Perfect partners: how we work with others to support learning design

Over the last year I’ve been reflecting on how much the success of our work depends on effective partnerships with a range of people – within and external to the Open University. As Learning Designers, it’s inherent in our role that we work collaboratively with curriculum teams to elicit and capture ideas for module creation. There are also many others – staff and students – with whom we form productive and fruitful relationships. All this is with a view to achieving the best possible outcomes for students.

In this blog post I have set out some of the ways that Learning Designers work in partnership with others, and what the impact is…

Defining partnership

According to Healey et al. (2014), “Partnership is a relationship where everyone involved is actively engaged in – and stands to benefit from – the process of learning and working together.” The key here is parity between partners, with all concerned having a stake in what happens. They go on to say that “Working and learning in partnership with students is a specific form of student engagement and is a way of doing things rather than an outcome in itself”.

Students as partners in curriculum design

I will start with students, since they are the whole reason why we do what we do. However, it’s only in the last couple of years that we have been able to engage students in the design process at an early stage, in the way that we would like to.

The Curriculum Design Student Panel was set up in 2016 to provide a means for staff involved in curriculum design and innovation to gain student input more easily. Over the two years of its existence, the panel has more than trebled in size, to around 1900 students. Recruited twice-yearly, panel members get the opportunity to take part in surveys, workshops and various kinds of usability and experience testing. The interaction is intended to mimic face-to-face student-teacher informal discussions. Activities are run via the panel’s We Learn workspace, through OU Live, and on occasion face-to-face. A Community Forum provides a space for panel members to get to know each other and share experiences.

Over the last year, students have been involved in around a dozen projects. For example, they have:

  • contributed their own ‘learner profiles’, which have fed into development of the OU’s new Online Student Experience student personas as well as being used in Learning Design workshops and academic staff development sessions
  • provided input on the terminology and vocabulary used in learning and teaching materials, which has fed into a glossary for OU staff to use when developing learning materials and module websites
  • shared their experience of informal learning through platforms such as OpenLearn and FutureLearn. This data is being used by colleagues in the Open Media and Informal Learning team to inform development
  • expressed preferences for the type of additional formats of online module material they prefer, which will shape future decisions about what we make available, and ongoing development
  • taken part in the Jisc national research project exploring how students use digital technology to support their learning, the results of which – when available – will feed into decisions the OU makes about its digital environment.

The findings from all these pieces of research help us to understand the study habits and preferences of OU students better.

OU staff partnerships

I have already referred to our partnerships with OU faculties. Over the last year, we have:

  • run 15 Learning Design workshops
  • worked with around 100 other modules (at various stages of production) on the more detailed design that follows a workshop
  • supported over 40 module teams with use of data and analytics for their modules, as well as training around 130 people.

As part of this two-way relationship we have been able to get feedback on our workshop format and bring in some improvements that should help academics with the design process. Our analytics work forms a really key part of module design evaluation and is much-valued by academic colleagues.

In addition, we work proactively with the Academic Professional Development team to develop and deliver an expanding portfolio of training, including sessions on:

  • Introduction to Learning Design
  • Selecting online tools
  • Learning analytics.

Within Learning & Teaching Innovation (LTI) we have many partners in module production – editorial staff, graphics media developers, interactive media developers, video and audio, online services and Library colleagues. When it comes to development, we work with the other TEL teams who are engaged in Learning Innovation, Online Student Experience and Learning Systems.

Our team supports the Enhanced Employability and Career Progression (EECP) project and has made input into the Employability Framework. Over the last year we have developed closer links with the Careers & Employability team – again, all with the student in mind, so that employability skills and attributes can be well integrated into the curriculum and the role of different experts clearly understood by those involved in module creation.

One group with which we are planning to develop closer working links during the coming year is the Associate Lecturer (AL) community. We will be taking opportunities to participate in AL Staff Development events, with a view to exploring AL perceptions of curriculum design as well as sharing the learning design approaches we use.

Partnerships in research

A rich body of research on learning design and learning analytics underpins our practice, and we maintain close connections with the IET Learning Analytics and Learning Design team, as shown by some of the joint scholarship and research which has been published over the last year or so, listed on the Learning Design publications page.

Learning Design is a key strand of the IDEAS project, an international collaboration between the University of South Africa and the Open University. As well as piloting OU Learning Design approaches with two UNISA module teams, three workshops have been delivered to staff at UNISA and at the University of Pretoria. There is potential to extend our work with African partners in future, as well as in other parts of the world.

External and commercial partnerships

The Learning Design team engages regularly with commercial opportunities. This can include running workshops and training for visiting groups (for example, from China). It also involves visiting other institutions and over the last year we shared Learning Design approaches with universities and education providers in the UK and overseas (for example, Denmark, Turkey, Spain).

Professional partnerships

We have active partnerships with colleagues at other institutions across the sector, including UCL, Northampton, Greenwich, Guildford, and the University College of Estate Management, as well as with Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Australia. OU Learning Designers are involved in organising the regular meetings of the Learning Design Cross-Institutional Network – a national and international special interest group that provides a stimulating forum to share Learning Design research and practice. We are also connected with the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), with good opportunities for networking and sharing practice.


It takes time and effort to nurture and maintain the connections that will lead to truly ground-breaking work. In my experience though, cross-boundary partnership working is where the magic really happens. Learning Designers are ideally placed to bring together different stakeholders in the design process, facilitate mutual learning, and generate creative and innovative solutions which benefit student learning. In fact, we are the perfect partners.


Healey, M., Flint, A. and Harrington, K. (2014) Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education Academy, UK. Available at: (accessed 29 August 2018).