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Tools for designing learning
who will use them?

By Mark Notess / July 2008

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I recently attended the Sakai Conference in Paris. Now home—apart from reflecting on goat cheese, public transportation, and crêpes—I find myself thinking quite a bit about tools for teachers to use in the design of learning. There are two such tools that were described at the conference, and both left me with questions that essentially boil down to this one: If we build it, who will come? Are instructors who are not tech-oriented ready for such tools?

One of the conference keynote speakers was Diana Laurillard, who is currently chair of learning with digital technologies in the School of Mathematics, Science and Technology at the London Knowledge Lab, an organization affiliated with the University of London. As a long-time admirer of her work, I looked forward to her keynote and also had the pleasure of interviewing her afterwards.

In her keynote, Laurillard argued that teachers need tool support to become effective reflective practitioners and collaborative innovators who will improve learning outcomes. She showed screen shots of one such tool, the London Pedagogy Planner (LPP), a version of which is freely downloadable here. The LPP helps teachers define a teaching module in terms of its aims, topics, and outcomes. Then it provides a spreadsheet-like tool for allocating the time students are expected to spend across a range of cognitive activities such as attention, discussion, or practice. The teacher assigns teaching and assessment methods to course topics to support the desired student time allocation.

Tools like the LPP provide one component of what Laurillard believes teachers need. Another is collaboration, so that teachers can learn from each other's research results and disseminate their own findings. The collaborative aspect will be addressed in a new project she is directing: Learning Design Support Environment for Lecturers, which aims specifically to improve teachers' design of technology-enhanced learning.

A second learning design tool discussed at the Sakai Conference was the Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) developed by James Dalziel of Macquarie University. LAMS is likewise freely downloadable.

LAMS provides a visual editor for creating customized learning activity sequences for individual students or groups of students within a class. At the conference, Dalziel demonstrated the recently added capability to put in branching based on a wide range of factors. Unlike the LPP, LAMS is more than just a planning tool; it is the system within which students complete individual or collaborative online learning activities. Teachers can monitor and actively manage student progress.

There are many barriers to broad adoption of tools such as LPP and LAMS. By "broad adoption" I mean adoption by people other than the kind who are reading this article. Those of us who focus on learning theory and educational technology professionally may not be a good gauge of uptake by other teachers. I put this question to Laurillard. She said such concerns are widespread but not always valid. She has heard supervisors say their teachers would not use tools such as LPP, but then the teachers themselves are much more positive when they try it. She comments, "It's an empirical question. I'm not prepared to accept anything other than an empirical test of that question."

Nevertheless, my own doubts persist. In many disciplines, pedagogical methods are entrenched, for better or worse. In my own research with university faculty I found teacher conceptions of coherence to differ from the concepts embedded in LPP or LAMS. The teachers I spoke with about their course preparation activities expressed coherence-related concerns, but the coherence was mainly about what content to include in the class rather than what sorts of activities to select from. I suspect many teachers tend to think of courses as containers for content and give less attention to innovation in the learning activities.

Outside technology-focused disciplines, technology-based systems often have to provide a more strongly compelling value to be adopted. One teacher I spoke with explained why he avoids course management systems: They make more work of the kind he doesn't like to do. On the other hand, this teacher does not teach online and does not want to. It could be that people willing to teach online will have much more interest in pedagogical design tools. And as the number of online courses increases, many more teachers may be exposed to such tools and find them useful.

For learning design tools to be successful, they have to be enthusiastically adopted by teachers from many disciplines and across a range of technical aptitudes. As such tools are developed, it will be important to design them in such a way that they minimize the kind of work teachers in a given discipline do not enjoy and maximize their ability to convey passion for their discipline and enthusiasm for their students. The challenge is to accomplish these goals while still enabling reflective practice and innovation.


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