6 Which direction is forward?

Learning Design approach to developing PGCert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Online course

Dr Dejan Ljubojevic

‘How do we drive our own practice forwards?’ read the title of one of the HEA conference streams last December. Note that the question is the how question, seeking a response with regards to the means by which we advance in the implied forward direction. But, do we know which direction is forward? The following text problematises this assumption, for the choice of the means often determines the coordinates of where forward is.
The new Post Graduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (PGCLTHE) online at Kingston University was designed with a ‘blended-teaching’ practitioner in mind, which, using even the most conservative definition of ‘blended’, is the largest teaching-practitioner demographic in UK HE at present. ‘Blended’ teaching and learning comprises a mix of face-to-face and online teaching and learning.
The team adopted a Learning Design (LD) approach centred on the systematic, pedagogical-purpose driven, and collaborative process of distillation of the course design, in the form of a series of well-articulated teaching and learning plans (learning designs). Another import of the LD approach is the establishment of a formal design-discourse context that is conducive to seamless integration of individual team-members’ voices into a common refined whole.
The ‘blended’ target-brief (our students are ‘blended’-teaching practitioners), and the requirement for an exclusively ‘online’ response to that brief (the course is entirely online), conspired to effect interesting coming together of the team’s interpretations of the idea of ‘forward’. The consensus on ‘forward’ in this regard is especially relevant for teacher training provisions, as the approach taken is likely to be echoed by students, all teaching practitioners, in their own teaching practice – in that sense the approach we elect to use has a self-perpetuating tendency potential. The medium, and the use of the medium, is indeed the message, perhaps even more so in our case than it is the norm.
Ehlers analogises the introduction of e-Learning into education (or for that matter migration to online) to the ‘magnifying glass’, highlighting issues with the pedagogical and organisational affordances in place, thus providing additional utility to the undertaking – that of quality development. The online modality requires detailed and systematic preparation of the kind that the face-to-face modality just does not.
When introduced to educational scenarios, [e-Learning] often functions like a magnifying glass and reveals immediately deficits in pedagogical planning or teaching/learning organisation. (Ehlers, 2007 pp.97)
The team’s adoption of LD approach was ensured by the use of the Pedagogical Patterns Collector (PPC) Learning Design software tool (Ljubojevic, 2013). Using the PPC imposed methodological and procedural structure on our practice. One such structural imposition was in the form of the pedagogical meta-theory called Conversational Framework (Laurillard, 2002) that underpins the PPC’s modelling of pedagogy. Also, the PPC tool’s visual and interactive design-support ensured consistency and alignment of the course design across the Activity Theory levels (Leontiev, 1981):
  • Activities (purpose-adapted) – curricular;
  • Actions (goals-adapted) – epistemic;
  • Operations (conditions-adapted) – logistic.
The transforming effect that the LD approach had on the design practice was substantial, thus confirming the constructivist perspective of the transformative effect of the meditational means on the activities they mediate. Change in ‘tools’ (approach, method, models, software etc.) reconfigured the ‘roles’ and ‘rules’ (Engestrom, 1999) of our collaborative undertaking.
The well-articulated design artefacts (lesson plans) produced in the first instance to mediate team’s design discourse, were made available as lesson plans presented to students to orient and guide their learning. Greater clarity and fine grain articulation of these lesson plans enabled students’ to exercise greater autonomy, crucially important for the quality of learning (the sense of ownership and the centrality of learner’s role), ultimately fostering independence of thought and action. Crucially, considering that the course-adopted approach tends to self-perpetuate in the students’ own teaching practice, the LD approach has enabled the teaching and learning that is systematic, explorative, experimental, innovative, collaborative, reflective, and accountable, in a way that was not possible before.
The approach, successfully resolved some common ills associated with course design and delivery, both, generic /modality-agnostic (e.g. communication of intent within team and to the students), and online-specific (e.g. insufficient learning-guidance and a resulting sense of disorientation, or, the other extreme – abundance of prescription and the feeling of dependence).
The particular idea of ‘forward’ we’ve cultivated shows promise of a successful solution to some of the common problems associated with course design and delivery, quality development and assurance, and not only for the online modality. This approach to planning and designing for learning is now being adopted on our MA programme.
Early and informal course evaluations (student surveys) are encouraging; the second run of the redesigned course, currently under way, will be subject to formal evaluation in due course.
  • Engestrom, Y. (1999). Communication, discourse and activity.  Communication Review (The), 3(1-2), 165-185. Chicago
  • Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies (2nd ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Leontiev, A. N. (1981). Problems of the development of the mind.
  • Ljubojevic, D. (2013). Pedagogical Patterns Collector web-based software tool for lesson planning. available at: http://tinyurl.com/ppcatku
 Dr Dejan Ljubojevic – Centre for HE Research and Practice, Kingston University London