Education learning design Work Work Out Loud

Design at Scale

I presented Tuesday, 6th December, at Ascilite22 about some of the work I’ve been leading at the University of Adelaide. It was a Pecha Kucha session, so there was not a massive amount of time to go into depth about the work, so I thought I’d put together something to accompany the slides and provide a bit more depth and invite further conversations post-conference. The reception to the presentation was really positive and led to a host of conversations. That said, I’m still keen to chat – so let’s talk! 

The challenge we’ve been working on is – how to scale up our learning design. We’re undertaking a pretty rapid development period for our fully online programs. The team I joined had lots of experience developing online courses with a portfolio of world-class MOOCs on EdX. Six of those I worked on – our MathTrackX certificate that provides a bridging course for courses with Math prerequisites. 

These courses represent a ‘craft’ phase in our learning design process – one I liken to craft beer: small batches, lots of variety and experimentation, few constraints and few demands. 

Much of the work done through those MOOCs has flowed into what we do now – especially an agile approach to learning design. But we are staring at a very different situation now. We’ve had to scale up significantly. 

My team of learning designers has grown from 2 to 6, and we now have around 35 fully online courses to develop across two programs, and a year and a bit in, we have a year to go on that deadline. Dealing with scale leads to a considerable number of challenges. As any craft brewer will tell you – making that transition is hugely challenging. New processes are required, and so too the infrastructure and ways of working. 

Dealing with scale is not helped by simply throwing bodies into the job. There are logistical challenges, process challenges and quality challenges.

How do you maintain the original ‘craft’ that worked so well before?

One of the things I’ve been throwing my efforts into is a ‘design system’ for our team to work with. This is an attempt to adopt standard practices within graphic and web design disciplines. The design system that I’ve been working on isn’t an aesthetic one, although we do have that as a final component, but one that focuses on our job – designing learning. It’s an attempt to provide the tools we need to aid our work. To provide quality products and build relationships with our stakeholders and partners. 

Part of this work was going back to the fundamentals and asking questions about what learning actually was. Can we have a shared understanding of what we are designing? How can we capture the variety of experiences students can have?

Laurrilard’s Conversational Framework provided a solid basis to build upon, as had others in the field. We adapted that work based on our experiences and used the following types as our foundation. 

The types of learning discussed and used within our team are:

  1. Assimilative – Learning through presented information
  2. Investigative – Learning by seeking information 
  3. Discursive – Learning by engaging with other perspectives
  4. Formative – Learning by trying 
  5. Productive – Learning by creating artefacts
  6. Evaluative – Learning through feedback
  7. Social – Learning with others

These definitions helped provide a foundation for what we do as learning designers – and a vocabulary to discuss learning itself and make our design process more intentional. Its simplicity meant we didn’t have to translate it for different audiences. 

This idea of vocabulary was intentional. One of my roles in higher education has been to act as a translator between teams and roles who cannot converse with each other. Universities are full of hyper-specialised roles and knowledge, but little attention is paid to bridging the language barrier between specialisations. 

I’ve had previous successes because I was able to facilitate a conversation. I succeeded with this approach while at Charles Sturt University, and it’s shaped my approach here as well. Getting people to the table is one thing; enabling them to interact and discuss their work is very different and often more important.

I’ve gone with a pedagogy-agnostic perspective that some may see as off-putting or lazy (where’s the literature?). No, it’s intentional. What I want to focus on as a learning designer is learning — not teaching nor delivery. I want to start with the intention, not the application. 

To apply the learning types we’ve identified, we then developed associated Activity Types. Again, these are free of pedagogical terms so that we can focus on language and the knowledge of pedagogy a learning designer already has. 

The Activity Types are how we can construct a learning experience for students. They allow us to define how students spend their time in a course. Importantly they correspond directly with Learning Types:

  • Assimilative = Content
  • Investigative = External Resources
  • Discursive = Discussion
  • Formative = Practice
  • Productive = Assessment
  • Evaluative = Review
  • Social = Interactive

The Activity Types define what course components we need to create, and we can do that by mapping the student’s Time-On-Task for each week based on what is being taught. We do this through a course map – a high-level view of the course as a whole in Miro

But when it comes to creating the course itself, we need to get more granular. There’s a need to shift between Learning Types as we delve into each concept to create cohesive lessons. 

The typical way to do this is through templates.

But templates are static containers and assume that we can “fill them up” in the same way regardless of topic, disciple or intentions for our learners. Templates are the opposite of what design should be – bespoke and suited to the specific intentions you are designing for. What templates do is create a ‘sausage factory’ approach to learning design, with everything being pushed into a singular shape and form.

