learning design Work Out Loud

Designing the Learning Experience: Activities & Patterns

Thinking about the design of experiences and how a focus on activities might work with the development of a pattern language to aid learning design.

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This is a bit of a work in progress post. I wanted to document some of my thoughts, mainly because putting them into words help me structure and organise them.

One of the things I have been working through this year is how we design the experience of learning. I manage a learning design team, so my job isn’t to be the student, nor is it my place to be the subject matter expert (SME) – my job primarily is to work on how these two roles connect and make sense for each other. A lot of the time that means advocating for the student and working with the SME to help them understand what the learner will experience working through their course.

This means that a lot of what I need to work through is what activity the student is undertaking. The process of learning design has a lot of focus on developing the intentions of learning. We create learning outcomes, construct a sequence of topics and then students submit an assessment showing that they’ve learnt. We aim to create an alignment between those three areas – outcomes, topics and assessment – but there’s not a lot of defined process for what comes next. How do we build the course out from that overview state? How do we design an experience that encourages students to learn, that assists and supports them and yet provides them with the autonomy to direct their own learning and to do it in a socialised way?

This all happens in courses already – things work and get put together based on the artisanal craft and knowledge of the practitioners in place. And it works well when time is on your side, and you have the chance to refine and tweak things on the fly, the kinds of affordances that face-to-face instruction has. But in higher education, that environment is less of a reality. Development time has been shortened as courses need to become more agile and pushed out faster than ever. Entire courses need to be developed, built, QA, checked, assessed and rolled out before students have even been through them. External accreditation bodies require documentation and visibility of the intentions and activities that will be undertaken. They need to see this, not just from a course perspective, but from a whole program and degree.

We are at a point where the artisanal approach is no longer appropriate. From my perspective, the design process requires more formal and structured processes for quality to be achieved in this changing environment.

My take on this is to look at the activities, what and where students and SMEs will spend their time during the course, and its development. I’ve started to explore what this means over the last year through developing a Quality Framework, developing our MOOC courses and providing feedback when reviewing a range of online courses in development. What keeps coming up in this process is defining the activities and tasks through which the learning will occur. SMEs don’t have a problem producing content, but understanding it in the context of learning seems challenging. Why is that? Part of it is the requirement to think of content outside of an existing schema – this is essentially what students need to develop through their learning. Activities provide the pathways and junctions for students – allowing them to connect, grow and build their own schema. Reading content doesn’t offer enough structure – it provides information but not the tools, directions or instructions that aid the development of the student’s own schema.

Diana Laurillard’s work is useful for defining a set of learning types:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Collaboration
  3. Discussion
  4. Investigation
  5. Practice
  6. Production

They look good from a student-facing perspective, but I want to ensure that while we are embedding and discussing the student’s experience, it needs to reflect what the SME needs to do. So I’ve started to work through some of my own types – activity types rather than learning:

AcquisitionCourse content
InvestigationExternal resources

These are a pretty close match, but a couple of variations. The other thing is that these are fine for mapping out a course, but a lot of detail is missing. There is a lot of scope to “zoom in” and provide more details and scaffolding to aid both the student and SME.

So let me go through my thinking on these:

  1.  Course Content – This is essentially what the SME develops and creates. This is them guiding the student through the topic and using the most appropriate means necessary. The aim is for students to ‘acquire’ knowledge. I am keen to use “course content” because I want to map how much time the student will spend on this materials and how much content we expect the SME to develop. From a manager’s perspective, I want to capture resource allocation as much as the learning experience.
  2. Interaction – Collaboration is a buzz word, and I think some of the activities used as examples are discussions. The aim here is for students to share – to spend time interacting not with the content but with one another. They don’t need to work together but participate together to create their own learning. This might include sharing their ideas and perspectives but not requiring a discussion. I am reminded of the difference between co-operation and co-laboration – working with others in a group or working together for individual purposes.
  3. Discussion – these are the same – activities that require discussion to occur.
  4. External Content – I’ve made this separate to course content because it doesn’t require the SME to develop anything, so it’s different to course content. Instead, they need to work on developing tasks that would be assigned to this activity, using the resources to require exploring, comparing and criticising to occur.
  5. Practice – same again.
  6. Assessment – in my experience, the only things students will work to produce are the assessments. The assessments should be creative experiences but, importantly the time associated mapped accordingly.
  7. Review – I’ve put review in as its own activity, aiming to capture things like formative assessments, peer review and actioning feedback. These activities are often overlooked in the development process – they’re usually present but unaccounted for. Adding to this model, we can allocate time and space for the development.

From my perspective, these activity types would allow us to map a course from an experiential perspective and the workload associated with its development. This high-level map is a great start, but we still need to “zoom in”. This is the next step in my process – starting to map out these activities into patterns.

I’ve done some work around patterns in learning and teaching before, developing many of the “strategies” that were part of the Online Learning Model implementation. The tricky part of developing patterns is getting them at the right level of granularity. Laurillard’s types (or my modification) aren’t the right level – they help provide structure and intent, but they lack the detail that would make them useful. The best patterns aren’t “templates” but are designed as pieces that can be constructed to suit the specific intent of a solution. Think Lego pieces as opposed to a model’s instructions. A pattern is essentially self-explanatory, and its affordances (and drawbacks) are easily accessible. On top of the pattern itself is the language used. Using the right words and terminology can be especially challenging, especially when working in a contested space or in an environment where words matter (sometimes far more than needed).

My next challenge is trying to conceptualise the patterns we might use. Giving them enough structure that they’re helpful, and test driving them to see how well they work.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

3 replies on “Designing the Learning Experience: Activities & Patterns”

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