|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2011, 27(6), 961-978.
The use of a visual learning design representation to support the design process of teaching in higher education
University of Wollongong
Over the last decade there has been considerable research and development work exploring how university teachers can document their teaching practice in such a way as to enable the sharing of ideas. The premise of this research work, referred to in the literature as learning designs, is if pedagogical practice can be documented in some readily understandable form, it can then be easily shared and thus there is the potential for greater uptake of innovative teaching practice. This paper presents findings from a research project that examined how educational designers and teaching academics used a visual learning design representation to document their teaching practice and how this representation supported their design process. Six educational designers, three university teachers, and two PhD students (whose doctorates were focused on learning design) were interviewed and the main finding was that the visual representation served as an aid to design because it provided a summary of pedagogical practice that could be used to effectively communicate and share ideas, and also enable reflection. The paper concludes by suggesting future research directions.
Another aspect of this discourse is the call for standardisation in documenting teaching practice in higher education - similar to that of the 'lesson plan' construct adopted by teachers in the primary and secondary school contexts. It has been argued that a design language and/or notation system for educational design is needed, similar to that found in other disciplines such as music and dance, to provide a common language that will allow better communication of ideas, and in turn could serve as a stimulus to improve the quality of teaching and learning (Gibbons & Brewer, 2005; Seo & Gibbons, 2003; and Waters & Gibbons, 2004).
Over the last ten years, the concept of learning designs has evolved as a strategy towards a common language to serve as an accessible and usable form of guidance for university teachers (Lockyer, Bennett, Agostinho & Harper, 2009). Learning design can be considered as either a process of designing learning experiences (Conole, 2009) or a documented outcome of the design process (Agostinho, 2009). The definition for learning design adopted in this paper is a representation of teaching and learning practice documented in some notational form.
A learning design could be used as a way to share and model expert practice. For example, a teacher could refer to another teacher's learning design as an example or case of expert practice to gain ideas on how to design a 'high quality' learning environment. Teachers could also use a learning design representation to document their own teaching practice for the purpose of describing, discussing and reflecting on their educational design.
What constitutes a learning design and how it ought to be described is a current research focus (Neumann, Oberhuemer & Derntl, 2009). Large scale research and development projects have devised different learning design representations, for example:
Whilst there has been considerable research work in the development of these representations there are calls for more empirical studies that examine how teachers and/or educational designers are actually using these learning design representations. For example, Frizell and Hübscher (2009) and Garzotto and Retalis (2009) have argued for more research on design patterns to gain a better insight on user experiences and how design patterns can affect the design process. Some work that has reported on teacher experiences with various learning design representations includes:
The LDVS was developed from an Australian nationally funded project that focused on producing innovative reusable learning designs (Agostinho et al. 2008). The LDVS illustrates tasks students are required to undertake, content resources provided to assist students to complete the tasks and supports provided by the teacher. On the project web site (http://www.learningdesigns.uow.edu.au/), the LDVS is accompanied with detailed textual information that explains the tasks, resources and supports in detail and guidance is provided on how the learning design can be implemented. Figure 1 shows an example of a LDVS.
Figure 1: Example of a LDVS taken from the Learning Designs project
(Herrington & Oliver, 2002).
Figure 1 represents a learning design implemented in a course focused on online learning and teaching. The course consists of three assessable tasks (indicated with an asterisk, *) that students are required to complete within a 14-week time frame. The overall pedagogical design of this learning design is problem based as students need to firstly examine an online learning example (first task rectangle), which is provided as resources (first resource triangle) to identify key characteristics, then they need to describe the key characteristics by articulating them in the form on an online learning model (first task rectangle and a documented artefact - second resource triangle) and thirdly they then apply their devised model to produce their own online learning environment (third task rectangle). The teacher supports students during this process by providing specific feedback via email, providing online discussion opportunities for students (first support circle) and encouraging them to work together (second support circle). Horizontal arrows are used to illustrate the connection between tasks and resources and tasks and supports. Vertical arrows are used to link the tasks and also indicate when the same resource or support is provided for subsequent tasks (see first resource triangle and first support circle).
Participants were purposefully selected. The researcher (from her involvement in the development of the LDVS) initially identified eight participants who were using the LDVS in their work context. They were contacted via email to invite participation in this study and all agreed to participate. The participants were asked if they knew of other colleagues who were using the LDVS or accessing the project web site and a further three participants were recruited.
