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Let’s talk about the skills required of learning designers, or instructional designers. 

Context makes all the difference. Learning design in a face-to-face University context looks very different from an online instructional designer working in a government department or commercial enterprise.

Roles using generic job titles can differ significantly. There are learning designers who guide academics in their practice (in the way ‘educational developers’ do), and others who interpret how-to notes into a short visually rich interactive screen based experience (more like a UX ‘user experience’ designer). And all points in between.

Job descriptions can be fairly meaningless.

Knowing the needs of the organisation is the best place to start. Knowing the difference between designing a series of courses as part of a University programme that is going to amount to 3,600 hours of student learning differs greatly from taking a manual and putting it into an e-learning unit that takes an hour to work through.

The nature of the organisation also determines the degree of autonomy and responsibility the designer is likely to be given. Turning a manual into e-learning may require no content knowledge at all. Just convert what’s there and you’re good. A course as part of a formal qualification either requires the designer to have some foundation in the discipline or the ability to research, corroborate, validate and extract knowledge,  and establish how best to ‘teach’ that. 

The only commonality across these roles and contexts is the ability to see things through learner’s eyes, whoever that learner is. 

That means empathy is the first key skill.

In the contexts in which I have worked in the last 25 years, the ability to overcome the ‘Curse of Knowledge’, the inability to remember what it means to be a beginner in any area of learning has been key. That means that for me, it has never been about building a team of discipline specialists. It has meant looking to build course teams that include those who possess knowledge and practical experience, and those who act as the ‘first learners’. These first learners, as designers, need to ask the simple questions, the ‘dumb’ questions, to make sure that the level at which we pitch the learning is appropriate.

This may seem obvious to you, but it’s remarkable how many designers are intimidated by specialist knowledge. Faced with a Subject Matter Expert (SME) who is 'cursed with knowledge' and who cannot express learning intentions at the appropriate level, a good designer has to cajole, persuade and chorale the learning from the SME.

This means that the ability to listen and ask questions as though a 'first learner' is the second key skill.

Designing learning that works within a specific context, say a three hour face-to-face workshop, is unlikely to work in an online form without modification. This means designers need to combine their skills of empathy and listening, of understanding the institutional purpose and the perceptions of the learner, and adapt courseware accordingly.

In the last 18 months many organisations have been forced to learn this lesson the hard way. Faced with the challenge of sustaining learning under pandemic conditions, most have made a reasonable effort of getting it right. Those that held to their core values and listened to the needs of their students and teachers have done better than those that reached for process and systems driven approaches.

A good classroom teacher, with practice, can adapt their delivery from workshop to seminar, from lecture to discussion fora, when timetabling assigns them a different teaching space, learning designers need to adapt the ‘tools’ they use to suit the learning need. Digital tools come and go, upgrades can change the way tools behave significantly. A designer who is an expert at using Rise 360 may move into a role where that tool is not available, or they may use H5P like a pro only to find that their organisation prohibits its use on their platform. A good designer looks past the tool (or space) and can identify the essence of the learning experience and make it engaging.

Being adaptable to the means of communication and associated toolset is the third key skill.

You notice that there is nothing about intellectual skills or the ability to use any particular tool. I am making an assumption that you have at least a bare minimum of digital-literacy, that you have used more than one tool, and that you know what appropriate use looks like in a given context. I am also making the assumption that you are intellectually capable of some level of judgement and analysis. 

Most importantly, I am going to assume that you are, because you have read to the end of this post, sufficiently self-reflective to consider what your skill set is, and what it should or could be. That’s a great start. 

Being a reflective practitioner is the fourth key skill. Arguably, the most important one!

If you are thinking about building a career as a learning designer, of whichever guise, these are the four key foundational skills: being empathic, a listener, adaptable, and reflective.

 

 

Photo by Halacious on Unsplash

Learning during the commute: Photo by Verschoren Maurits from Pexels

One characteristic of a four to five year Learning and Teaching Strategy (LTS) is that it should require a complete re-write when it comes up for renewal. Given the inevitable pace of change, any remotely ambitious strategy is likely to have several ‘not achieved’ elements when it comes up for review. If you can sign-off on a five-year strategy as ‘complete’, you weren’t trying hard enough.

Someone has recently asked me to contribute to a 2021-2025 Learning and Teaching Strategy (LTS) for a University. I have drafted and contributed to many such documents over the last 25 years, so it’s always interesting to have a glimpse into other institutions. I realized one defining characteristic of the leadership of universities today is whether they have looked at their Learning and Teaching Strategy issued before January 2020 and have thought, “Emmm, maybe we need a rethink.”

