Conceptual Map (LD-CM). For the sake of clarity, we refer to a box in the LD-CM as a “component” and an item within a box as an “element”.

 LD Conceptual Map

Figure 4: A Learning Design Conceptual Map

The arrows provide one view of how the different elements interact in the process of designing and implementing teaching and learning activities, but there are other interactions both within and between the elements of the LD-CM – however, to attempt to note all possible arrows would make the Map unwieldy. But this is not to discount the importance of other connections between parts of the Map, for example, an arrow from Learner Responses to Educational Philosophy could indicate the ways in which student responses to learning experiences can shape the educational philosophy of an educator, and how this could change how an educator designs future learning experiences.


Our overall statement of the challenge is “creating learning experiences aligned to particular pedagogical values and objectives”. Just as the Learning Design descriptive framework seeks to support many different pedagogical approaches, we have similarly tried to phrase our vision of the general educational challenge in a way that is applicable to many different contexts regardless of the particular pedagogical approaches of that context.

In practice, the actual pedagogical approaches and learning objectives will be determined by the Characteristics and Values of institutions and educators (and indirectly, learners), together with the relevant Educational Philosophy and Theories and Methodology that are relevant to a given educational context.  Hence the top left section of the LD-CM provides a structure for analysing the broader educational context and how it impacts on representations of teaching and learning activities – these three components are discussed below.

We note that some approaches to education sector transformation start with an assumption that educators need to be “fixed” or even in some technology discussions, “removed”. By comparison, the field of Learning Design focuses on educators creating great teaching ideas and sharing these with their colleagues, who in turn adapt these ideas to suit their local teaching context, and potentially share back adapted or improved versions of the original idea. Educators are central to Learning Design as creators, sharers, adapters and improvisers, working together in professional communities of practice. As a model of education sector transformation, it is a model led by educators for educators.

Educational Philosophy

This component of the Learning Design Conceptual Map is to note the explicit or implicit pedagogical theories that underlie decisions about teaching and learning. This most often has an impact via the choices of educators, but policy decisions at higher levels (such as educational institutions or government education departments) can also affect educational philosophy. For example, university degree validation documents often require statements regarding the educational approach taken to the design and delivery of courses, and these may be influenced by policy and strategy.

Some examples of pedagogical theories include constructivist approaches, cognitive and developmental approaches, instructionism/drill and practice-style approaches, connectivist approaches and others. More detailed discussion of pedagogical theories, effective teaching and Learning Design is provided at the end of this paper.

Theories and Methodologies

There are a wide range of theories and research methods that are used to guide decisions about teaching and learning activities, as well as to evaluate the impact of those decisions. This includes theories about how people interact, about how institutions affect people’s behaviour, theories of motivation and incentives, etc. These include theories such as Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, Communities of Practice, Actor-Network Theory and Cybernetics and Systems Thinking (see Conole, 2013, for a review of these theories in relation to Learning Design).

Most importantly, there are many different types of research methods used in education, including quantitative and qualitative research, action research, design-based research, experimental control studies, case studies, ethnography, etc. Differences in research methods lead to different kinds of evidence for educational effectiveness, which in turn is used to support different kinds of pedagogical approaches, which ultimately affects the day-to-day decision-making of educators, and the policy directions of educational institutions.

Learning Environment: Characteristics and Values

This component of the Learning Design Conceptual Map can be used to describe how the context for learning affects the design of teaching and learning activities. The title draws attention to how both the characteristics and values of institutions, educators and learners are relevant to understanding an educational context.

An educational institution can have formal education structures and accreditation (e.g., a university degree), or it may have more informal structures (e.g., a community learning group such as computer skills for older people). For example, a university’s focus on knowledge testing in formal exams in order to pass courses for a degree differs from a focus on practical abilities/competencies, such as the ability to use a computer where there is no external assessment/certification. Explicit and implicit moral, political and spiritual values can have an impact on a given learning environment via educational institutions, as well as via educators and learners. In addition, institutional characteristics include the physical and virtual environments available for teaching and learning. The institution’s characteristics and values typically impact teaching and learning through affordances and constraints on the behaviour of educators and learners.

Educators also bring different characteristics and values to their decision-making about teaching and learning activities. This includes the quantity, and style, of teacher training that has been received, past experiences as a learner, the kind of classroom/online teaching experience of an educator, the role of other educators as peers and mentors, the self-perception of the educator’s role as expert/facilitator/provocateur/etc., the educator’s values about the kind of learning that is important (and unimportant) for his/her learners, etc.

