The web-site is now in readonly mode. Login and registration are disabled. (28 June 2019)

learning design

Cloud created by:

hlobisile buthelezi
12 April 2016


In recent years there has been a growing interest in trying to better understand teachers’ design processes and to make them more explicit.

There are a number of reasons for this, but two are particularly worth noting.

  1. By making the design process more explicit it can be more easily shared with others, which means good practice can be transferred.
  2. There is now such a diversity of resources and technologies available, which can potentially be used to support the teaching process that teachers need clearer guidance to help them find relevant tools and resources and find support on how to incorporate the tools and resources into the learning activities they are creating.

‘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.

While some people prefer to use other terms, such as ‘educational design’, ‘instructional design’ or ‘curriculum/course design’, all the terms tend to focus on the importance of ‘design’. This is regarded as a good term around which to reclaim the scholarship of teaching and to rethink pedagogy for a digital age and in the new information economy (Beetham and Sharpe, 2007).

Why design is becoming increasingly important

So why is it important to pay so much attention to the design process? Precisely because it is 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. In the creation of learning materials either for independent study or mediated by a tutor, the impact of good design makes itself felt immediately. Often working intuitively or with tacit knowledge, the expert teacher can produce the apposite example to illustrate a complex concept. Or they can advise on the use of formative assessment at the appropriate point in a long chain of argumentation to anchor a critical perception in a student’s mind. 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.

‘Learning activities’ and ‘learning design’

Two key concepts, ‘learning activities’ and ‘learning design’, are central to the topics covered in the module and it is worth defining these concepts from the outset.

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.

Agostinho (2006) describes it as ‘a representation of teaching and learning practice documented in some notational format so that it can serve as a model or template adaptable by a teacher to suit his/her context’.

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 therefore refers to a range of activities associated with better describing, understanding, supporting and guiding pedagogic design practices and processes. It is about supporting teachers in managing and responding to new perspectives, pedagogies, and work practices resulting, to a greater or lesser extent, from new uses of technology to support teaching and learning.

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.

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. Conceptually, there is a growing appreciation, borne out by research at The Open University (UK) and elsewhere, that learning design has an important role throughout the teaching and learning process; from design and production, through the delivery of learning and sharing designs with students, to evaluation and sharing practice.

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. A number of groups are working on learning design research and practice. The range of learning design approaches offers something for both teachers/lecturers and those in support or mediatory roles (e.g. instructional designers and others seeking learning and teaching solutions).

Different interpretations of ‘learning design’

‘Learning design’ as a term originated in the technical community and began to gain prominence around 2004, following the development of an educational mark-up language at the Open University of the Netherlands. This was taken as the basis for attempting to create a learning design specification as part of a broader body of work on technical specifications by the IMS consortium ( The aim of this formal specification was to provide a framework for describing teaching strategies and learning objectives in a method that allows easy interchange between elearning providers. The capitalised term ‘Learning Design’ is sometimes used to refer to this more technical approach. Only limited implementations of the full specification have yet been realised and as an approach it does not tend to make pedagogic design and learner activity explicit in a human-readable form.

However, since then the term has been appropriated by others and as such there is some confusion surrounding it because it has become popular as an expression that in a more general sense is synonymous with instructional or course design, for example, someone might ask ‘What is the learning design underlying this course?’ They do not expect to be presented with XML code when they ask this, but are seeking some rationale behind the course design, for example, an explanation that relates learning outcomes to pedagogy and content.

This extension of the term partly reflects the interest the specification has generated. In order to distinguish between a more general use of the term and reference to the IMS specification itself some suggest the convention of using ‘learning design’ (small ‘l’, small ‘d’) when talking about the general concept and ‘Learning Design’ (capital ‘L’ and ‘D’) when referring to the concept as implemented in the IMS specification.

A second approach to learning design adopts a more general interpretation of learning design – one that focuses on pedagogy and the activity of the student rather than, say, the content. This approach advocates a process of ‘design for learning’ by which one arrives at a plan, structure or design for a learning situation, where support is realised through tools that support the process (e.g. software applications, websites) and resources that represent the design (e.g. designs of specific cases, templates).

