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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Design for Learning in E-Learning: Making the Notion of "Quality" Concrete and Implementable

Design for Learning focuses on how to transform existing educational situations into desired situations where it is easier to achieve learning outcomes (Guislandi & Raffaguelli, 2015). The emphasis is on quality, and in doing so, the approach links the vision of how quality should be enacted in a program to the actual activities and procedures that are built into the learning program.

In the learning design, it is important to think of how the design of the course can affect ways of knowing, and also how to connect to improvements in practice.

Breaking Down "Quality" into Recognizable Elements

It is really all about breaking down quality into recognizable elements, and moving "quality" from an abstraction to something that can be recognized, measured, reviewed, and remediated (McNaught etal, 2012).

1. System: Make sure that the system used in learning is of high quality.  This means that it is necessary to review the learning goals and the potential users of a learning system (whether it be a learning management system, or a LMS-free approach) to assure that it can deliver what it needs to deliver.

2.  Experience:  Make sure that the learner / user experience is a positive one, and that it is friendly, not just for the learners, but also for the facilitators.

3.  Culture:  What are the institutional values? How and when are certain high-quality elements perceived?  What is the definition of quality?  How does it extend to a sense of respect for diversity, as well as efforts to build an authentic structure that can help learners and facilitators feel confident about their ability to achieve the mission of the organization and their goals as they relate to the institution.

4.  Flexible and Forward-Looking Vectors of Communication and Change:   Be willing to adapt existing structures to ones that are more flexible, and which accommodate changing technologies and locations. Ideally, learning organizations should be able to accommodate and even welcome individuals in all situations with a minimum of disruption. Further, the quality elements should extend to encouraging experimentation and innovation, with a high tolerance for failure (and success, which can bring about its own stresses and stressers).

University Degree Programs / Field Research Courses

Here's a concrete example. Let's say that we are a geology department in a state university, and we have a number of field courses. We've been intensely impacted by technology, not only in the way in which we communicate our findings, but also in the way in which field investigations are conducted.

We require all our graduate students to go out into the field and map outcrops and retrieve samples. However, our administration as well as our insurance providers have recently pulled the plug on the way that we were doing things in the past. They claim that there is not enough quality control in the design of the courses, so what the students bring back from the field are of dubious quality. Worse, they're considered dreadfully unsafe; only last month one student tumbled off a cliff and impaled herself on a cholla cactus. She was alone, and it was a minor miracle that she made it back alive. One might say it was only sheer luck that the escarpment was only 15 feet high, there was a ledge that partially broke her fall, and the cholla cactus plant was small and it broke apart upon impact. The weather was chilly and wet, so she was wearing pants and rain gear, which help minimize the impact of the cactus spines.

cholla in bloom - photo by susan smith nash, ph.d.

Details and luck notwithstanding, what happened to her was a clear indication that the department needs to go back and revisit Design for Learning and look at the four criteria:

1. System:  It's possible that the system itself is not giving people an opportunity to plan their research projects well. There may not be effective templates, and it may be important to customize the approach, given that each student's research project will be slightly different.

2.  Experience:  What is the user's experience? For the female student who fell down an escarpment and impaled herself on cholla cactus, it's less than ideal.  But it could have been worse.  Her experience in the field should not be confused with the learning design; the design should be developed so that she had a positive experience in planning and implementing her learning program.

3.  Culture: If the culture of the organization puts a high priority on eliminating all risk and all potential exposure to liability, then they may lose students. They will certainly lose innovative impulses, and many of their creative, inspired (and inspiring) thinkers will be drawn to different places, where they will potentially contribute transformative breakthroughs which could tangibly / substantially positively impact the institution itself and affect its persistence / viability.

4. Flexibility:  Communication could be improved. How about requiring digital inspections before going into the field and maintain an archive of photos of the sites (all of which are geotagged) and the gear.  Also, it would be possible to use low-cost satellite phones if there is no cell phone coverage. It's not always possible to work in teams, and so it's necessary to at least have a digital nanny.

Conclusions & Observations

Design for Learning articles are often cloaked in rather obtuse language which can be less than concrete. In order to really grasp the importance of the concept and the potential contribution to an organization, to learners, instructors, and a community, it's important to look at case studies. The concept of Design for Learning does, in fact, provide a powerful mechanism for operationalizing "quality" by breaking it into observable, measurable actions and by providing a platform for dissecting case studies with the idea of incorporating them in one's own learning programs.


Ghislandi, Patrizia M. M.; Raffaghelli, Juliana E. Forward-oriented designing for learning as a means to achieve educational quality. British Journal of Educational Technology. (Mar2015)  Vol. 46 Issue 2, p280-299.

McNaught, Carmel, Paul Lam, and Kin Cheng. (2012)"Investigating Relationships Between Features Of Learning Designs And Student Learning Outcomes." Educational Technology Research & Development 60.2: 271-286. Professional Development Collection. Web. 11 June 2015.

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