Category Archives: Learning Design under the hood

The posts here provide an insight into our day to day work on design at The Open University

Workload mapping part 3 – Concurrency and activity makeup

In this series of posts, we’ve been looking at student workload mapping. This final post looks at the other neat things we can do once we’ve mapped out a module. 

Our example student, Alex, has had their workload smoothed out in the previous posts. Now that we’re sure the volume of learning and teaching for this module is manageable we can start checking that it fits in with the wider context of their studies, and that the studies themselves are suitably varied and engaging. We’re able to do this with our existing mapping data through Concurrency and Activity mapping. 

Concurrency mapping 

The Open University has an increasing number of students studying FTE (Full Time Equivalent – 120 credits a year). As the majority of modules run throughout the course of the academic year, this results in modules overlapping one another. While proactive workload mapping has smoothed both over in our examples, assessments, and small dips and spikes can be magnified to the same damaging proportions as we discussed in our first post. 

By taking the mapped workload from both modules and laying the week-by-week workloads over one another, we can see the concurrent workload for students studying both modules. In this case, a small overrun in both modules in week 8 has generated an unwanted spike, that could lead to the same negative outcomes demonstrated with Alex, our example student, in part 1 <link>. 

We might also see this with assessments, where the likelihood of a higher student-directed workload (from a student revisiting material, researching and drafting an assignment) impacts the overall study time available for a week. This is a particular concern at level 1, where students are still building their time management skills – and may struggle to prioritise conflicting assessments across multiple modules.  

Our example student Alex may opt to prioritise the assessment on the core module of the qualification, and devote less time to an optional one – or feel overwhelmed by the sudden influx of self-directed workload and perform worse on both. While part of the solution to this is scaffolding and studentship activities, which build study skills throughout the module, maintaining an awareness of potential concurrency during design allows both calendars to be nudged towards a more harmonious alignment. This is most useful when a new module is being designed, and a relationship between that and an existing module can be predicted. 

Activity makeup 

Back in part 2, we mentioned mapping directed activities. While doing this, we divide those activities in to: 

  • Assimilative – read/watch/listen (this category includes most non-directed teaching material) 
  • Interactive/Adaptive – explore/experiment/simulate 
  • Experiential – practice/apply/experience 
  • Communicative – debate/discuss/share
  • Finding and handling information – analyse, collate, discover 
  • Assessment – write/present/report 
  • Productive – create/build/produce 

(We’ll be looking at a more detailed breakdown of the OU activity types and taxonomy in a future ‘under the hood’ blog post) 

An aspirational makeup of these activity types is decided right at the beginning of the module design process – taking into account the subject, student demographics and more. Module mapping allows us to revisit that aspiration during design and see if it’s on track:

In this case, we can see the module has ended up with more productive and assimilative activities than initially planned. If we wanted to, we could filter this down to a unit or week level to see if particular sections are skewing the results and suggest structural tweaks. Alternatively, this may just be the natural evolution of the module’s teaching direction as it develops – and might not be a cause for concern. 

Sense checking against student profiles is a quick way of pulse checking activity makeup. In this case (mapped from our example level 1 module) we’re happy to see that Alex would enjoy a broad spread of activities while studying this module – but we would suggest boosting the finding and handling information activity time slightly, in order to better build towards expectations at level 2. We would also like to see more communicative activities at level 1, in order to help Alex better integrate in to the student community.  

While Alex is a figment of our imaginations, much of the data in this series of posts has come from modules at various stages of development. Quantifiable factors in learning and teaching will never tell the whole story – but hopefully we’ve demonstrated the differences that can be made through proactive evaluation, and student focused thinking. 

If you enjoy a good graph as much as us, or would like to know more about module mapping and our other evaluation work then let us know via twitter @OU_LD_Team. 


Workload mapping part 2 – Mapping in design

In this series of posts, we’re looking at student workload mapping. This second post explains how we monitor workload during module design, and where we might make recommendations to authors.  

Overall workload for a module is agreed right at the beginning of learning design, with set times to aim for based on the level of study, credits and duration of a module. In our first post in this series we looked at the case of Alex, and the 3 week workload lump. With that level 1, 60 credit 30 week module, the weekly workload should have looked something like this: 

Module directed workload: 13 hours 

Student directed workload: 7 hours 

Total workload: 20 hours 

This balance is taken in to consideration when planning the overall structure of a module, with authors dividing topics, units and blocks across the 30 weeks in as even a distribution as possible. 

