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).


Learning analytics: the patchwork quilt visualisation

In the Open University, we have developed a suite of LA (Learning Analytics) visualisations called ‘Action for Analytics’ (A4A: slides from a presentation giving more detail) designed to help those responsible for producing modules to see the effects of their designs.  For example, it’s possible to track just how much use videos we produce for the module get watched and therefore see whether doing more would be a good investment.

sample learning analytics graph of students resource use with time from OU module
Tracking how many students have accessed a particular section of the module in any week. Weeks along the bottom and blue bars are weeks with Assignments in them.

This has been very successful with our colleagues outside the Learning Design team (mostly academics) being able to track what is going on with their modules real time and also see the effects of changes as they are bought in.

However, the tool is limited to a set of ‘baked in’ dashboards so its not possible to split the above data into students who ended up failing the module from those who passed and compare the two graphs.  This could give useful insight into the value of individual parts of a module and also if students are accessing it or not.

Drilling down into the data:  A4A isn’t the only route to exploring statistics about students on modules.  There are a number of databases underlying the visualisations and these can be accessed directly by specialist staff.  Using our access rights, we have been experimenting with producing bespoke visualisations not in the current suite that we think could help those writing and designing modules.  These are currently prototypes but show some promise:

Screenshot showing patchwork quilt visualisation
Patchwork quilt visualisation. Sections of the module are arranged in columns, rows at the top represent individual students showing sections they have visited at least once. At the bottom, these individual visits are collated to show percentage access to each element for various groups: Withdrawers at the top, still registered below this and Low economic status (SES) below this.

In this visualisation, individual students are shown one per row at the top.  If they have accessed any element of the course (one section per column) the corresponding cell is blue.  If they have never accessed it, it’s shown white.  At the bottom, students are grouped (e.g. ‘withdrawers’ and ‘registered’ – not withdrawn) and cells are now coloured with hot colours showing low usage and cool colours showing high usage.

Example Interpretation:  As an example of its use, the last column is the block assignment.  It can clearly be seen that section 18 (column 2nd from right, expanded up left) is attracting a high percentage of students visiting it at least once.  Section 17 (3rd from right) is attracting considerably lower numbers of students, especially amongst withdrawers.  This is a factor of inclusion of section 18 in the assignment, whereas 17 is not and, as a result, students are choosing to skip it.  From a design point of view, should it be included at all?

More granularity:  In our work investigating this graphic, we think it will become even more useful when there are improvements in the granularity, at present we can only see that students have accessed a whole section.  For example, it will be much more useful to see how far they got within a section itself – did they give up half way through?  Improvements in the learning analytics the VLE records should help with this.

Next Steps:  This is a work in progress, already we are making the patchwork quilt visualisation more sophisticated and have plans for other experiments.

Richard Treves, Senior Learning Designer.

Carl Small, Analyst.

Analytics4Action: emphasis on the ACTION

It is no secret that we live in a world driven by data. The insight gained from analytics underpins success in almost every industry, from strategic consumer research in commercial sales to the in-play behavioural patterns of leading men and women in sports; a great deal of importance is afforded to the reporting of “The Stats” and the stories they tell.

Effective data reporting connects an audience with a subject, providing a level of understanding that would usually only be experiential. Having worked in analysis roles across multiple fields this concept was not new to me, however prior to joining The Open University I had never considered the sheer necessity for data within education.

Analytics – The Gift and The Curse

At The Open University we have a variety of tools that offer insight into different aspects of the institution. At any moment in time, Open University staff can use data to map out the journey of prospective students, or to see the number of students attaining their sought-after qualifications. It is extremely easy to spend hours fascinated, absorbing the wealth of numbers and eye-catching dashboards on offer, using them to comprehend exactly what is happening at The Open University. We readily accept the gift of this intricate and insightful data, but so what?

Data for data’s sake

Imagine running a small business, you have an efficient analyst in your team that provides you a monthly report of all the data you need. You know the numbers inside out and could reproduce the graphs from memory with ease, there is no doubt that you are in tune with the business at an operational level, this however is only flint for the fire. A data table on its own will not drive change, nor will an aesthetically pleasing graph bring you more customers. The actions made from the insight the data provides is the spark that needed to create the fire of success.


This thought process is core to the Learning Design Team at the Open University. The Analytics4Action programme ensures Open University staff have an understanding of students on live courses, during presentation. At a distance learning institution (in which the face to face interaction between those learning and those teaching is severely reduced) this understanding is empowering. It allows for decisions to be made that can positively influence the development of a course which will in turn contribute to the development and success of our students; which naturally is the common goal for everyone here at the Open University.

In data we trust

In summary, we should always recognise the importance of accurate and well presented data, however what we should really focus on is the potential for change  granted by accurate and well presented data.



OneNote: an eportfolio-type tool to support PDP

By Sue Lowe, Senior Learning Designer

What is PDP?

The OU Student employability policy states that all students are entitled to be supported in Personal Development Planning (PDP) (Open University, 2011).

The OU defines PDP as a framework to support students in their analysis of and development of their own skills, and a means of collecting evidence for use in the workplace (Open University, 2017). The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) defines PDP as a “structured and supported process undertaken by a learner to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development” (QAA, 2009).

Expanding this, the OU careers team advise students work through five stages of PDP – Identify, Plan, Act, Record, Review (Figure 1, Open University, 2017) which ties in with the process recommended by the QAA (2009). Further, the QAA (2009) defines PDP as a process undertaken by students in relation to three areas – personal, professional, academic (Figure 2).

