The reification of Learning Design

This is a reflection for the OLDS-MOOC on the  underpinning principles that I apply when designing and developing educational interventions at various scales.

When IMS LD was developed it aimed to address what were seen as limitations in SCORM (or here)  and IEEE LOM. Learning Design (LD) as a learning technology software specification was intended to address what was seen as the pedagogic limitations of specifications originally developed to underpin computer aided instruction in operations training contexts, particularly the AICC: Aircraft Industry CBT Consortium, and nuclear industry which were addressing the problems of updating mechanics and fitters, who dealt with hugely complex, safety-critical systems, which were continually being updated and retrofitted with new bits. However the computer-based training paradigm was believed to be inappropriate for many of the kinds of learning interactions that took place in most university contexts, where often valuable learning outcomes were unexpected, where knowledge was uncertain or emerging, or where there were differences of opinion and interpretation based in beliefs, disciplinary identity or ideological perspective (see Koper 2005).

Now, it seems the conversation has moved way beyond software specifications, but the term learning design is becoming reified as something other than simply the sum of its two parts. While I do accept that there are bodies of practice and principles, such as constructive alignment, which can guide our thinking about learning and teaching and which do amount to design principles, I am uncertain, any longer, of the value of a “thing” called learning design. As Wenger is well known for saying, “Learning cannot be designed, it can only be designed-for: that is frustrated or facilitated” (Wenger 1998).

I normally avoid angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin semantic arguments, but for me learning design as a thing holds two flaws: the first, implied above, is the derivation of learning design and its assumption of independent – almost disciplinary – status. The second, related to the first, is the connotation that learning itself is a thing, a “package”: the error that Wenger was trying to point out. Yes, we do use the term “learning” as a synonym for “body of knowledge”, but fundamentally, for me, learning is a process: something that people do, and – importantly – do together rather than something that people have. If I have something, I can give it to someone else. Whereas, for me, while I might be able to give someone a book full of knowledge (or a lecture, etc), they will ultimately have to learn (a verb not a noun) it for themselves. I cannot learn it for them. As Wenger said, I can facilitate or frustrate that process of learning.

I do have principles that I apply when I develop an activity, a workshop, a course, a programme. These are based in social constructivism, actor network theory (Law 2004), activity theory (Engeström 2001), dialogics (Bakhtin 1981), third-space theory (Bhabha 2004), and marxism (and maybe other -isms and -ologies). These principles find expression through constructive alignment (see Biggs and Tang 2007), Brookfield’s (1995) critical reflection, appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider et al, 2003), Freirian community and learner-centred practices (see Freire 1970, 1974) . I am not embarrassed by taking an open outcomes-led approach with clearly stated assessment criteria, that none-the-less admit unexpected and emergent outcomes even while specifying much or even most of the syllabus. But, would I call my principles a learning-design approach? I suppose I could, if I had to. And, for the purposes of the OLDS-MOOC, I guess I have to.

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.
Bhabha, H. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching For Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does (3rd ed.).
Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publlishers.
Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stravos, J. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133 –156.
Freire, P. (1970). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin.
Freire, P. (1974). Education: the practice of freedom. Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.
Koper, R. (2005). An Introduction to Learning Design. In R. Koper & C. Tattersall (Eds.), Learning Design (pp. 3–20). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Law, J. (2004). Actor Network Resource: An Annotated Bibliography, Version 2.3. Retrieved from here.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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