Thoughts on embedded learning design processes.

As discussed in the last post, Simon Cross and I have been beginning to sketch out an alternative curriculum design process model based on findings from both the OULDI project and our colleagues in other JISC Curriculum Design and Delivery programmes (particularly the curriculum design Cluster B folk: Predict project from City University, T-SPARC at Birmingham City University, UG-flex at the University of Greenwich, PALET at Cardiff University, and the Course Tools project at the University of Cambridge). We recognise that doing this is beyond the scope of the OULDI project but we are finding it increasingly important to be able to provide clear examples of what embedded learning design might look like in order to better explain what the impacts might be. We have also been spurred on by a discussion in the learning design focus group we held (again see an earlier post) about what a learning design ‘utopia’ might look like and so we are having a go at articulating some ideas!

Currently the OU process has two ‘pre-design’ stages – Opportunity Review and Business Appraisal. These are form-based activities which ask ‘proposers’ to make a business case for a new module. At present the business case asks for some information about teaching methods and tools that, at this early stage in the design process, should not be available to a module team (because formally no design should yet have happened). There is not enough information at this stage for proper pedagogical considerations to be made and, indeed, pedagogical design at this stage could be damaging for it may constrain design thinking before the design problem has been properly understood. Alternative: that the business appraisal be just that, an appraisal of the market potential of the course (predicted student numbers, number of presentations per year, life-span etc). This should set important constraints, such as cost, which the module team should then design to. The overall constraints of production are therefore set by business considerations with no reference to pedagogy unless it is considered a specific market/business factor (that a module taught in a certain way would attract more students).

One theme to emerge from the focus group discussion was the belief that module teams are becoming smaller or more fragmented for a number of reasons. Informal discussion since have seemed to indicate that this trend has been noticed by a number of groups and may impact on the coherence of design process. Alternative: a multi-disciplinary ‘core’ design team is established following the success of a business case to ensure access to key information and expertise at all stages of the design, and supported transition from one design process to the next.

At present there is no formal reflection on, or definition of, the full design ‘problem space’ or formal planning of specific design activity (such as focus on certain key issues and structured group design activities); so whilst the business appraisal details some external constraints much remains unsaid, especially in relation to important pedagogical aspects associated with the design problem learning spaces (see Simon Cross’s, 2010 Lattice model) such as students’ social, educational and cultural profile, motivations and characteristics, prior learning required, stakeholder expectations and requirements etc. Recent work in the wider design literature has highlighted the importance of fully understanding the ‘design problem’ before developing a design solution. A number of advantages are cited from promoting a more creative approach to the problem and supporting consideration of innovative alternatives, to better understanding of the core purpose of the design process and more effective quality assurance and design validation. Alternative: an additional stage in which the design problem setting and design planning is fore grounded. Work on designing and writing only begins once ‘sufficient’ work has been undertaken at this stage and a design specification produced. ‘Work’ could include completion of stakeholder consultation, staff skills audit, identification of resources, starting a Course Map , engaging the Lattice model, and outcomes of organised and self-directed design related activities. However, no ‘design’ should yet take place. This stage would provide opportunity for a faculty or the institution to apply design constraints in line with strategy, for example in relation to accessibility, employability, personalisation, technologies, cost, time etc, increasing responsiveness of the design process.

Visualisation of alternative curriculum design process

Later in the process there is currently no formal validation of the learning design against a specification before it is submitted for production and indeed fully produced (although there are in-process checks such as critical review and module chair review which can vary across faculties). Neither does it properly acknowledge that module writing is itself part of the finer design, development and iteration process and that the ‘words’ written constitute part of the design rather than production (only when they are transformed in to a product can they been seen to be properly actualised). Alternative: the design, development and writing stage should be reformed into one process. Only once ‘sufficient’ work on the design, development and writing has been undertaken, and a production specification produced, should it be passed to production. ‘Work’ could include, filling in of data on planet, production of specification, and outcomes of organised and self-directed design related activities. Additionally, opportunities should be made for validation of the designs at the end of each stage against specifications developed in the previous design stage.

Module production is currently a well structured process yet even at this stage, design decisions and revisions are made. It is important that full information from the design and development process is both available to view and available to amend. This highlights the importance of properly communicating design decisions, as well as final products such as text to those producing the module. Alternative: that we highlight and acknowledgement the intimate links and role that production has to the ‘finer’ granulations of the design. And in doing so, that appropriate planned design activities (e.g. structured group activities, etc) take place and be added to the ‘design and development’ portfolio.

Module review is also well formalised, however, with the introduction of a better definition of the design problem space and planning of activity for the design process further quality assurance and measures can be made. This may enable better tracking of decisions and therefore of accountability. Alternative: the additional documentation that is gathered during the design process be evaluated in the light of and as part of the course review process. This might include a tutor log, informal student feedback collected (i.e. from emails, forums), anonymous examples of student work etc. in addition to formal statistics in relation to retention, achievement, satisfaction, and finance. This, it is hoped, would promote a greater sense of accountability and responsibility from those involved in the process.

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