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Learning Design

Cloud created by:

Thando Mhlongo
26 April 2018

What is learning design?

Learning design is the term most commonly used to describe the research and development activities associated with a better understanding of the process involved in designing learning activities and which support teachers’ design practices. However, it should be noted that the term is not without controversy and overlaps to some extent with other terms, such as instructional design, curriculum design and course design.

Why learning design is important

It is a core to the teaching process and to the ultimate learning experience students have as a result of how a teaching session or some learning materials are designed. Learning design aims to move the pedagogic skills of the expert teacher from the realm of tacit to explicit knowledge and to capture the essence of that knowledge for reuse in other contexts by other staff.

Difference between learning activities’ and ‘learning design’

Learning activities are those tasks that students undertake to achieve a set of intended outcomes. Examples might include:

  • Finding and synthesising a series of resources from the web
  • Contributing to a ‘for and against debate’ in a discussion forum
  • Manipulating data in a spreadsheet
  • Constructing a group report in a wiki
  • Summarising the salient points of a podcast.

Beetham views learning activities in relation to the design process ‘as a specific interaction of learner(s) with other(s) using specific tools and resources, orientated towards specific outcomes’. (Beetham in Beetham and Sharpe, 2007, p.28)

Learning design refers to the range of actions associated with creating a learning activity and crucially provides a means of describing learning activities. The term learning design can refer to:

  • The process of planning, structuring and sequencing learning activities,
  • The product of the design process – the documentation, representation(s), plan, or structure) created either during the design phase or later.

Learning design provides a means of guiding the creation of learning activities, as well as representing learning activities so that they can be shared between tutors and designers. For example, this might consist of illustrating learning activities in an easy to understand way (as a diagram and/or text) so that they can:

  • Be shared between a teacher and a designer
  • Be repurposed from one teacher to another
  • Serve as a means of scaffolding the process of creating new learning activities
  • Provide the tools for practitioners to capture their innovative practice in a form that is not only easy to share but also gives them ownership of the problem and solution. Such a scaffold might be in the form of an online tool to provide support and guidance to a teacher in the steps involved in creating a new learning activity – including tips and hints on how they might use particular tools.

Learning design aims to enable reflection, refinement, change and communication by focusing on forms of representation, notation and documentation. This can:

  • Make the structures of intended teaching and learning – the pedagogy – more visible and explicit thereby promoting understanding and reflection
  • Serve as a description or template, which can be adaptable or reused by another teacher to suit his/her own context
  • Add value to the building of shared understandings and communication between those involved in the design and teaching process
  • Promote creativity.


How does learning design work?

Learning design can take place at a number of levels: from the creation of a specific learning activity, through the sequencing and linking of activities and resource, to the broad curriculum and programme levels. To some extent, teachers already engage in some form of learning design, such as planning a lecture or using a table to map learning objectives to assessment criteria. However, as technologies, pedagogies and working practices change, many believe that a greater formality in existing design practices, processes and support needs to be developed.

The significance of learning design as an method

Learning design seeks to provide tools and support that can help those involved in teaching and learning respond to changes

– be these constraints on time and resource, greater choice in technology and pedagogies, the blurring of the real and virtual, and shifting roles

– And stakeholders involved in planning and delivering courses. When teaching at a distance, there may be particular benefits due to the even greater need for rigorous planning, design and evaluation before delivery to students.

Furthermore, in making a design more explicit, learning design encourages greater focus on what the student is doing – their learning experience and activity.

 It also asks questions about how design occurs, what decisions do teachers make? What is their process? For both the individual practitioner and for universities, this may support more efficient use of time, more effective teaching and learning, better economy of effort, clearer perceptions of good practice and the change to alternate forms of course delivery (for example, the ways of visualising the virtual hyperlinked learning landscape in an online course).

Several tools have been developed to help the designer/practitioner, and if you wish to investigate further they can be found at:

  • The JISC Design for Learning Programme supported a variety of projects that developed tools for guiding, implementing and evaluating learning design including the London Pedagogy Planner and the Phoebe Pedagogic Planner)
  • The OU now with the support of the JISC Curriculum Design Programme (until 2012), are developing two tools, CompendiumLD and Cloudworks
  • The RELOAD project is building a suite of software tools for authoring and delivering standard-compliant learning objects
  • The LAMS (Learning Activity Management System) Foundation has produced a platform for teachers to create, deliver and run online sequences of learning activities in real-time with students.

Links to some learning design tools


What are the problems?

There are a variety of evolving issues and challenges.


Representations of learning designs can vary in their form, role, granularity and level of abstractness, and the choice of tool or platform may constrain/inform the approach used. Such variation introduces vibrancy to the field but also presents practical and theoretical challenges, which may appear difficult to reconcile. For example, how to resolve the tension between the desire to represent learning design in the abstract as some form of ‘pattern’ or practice model and the need to convey the contextual specificity of a design as realised in a particular case? Or, how can representations satisfy the need to represent a short, specific activity but also show its place in, and contribution to, an entire curriculum? At present there is no singular agreement regarding representations or languages for learning design.


Learning design refers to the range of activities associated with creating a learning activity and crucially provides a means of describing learning activities. Internationally, a number of research groups are actively working in the area of learning design. They are trying to find ways to help teachers create better learning experiences for students, which are pedagogically grounded and make innovative use of new technologies.

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