Slight variations in the workload are to be expected, and can creep in unknowingly during drafting, where authors start blocking out the details of teaching activities. Detailed workload mapping starts here, with an aim to informing tweaks for the next sets of drafts. If we take another look at Alex’s module, the results might look something like this: 

So, how do we go about it? 

The process changes slightly as a module fills out and nears presentation, but the core elements of mapping are: 

  • Word counts 
  • Reading speeds 
  • Multimedia assets 
  • Directed activities 

Word counts are a good early measure for study time, with text often representing a sizable chunk of teaching in distance education. This is based on estimated Reading speeds for different types of content. Introductory material might be read at ‘normal’ speed, while high cognitive load sections (dense definitions or models that might need slower or multiple readings) will need more time allocated per-word. 

Multimedia assets including AV material are mapped based on their duration, multiplied by two, allowing for pausing and taking notes. Images receive a flat figure depending on their nature, with less time allocated for decorative or illustrative images than detailed infographics and diagrams. 

Directed activities are written with an estimated time as part of best practice (E.g. Activity 1.1 – 40 minutes), which we then sense-check and use for mapping. While doing so, we also look at the different types of activities being used, categorising them as we go. We’ll look at this more as part of the final post in the series. 

At the end, we are able to see not just the workload of a module, but also the top-level composition: 

As you can see, text/reading content accounts for a large proportion of the workload in Alex’s module. We can now see though that the crunch points in weeks 5 and 6 are largely due to higher proportions of directed activities and AV content. Our feedback for the next phase of drafting would be to: 

  • Week 1 may benefit from slightly more study time to help quickly acclimatise level 1 students to the expected 7 hour mark (perhaps 1 more hour). Check that induction and studentship activities have been accounted for. 
  • Look to reduce overall workload for weeks 5 and 6. Planned activities and AV currently account for a disproportionate amount. 
  • Week 10 may be a little text heavy, which could affect engagement. 

How much we map is often down to the specific needs of the module. In some cases, the first 7 weeks will give enough of an idea to even out the workload as the rest of it develops.  In other cases, the full module is mapped out to look for peaks and troughs. 

Fortunately, in the case of Alex’s module, the crunch in week 5 is identified early, and is smoothed out in subsequent drafts before first presentation. Alex has a consistent experience, a better work/life/study balance, and the quality of learning and teaching itself once again becomes the primary determinant of success. 

In the final post in this series, we’ll look at how we use mapping data to measure concurrency (multiple module study) and activities – and the opportunities that opens up. 

Workload mapping part 1 – The student perspective

In this series of three posts, we’ll be looking at student workload mapping. This first post explains why planning is so important from a student perspective – and some of the thinking behind it.

Alex is studying a 60 credit Level 1 module. Curriculum guidance suggest this should involve around 20 hours of study per week, 65% of which is module directed (direct teaching) and 35% student directed (personal study and revision around the subject). Subsequently, Alex expects around 13 hours of module directed workload each week.

The first few weeks go well, with Alex getting the hang of both study and the subject. The teaching scales up to the 13 hour mark – and Alex gets used to balancing study against other life commitments, such as work and family. Confidence builds up, and Alex is on course to pass the module.

Unfortunately Alex hits a stumble in week 5. A large unit collides with assessment preparation and a group activity, and suddenly Alex needs to squeeze 20 hours of work in to 13. If we assume Alex is studying Monday-Friday then this is a jump of 1.4 hours a day to 4. If also working full time (with a 9 hour day including commute, a conservative estimate for modern adult learners) then the scale of the problem becomes even more apparent…

  • hours module directed study 
  • 1.5 hour of student directed study 
  • 9 hours work 
  • 8 hours sleep 

resulting in a 22.5 hour day, leaving and hour and a half to fit in cooking, eating, washing, shopping, waking up and the rest of life. 

In this case, Alex attempts to study in the same manner as before, but is unable to keep up. The first blow is to confidence, ‘Am I falling behind because I’m not up to it?’ Unable to find additional time during the week, Alex squeezes’ in a few hours at the weekend, and plans to play catch up next week. 

Unfortunately the assessment is due next week, and Alex’s performance on it takes a hit. The following week is another unexpectedly lumpy one – and Alex gives up on playing catch up in order to try and nail the new material. Unfortunately there just isn’t enough time in the day, and Alex starts the following week with a another backlog of teaching.  

In this example, a three week spike in workload could have resulted in a student suffering: 

  • reduced confidence 
  • lower assessment performance 
  • less certain achievement of learning outcomes 
  • damaged work/study/life balance 

Alex may choose to drop out of the module, or stay on with the risk of the issues worsening. If the blow to confidence is really big, Alex may withdraw from study altogether, a decision that could have a profound impact on Alex’s life – and it’s all entirely avoidable. 

