Learning about Design Part 1

I thought it was time to share with you my readings around learning design and considerations when applying it to informal learning. The concept of applying learning design to informal learning has started to grow due to the high numbers of registrations and dropouts for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) whereas previously it only had momentum in paid for, for fee, accredited courses. For my doctorate I applied the theories and concepts of formal learning design into the informal domain, such a comparative application will gain an understanding as to whether there are discrepancies in the application from formal to informal and what provisions need to be made. I’m starting with the recent explosion of MOOCs and then working my way back to the origins of learning design over the next few blog posts.


‘The planning of new educational institutions ought not to begin with the administrative goals of a principal or president, or with the teaching goals of a professional education, or with the learning goals of any hypothetical class of people. It must not start with the question, ‘What should someone learn?’ but with the question, ‘What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?’

Illich (1971, p78)

In recent years the field of informal learning has brought to the forefront of media attention with the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) firstly through the advent of connectivist MOOCs or cMOOCs, followed a few years later by broadcast MOOCs or xMOOCs. delivered on large scale platforms such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn with Bates (2012) stating that the pedagogy of xMOOCs being mainly based on behaviourism not on connectivism, with Daniel (2012) adding that xMOOCs will soon be forced to modernise their pedagogy.

Though connectivism brings with it a wealth and range of learning materials through blogs, articles, internet sites, books and presentations, it isn’t necessarily a learning journey that has been designed. Kop and Hill (2008) argue that connectivism does not have the required criteria to be considered as a learning theory, though do not rule out that this may be the case in the future. Lange (2012) states that it is just a a mixture of a collection of learning theories that are in themselves already well established even if the concoction of them in this state is not.

xMOOCs may be a recent emergence in education, but connectivism began its own emergence in 2005, with the publishing of ‘Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age’ (Siemens 2005), stating its alternative to behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism and based on four principles:

  1. That learning consists of connecting nodes (Siemens 2005), not only is learning a consequence of connections, but also the connections themselves.
  2. That learning happens outside of the human mind including connections external to the learner such as information sources (Siemens 2006)
  3. That knowledge/concepts/beliefs are a pattern of connections (Downes 2006)
  4. That knowledge/concepts/beliefs are emergent in their nature, and can be unintentional learning or the development of a pattern by the learner. (Downes 2012)

Downes (2006) states that these four elements move through four stages of context, salience, emergence, and memory to be formed as knowledge. Illich (1971) had a utopian vision of self directed (non-directed) learning being formed from the high availability of resources (nodes), though this may now be more possible than ever with the ready availability of the internet to so many, the lack of learning design of a learning journey may have a serious implication to those that need strong yet subtle direction in order to remain motivation to learn to reach journey completion.

Though Mackness, Mak & Williams (2010) and Downes (2006, 2012) state that a successful network should provide the four characteristics of diversity, autonomy of participants, mechanisms of systems to allow interaction, and connections to be made between nodes, this says little for the design of the learning which even the most successful network may fail to achieve.

Whilst personalised learning may be of benefit and interest to a learner with a higher possibility for completion, the skills required to access, aggregate, remix, and repurpose and republish the learning may be beyond the learners digital literacy skill set.

Kop (2011), Kop, Fournier, and Mak (2011), and Mackness et al (2010) stated that the four main problems with successful learning of cMOOCs are:

  • Participants would need to be highly capable of self directing their own learning
  • The high level of diversity of learners can lead to a low level of connections being made (expertise, confidence, and clique interactions)
  • Lack of ability to relate the connections to the learning climate
  • Lack of care, mutual respect, and support

These problems could find their origins in motivation as learners would need to be highly motivated to self direct their own learning, motivated to seek out the connections in a highly diverse cohort of learners, motivation to relate the connections made to the climate, and motivation to create and maintain a more harmonious learning environment. Even in the high, possibly considered elite, demographic of MOOC learners, there is still the issue of motivation to consider and cater for in learning design to deliver ‘powerfully motivating and intense learning experiences’ (Osborne and Dillon, 2007)

Though MOOCs are new, research into informal learning is not. Scribner and Cole published work in 1973 theorising links between the relationship from informal to formal learning, and Resnick in her 1987 presidential address to the American Research Association raised learning outside of schools. Though it was the increase in accessibility to technology and internet connection that allowed for the increase in informal learning thus resulting in research into such settings and possible connections through to formal learning (Motiwalla 2007).

Prior to MOOCs there has been much debate as to the definition of informal learning (though the advent of MOOCs does not necessarily clarify this any further) as there are complex methodological and conceptual challenges that need much consideration (Hofstein and Rosenfeld, 1996 and Osborne and Dillon, 2007). Informal learning has largely gained its association through its location of learning settings and content, with Callanan, Cervantes, and Loomis (2011), and Sefton-Green (2004) stating that informal learning is that which takes place outside of school. Alternatively, Eshach (2007) and Laurillard (2009) view informal learning in terms of its structure and process in relation to the teacher and the student. Kerka (2000), Marsich and Watkins (2001), and Sefton-Green (2004) see informal learning as accidental, spontaneous, unpredictable, and for leisure learners. Bernstein (1971) theorised that informal learning be on a continuum in which a learner may frame, classify, and evaluate their knowledge as they progress. Laurillard alternatively theorised the learner being at the centre of the locus of control:

‘there is no teacher, no defined curriculum topic, or concept, and no external assessment. The informal learners selects their own ‘teacher’, who may be a peer, or may not be a person; they define their own ‘curriculum’, as what they are interested in learning about; and they choose whether to submit to ‘assessment’ by other.’

Laurillard (2009, p12.)