Five stages of PDP                     Figure 1: Five stages of PDP

Three areas of PDP

               Figure 2: Three areas of PDP


My exploration into OneNote to support PDP began when several module teams I was working with asked me about tools they could suggest students use to take notes, to carry out self-assessments and to reflect on their progress. At the time – going back a couple of years – this was a gap. My instructional design qualification and study of H819 The critical researcher: educational technology in practice both taught me that a defined gap starts a process of exploration.

Step 1 in this process involved a perhaps more traditional OU approach of developing an in-house resource. This was for the Open Degree programme and working with various colleagues in the Open Degree team, Learning and Teaching Innovation (LTI) and Careers. We produced an html5 asset (Figure 3) and Structured Content activities/guidance. The aim was for students to establish where they had gaps in relation to the seven employability skills, and plan for and carry out work to improve weaknesses and build on strengths. This is a solid first step, but now, looking back, it doesn’t provide a space for students to make notes and upload work they’re proud of, or to reflect on tutor feedback.

Interactive skills audit tool

Figure 3: Interactive skills audit tool

Step 2 involved working with Maria Luisa Perez Cavana, a language academic in the faculty of WELS who was keen to trial an external eportfolio tool, EPOS, developed by the University of Bremen and which we adapted to suit OU PDP (Figure 4). We ran a pilot on L161 Exploring languages and cultures in which we explored students’ reactions to the concept of PDP in its complete sense (as in the QAA definition, not ‘just’ reflecting on the academic elements of a single module but relating to the three developmental areas and the five stages of the process), how specially designed activities might help steer them through the – admittedly – complex process, and whether a separate space – an eportfolio – might help. While students found the concept of PDP challenging in the beginning, the more they worked with it, the more they could see its benefits and the easier it became. The tool was a hit in the sense of having somewhere to do this stuff, but not in the sense it was a tad complicated to use. (The report is available on the OU Scholarship exchange.)

EPOS eportfolio tool

Figure 4: EPOS eportfolio tool

Step 3 evolved from the fact that OU students now (since Spring 2018) have the opportunity to access Office 365 for free via StudentHome. Part of the Office 365 suite of tools is OneNote and talking to several TEL colleagues, we established that OneNote would be worth investigating. In line with the work the Enhanced Employability and Careers Progression (EECP) team are doing around promoting employability, OneNote is a tool students are likely to be familiar with in their professional – and personal – spheres. Consequently, as part of the usual Learning Design process for the three new Level 2 language modules (L222, L223 and L226), Maria Luisa and I carried out developmental testing with students. (The report is available on the OU Scholarship exchange.) We’re also working with three other module teams (L116 Spanish studies 1, E209 Developing subject knowledge for the primary years and EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy) as part of a cross-WELS scholarship project. In all these cases, we are exploring the use of OneNote for PDP. Here’s what we’re trialling…


We wanted to replicate the things that worked well in the L161 pilot whilst simplifying the student experience. We recreated the tabs to represent the stages in the OU PDP process. Under each of those tabs were a small number of pages with minimal frameworks (Figure 5). We exported the notebook we had created and provided this to students. Once students had set themselves up with an Office 365 account and had access to OneNote, they could install the template we had created. Students were directed to the relevant tabs and frameworks within the template by activities provided in Structured Content on a VLE website. The activities serve as a bridge between module and student PDP space.

The cross-WELS scholarship project is still underway, a report should be available in the summer. Initial impressions are that these students do see the benefit of PDP and ask for time to be allocated to it. Once they’re into the OneNote template they find it easy to use, in fact they find OneNote easy to use in general. So far so good. One issue though is the template file format is not compatible for Macs. (We estimate about 10% of OU students are currently Mac users.) Another issue is that students who already have an Office 365 account sometimes found it difficult to locate the template once installed. Not so good. However, I would like to explore solutions in Step 4. I still believe OneNote is a useful tool in supporting students in PDP.

PDP tabs in OneNote

Figure 5: PDP tabs in OneNote

Step 4 (proposed). Why not continue to guide students through their PDP via activities on module websites. Why not continue to suggest students use OneNote to collate their plans, evidence and reflections. However, perhaps we should not necessarily provide a template, instead leaving OneNote as an entirely student-owned space (Weller and Sclater, 2016), an idea I explored when studying H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates, part of my OU Master’s in Online and Distance Education. Yes, suggest how students might want to structure the notebook, such as having the tabs to represent the PDP process, but leave the rest up to them. This should avoid issues of Mac compatibility; avoid issues of templates being misplaced between different accounts; and, importantly, it should enable students to use the same digital space throughout their entire degree, and beyond, because it will not be tied to individual modules via a template. To promote this idea further, why not place PDP guidance on the subject (qualification) websites? This is what we’re going to be exploring next in WELS…

For further information, please contact Sue Lowe (Twitter: @DisEdTech,) or the OU Learning Design team in TEL (


Open University (2011) ’Student Employability Policy Statement’, Essential documents. Available at

Open University (2017) ‘Personal development plan (PDP)’, Develop your career. Available at

QAA (2009) Personal Development Planning: Guidance for institutional policy and practice in Higher Education, The Quality Assurance Agency. Available at:

Weller, M, and Sclater, N. (2016) ‘Weeks 21-22 Debate about VLEs versus PLEs’, Sclater/Weller podcast, H800 Weeks 21/22 Implications and future trends [Online]. Milton Keynes, Open University

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