On the limitations of learning design for improving learning and teaching

A quick followup to some comments/replies on @marksmithers post “Because academic freedom does not include the freedom to create a poor learning experience”. In particular, on Mark’s suggestion

I prefer a model (incidentally supported by Clayton Christensen’s thoughts on adapting to disruptive innovation) whereby a semi autonomous organisation with responsibility to provide course development is tasked with providing learning design support (amongst other things). Course development is prioritised and scheduled over the five year life of most programs.

While there are some things to like with this suggestion, I think there are some limitations.

Ignores “maintenance”

In a comment on Mark’s post @KateMFD mentions some concern about learning design. I’d like to expand it a bit, it’s a hobby horse.

I often quote Glass (2001) on software engineering and the suggestion that when designing software systems between 40-80% of that cost will be on maintenance. i.e. making changes to the software while its being used. The trouble is that most of software engineering teaching and almost the entire focus of organisations in purchasing software is in the selection or design of software. They tend to ignore what is likely to be the larger costs involved in keeping the software in use. This causes all sorts of problems.

Increasingly, I believe a similar problem exists with university approaches to learning and teaching. All the L&T support resources (what little there is) are focused on design and bugger all on the actual act of learning and teaching. This has all sorts of negative ramifications. Perhaps the largest of which is that central L&T have almost no idea about what happens during learning and teaching which impacts decision making.

To some extent some of this connects with Goodyear’s (2009) idea of “long arc” and “short arc” approaches. He suggests that the OLT is well set up for the “long arc” where a teacher is imagined as someone with time to think about the redesign of next year’s course. As opposed to imagining the teacher as more time-pressed and somewhat more reactive. The focus on learning design relies on the “long arc” view which I think is unrealistic in the current Australian Higher Education context.

Related to this is the reframing of design for learning from Goodyear and Dimitriatdis (2013) and in particular the idea that the idea of design needs to be extended to include

  1. design for configuration – what actors do to customise/modify the design to suit specific needs.
  2. design for orchestration – provide support for the teacher’s work at learn time.
  3. design for reflection – ensure that actionable data is gathered at learn time to inform system evaluation
  4. design for redesign – making it easier to modify.

Which to me means recognising the need to move beyond just design into maintenance.

In particular, this links to the idea of “orchestration” which is getting some traction. Roschelle et al (2013, p. 523) offer this definition

Orchestration is an approach to Technology Enhanced Learning that emphasizes attention to the challenges of classroom use of technology, with a particular focus on supporting teachers’ roles.

Ignores the distributed nature of knowledge

Effective learning and teaching with technology requires the right knowledge. Almost all of the attempts to improve the quality of learning at universities have relied on the idea that
this knowledge must reside in someone’s head. For example, we’ll get better learning and teaching by forcing academic staff to have formal qualifications in learning and teaching. Or, in terms of learning design, we’ll get better learning and teaching by requiring academic staff to work with a learning designer who has the knowledge. Of course there are problems with both of these.

Going back to Goodyear (2009, p. 6)

tools and resources that support educational design activity can be carriers of good ideas: research-based evidence and the fruits of successful teaching experience can be embodied in the resources that teachers use at design time

The idea is that the knowledge doesn’t have to live in the heads of people, it can be distributed. After all, this is one of the fundamental principles of connectivism.

Beyond simply having knowledge embedded into the tools we use. The tools, processes and policies of institutional learning and teaching could be re-designed by drawing on some of the principles of connectivism and other social learning theories. For example, to make it easier for me to see who at my institution has used LMS feature X and how they used it. Make it easy for staff to approach others who have tried something previously. Dave Snowden’s 7 principles of knowledge management are applicable here.

I have some hypotheses why we don’t see more of this idea, including

  1. Changing the current tools (the LMS) is really hard, both technically and organisationally.
  2. Learning designers typically don’t have the knowledge to see how these changes could be made.
  3. Information technology people typically don’t have the pedagogical knowledge.
  4. Due to the “ignorance of maintenance” and the general pre-dominance of the techno-rational approach to problem solving, none of them realise that these changes should be made.

Ignores the broader higher ed environment

i.e. academics aren’t promoted on the quality of their teaching. It’s on their research that this will happen.

Goodyear (2009, pp 12-13) again

the sustainability of established teaching practices is in doubt because (1) more students, with increasingly diverse needs, are entering higher education; (2) we need to improve the quality of the education we provide; the social, environmental, political and economic challenges of the 21st Century will place extraordinary demands on our graduates; (3) the pace of technological change is accelerating; technology is not a solved problem and it is not going to go away; (4) the demands on university teachers are intensifying; good teachers are burning out; the workforce is ageing fast; it will get harder to recruit and retain good teachers as global competition for talent heats up

Ignores task corruption

The solution to the reluctance of academics to engage in quality learning and teaching is typically standards, policy and requirements. This is related to Mark’s suggestion that

Course development is prioritised and scheduled over the five year life of most programs

This can work, but it can also cause task corruption as Dilbert illustrates.