If this definition is to be considered for informal learning, the concept of being and staying motivated as a learner is even harder to achieve as there is no learning journey or learning design as the curriculum topic is not defined. In many respects the above definitive is closely related to the theory of connectivist learning, where the learners define their own curriculum and sought out peers for connections. This is solely created by the learner, so unless highly motivated and able to clearly navigate the landscape could hardly be deemed as ‘seamless learning’ (Rushby 2012) in the growing recognition in the relationship between informal and formal learning (Barron 2006) and the development of ‘informal learning practices’ (Furlong and Davies 2012):

‘…teachers and institutions, fearful of the disruptive (social) potentials of the contested technologies, do not immediately recognise or understand the increased repertoire of practices available to learners in their engagement with them. At the same time, learners remain mostly unaware of the wider educational potentials of these resources.’

Clark et al (2009, p.66)

There is also a belief that informal learning should be chunked, bitesize, or nuggeted:

‘Nuggets are primarily comprised of tasks that learners will undertake in a particular context in order to attain specific learning outcomes. Contextual elements include subject areas, level of difficulty, prerequisite skills or knowledge, and the environment within which the activity takes place. Declared aims and learning outcomes are addressed by a sequence of tasks, each of which may involve particular techniques, various roles and interactions, plus access to specified resources and associated tools. A task will take a prescribed length of time and may, or may not be assessed. Nuggets are, or should be, designed with a particular approach to learning and teaching in mind.’

Conole and Fill (2005)

What is important to note here is that the theory of nuggets do not necessarily have to be stand alone or isolated in nature, but instead have the affordability of being sequenced. The sequencing of such nuggets has proven in the research by Conole et al (2006) to be problematic in nature as the ordering of said sequences seem to be open to interpretation by the learner, especially in the online world, even if they were previously set by the teacher, with aversions being noted if the placed sequencing is deemed too strict by the learner.

It is important to question at this stage as to the motivation levels of the learner. Previously noted in a variety of literature that learners become demotivated if they are unable to understand or visualise the pathway or journey that they are on. However, if the pathway, journey, (or in the case above) sequence is too explicit then the learner will deviate from the planned learning which may result in a similar level of demotivation.

It is a difficult balance to achieve. Jenkins et al (2008) defined 12 skills necessary for learning; play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgement, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. Not only must the learners be able to master these skills but the academic authors must create content that not only tests but develops these skills to maintain interest, motivation, and the achievement of learning outcomes. Reiguluth (2009) argues that learning design theory is different to that of descriptive theory, in that it should be goal oriented and normative. This reinforces that informal learning need to curriculum focused to a degree to ensure that learning outcomes and their associated goals can be identified and achieved.

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;

‘visual and functional languages of communication with the people who use an artifact. A design language is like a natural language, both in its communicative function and in its structure as an evolving system of elements and relationships among those elements’

Winograd (1996)

Gibbons and Brewer (2005) added that design language is a set of dimensions; complexity (the design being only a partial representation), precision (a tension between nature and specification), formality and standardisation (the importance of ensuring terms used mean the same to all learners), tension between personally and those shared publicly, tension between the implicit and the explicit, and the tension between standardisation and non-standardisation. Derntal et al (2008) sums up these dimensional tensions as;

‘On the one hand, solutions should be creative, effective and flexible; on the other hand, developers and instructors need precise guidance and details on what to do during development and implementation. Communication of and about designs is supported by design languages, some of which are conceptual and textual, and others more formal and visual.’

Designs should be created for the context in which they planned to be used, and also with the understanding of how the materials is to be learnt and the learning outcomes to be achieved. But importantly, designs should be static, they should carry the ability to be adapted, redesigned, and reused. As defined by Koper and Olivier (2004) learning design is ‘an application of a pedagogical model for a specific learning objective, target group and a specific context or knowledge domain’.

Conole (2010) identified six reasons as to the beneficial 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. To possible reuse of content beyond simple 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 bringing design and production into alignment.

In design-based research methodology, whether the characteristics set by Reigeluth and An (2009), the course view map or the course dimensions view (Conole 2008), there is a repeating pattern in what Wang and Hannfin (2005) define as ‘a systematic, but flexible methodology aimed to improve educational practice through iterative analysis design, development, and implementation, based on collaboration between researcher and practitioners in real-world settings, and leading to contextually-sensitive design principles and theories’.


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Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective. Human Development, 49, 193-224.

Bates, T. (2012). What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs? Accessed from http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/08/05/whats-right-and-whats-wrong-about-coursera-style-moocs/

Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, codes, and control: Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language. London, UK: Routledge & Keegan Paul.

Callanan, M., Cervantes, C., & Loomis, M. (2011). Informal learning. WIREs Cognitive Science, 2, 646-655

Clark, W., Logan, K., Luckin, R., Mee, A., & Oliver, M. (2009). Beyond web 2.0: Mapping the technology landscapes of young learners. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25, 56-69. doi:10.111/j.1365-2729.2008.00305

Conole, G.C., & Fill, K. (2005). A toolkit for creating effective learning activities. Paper presented at EdMedia Conference,  June 27 – July 2, 2005, Montreal, Canada.

Conole, G. (2008). ‘Capturing practice: the role of mediating artefacts in learnng design’, in Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies, in L. Lockyer, S.Bennett, S. Agostinho, and B. Harper (Eds), 187-207, Hersey PA: IGI Global.

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Derntl, M., Parish, P. and Botturi, L. (2008). Beauty and Precision in Instructional Design, Proceedings of the Edmedia conference 2008.

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Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge. Essays on meaning and learning networks. Accessed from http://www.downes.ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012.pdf

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