Learning from practice: refreshing the OU activity types framework

Six jars of lemonade on a table in a garden

The activity types framework – a categorisation of learning material into different types based on the student activity involved – is one of our core learning design tools. It shows, simply and accessibly, the variety of ways in which module teams can actively engage students with their subject content and skills development alongside reading, watching or listening.

The framework was an output from the OU Learning Design Initiative project in 2012 and has been used to support a range of other learning design resources, including our workload mapping tool and activity design cards for use in workshops. As we used these tools with curriculum teams across the University, we could see that the theory behind the framework and the way it was being used in practice weren’t quite aligned. Evidence also suggested that perceptions and use of the activity types framework varied considerably between educators in different disciplines. It was clear that the framework needed a rethink, so in 2019 we began a research project to do this. The result is a refreshed framework that’s simpler and easier for module teams to use.

In this post, we outline how the framework has changed and the scholarship that led to this. We also talk about how the framework is being used as part of the Education for Sustainability Toolkit in the 2022 Learning Design Bootcamp.

Exploring needs

Our research explored how academic colleagues and those supporting the module development process approached learning experience design (that is, how they view teaching) and what they actually do in practice – including whether and how they used the framework.

As part of the research, we:

  • Interviewed academic colleagues and learning designers to get feedback on their approach to curriculum design and use of the activity types framework, including any challenges. Interview outputs were coded in Nvivo to ensure all key points were captured.
  • Reviewed findings from ‘quality control’ meetings of those involved in carrying out module mapping using the Learning Design online workload tool (this is an online database in which both student workload and variety of activity types in a module can be captured; the quality control meetings aimed to promote consistency between different people involved in module mapping).
  • Conducted a literature review to establish which other conceptual and procedural frameworks and models for learning design might act as useful reference points.
  • Consulted with learning design experts outside the OU on approaches to classifying student activity types, including variation between and within disciplines .
  • Consulted students on the OU’s Curriculum Design Student Panel to find out what learning activities they had found most helpful.
Research findings

Our interviews and expert panel input showed – as if we didn’t know! – that educators have very different ways of thinking about the learning and teaching process. It was therefore hard to find consistency in how a particular learning activity is categorised. This echoes the findings of Walmsley-Smith et al. (2019) and others in earlier research, where the main points of agreement were around the importance of interaction and feedback – that is, communicative type activities.

Students who took part in our consultation on their favourite learning activities also put interaction and feedback with tutors and other students at the top of their list. Opportunity to dig deep into a topic and to experience learning moments that engage and excite were important to students too. Providing a variety of activity types is likely to increase these standout learning moments for students.

Simplifying the framework

Our findings highlighted ways we could simplify and adapt the activity types framework to meet the needs of OU educators better and to remove unnecessary barriers to its use. Specifically, we decided to merge the experiential and interactive/adaptive categories into one single category, practice. After all, whether students apply their learning in a real-world or simulated setting, the type of activity is similar. In addition, assessment can involve any of the activity types, or a blend of several, and therefore we took the decision to no longer treat it as a separate category.

Moving forwards

These changes, and associated development work on the online learning design tool, have been positively affirmed by the wider OU community in a workshop attended by stakeholders from across the organisation. We hope the simplified tool will encourage educators to engage students actively with subject content in a variety of ways, and to align assessment with learning activities, so that students can successfully demonstrate achievement of learning outcomes.

The conversations around the framework have helped us not only to refresh it but also to engage colleagues with its purpose. The framework is one of several lenses available to OU curriculum teams through which to view their designs. It’s not intended to be applied in a rigid or prescriptive manner, but rather, as a tool that keeps the focus on the student experience and student workload – particularly important in a distance learning setting. It can also promote a shared understanding of design aspirations. Additionally, as one interviewee put it, “It just might encourage you to be brave and try new things” (Activity types framework project, 2019).

Worldwide use

From 2021 the framework is integrated into the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Toolkit, which will be used by teams participating in the 2022 Learning Design Bootcamp. It’s one of a number of practical tools that educators from across the globe can draw on to create transformative learning experiences that will equip and empower students to address challenges of sustainability. You can download a copy of the framework from our learning design resources page.


Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Toolkit, https://codesignsesd.org/toolkit/

Evans, G., and Reedy, K. (2020) Activity types framework scholarship final report [internal document]

Walmsley-Smith, H., Machin, L. and Walton, G. (2019) The E-Design Assessment Tool: an evidence-informed approach towards a consistent terminology for quantifying online distance learning activities in Research in Learning Technology, vol.27, available at: https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v27.2106 (accessed 15 October 2021).

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