Thursday 3 March 2016

Inverting Learning Design: Revisiting some classic work in E-learning

I'm in the middle of a research project at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia where we are examining the constraints within which staff are operating as they balance the requirements of their teaching and research in raising the international standing of the institution. In thinking about these constraints, something occurred to me about the broad categories within which they might be placed. Put simply, there are:

  • constraints concerning the individual person as an embodied individual endowed with certain capabilities.
  • constraints concerning the tools they had access to
  • constraints concerning the resources at their disposal
  • constraints concerning the kinds of activities they had to undertake
  • constraints concerning the social environment and communication
So people would say that workload was a problem (activities), or their ability to speak English (capability), or a lack of time (resources), or contact with academic communities (social) and so on.

This started to ring bells for me. It was precisely these categories - tools, resources, people, and activities - which we worked with when specifying the components of effective 'learning designs'. These were the categories which underpinned technologies like the IMS Learning Design specification which grew from Koper's 'Educational Modelling Language'. 

With Learning Design, these categories were treated as variables which, it was considered, in the right configuration, would deliver effective learning experiences. Although less formally expressed, this idealism about the variables of effective learning design is very much still with us. Yet, whether expressed formally in IMS LD, or softly (as in Laurillard's Pedagogic Planner), it doesn't really work. 

However just because attempts to make Learning Design work failed doesn't mean that the distinctions surrounding Learning Design are invalid. The challenge is to examine the categories of Learning Design in such a way that these categories are not seen to represent the 'independent variables of successful learning' (looking back, of course that was ridiculous!), but rather the expression of different kinds of constraint bearing upon the human self organisation of learning. 

Looked at this way, not only do the distinctions - tools, resources, people, activities - provide a way of describing the constraints that academics in a far-flung university experience in their daily working practice, but it can also (ironically) be turned to analyse the constraints that the technologies of Learning Design placed on its users, and (more importantly) why it could never have worked. 

The declaration and provision of tools for performing an activity is itself a constraint. Whilst tools within Learning Design environments aimed to address problems of provisioning of resources and learning tools for learners, it could only do this by constraining the tools and resources available to teachers. This was couched in the language of a kind of 'regulative sociology' - that the practices of teaching - and particularly teaching online - required regulation through design tools. 

The problem, which has been borne out by the evidence of what happened, is that there is a dynamic of constraint surrounding all stakeholders in the education process. There are not causal factors which determine successful learning. There are configurations of mutual constraint which produce processes of ecological growth between teachers and learners. 

In realising that we need to understand these constraint dynamics, it turns out that the distinctions about the 'variables' of Learning Design are valuable as distinctions about constraint. So perhaps we weren't wasting our time after all!

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