One semi-structured interview was conducted with each participant during 2006, either face to face or via telephone. The interview duration ranged from 40 to 90 minutes. Each interview was recorded and transcribed and the transcription was sent to each participant for review. Five participants also provided examples of the LDVS diagrams they had developed. The interview was structured into three sections and the following key questions were asked:
|Work role||University||How they knew about the|
Learning Design Project
|Catherine||Learning/Educational designer||University of Wollongong||Recommended by colleagues|
|Jennifer||Teaching academic||University of Wollongong||Involved in Learning Designs project|
|Kate||Learning/Educational designer||University of Sydney||Involved in Learning Designs project|
|Linda||Teaching academic||University of Wollongong||Involved in Learning Designs project|
|Lorraine||Teaching academic||University of Wollongong||Involved in Learning Designs project|
|Narrell||Education doctoral student||University of Wollongong||Recommended by supervisors|
|Paul||Learning/Educational designer||University of Canberra||Heard about it at a conference|
|Rachel||Learning/Educational designer||Queensland University of Technology||Recommended by colleagues|
|Samantha||Learning/Educational designer||University of Wollongong||Involved in Learning Designs project|
|Stephanie||Learning/Educational designer||University of Wollongong||Recommended by colleagues|
|Warren||Education doctoral student||University of Wollongong||Recommended by supervisors|
When participants were asked why they accessed the Learning Design project web site, all responded that the web site provided a source of teaching and learning examples documented in a useful and accessible way. An indicative comment was:
The thing that interests me most about it is the idea that an academic without great expertise in a particular teaching and learning strategy could come to the website, find something that suited them and their class and be able to adapt that from an exemplar that's already there. (Linda)
Minor modifications (made by Stephanie and Samantha) involved not including learning outcomes and a time line on their diagrams. Stephanie also used a different symbol to represent resources (clouds instead of triangles) so that the text would fit inside the symbol. Major modifications to the LDVS notation system (made by Catherine, Lorraine and Rachel) involved the following:
Figure 2: Example of Catherine's LDVS
Figure 3: Example of Lorraine's LDVS
Figure 4: Example of Rachel's LSVS
Three of the 11 participants (Jennifer, Kate and Paul) had not specifically drawn their own LDVS. Instead, Jennifer and Paul had applied the overall learning design components of tasks, resources, and supports (Oliver & Herrington, 2001) when designing their teaching. Jennifer explained that she applied the model in a textual tabular form when designing tasks in her subjects. She explained that she would produce a table with five columns: the first column provided the rationale for the task, the second column described the task as it would be presented to students, the third and fourth columns explained the resources to be provided to students - ones specifically related to the task and ones that are more general, and the last column detailed how she, the teacher, would support her students. Paul said that the tasks, resources, and supports learning design model helped him to focus on the tasks rather than on the content (resources) when designing a course/subject. In his role as an educational designer he demonstrates the Learning Design project web site to staff as a useful resource.
Kate explained she often referred to the Learning Designs project web site for ideas and suggested it as a useful resource to colleagues. Whilst she thought that the overall Learning design models of tasks, resources and supports was a "nice way of thinking through the different things that you need in a Learning Design", she had not specifically applied these concepts. Instead she used her own diagram to discuss ideas with clients. Upon review of her diagram, it was similar to the LDVS in that the focus was on the student tasks and their sequence, but resources and supports were not explicitly illustrated.
From the ten participants who had either created their own LDVS or applied the overall learning design model of tasks, resources and supports, three themes surfaced as to the purpose for using the LDVS:
To give them an overall picture of what we're talking about. I think with each client I usually use a visual representation... and I've found that so far it has been useful... it sort of teases apart our conversation, particularly to get the client to start thinking about what the learners are actually doing.Stephanie used her LDVS diagrams in a similar manner as to Rachel:
You actually sit down at the first meeting and just start with this diagram and say, hello I'm using this diagram here because I need to understand your subject and your teaching and your needs, and any issues that you have. So if you don't mind I'd just like to start going through all these things.Warren found the LDVS a useful design tool when working on a project where he had to design web-based templates: "I was employed to... help design a few templates... and it worked ... very, very well."
Stephanie explained it was not a trivial task to produce the LDVS diagram: "it takes a lot of your brain space to really work through it". Catherine thought the LDVS was particularly helpful as an analysis and reflection tool that can be adjusted or modified relatively easily to answer 'what if' type questions during subject re-design.