Beetham suggests the primary focus should be on the activities undertaken by learners. That is to say, not just the tasks required of learners but thinking about how learners, each with their own way of proceeding, engage as active participants in these tasks. This means greater emphasis on understanding and codifying the components and relationships within learning experiences, be these specific ‘learning activities’ or an entire curriculum. An example of this approach may see a designer give an explanation that relates learning outcomes to learner activity to pedagogy to content. The lower case term ‘learning design’ is often used to refer to this approach although there remains ambiguity in use.

The value of learning design as an approach

At this point you may still be wondering ‘what on earth is learning design and why should I be interested in learning about it?’ You can think of it as a fancy word for what you were doing every day of your professional life, working out what you were going to teach and how you were going to teach it. The difference is that with firstly distance learning, and now e-learning, teachers have had to make that process more explicit, because without face-to-face contact you can’t fix things on the fly if they start going wrong.

This is the view Beetham takes in her chapter (p.37) when she talks about the possibility of learning design existing as unarticulated shared expertise. The point is to become aware of it, to do it better and, of course, to share the practice and the results.

There are significant advantages in the instilling of the tenets of good design across the teaching and support staff of an educational institution or within a training context:

  • A clearer perception by the teacher of good examples of teaching or learning support
  • More efficient use of the teacher’s time
  • More efficient and effective learning on the part of students
  • More useful sharing of pedagogic insights across the teaching and support staff, and across disciplines.

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

Capturing practice

To aid the perception, capture and communication of good teaching practice (in a form that can be easily read and digested) requires the creation of a textual or visual ‘space’ and within it a ‘vocabulary’ of pedagogical elements in terms of which the examples can be described. From there the rules of combination of these elements, to create a learning task and groups of such tasks, have to be articulated.

What is captured depends to some extent on the intended audience for the design. For example, the same ‘design’ would need to be represented in different ways to a technical developer, a teacher or a student. A technical developer tasked with converting the design into a set of web pages needs different information to that required by a teacher who wants to use the design as the basis for setting up an activity, or that required by a student who wants to work through the elements of the design.

What are the drawbacks?

Learning design has already attracted much interest but remains an emerging field at the edge of mainstream practice. There are a variety of evolving issues and challenges.

  1. For researchers there are theoretical and methodological challenges associated with understanding what is a very complex process, ranging from questions about how it should researched?, modelled? Or made sense of? to what definitions and vocabularies are used. Other challenges relate to the impact and consequences of the approach. For example, Peter Goodyear writing in the Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects (Lockyer et al. (eds), 2009) asks if the very focus on ‘learning’ means we are inadvertently complicit in helping learners abdicate their responsibilities for learning.
  2. 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.
  3. Learning design will be organised and embedded within established cultural and social practices and so practitioners will encounter it from many standpoints. There may be some concerns, for example, about the time required for the design process (although ideally it should be the quality of design that should take precedence and it is likely that time will be saved later in the process). Others may be uncertain about issues of ownership, how best to share, how to become proficient in skills of notation and representation and how to externalise and articulate practice.

Summing up so far…

So, 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.

Cross and Conole provide a simple overview of the evolution of the term; see index.php/ cloud/ view/ 1513 for more on this.

Two recent edited collections ([1] Beetham and Sharpe and [2] Goodyear and Retalis) provide a good starting point on learning design and between them have contributions from most of the current major players in this area. Beetham and Sharpe (2007) is probably the most accessible of the collected texts as it provides a practitioner-focused collection. ‘Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age’ provides a critical discussion of the issues surrounding the design, sharing and reuse of learning activities. It offers tools that practitioners can apply to their own concerns and incorporates a variety of contexts including face-to-face, self-directed, blended and distance learning modes, as well as a range of theories of learning and roles of technology. 

Extra content

Embedded Content


Contribute to the discussion

Please log in to post a comment. Register here if you haven't signed up yet.