That wasn’t aligned with how we as a team wanted to approach our work. So what does template-less learning design look like? I was lucky enough to have worked with and developed my own design systems before. Coming from a technical background in graphic and web design has its plusses. A good system has reusable components that can be adapted to the scenario at hand. This is simpler to do in disciplines like graphic and web design, but I was keen to see if I could apply the same ideas to learning design.

So the work became – what are the components of learning design? This was much trickier to get my head around than code blocks with colour variations or the like. One idea I had come across and used with some success was the idea of a “pattern language”. 

This idea of a language comes up again. Foundational to what we do as designers is talk. We have to understand what we are designing, and we need to engage, discuss, debate and understand our stakeholders. Design is a conversation

So having a shared vocabulary and a set of grammar about what we do and how we do it is crucial. A ‘[[pattern language]]’ is a set of reusable terms and ideas that allows a designer to work through a project with their stakeholders. To be able to converse with each other in terms of what they are creating. 

You can read up more on the concept of pattern language here and how it applies to learning design that shaped my thinking by Mike Caulfield and Peter Goodyear

My idea with these patterns was to create Lego bricks that would allow us to create a bespoke course. If we could come up with ways of piecing together each lesson in this fashion, we could speed up the design process and help to get consistency and quality between courses regardless of their topic or discipline. 

This sounds great in theory, but how do you use these things in the design process? We lacked the right tools to do this. Learning Design is still stuck with few purpose-built tools that allow us to do our work. Instead, we co-opt tools that are capable but ultimately unsuited to the task. And this becomes noticeable at scale. 

All of the ‘hacks’ needed to coherently design and build a course become failure points. We worked in documents, Word and Google Docs, and a bunch of spreadsheets to try to manage the work. But these are unsuited to the challenges we face. 

Lucky for us, we had some talent in the team that could build us a custom web application – one that we could shape and mould to suit our needs. And so the Smart Storyboard was born. 

Essentially the Smart Storyboard is a lightweight Content Management System that we could use to add data to elements of the course. Key to doing this was breaking the course into its constituent components. This provided us with a cohesive data model and the ability to create tools that suit each stage of the process. 

So now what we could do was not just manage course content but actively map the experience and now apply our learning patterns as a way to design and scaffold our lessons through their development. We could seed ideas and provide feedback in the same way. 

What we needed now was a library of patterns to use. And so was born. This initial set of patterns has been used for the first time in the last set of courses we’ve developed. 

So the tool went live with an MVP in April, and we’re now wrapping up the development of the first batch of courses developed with the Smart Storyboard in place right from the start. 

Getting this far has been a massive team effort. As we go, we’ve been developing our processes, adapting to what’s in front of us and building out the tools simultaneously. Where we are today is the result of an amazing team of people spanning multiple teams within the organisation. 

So what comes next? We’ve now been able to use the design system and our new tools for the first time for the end-to-end development of courses. We’ve learnt a lot from that experience and can improve as we go. There are more patterns to be created – the current list helped, but there are lots of ideas that we can contribute back and add to the library. 

I’ve also been sharing our work with other teams within Adelaide and now at Ascilite to gauge if our work has broader applications. 

I’m interested in using our patterns to construct lessons and how these lessons could be created in a way that could be delivered in a variety of ways. A well-constructed lesson could work as a series of pages in an LMS or be offered as a face-to-face session. The reason for this has been the way we’ve constructed the patterns themselves. They are just language – a description of a way to do something but agnostic of implementation.

The Content patterns could be text or videos, or a lecture. Discussion patterns could occur on a discussion board, over Zoom, or in the classroom. 

The bigger picture that is seen is that there is potential for this design system to flow beyond our small team. The same with the tools that we have developed. How and what that looks like, I don’t know, but I’m keen to talk about it. 

I would love to have an impact on learning design as a discipline and as a profession. I’ve been working towards scaling up my team, but maybe that’s too small a goal or ambition. As learning designers, I think we’ve lacked real tools that allow us to do our jobs effectively and have the impact we could have within our institutions. It heartens me to see how many institutions now acknowledge the role and importance of their learning design teams – but we still lack the tools to effect change at scale. Having a voice is great, but being able to have a conversation would be so much more powerful. This is why I’ve focussed on an idea that’s a bit abstract and overlooked – language. Having a shared vocabulary is how we can develop a shared understanding. Rather than talking past each other or in unintelligible jargon, we can have clarity and work more effectively. Our work as learning designers can be more interactive, and we can move away from the model of doing design to courses and move towards doing it with our stakeholders.


By Tim Klapdor

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

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