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Design for Online Learning Using a Learner's Perspective Approach
A Review of Roderick Sims' Design Alchemy

By Simone C. O. Conceição / July 2014

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For any individual who does instructional design, the challenge falls in the process and the nuances of the process. With the proliferation of online education, the process calls for dynamic and speedy steps because often there is not enough time or resources to waste. However, this type of design process tends to focus more on the teaching than on the learning. The focus on teaching is how content is presented, rather than on how the course design achieves flow for the individual learner. Roderick Sims introduces in his book, Design Alchemy: Transforming the Way We Think About Learning and Teaching, the concept of design for learning—a way for designers to "conceptualize the development process from the learner's perspective rather than that of the content or the teacher." This concept makes the focus on the learning rather on the teacher or content.

In the preface, Sims explains his book is for "curious learners, creative teachers, and innovative designers." He continues, "For readers new to the field, Design Alchemy provides a practical and effective means to creative online learning and teaching environments that maximize the educational experience." Several instructional design books have provided a variety of models to develop instruction using different philosophical approaches. Very few books offer a design focus on online education. Sims provides an innovative approach to designing online instruction. He uses the term "alchemy" as a metaphor of design practice.

Sims considers science and art as his frameworks for his "design alchemy." For him, design practice "tends to be more often scientific, focusing on method, process, and results, than artistic." For him, the alchemy metaphor explains the integration of science and art. The design alchemist uses what is known about teaching, learning, and design (science) and creative ways of thinking to take advantage of human spirituality and diversity (art).

When I first started reading the book, I wondered why the term "alchemy"? The idea behind alchemy is that it transforms how a designer thinks about learning and teaching; and it allows for a more flexible and sustainable environment focused on the learner. In this type of design, the learner is at the center of the design spectrum. The main purpose is to develop instruction in which the learner can apply knowledge and understand the lived world. The meaning of design for learning is well employed throughout the book. One drawback of the book is that I had to return to the definition often. The definition did not become an emblem for design in my instructional design practice vocabulary.

One of the strengths of the book is that Sims believes interaction is critical for successful learning in computer-mediated environments and identifies with learners being active and creative within the design alchemy pedagogy. His view of design involves ongoing relationships and interaction between designer, learners, and teachers. For him, design is a collaborative experience between all stakeholders and without input from those stakeholders, the strategies will be incomplete.

For Sims, content should be customized and embedded into a course. The use of Open Educational Resources (OERs), which are freely available, can help designers create potentially modifiable online courses. Not only the focus falls into the learner, it can also mean a more efficient, effective, and sustainable course design.

The learner should be engaged in a learning activity at any point in the course. Sims recognizes the need to test assumptions, construct solutions, adjust variables, and/or introduce content within the online environment. He believes by promoting cognitive activity and engagement, "the learner will be consciously engaged with the interplay between content, context, and situation." This type of design is built into the activities incorporated into the course and the type of pedagogy used by the designer. In this instance, the role of the designer is to ensure the learner is engaged in an activity that involves knowledge acquisition.

Sims suggests three integrated components for the practice of design alchemy:

  • The pedagogy. The critical theoretical principles that enable the creation of meaningful motivational and engaging learning and teaching experiences by using learning theories and strategies;
  • The practice. The steps the designer and the course stakeholders complete to generate the course structure; and
  • The assets. The factors that inform intentional learning environments, such as professional standards or a learning management system.

These components help the designer focus on creating environments that can encourage the individual learner flourish and grow.

I agree with Sims that the environment for which instructional design was originally targeted has changed significantly. Today, the instructional design process is more open, personalized, and learner-centered. His perspective is that any model can be adapted to address these changes. His framework can help practice specifically for the conditions of this changed environment. More importantly, the way instructional design is practiced might have an impact on the quality of the learning environment and the learning outcomes achieved. Using a model, such as design alchemy, that focuses on the learner and integrates good practice through its process can offer quality and credentials to the design practice.

One important element of any instructional design model is the use of templates. Chapter 14 provides a set of annotated templates that allows for putting into practice the design alchemy. The templates provide scaffolding for designers developing online courses. They follow the basic sequence of the practice with specifications for completing the five major steps of the process: knowledge application, learning outcomes, assessment items, learning activities, and learning resources. I will definitely consider using this model as a practice for teaching instructional design to my students. One important feature of an instructional design book that offers templates is to have the templates available in digital format. Unfortunately I was not able to access the templates in digital format. Even the eBook format does not provide the templates in an easily downloadable format. A downside to an otherwise enjoyable book.

The main idea I got out of Design Alchemy is that design should not be about technology, but about learning. Content is no longer the main focus of education. For new designers, the book provides an excellent pedagogical and practical process for developing an engaging environment for learners.

About the Author

Simone C. O. Conceição is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She coordinates the Adult and Continuing Education Leadership Program, the Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the newly created Graduate Certificate in Support Services for Online Students in Higher Education. Her areas of research include adult learning, online education, impact of technology on teaching and learning, instructional design, and international education. She earned her Ph.D. in adult and distance education from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work and publications are recognized nationally and internationally. She has been invited to give talks and provide consulting in Chile, Dominican Republic, Brazil, and China. More information about her work can be found at

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