Table 2 presents a summary of the ten participants that had created their own LDVS or applied the overall learning design model of tasks, resources and supports, in terms of its purpose for use, and how they complied with the LDVS notation system.
|Variations made to the|
LDVS notation system
|Catherine||Yes||- Horizontal rather than vertical sequence|
- Arrows excluded
- Time line provided at bottom of diagram
|Analysis and reflection tool|
|Jennifer||No||Used the learning design construct of tasks, resources and supports in a table with five columns:|
- Column 1: Task rationale
- Column 2: Task description
- Column 3: Resources specific to task
- Column 4: General resources provided
- Column 5: Support provided by teacher
|Linda||Yes||Complied with LDVS notation system||Documentation tool|
|Lorraine||Yes||- Excluded time line and learning outcomes|
- Used lines instead of arrows to link resources and supports to respective tasks
- Multiple supports for one task presented as overlapping circles
|Documentation, analysis and reflection tool|
|Narrell||Yes||Complied with LDVS notation system||Documentation tool|
|Paul||No||Used the learning design construct of tasks, resources and supports to focus on tasks rather than content when designing a course/subject||Design tool|
|Rachel||Yes||Added another support column on right of LDVS to represent support required by tutors during implementation.||Documentation and design tool|
|Samantha||Yes||Excluded time line and learning outcomes||Documentation tool|
|Stephanie||Yes||- Excluded time line and learning outcomes|
- Used a 'cloud' symbol to represent resources (instead of triangles)
|Documentation, design, analysis and reflection tool|
|Warren||Yes||Complied with LDVS notation system||Documentation and design tool|
Three participants, Catherine, Samantha, and Stephanie had used the LDVS in conjunction with other documentation tools to help them better understand, interpret or compare a learning design. For example, in her client meetings, Stephanie accompanied a LDVS she had created with the subject/course outline. Samantha mentioned that she had produced a comparison matrix of similar learning designs to help her compare and contrast several learning designs. Catherine thought that the use of multiple documentation tools added a dimension of richness thus aiding the comprehension of a learning design.
Visual feature: Ten of the 11 participants thought the visual feature of the LDVS was its main strength. The graphical aspect assisted the understanding of a learning design as it provided an overall summary or snapshot. For example, Narrell commented, "you can show a complete... unit for work, in sort of one space." Several respondents said the LDVS took the mystery out of a learning design as it showed the key elements. For example, Linda noted that the LDVS "allows you to very quickly understand what the scope and sequence of the learning design is". Paul was the only participant that didn't comment on the visual feature. Instead he thought the strength of tasks, resources, and supports learning design model was that "it's a model that if you follow it, it's going to lead to a richer learning environment".
Structure: Four participants (Linda, Rachel, Samantha, and Stephanie) thought that how the LDVS illustrated the sequence or chronology of tasks helped them understand the mechanics of how to implement a learning design. Rachel, for example, commented that the LDVS allowed her to "see the whole process... it breaks it down into bite sized chunks so it's not so overwhelming". Linda explained that the LDVS can help illustrate to a teacher/designer how a particular pedagogical approach (e.g. problem based learning and authentic learning, etc.) can be operationalised.
Simplicity: Three participants (Jennifer, Lorraine and Warren) explicitly commented that the LDVS was simple to understand and use. Lorraine commented that it was a simple formalism that required little training for someone to understand and use it. She also noted that a LDVS is quick to review thus offers an element of efficiency: "I don't think that designers or teachers always necessarily have the time to read dense case studies of other people's work and then try to translate it into their own situation". Warren provided the following summation: "It's simple, it's clear, it's concise and it works".
Adaptability: Three respondents, Stephanie, Linda, and Rachel mentioned that the LDVS could be easily adapted to suit one's needs. Stephanie adapted the LDVS to suit the needs of clients. For example, for one client, instead of using the terms 'tasks' and 'supports' on her LDVS she used 'partnership tasks' and 'community engagement' respectively to better suit her client's learning design. Linda thought that the LDVS can provide teachers with guidance but it is "not rigid, it's not like a recipe".
In terms of weaknesses of limitations of the LDVS, three issues surfaced: i) ambiguity of what is a 'resource' and 'support', ii) diagram can become complicated, and iii) there is little instruction on how it works. Each of these weaknesses is discussed in turn.
Ambiguity of 'resource' and 'support'
A limitation of the LDVS that six participants (Catherine, Kate, Linda, Lorraine, Narrell, and Stephanie) noted was the lack of clarity over what constituted a "resource" and a "support". Narrell said: "The only thing I struggled with a little bit was the differences between the resources and the supports". For example, a support was considered as something the teacher provides to help students. But if a teacher were to provide students with support through the provision of a template, or pro-forma to help students complete a task, it was not clear whether that remains a support or becomes a resource. Linda explained that this was the main weakness of the LDVS in terms of it serving as a notation system because "the whole point is that we all understand the basis of it. There shouldn't be ambiguity about it. So I think that's one thing that could be really clarified and some work needs to be done on it".
Diagram can become complicated
Four participants thought that the LDVS diagram could become complicated, especially, as Warren noted, if there are iterative tasks. Lorraine also raised this concern and noted that linear nature of the LDVS, which was deemed a strength, could be a potential weakness: "the linear nature may be an issue in that if you want to describe a non-linear sequence it could get messy". Catherine and Jan thought there was not enough room to include all the tasks, namely the non-assessable tasks in a LDVS. Catherine discussed this as an issue of granularity and suggested that if an assessable task was complex, it could be documented as multiple LDVS diagrams. Jennifer explained that was the reason she opted for using a table format instead: "there's not enough room there to have a complex task. You can only summarise it there, so that's why I then go to the tables".
