It takes a village... Reflections on sustainable learning design
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! Last week I was invited to give a keynote talk at the Annual Conference of the European Association for Distance Learning (EADL) in Brussels. The topic I chose to address is how we can make our learning design practice more sustainable through collaboration and breaking the institutional silos. While my talk was mainly based in the Higher Education environment, the fact that the audience consisted of various stakeholders involved in distance education, spanning different sectors, resulted in some very interesting discussions. That’s why I decided to write some reflections and I am looking forward, as usual, to hearing your thoughts, comments and experiences. Enjoy reading and have a nice rest of the week!
Learning design as practice
For each of you learning design has perhaps another connotation. You could be doing it as a lecturer, or you are maybe in the position to support lecturers as an instructional designer, or maybe you are the person who provides support related to learning technology and its integration in course design. Or maybe, why not, you are a programme coordinator, in charge of curriculum design at programme level. Whatever role we are looking at it from, though, learning design can be seen as a practice that is aimed at ensuring the quality of the education we are providing and ultimately at offering students an effective and enriching learning experience.
For the purpose of this article I want to look at learning design in a more holistic way, as a practice that takes place at institutional level. Because we are actually not designing the learning, we are designing for learning. It’s all about an ecosystem with many variable components, including people, institutions, pedagogy, disciplinary content, technology. Some of them more controllable or predictable, some of them less so. So learning design is (should be!) all about being adaptive, iterative, empathic, but also efficient, sustainable (from different points of view, I will come back to that later), scalable. Quite a tall order, if we’re honest. Each university has its own approach to learning design and allocates resources to it according to how it (and teaching in general) is aligned to the strategic mission. That means while some of you are really lucky, working in places where there is a lot of support available, others might almost wonder what I am talking about.
So who is involved in learning design? Try this exercise for your own institution.
Very often, this is a task implicitly done by faculty, often alone (by choice or necessity), in many cases without the necessary background and a toolkit that would make their life much easier. Sometimes there is support available, under various names and labels: learning designers, faculty developers, instructional technologists… you name it. The levels of support vary, sometimes it’s one person for the entire faculty, in other contexts there might be a small team. Ironically, even when support is available, teaching staff are not aware of how to access it.
Now that we’ve seen who is doing learning design, think for a moment who is missing. And why.
With the risk of generalising, I would probably say lots of the learning design activity that happens in universities is rather of an ad-hoc, spontaneous nature. Faculty comes for support (or is suggested to seek for it, as a remedial function, in the worst case scenario), this usually happens on a one-on-one basis, mostly at course level. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being available spontaneously, having no clearly defined processes means we tend to work less efficiently and effectively, we often reinvent the wheel when we can build on what our peers are doing, and we run the risk of inconsistency. Moreover, the “institutional memory” often rests with one person (or a small group), making transition really challenging.
What’s the problem?
After looking into who is involved in learning design and how this is practiced in HE institutions, I think it’s fair to say we can identify some flows (this is by no means a comprehensive list):
The quality and level of learning design is very variable, due to strategic priorities, resource allocation, personnel changes and so on. A professional approach to workflows and processes is often missing and we encounter many single points of failure. This is not sustainable in the long run and not scalable.
The burden is unevenly placed on faculty, often with no or little support, or on the specialised support staff in the many cases where resources are limited. Done well, learning design is a time consuming practice, which is unfortunately not rewarded appropriately. Think for instance how many hours you get, as faculty, to design a course and how often it’s only the contact hours that count.
With courses being designed in a silo, lacking a programme-wide overview, we run the risk of having gaps as well as overlapping aspects. This inherent lack of coherence results in a suboptimal learning experience for our students.
(How) can learning design be sustainable?
What do I mean by sustainable learning design?
Sustainability can have many connotations, but in the context of learning design I see it as striving to create processes that can withstand changes and are applicable in different contexts. It’s also about a more even (fairer?) burden-sharing, and investment in institution-wide structures that can sustain these processes.
This can be done first and foremost through collaboration, bringing more people at the table, in a meaningful workflow, whereby they can make the best use of their expertise. Moreover, we need to take a step back and keep the big picture in mind, if we want to provide our students with a valuable experience. Below are some of my reflections on these two important aspects.
This is all about creating and nurturing partnerships. Thinking in an inclusive way about who is at the table when we design our courses and our programmes and who we are currently missing. Generally speaking, the main actors involved should be: teaching staff, learning design professionals (under all their various names) and students. Yes, students. Although we are designing for their learning, they are all too often not part of the process. There are some really good examples of projects involving students as partners in learning design, great sources of inspiration.
Partnerships between faculty and learning designers (and in some cases also learning technologists) have come to the forefront during the pandemic and are hopefully here to stay. They need to be based on mutual respect and trust, on the idea of pooling expertise and acknowledging the other’s strengths and areas of expertise. Other actors across university can and should also be involved as they have a lot to contribute from their specific angles. For instance librarians are a good example, especially related to information literacy and knowledge management.
In order to yield results, collaborative practice needs to be embedded in the institutional fabric, and this takes time. Building silos happens fast, breaking them is a long term process. Creating a culture of dialogue, with clear and replicable processes is key to making collaborative learning design work.
A very specific form of collaboration is linked to gaining a different perspective of learning design, by moving from course level to programme level. Students enrolled in a programme experience all courses, whereas the people teaching those courses often don’t get the chance to speak with each other, or at least not in a structured, timely and constructive way. I personally see this as a problem, as our main goal, within a programme, is providing students with a coherent learning experience.
But getting people to sit at the same table is easier said than done, it takes time, and is unfortunately not really in the fabric of universities. Once they’ve experienced it though, faculty feel the benefits of this process and are likely to come back for more.
This is all about co-creating learning paths, looking at things from various angles and from a broader perspective, cross topic and sometimes cross-discipline. My colleagues and I at the Learning Academy of the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University have been involved in this kind of process in the past months, facilitating the process of programme alignment through a well-designed trajectory, consisting of three extensive interactive sessions per programme, including follow-up and preparation in collaboration with the Programme Coordinator. This is a time-consuming practice but also key to designing and maintaining cohesive study programmes, intentionally combining knowledge and skills to prepare students for a changing labour market.
The benefits of a collaborative, programme-wide approach are obvious: shared workload, covering various perspectives, replicable designs and processes, coherent programme curricula, above all a great learning process for all sides involved. But one should be realistic and also note the current obstacles we are facing: limited resources (and especially time), teaching not being seen as a priority- and therefore extra effort put in design not being rewarded-, lack of a common language between learning designers and faculty, a culture of working in silos.
In short, sustainable learning design means nurturing a culture of collaboration and mutual learning in the institution, shared workload and ownership and a genuine interest in offering our students a coherent and valuable learning experience.
“A group-based approach to online course design”, by Kate Mitchell- she writes about a course design approach she used with her colleagues and reflects on what are the benefits, in terms of scalability and sharing practice, and also the challenges that it presents.
Goode, C.A., Hegarty, B. & Levy, C. 2018. “Collaborative Curriculum Design and the Impact on Organisational Culture.” TechTrends 62, 393–402.
King, C. S. T., S. Keeth, and C. J. Ryan. 2018. "Collaborative curriculum design and assessment: Piloting a hybrid first-year writing course." Journal of Interactive Online Learning 16(1): 41-62.