Learner characteristics and values include responses to teaching and learning activities (e.g., whether learners are comfortable with debate, or questioning the ideas of their teachers), their past learning experiences and how they shape current behaviour, their own values about what matters (and what doesn’t) in their education, their levels of motivation and engagement, their goals for their future, etc.

There are many complex interactions among institutions, educators and learners in terms of characteristics and values. For our current purposes, it is simply worth noting that different assumptions within this part of the LD-CM will have different impacts on how teaching and learning activities are planned and delivered, and how learners respond to these activities.

Teaching Lifecycle

This component of the LD-CM acknowledges how different stages in the process of teaching can impact on the design of teaching and learning activities. Obviously, the preparation that an educator does for a set of activities is crucially important, and this is a central focus of Learning Design. But the LD-CM also draws attention to how an educator acts “in the moment” – adapting their teaching to the changing dynamics of the classroom (or online). Indeed, one of the most frequent concerns about online education is the loss of non-verbal cues about student reactions to teaching. This example draws attention to the more general issue of how the act of teaching sometimes plays out differently to how it was planned beforehand.

The dimension of adaptation or improvisation of teaching “in the moment” has been weak in Learning Design to date, particularly where Learning Design software systems struggle to change a sequence once it is running. However, any current technical difficulties in coping with this requirement should be of secondary importance – the skills and techniques that educators bring to adaptation “in the moment” are of great importance to teaching and learning. It is worth drawing attention to this historical weakness in Learning Design, as the ability to adapt teaching in the moment is central to the self-image of some educators, and hence a perceived lack of emphasis on this aspect of teaching and learning has led some educators to dismiss Learning Design in the past.

Reflection on teaching after the event is also of significant importance to future design decisions – understanding what went wrong in an unsuccessful class can change planning in the future. A more long-term view on this process of reflecting on teaching is captured in the “Professional Development” element, which would contain both formal Professional Development courses as well as the long personal journey of gaining experience as an educator.

Level of Granularity

This component of the LD-CM illustrates different levels of granularity in the design of teaching and learning activities, such as how small individual tasks build up to sequences of learning activities. Collections of learning activities over time make up larger modules (like courses), and courses often combine to larger programs of learning, such as a degree or a year (or set of years) of school education.

These distinctions will at times have fuzzy boundaries and different terminology (particularly across different education sectors – e.g., universities versus schools), but the important issue for this Map is that different kinds of decisions are typically made at each level. Individual tasks involve decisions such as the phrasing of a reflective question (e.g., open or closed), the layout of an online resource and the structure of quiz items. Learning Activities tend to be made up of a range of tasks, with the key focus being the learning objectives(s) of a set of activities, and the rationale for the choice and arrangement of tasks to achieve this objective. Many innovative teaching strategies, such as Role Plays, Problem-Based Learning, Predict-Observe-Explain, WebQuests, etc., are examples of Learning Activities that have a particular sequential structure of tasks.

Decisions at the Module level relate to how sets of Learning Activities relate to a larger unit – such as how the weekly structure of lectures and tutorials are structured to cover the content of a course in a typical university setting, or how a set of different learning activities contribute to a larger unit of work over a number of weeks/months in a school. Program level decisions often include high-level progression concepts, such as course pathways within degrees (and their prerequisites), or the structure of modules over a year in a school. It is also worth noting that broad learning objectives at Program and Module levels (such as 21st century skills) may cascade down into particular learning objectives at the level of Learning Activities and Tasks.

Core Concepts

At the heart of the LD-CM are the core concepts of Learning Design – most centrally the idea of a descriptive framework for representing and visualising teaching and learning activities – “educational notation”.  This element is complemented by guidance and sharing.


Guidance covers the many ways that educators can be assisted to think through their teaching and learning decision-making, in particular, how they can understand and adopt new, effective teaching methods. In some cases guidance in incorporated into the representation/visualisation (e.g., patterns), whereas in others it is a complement to the presentation/visualisation, for example:

  • websites with information on teaching ideas and tools (e.g., the Phoebe Pedagogic Planner, Masterman & Manton, 2011),
  • software systems that seek to guide educators through a reflective process about their teaching (e.g., the London Planner/Learning Designer), potentially including artificial intelligence to offer suggestions during the process,
  • collections of templates of effective teaching strategies and accompanying advice (e.g., LAMS Activity Planner),
  • workshop processes for guiding groups of educators in reflective planning of future teaching (e.g., Viewpoints project, Open University Learning Design Initiative), and
  • formal teacher training/professional development.


