Final Report Year One – Learning Design for Open Online Courses

The principles of learning design are to develop a range of activities associated with an overarching learning activity or course that leads to the development and successful achievement of pre-determined outcomes (Conole and Weller, 2008).

Conole (2010) identified six beneficial reasons for the adoption of the learning design approach:

  1. A vehicle to elicit designs from academics in a format that can be tested and reviewed, with a common understanding and vocabulary
  2. The possible reuse of content beyond simply sharing
  3. The guiding of individuals through the creation process
  4. The creation of an audit trail on design decisions
  5. The highlighting of need for staff development and resource
  6. Aiding the guidance of learners through complex activities in an activity sequence

This is closely aligned to the benefits outlined by Gibbons and Brewer (2005); improving the rate of progression, influencing designer concepts, making the design process explicit whilst improving the design and its tools, and bring design and production into alignment.

By opening the approach to learning and access to educational materials through the systems that it operates under has the scope to allow change in how people learn (McAndrew, 2010). The rapid development and range of open online courses has been a very public demonstration of this, not only with the uptake by universities to develop them, but also by the number of learners enrolling on them. MOOC courses started to be delivered in 2008, but the breakthrough moment came in 2012 when two Stanford professors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, presented ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ for free, online. This not only attracted interest in academia, but also covered over 160,000 learners worldwide, heralding it as the first truly ‘massive’ open online course (Mehaffy 2012). Within a year (dubbed ‘The Year of the MOOC’ by the New York Times; Pappano 2012), further announcement came from Stanford, with Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng launching Coursera, and the University itself launching two further platforms: Class2Go and NovoEd. Stanford also announced an alliance with the not-for-profit MOOC platform edX (launched in 2013 by Harvard and MIT), aiming to build a community of open-source developers. In 2012, The Open University in the United Kingdom announced the launch of FutureLearn, in partnership with the British Library, British Council, and British Museum, and over 20 top Russell Group universities. Such activity is not confined to America, Canada, and the United Kingdom, as further independent MOOC platforms have launched in Australia (Open2Study) and Germany (iversity) (Lewin 2013).

The ethos of MOOCs is also different to their traditional face-to-face classroom counterparts, with learners able to pause, playback, skip, and repeat activities to fit their own learning requirements. Unlike in a traditional face-to-face classroom setting multiple choice questions can be retaken in the privacy of a learner’s home without a sense of judgement from their peers or fear of failure. Multiple attempts allow the learner the ability to develop their knowledge by using the instant feedback given upon the selection of an incorrect answer to assist in deepening their understanding and ultimately (when such learning is applied), selecting the correct answer (Piec et al. 2013). Assessment has moved beyond machine grading, with Coursera devising the largest peer-grading system to date with thousands of students reviewing and assessing each other’s work (Piec et a. 2013).

It is important to consider that that most literature reviewed was in reference to formal study which is at a lower scale and narrower range (or of less frequency) than that of informal learning (such as Gleeson and Donnabhain 2009). The introduction of the element of informal learning creates an extra tension that makes it difficult to achieve balance throughout the learning design.

The introduction of informal learning to a wider, larger, and subsequently diverse population is that there is possibly the over reliance of the system to deliver the learning, therefore resulting in the attempt to create a generic ‘one size fit all’ (Friedman, 2012; Bruckman, 2014). This over reliance can lead to the sense of ‘indoctrination’ (Chomsky 2012) in the trapping of learners into a system by conducting education of a market and its learners as customers.

The proposed hypothesised in this research is that the difference here, in comparison to formal students, is that informal learners are more consumerist in nature than that of a customer. There is no monetary exchange required so the marketplace is more open and the learner can abandon their ‘acquisition’ at any time. In informal learning there are no barriers to exit, so engagement is one of the primary bargaining chips in this marketplace. If is learner does not feel like they are achieving ‘value’ for their time and engagement in the learning, or that the requested learning outcomes are deemed too ‘pricey’ then the learner is able to either increase their engagement to create ‘value for money’ or disengage if deciding that the expense is too great in consideration of their proposed investment.

Winograd (1996) argued that design isn’t a static noun, but instead an organic activity that evolves and develops, identifying design of the conscious process, design as a dialogue with materials, design as a creative process, design as a communicative process, and design as a social activity. And so learning design must be seen as evolving in which this research aids to develop a further understanding of how learning design does and doesn’t impact on learner engagement.

Designs should be created for the context in which they planned to be used, and also with the understanding of how the materials are to be learnt and what learning outcomes are to be achieved. But importantly, designs shouldn’t be static to carry the ability to be adapted, redesigned, and reused. As defined by Koper and Oliver (2004) learning design is ‘an application of a pedagogical model for a specific learning objective, target group and a specific context or knowledge domain’.