Ignores the university as a complex systems

For me, all of this is summed up with the ignorance of the nature of complex systems. As we argued (Beer et al, 2012), Universities are complex systems and

Complex systems are not causal, patterns are emergent and there exists no single correct solution. Managing
complex systems requires an evolutionary approach as small changes can have disproportionate and non-linear consequences

Universities are currently being managed as simple systems. This will never work.


Beer, C., Jones, D., & Clark, D. (2012). Analytics and complexity : Learning and leading for the future. In M. Brown, M. Hartnett, & T. Stewart (Eds.), Future Challenges, Sustainable Futures. Proceedings of ascilite Wellington 2012 (pp. 78–87). Wellington, NZ.

Goodyear, P. (2009). Teaching, technology and educational design: The architecture of productive learning environments (pp. 1–37). Sydney.

Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013). In medias res: reframing design for learning. Research in Learning Technology, 21, 1–13.

4 thoughts on “On the limitations of learning design for improving learning and teaching

  1. Hi David,

    Great post. I need to explain a little more about autonomous organisations from my experience at Swinburne Online which I see as an example of what Clayton Christensen was getting at (albeit more by accident than design). I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that the process of course development entails a close partnership with subject matter experts and considers not just the design of content but the way that the course is delivered. Effectively requiring a number of subject matter experts (depending on the cohort size) working with small groups of students based on activities designed with the SME at design time. The courses are designed to be reused and developed upon based on user feedback from all course stakeholders each time it is delivered. In so doing the courses that get developed fulfill each of the 4 requirements that you list at the start. I think it’s a viable model and a scalable one.

    On the question of training academics; I remember back in 1996 we had this mad idea that we would give all of the staff at the uni I was at a copy of Hot Dog Pro, FrontPage or some other WYSWIG html editor and get the staff to put their content online. Of course that came to nothing but I really think we are in the same position now if we expect SMEs to spend time learning the skills knowledge required to deliver modern online courses. Undoubtedly some can do it and some want to do it (not necessarily the same group) but that is a small proportion (10%-15%*); what do you do about the rest?

    I’ve even come round to the position that you could even question whether those that can do it and want to do it actually should do it. We know it’s not in their best interests. Wouldn’t it be better to do them a kindness and tell them to go write a research paper instead?

    With regard to task corruption; I don’t really see a problem. As courses get developed they are done so to highest standards available at the time with the resources available. Maybe I’ve misunderstood.

    I completely agree that universities are complex systems that get managed as simple systems. One thing that we can do is try and reduce that complexity. The SOL model actually does this. That’s not to say it takes a reductivist approach. In fact, by allowing SMEs to work with LDs and technologists a wider variety in course delivery techniques can be achieved within a sensible and evidence based approach to consistency in UI.



    * Based on figures for LMS course activity at another university which ties in nicely with Rogers proportions of innovators and early adopters in a population.

    1. G’day Mark, Thanks for taking the time to reply, give more detail and get me thinking.

      The model you describe sounds very similar to what I understand as the OU model, though perhaps at a different scale. I wonder how this model scales down to the small course? In this new massive world order, is there any space for the class with 50 students or less?

      The “task corruption” question was not something necessarily in the Swinburne Online context (where I assume the SMEs know and are some engaged with what they are getting themselves in for), but more the traditional university context where the SME is increasingly battling the top-down attempts to improve learning and teaching. e.g. the minimum standards stuff I’ve been critical of previously.

      Actually, that same post quotes from a paper by Cavallo which I think captures a lot of what I’d be trying in a similar situation. In fact, I’ve written about it before in “Losing weight, improving learning and teaching and complex systems” and even did a presentation way back when. This captures what I’d be trying for develop further.

      The trouble is that this sort of complex adaptive systems informed approach requires management to give up the idea of being able to prescribe what is good such as minimum course standards (a product emphasis) and allow good stuff to emerge (process emphasis).


  2. David and Mark

    My thought about the model Mark is proposing in his comment is the strong focus on “design time” in most learning design activities. It’s a time-limited partnership: lots of set up partnering well ahead of time, and then, whoosh, the SME is on her own. To this extent, it’s very like other forms of industrial and habitat design. I’m interested in whether it’s possible to develop a collaboration at scale that positions the learning designer more in the role of midwife: in it to the end. But as I mentioned on Mark’s post, I think there are real limits to the scaling of this in the way that we are currently staffing design teams.

    Chapman’s work on task corruption looks really fascinating. David, I went back over your older posts on task corruption and quality assurance, and I think you’re right: the current heavy investment in business analysis in universities is generating whole repertoires of task simulation, to the extent that it seems like the primary function of universities is to generate reports on their primary function, which is to generate reports on …

    I appreciated both your posts very much.


  3. Pingback: Preparing my digital “learning space” – The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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