As noted above in relation to Figure 3, the field of Learning Design is yet to develop a widely accepted framework for representation/visualisation of teaching and learning activities. However, aspects of a number of projects provide indications of what this framework might look like. Figure 2 provides an example from the LAMS Authoring environment that draws attention to the flow of different kinds of learning activities over time in a visual format. Another example of a visual format for illustrating the flow of activities over time is the flow diagram from the AUTC Learning Design project – Figure 5 provides an example of this diagram for describing a “Predict – Observe – Explain” teaching method (AUTC Learning Design, 2002).

LD POE teaching method

Figure 5:  A “Predict – Observe – Explain” teaching method described using the AUTC Learning Design project flow diagram.

Another kind of representation is educational patterns, drawing on research on patterns in disciplines such as architecture and software development. Patterns use a particular form of structured text, and may also include a visualisation, such as the example in Figure 6 for a jigsaw teaching method (from Dimitriadis, 2012).

LD Jigsaw teaching method

 Figure 6: Part of a jigsaw teaching methods described using as an educational pattern (NB: not shown are sections at the end of this pattern for “Patterns that complement this pattern” and “Patterns that complete this pattern”.

A fourth kind of representation is the timeline and pie chart views in the Learning Designer (previously named the London Planner). In this representation, the learning activities are analysed in terms of the type of learning that occurs in each activities (including the potential for multiple types of learning to occur in one activity). This approach is based on a conceptual classification of types of learning into five categories: Acquisition, Discussion, Inquiry, Practice and Production. Figure 7 is based on an example about evaluating energy use from Bower, Craft, Laurillard and Masterman (2011).

LD Timeline 1

LD Pie chart

Figure 7: Timeline and pie chart views of analysis of learning activities in the Learning Designer for a sequence on evaluating energy use.

A final, different example of a representational approach is the Open University Learning Design Initiative (OULDI) “Course Map” view (see Conole, 2012), which is a representation primarily at the “Module” Level of Granularity (as compared to the previous four examples, which were primarily at the Task and Learning Activities levels). This representation draws attention to the components of an overall university course/unit, and how tools/resources and roles/relationships relate to the different course aspects of Guidance and Support, Content and Experience, Reflection and Demonstration and Communication and Collaboration. It does not describe sequences of activities like earlier examples (tasks and activities are described elsewhere in the OULDI approach, including some similar ideas to Figure 7) – instead, it provides a more holistic view of different types of activities across the whole unit/course – see Figure 8.

LD course map template

Figure 8: Course Map template (empty) from the Open University Learning Design Initiative.

Before leaving this section, two additional points are worth making. First, an interesting difference between patterns and a software-based learning design (such as a LAMS sequence) is that a pattern provides ideas/guidance for a teaching method, but how these ideas are used in practice still requires a “creative leap” by the educator; whereas a LAMS sequence (if it contains relevant content) could potentially be used “as is” – no creative leap may be needed. There are potential benefits and challenges in each case – a pattern requires significant additional work for implementation, but this work should help to ensure the pattern is appropriate to the immediate learner context; a LAMS sequence with relevant content could rapidly be used as is, but if it is used without sufficient regard for the immediate context, a pre-built sequence from another context may not be a good match for local learner needs.

Second, there is a tension between the extent to which a descriptive framework rapidly conveys the essential teaching idea(s) of a learning design compared to conveying the detailed teaching and technical information needed for implementation (“orchestration”). This can be described as a tension between “beauty and precision” in descriptive languages (Derntl, Parrish & Botturi, 2010).

In summary, Learning Design projects have developed a number of different ways to represent/visualise teaching and learning activities that hopefully provide a glimpse of a future widely adopted framework for educational notation. It may be that a single dominant representation will be widely adopted in the future (as in music notation) or it may be that multiple diagram types will be needed (such in the Unified Modelling Language in software development). It may even be that new technologies, such as animations, will provide new approaches to representation that do not have a simple written analog. For a promising early example of this idea, which uses animations to represent assessment information across a semester at a Module and Program level, see the “Map My Programme” project (Walker & Kerrigan-Holt, 2012).


The “Sharing” element draws attention to the driver behind representation – the propagation of good teaching ideas from one educator to another. Learning Design has a strong history of sharing, including the use of online repositories of learning designs (e.g., the LAMS Community) and communities for discussion of teaching ideas among peers (e.g., Cloudworks). Sharing in Learning Design is often under open educational licenses (such as Creative Commons licenses), and hence is part of the wider movement of Open Education, and related movements in open source software and open content.

Indeed, a case can be made that Learning Design is “open source teaching”, in the sense that the open sharing of descriptions of teaching activities is like sharing the “source code” of teaching, and where these ideas are developed and improved over time by communities of educators, then there is genuine argument for the phrase “open source teaching”.