In ‘Student workload: a case study of its significance, evaluation and management at the Open University’ (Whitelock, Thorpe and Galley, 2014), workload was cited as a significant factor in student withdrawals in both the Open University and the wider HE sector.

In the next post in this series, we’ll take a look at one of the ways the Open University addresses this through the module design process. 


Whitelock, Denise; Thorpe, Mary and Galley, Rebecca (2015). Student workload: a case study of its significance, evaluation and management at the Open University. Distance Education, 36(2) pp. 161–176. 

Hands-on support for module teams

Whilst we carry out fixed and clearly defined Learning Design activity as part of our core offer, we can also provide more hands-on input aimed at supporting module teams with specific challenges they are facing with their design. Below are three such examples where we’ve provided support to help module teams to progress either with a specific tool, or with broader aspects of Learning Design.

Guiding Authors

Chris Cox

For one FBL module, several challenges had been identified in the Learning Design Workshop in the early stages of development. I’d focused my attention on a few key areas to take forward into the LD Plan. However, it became clear that more guidance on writing and structuring the learning was needed. Plenty of guidance and resources were available on their workspace, but the team needed something more immediate.

In consultation with my colleagues, I decided to take TEL101 – a module designed to introduce staff to Learning Design and what we do – and adjust it for the team. The module was quite short, so matched the shorter study weeks one of the modules needed – and was well structured to deliver learning while engaging students with different activity styles at a deep level. I took a copy of TEL 101, and produced a ‘behind the scenes’ commentary version – each important LD point was highlighted and design principles explained, to help the team think about how to write, balance activities, tie activities to learning outcomes, and show good practical examples of LD.

I also produced a visualisation to provide them with a starting point and approach to writing that they could come back to, and a chart coding activity types – a pedagogic map of the invisible, underlying structure of the module to help them think better what each activity a section was achieving to help students stay on course and succeed.

I presented these at a Module Team meeting, which the authors found helpful – and the visualisation helped things click. And now the LD team have another tool – ‘LD101 Behind the Scenes’ – to help guide module teams in a similar position.

OneNote for PDP

Dot Coley

Soon after joining the team, while researching how OneNote could be used as an ePortfolio tool for one of my FASS modules, I joined forces with Sue Lowe to share knowledge and to support the WELS PDP pilot. The benefit was two-fold; drawing on existing experience to feed into my FASS work and using my technical background to explore the impact of potential compatibility issues for the existing pilot.  Part of this included joining our academic partners in delivering PDP support tutorials, not only assisting with immediate issues, but also helping to keep focus on who our students are and what challenges others may face in the future.

During this piece of work, another FASS academic colleague requested advice on using OneNote, and I took the lead on advising how it may work in practice. I used my previous research to present key information alongside a practical demonstration of the WELS pilot templates to show how flexible OneNote is, and how notebooks can be structured to meet individual needs.  I also introduced the Curriculum Design Student Panel and explained how they can help with testing early concepts.

Explaining how the approach has been used elsewhere provided an opportunity to use evidence of what has worked so far and what challenges we have faced. I was also able to talk about how the WELS pilot ran alongside live modules – with a smaller group of students – ahead of implementing it more widely, but I used ICEBERG to emphasise the importance of embedding reflective activities into the learning journey and allowing for them within workload planning.

Linking the concept to use on a whole qualification, I expressed the importance of starting gradually in Level 1, scaffolding students in their reflection and reducing support throughout the duration of the qualification so that by the end of Level 3 they can reflect independently—which is especially important for those moving on to study at Postgraduate level.

Further work is continuing in WELS, and a new phase is now underway. I am supporting the academic team on a Teaching Excellence funded project aiming to train previous pilot students to become PDP coaches, offering peer-to-peer mentoring.

Helping a module team to get ‘unstuck’

Katharine Reedy and Mark Childs

A degree apprenticeship team was struggling to make progress with designing the ‘practice’ module at the start of the qualification. This was due to the sheer volume of content that students need to learn. By mapping skills content across both level 1 modules, and visualising the high-level student journey in terms of how they would engage with the material, an approach was found that enabled the team to come up with a workable structure for module ‘blocks’. This was achieved in a workshop facilitated by two Learning Design team members, which enabled the module team to think through the whole student learning journey and come to a consensus about what skills they need to develop and use at each stage.