From instructional design to learning design

Perusing my links last week, I naturally checked in to Martin Weller’s blog, and found he’d written about and linked to a talk given by his colleague at the UKOU, Rebecca Galley, on the topic of Learning Design. It’s a nice talk, tracing the evolution and success of the concept of Learning Design as applied within course teams at the UKOU for the past decade.

Here’s the video, which you can view now if you’re inspired, or come back to after reading:

What struck me most about the concept and its application was its resonance with decades of toil with which I’ve been involved, under a variety of alternative names: instructional design, educational design, educational development, course design and so on.

Over the years, I tended to stick to instructional design (ID), despite the unfortunate connotations associated with the word ‘instructional’, believing it was better to reform from within than to branch off with an alternative term. Part of my reasoning was my comfort with the word ‘design’ – while at Hong Kong Polytechnic, I had extended lively discussions with the head of the Swire Design School, inspiring me to write  ‘Is instructional design really a design activity?’ (1992, Education and Training Technology International, 29(4), pp. 279-282.) Naturally my answer was yes, supported by arguments gleaned from Brian Lawson’s excellent design text, How Designers Think.

David and I with our HK Polytechnic colleagues back in 1990

On the instructional side, the efforts were more trained on shifting thinking in the overly technical and procedural approaches used by leaders in the instructional design movement, mostly used in the US. A colleague (David Kember) and I boldly submitted our ideas in Kember, D. and Murphy, D. (1990) ‘Alternative new directions for instructional design.’ Educational Technology, 30, 8, 42-47, and were pleased to elicit a not uncomplimentary response in the next issue of Educational Technology from one of the fathers of ID, David Merrill. Incidentally, there’s a potted history of ID in Wikipedia, which outlines how ID has evolved from its origins in the US military to what is now taught as a major in some US universities as Learning Design and Technology.

ID also featured heavily in my PhD thesis, Chaos Rules: An Exploration of the Work of Instructional Designers in Distance Education. I mention this as my literature review includes extensive reference to the work of Judith Riley of the UKOU and her research on course teams. I suspect that a re-examination of her findings would reveal significant congruence between what she perceived as successful course teams and the notion of Learning Design.

But what do we mean by Learning Design? I’m not sure, as its proponents seem to steadfastly refuse to define it, instead referring to perspectives on Learning Design: a research methodology; and educational practice methodology; and a change process mechanism (you’ll find the details at around the six and a half minute point of Rebecca’s talk). As is frustratingly (from my perspective!) explained, “resisting a single definition has enabled us to connect more readily with diverse literatures and to orientate resources and tools towards user needs.” Personally I don’t buy it, to me it reeks of obfuscation. Maybe it’s just that I battled with definitions of ID for some time, eventually coming to my own explanation of Instructional Design as “the art and science of crafting effective learning environments”. For me it’ll do as a definition of Learning Design.



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