Some leadership has a long-term mindset. They have recognised the enormous effort, commitment and dedication of the majority of their faculty to adjust their practices to Emergency Remote Teaching and are supporting those same faculty to retain and enhance their best practice into the future. Others have solely focussed on their balance-sheets, student-generated income, estate costs and spend time appealing for government support. The former are concerned with investing in their future state, the later worrying about this year’s numbers.

This particular LTS is ambitious; for them. The ability for faculty to continue to support their learners regardless of whether they work remotely, across time zones, from anywhere in the world. A move away entirely from end-of-course summative assessments and exams, towards student-paced portfolio assessment regardless of the discipline. Developing practical learning experiences that can be undertaken at home, or at other institutions and work-places. There are some major structural changes that will be needed to enable these learning practices to take root. The underlying philosophy is that the contemporary University student no longer has the luxury of dedicating their entire being to live and study at University for three years. They need flexibility.

Elements within this particular 2021-2025 Learning and Teaching Strategy will not be achieved. Sometimes this is because ambitions require changes to the digital ecosystem beyond institutional control, or they are subject to the vagaries of the shifting political landscape. Given the intransigence that sometimes appears embedded in the sector, some ambitions may just require too much of people. Nonetheless, it has been satisfying to see leadership willing to embark on a strategy, knowing the best that can be hoped for is ‘partially achieved’. Which from my perspective will be an unmitigated success.

Dr Simon Paul Atkinson (PFHEA)
Learning Strategist //www.sijen.com

Photo by Verschoren Maurits from Pexels

The FLANZ webinar ‘Is the Future of Education Inevitably Going to be Digital First?’, held 6th November 2020, was a conversation about how the world of higher education, in particular, has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and whether the future looks different as a result.

Duncan O’Hara, FLANZ Vice-President, led contributors, Australian-based Professor Neil Selwyn of Monash University, and New Zealand-based Professor Giselle Byrnes of Massey University, and Dr Simon Paul Atkinson of the Open Polytechnic, through a series of questions.

All contributors agreed that the response of higher education institutions across the globe was nothing short of remarkable. A huge effort had been made, not least by technology-support and academic development units, alongside faculty, to serve students’ needs. There was a note of caution, however, that having moved so much learning online in haste, that management might perceive it as 'job done', a cheaper option or indeed a satisfactory learning experience for the majority of learners. The reality is that while some institutions have seized the opportunity to build-up from solid foundations and provided an enriched digital experience for their learners, others have supplied the bare minimal.

The panel largely agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all to learning. So, any decisions by institutions and policymakers need to be context-specific, putting the learner at the heart of any technology choice. 

A healthy debate was had around the issue of digital equity, ranging from access to devices, the appropriateness of those devices for the nature of the learning, network access and the disparity in digital literacy that has become emphasised in the Remote Emergency Teaching context resulting from Covid-19. The conversation turned to the Principles of the Design Justice Network (https://designjustice.org/) advocating that all too impacted on design decisions need to be enabled to share their voices. This is as true for the technology tools and platforms in use as it is for the curricula that we curate.

The struggle to ensure that the learner remains at the centre of institutional policy-making decisions was evident in the discourse. However, the openness of the dialogue, and the questions and comments shared by participants, show great promise for the Australasian region, with all of its heterogeneity, that positive solutions are at hand.

https://hail.to/flexiblelearningNZ/article/YVWxb5d

This webinar was part of the inaugural Australasian Online Distance Learning Week #AODLW2020 run by FLANZ in association with ODLAA and EDEN, it’s Australian and European equivalents.

We need to continue to move away from seeing tertiary education as the imparting knowledge and see it rather as developing the skill of all students to be able to decide which learning pathways best suits their context, prior experience and aspirations. One of the consistent messages I try and instil in others' practice is the importance of the social context in which the student inhabits.

In November 2018 I contributed to an EDEN online webinar talking about 'Innovative Education' as part of the 2018 European Distance Learning Week. Here is my presentation, entitled "Designing Pathways: which way to innovation?"

On April 27th I had the pleasure of sharing a virtual platform with Alan Tait (Open University UK), hosted by Tim Read (UNED, Spain), for a webinar entitled 'How to Engage and Support Students Online'.

This is the EDEN (European Distance Education Network) community's response to the demands put on staff to teach remotely, many for the first time, with very little notice.  The webinar series, with all webinars available on the EDEN Youtube Channel covers a wide range of perspectives.

My contribution (starting at 27'50") was to highlight some of the tools and approaches that are widely available to ensure students and faculty can continue to make learning happen. I focussed on the notion of engaging students and advocated that everyone needs to adopt a learning model or approach that serves to make sense of the chaos. My own approach uses the SOLE model but any model would help structure responses at an individual and institutional level.