Little instruction on how it works
Linda and Warren commented that the LDVS was not well known (thus not widely used) and there was little instruction on how a LDVS can be created. The eight participants who produced their own LDVS learned how to interpret and create a LDVS either through their involvement in the AUTC learning design project (3), examining the AUTC project web site and discussing the LDVS formalism with colleagues (3), or through self-study (2).
The following list summarises suggestions for improvement of the LDVS as a learning design representation:
The main limitation of this learning design representation was the ambiguity over the definition of a resource and support. This was considered an impediment of this learning design representation as a standard notation system. Similar findings about the visual strength of the LDVS and its limitation in terms of ambiguity over resources and supports have been reported in other studies (Falconer et al, 2007). The removal of ambiguity between a resource and support was the main suggestion for improvement offered by participants. Other limitations noted were that the diagram can become complicated and there was little published about how the LDVS works. Interestingly, apart from several suggestions for improvement, participants did not think there were any fundamental aspects missing from the LDVS notation system.
Given that some participants used the LDVS in conjunction with other documentation methods or tools and that the LDVS is one of several existing learning design representations, reinforces the idea that it may not be possible nor feasible to develop an all-encompassing, standardised notation system to document a learning design. Instead, there is a realisation that describing practice is a complex and challenging endeavour and having multiple forms of representing practice, referred to as mediating artefacts (Conole, 2009; Falconer et al, 2011) or mediating representations (Falconer, 2007) may be helpful for teachers to support their design thinking. The different representations may also enhance communication and understanding of pedagogical ideas amongst teachers (Falconer, 2007). A current area of research and development work is focused on exploring how the learning design concept can be manifested into online design support tools for use by university teachers, to help them with the design of their teaching. Examples of key projects include: the London Pedagogy Planner project, the Phoebe project, and an example of a new tool currently under development is Learning Design Support Environment (see Masterman & Manton, 2011 for a detailed explanation).
Referring back to the LDVS representation, since the completion of this research project, there is further evidence that the LDVS is being used to document teaching practice. For example, Hoban (2009) presented a LDVS to explain a Slowmation learning design, McLaughlan and Kirkpatrick (2009) have documented their role-play learning design using the LDVS notation system, Cooner (2010) has depicted a technology-enhanced blended learning design as a LDVS, and Kearney (2011) has illustrated a digital storytelling learning design using an elaborated form of the LDVS. There are also several projects that have incorporated the LDVS as an aid to disseminate and communicate pedagogical ideas. For example, educational designers at the University of Wollongong are using the LDVS as a tool to document and facilitate discussion amongst a teaching team in the development of a university subject (see SlideShare presentation http://www.slideshare.net/wendyuow/math-symp-2010). Elliott, Boin, Irvin, Johnson & Galea (2010) have used the LDVS to document innovative cases about teaching scientific inquiry skills (see example on project web site: http://www.scientificinquiry.meu.unimelb.edu.au/identification/cases.html).
This research study has given some insight into how teaching academics and educational designers can use mediating artefacts such as the LDVS to aid their design process, but its limitation was that participants reported their experience retrospectively. What would provide further insight is to observe teachers in the actual process of design to capture a richer understanding of how such support tools could be used. A recent study that tracked university teachers' use of learning designs (documented using the LDVS) to support their design thinking and process is Jones (2011, 2009). This doctoral study examined the design process of nine academic teachers who selected an existing learning design, adapted it and implemented it their own teaching context. Preliminary findings suggest that the use of documented learning designs can be a useful support for design.
Furthermore, there is little known about how university teachers engage in the broad activity of design (Goodyear, 2005). This is important to know so that we can better understand the contribution that describing practice through the use of a learning design can make to the design process. Findings from recent research is emerging (eg., Bennett et al, 2011; Kali, Goodyear & Markauskaite, 2011) which will further understanding about how university teachers design.
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|Author: Dr Shirley Agostinho|
Faculty of Education, Interdisciplinary Educational Research Institute
University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shirley Agostinho is a Senior Lecturer in educational technology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Wollongong. Shirley's research interest in learning design spans ten years. She was a project manager and researcher for an Australian nationally funded project that focused on producing innovative reusable learning designs. She completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship that examined how learning objects could be integrated with learning designs when developing online learning environments. She is currently involved in a number of projects investigating how the learning design concept could be used as a support tool for teachers.
Please cite as: Agostinho, S. (2011). The use of a visual learning design representation to support the design process of teaching in higher education. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 27(6), 961-978. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet27/agostinho.html