An agreed representation is only one part of the complex phenomenon of sharing – there are many social forces at work that foster and inhibit sharing. By comparison, the adoption of music notation was driven not only by its conceptual elegance and usefulness, but also through social practices of music teaching using the notation, as well as informal networks among musicians who propagated this notational approach when it first appeared. Similarly, any widespread acceptance of an educational notation system will arise from a complex mixture of usefulness, social propagation and serendipity.


This component of the Learning Design Conceptual Map draws attention to different Tools and Resources that are required during teaching. This could include physical tools for classroom activities (whiteboard, flipchart, pens, etc.) as well as educational resources such as articles, videos, etc. In online contexts, activities may require tools such as discussion forums, wikis, quiz systems, etc., and resources such as websites, online video, etc.

In the case of Learning Design software systems, activity tools are a part of the overall software. A special feature of activity tools in Learning Design software systems is that they need to be capable of being configured by a learning design. That is, when an educator obtains a learning design file, and implements it in a local course, the file contains technical instructions to the Learning Design software system about how to configure the various tools required (e.g., at step 3, provide a discussion forum with two threads, with the discussion topic for thread 1 as “How is X similar to Y?” and thread 2 as “How is X different from Y?”).

This requirement for Tools to be capable of receiving “injection” of external content and configurations from a learning design file has proved a far more demanding technical requirement for Learning Design software systems than was initially anticipated, and is one of the reasons for difficulties when attempting to create fully functional Learning Design software systems.

A related requirement is the need for a sequencing engine to facilitate the progress of students through a suite of activities, and for activity tools to be “sequencing aware” – that is, to be able to designate completion of an activity to a sequencing engine in order to allow for learner progress through a sequence. As noted earlier, this should not be taken to mean only simple linear sequences – systems such as LAMS provide features for multiple pathways and set of activities which can be completed in any order and which can be revisited multiple times. These demanding technical capabilities are absent from most (if not all) current Learning Management Systems, which helps explain the need for separate Learning Design software systems (which can then be integrated into LMSs).

Learner Responses

We have chosen the title “Learner Responses” to capture many different types of information about student learning, such as learning outcomes, competencies, skills and understanding. While formative and summative Assessments are typical in many educational contexts (and the wider literature on these topics is all relevant here), Learning Design draws attention to a wider view of responses from learners. This includes the real-time learner Reactions to Teaching that an educator may use to change teaching “in the moment” (see Teaching Lifecycle above). It also includes Evaluation of teaching, which may play an important role in future improvements to teaching practice.

But Learning Design software systems provide an opportunity for deeper tracking of learner activity, as every step for every learner is recorded as a by-product of the use of technology to manage the sequence of activities. This includes not just learner responses to tasks but also time taken on each task. This allows for a richer analysis of learner behaviour at all stages of the teaching and learning process, rather than just at points of assessment. It also allows richer comparisons across the student group (e.g., what are the final quiz scores of learners who spent above average time in the discussion forum?). This dimension of Learning Design allows for rich Learner Analytics based on a new kind of “big data”, and this illustrates how big data about collaborative learning could be used to extend the current approaches to massive open online courses (MOOCs). It could also help to avoid one of the current pitfalls of Learner Analytics research where the outcome of data analysis is simply the “discovery” of the pattern of activities that constituted the educator’s lesson plan in the first place. In Learning Design software systems, the structure of activities is embedded with the learner analytics data, allowing for more profitable uses of this data for educational research.

As with Assessment, the wide literature on Evaluation is relevant to Learning Design. A perspective on evaluation of special relevance to Learning Design is that learners are increasingly interested in the teaching methods used in their courses, and some will intentionally choose courses and institutions that use (or do not use) certain teaching methods (such as Problem Based Learning in Medicine). The willingness of learners to make choices about their future study based on their evaluation of different learning designs across courses or institutions illustrates that it is not only the evaluation of learning designs by educators that will affect future decision-making – learner evaluations of learning designs will increasingly affect the decision-making of institutions and educators.


Part 4.1: Applying the Learning Design Conceptual Map to educational theory and practice

The Learning Design Conceptual Map provides a wider educational context for Learning Design representations, but it can also be used to explore how other educational theories/practices relate to Learning Design, and to each other. While a thorough discussion of any one of the following examples would require more space than is available here, we provide some initial indications of how different theories/practices can be conceived of as “overlays” onto the LD-CM.