Even though open online course platforms have originated in the West, students register across the globe leading to courses and platforms being created outside of the West also. Whilst this produces a rich and diverse cohort of learners on open online courses, it does pose a few learning design challenges:

  • Learners may be accessing and posting content twenty four hours a day due to time zone differences and may post requests for assistance out of (western) hours. Though the learner is not on a western time zone, they expect the same level of engagement with the course and their fellow learners as their western counterparts.
  • Learner’s background and understanding of digital and information literacy may vary greatly, so understanding how to search, analyse with the content is highly varied making engagement with it at times difficult.
  • Most open online courses are presented in English, though this may not be the learner’s first language as approximately 5% of the world’s population consider English to be their first language (Central Intelligence Agency 2013).

In design-based research methodology, whether the characteristics set by Reiguluth and An (2009), the course view map or the course dimensions view (Conole 2008), there is a repeating pattern in what Wang and Hannifin (2005) define as systematic but flexible methodology.

Learning Design has been a fairly recent noted emergence on the educational landscape in the application of whole courses versus individual lesson plans, however Holden (2009) commented that design at The Open University (OU) has been provided since the 1970’s due to its unique nature of delivery of distance education to scale. Due to this scale Holden noted that the OU’s approach needed to be more generalist that specialist in view of designs used. This more general view is understandable given the sheer volume of students the OU delivers education to, as Koskinen et al (2011) describes as “the ‘halfway’ between people and things”.

However, there can be a ‘resistance to learning’ (Atherton 1999) that needs to be taken into consideration whereby ideas presented are incompatible with a learner’s view of education and/or its design. In informal learning which is on a much larger scale (the OU has circa 200,000 formal students and circa 10 million informal learners), it is hypothesised that the frequency of resistance could be deemed to be higher of that considered within formal learning, which in turn could impact on learner engagement as it is difficult at scale to produce a specialist approach.

Dimitriadis et al (2009) argue that teachers don’t fully understand OER (Open Educational Resources) enough to effectively reuse them, coupled with the need then for them to apply effective learning design suitable for the plethora of learners increases the difficult in the creation of suitable learning for context.

Teachers may understand the learning can be developed through the ‘mediation of artefacts’ (Kutti, 1991) to include ‘instruments, signs, language and machines’ (Nardi, 1995), but Dimitriadis et al (2009) state that this context should also include an abstraction of learning activities to include case studies, models, patterns, vocabularies or iconic representation (Conole, 2008). These are all different elements that comprise of the ingredients to create OER objects for learning. These objects may be large and complex enough to be considered as individual learning designs, or most commonly are building blocks to the creation of a learning design. In the case of OOCs, given the length of the courses, that they can be constructed from individual existing OER and ERs (Educational Resources), or from the creation of new OER and ERs with an adjoining or flowing narrative to create an engaging learning journey.

It is important to consider that each OER element may have been designed differently, by different academics, for different purposes, potentially causing an ebb and flow effect to the learner that could impact on engagement to complete all the various elements. Sequencing of methods and media (Lewis and Merton, 1996) requires close scrutiny in the construction of learning design and the establishment of course overview (Harrison, 1994). The planning, management, and guidance of the learning design needs close attention, not just in course narrative, but also the elements within. Much consideration has been given to the academic viewpoint on the creation of learning design, so further insight into the learner’s viewpoint needs to be researched.

With the emergence of online learning materials, and wider access to unlimited internet with the development of broadband, it’s now possible to create learner-centred online learning experiences of materials, tasks and activities to fit learner styles and preferences (Bonk, Wisher and Lee, 2003). The access to learning materials doesn’t even need to be linear with the ability to dip in and out of resources via online search engines, with learners able to select elements that they wish to learn, which may not be a course as a whole. This slightly more modular and disjoined approach can have ramifications on a learning design with learners cherry-picking the ‘best’ elements of a course to suit their needs, with the additional possibility of the learner accessing these elements in a different order to what the learning designer intended.

The difficulty with this non-linear approach is that the learner may not be able to engage with the increasing learner challenges that the course may present. An imbalance of skill and challenge can negatively impact on a learner’s ‘flow’ Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975) to move through the learning material at an consistent engaging pace without feeling overtly challenged to the point of disengagement. Enwistle and Tait (1990) stated that the perception of a learning environment does have an impact on learning and the quality of the resulting learning outcomes. This perception may have a positive or negative impact on engagement and therefore requires further research to address the research questions.


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