For example, Diana Laurillard’s “Conversational Framework” (Laurillard, 2002) is a model for understanding how educators and learners interact in terms of understanding a discipline’s theory as well as practical tasks. The model focuses on interactions between educators and learners at both theory and practice levels, and also how learners reflect on theory and practice internally, as well as how educators reflect on their teaching of theory and practice as a result of their interactions with learners.

In the context of the LD-CM, a given instance of teaching using Laurillard’s Conversational Framework could be notated using a Learning Design representation. This could be accompanied by guidance for educators on using the Conversational Framework in this instance of teaching, and sharing of this instance with others. More broadly, the Conversational Framework has a particular focus on Tasks and Learning Activities within Level of Application, Reactions to teaching and potentially Assessment in Learner Responses, and particularly draws attention to a model of the teaching lifecycle where Preparation, Teaching and Post-teaching Reflections are affected by interactions with learners (in both theory and practical areas of the relevant discipline). Many more comments could be made about the Conversational Framework and the Learning Design Conceptual Map, but for current purposes, the point is to draw out how particular parts of the Map are significant for the Conversational Framework.

A different example is the “TPACK” Framework (Koehler & Mishra, 2009) about the technological, pedagogical and content knowledge used by educators when they design learning activities. Teaching based on the TPACK Framework could be described using the LD-CM, e.g., the level of application would be primarily at the Module and Learning Activity levels, and while the whole teaching lifecycle is relevant, there would be a greater focus on a longer-term process of professional development in understanding the TPACK Framework. As TPACK places a particular emphasis on technology, it would also focus on the way that Tools are used within the Implementation component, and differences in how educators use technological tools according to their technological knowledge.

A more challenging example to consider is the broad field of Instructional Design. Some examples of instructional design tend to focus mostly at the Task level, together with some focus on Learning Activities in terms of the sequencing of tasks. But the underlying meaning of teaching and learning here can be quite different to the previous two examples, as some Instructional Design approaches only address single-learner contexts where no peers or educators are present (e.g., the Shareable Content Object Reference Model – SCORM – technical standard that is the basis of much e-learning courseware). SCORM constrains the type of activities that are possible (e.g., no collaborative tasks), which would affect the nature of the representation as well as the choice of tools. The teaching lifecycle looks quite different for SCORM courseware, as there is no educator present in the teaching step, so all decisions are made during preparation. Changes for the future are possible based on Learner Responses, but these are typically limited to assessment such as quiz scores, and in some cases more advanced learner analytics such as time on task and cursor movements on screen.

Perhaps most significantly for a single-learner Instructional Design approach such as SCORM, it tends to have a different set of pedagogical assumptions, together with a focus on different kinds of research data to support these pedagogical assumptions. There is a need for a deeper exploration of how Learning Design relates to Instructional Design, and we hope that research on descriptive frameworks together with the LD-CM can assist in describing connections and differences between Learning Design and Instructional Design – there is much work yet to be done. Ultimately, we believe that Instructional Design is one subset of the possibilities covered by Learning Design, although it is also worth noting that Instructional Design has a more developed set of theory and practices than Learning Design at the current time.

There are many other educational theories and practices that could be analysed using the Learning Design Conceptual Map, and it may be that some of these will draw attention to significant omissions from the LD-CM, leading to an evolution of the LD-CM in the future. For our present purposes, though, we seek to illustrate how a given theory or practice can be analysed as an “overlay” onto the LD-CM, and how different overlays can be compared to each other to better understand their similarities and differences. This approach of visualising overlays to the LD-CM is illustrated in Figure 9 by highlighting areas of particular significance within the LD-CM for Laurillard’s Conversational Framework compared to areas of significance for SCORM in Figure 10. Where two overlays regard the same area as significant (e.g. Education Philosophy and Tools in Figures 9 and 10), it is important to investigate similarities and differences in how this area is interpreted in each approach.

LD LDCM Overlay

Figure 9: Example of LD-CM overlay for significant areas of interest in Laurillard’s Conversational Framework (for comparison with Figure 10)

LD LDCM Overlay Scorm

Figure 10: Example of LD-CM overlay for significant areas of interest for a SCORM single-learner courseware approach (for comparison with Figure 9).

We believe these comparisons will also benefit from using a Learning Design representation of one or more concrete instances of teaching and learning activities (based on the given theory/practice) in order to better explicate similarities and differences in classroom practices arising from theoretical differences. The combination of broad analysis of pedagogical approaches (using LD-CM overlays) combined with detailed analysis of concrete examples of teaching and learning (using a Learning Design framework) will foster clearer understanding of differences in theory and practice in education.


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