Here are the resources:

an Adobe Presenter version of the PowerPoint that I shared (on a separate page)

Screenshot of Adobe Presenter

A PDF version of the presentation with full notes here

A link to the EDEN YouTube recording of the full webinar available on the EDEN channel https://youtu.be/mw-6066s1vQ. 218 Individuals attended the ZOOM meeting with 50 colleagues joined via YouTube Livestream.

 

 

I believe it is important to design learning from the learners perspective. That means learning that is both relevant, meaningful and motivating but also that is realistic and feasible within an agreed timeframe. This is a very brief explanation for those new to designing courses of how to work out "how much is enough?"

I believe we should calibrate our learning to take account of the 'notional study hours' or NSH (alternatively referred to as 'Notional Student Hours').

The calculation may vary from the country by country. In tertiary institutions in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa and other jurisdictions, a single academic credit equates to 10 hours of student learning. In the European Credit Transfer Scheme, one credit equates to 25 to 30 hours. My explanations below take the UK/NZ model and assume that a single course, worth 15 credits has an NSH value of 150 hours. A full-time student would be expected to study eight such courses in a year, 120 credits in the first year, 120 in the second and so resulting in 360 credits for a three year degree.

Remember that the NSH is the total students are expected to study to earn their credits, NOT the amount of time you have to be guiding them. Work out what time each week you are expecting students to spend on independent study (without any guidance from you) and what time you are responsible for guiding them on. This last number that is most important to faculty designing courses.

Here is a simplified list of actions that all Faculty might want to enact:

  1. Review the course documentation (check level and benchmark statements from national or regional quality assurance agencies)
  2. Remind yourself of any assumptions made as to prior learning
  3. Remind yourself of the learning outcomes for your course
4. Remind yourself as to the credit weighting and work out for your course NSH 1 Credit = 10 hours NSH

15 Credit= 150 hours NSH

5. Remind yourself of the number of hours expected to be guided, as opposed to independent study. Institutions sometimes have different interpretations of national guidance. Usually, they see a decline in the number of guided hours as you go up the level. First-year undergraduates receiving more guided hours (65%) than masters students for example (33%)
6. Remind yourself of the assessment hours allocated to your course. It is not uncommon to deduct a number of hours for overall assessment tasks, these are usually included in the independent study hours. So say we deduct 30 hours off the 150 hours for this 15 credit course.
7. Then do a calculation of the number of weeks over which your course is expected to run and divide the NSH of the course by the number of weeks. This will give you the number of notional study hours (NSH) for your course per week We would then take the remaining 120 hours, work out what percentage of that was appropriate for guided learning hours (@ first year let's say 120 x 0.65 = 78)

Divided by the number of weeks in a  course (say 12) that would mean in this example we would be expected to provide learners with (78/12) 6.5 hours of guided learning.

You need to work through an example based on guidance from your own quality assurance colleagues to ensure you stay in tune with regional or national guidelines.

What is essential is that you do not see the guided learning hours as time spent directly with students. It includes anything you direct a student to watch, read or listen to. Any activities you instruct them to undertake as well as any online resources you choose to provide.

It is very often the case that we are 'over-teaching' in our on-line courses. Being aware of the NSH for your course is a good place to start.

In this short video (5'52"), Simon touches on three basic principles of programming assessments. The first is that it should be programme wide, the second that assessing outcomes not content provides future flexibility, and the third that summative (or credit-bearing) assessments do not have to be final or terminal assessments. Assessment is one of the most difficult areas for faculty to become comfortable with. Most will have experienced badly designed assessment themselves and their expectations of their academic managers, programme leaders and their students are often low. This is a shame because well-designed assessment can be a pleasure for both students and faculty.

These resources from 2013-2017 are being shared to support colleagues new to teaching online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

This short lecture (10'22") presents the fundamentals of assessment for learning. Often referred to as formative assessment, I prefer to use the terms 'assessment for learning' and 'assessment of learning' instead of formative and summative. This is because 'summative assessment' is so often conflated with the notion of 'terminal assessment' that only happens at the end of a course of learning. In truth, assessment is a powerful motivator for learning if structured well. In this lecture, I outline the purposes, contexts and strategies that all educators should be reflecting on as they design their courses.

These resources from 2013-2017 are being shared to support colleagues new to teaching online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This brief video (2'07") is a reminder of the structural support that intense learning outcomes provide to the course design process. Having an understanding of the need to align course/module outcomes with programme outcomes, and to differentiate these reassessed outcomes from non-assessed topic/weekly level objectives is important. It is important because well-aligned learning outcomes provides scaffolding to all students' learning.

These resources from 2013-2017 are being shared to support colleagues new to teaching online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consultancy for International Higher Education from Simon Paul Atkinson

A brief explanation (2'22") of the central importance of designing well-structured intended learning outcomes for courses. Five domains of learning, details of which are available here: https://sijen.com/research-interests/taxonomies/ are all important in a balanced course. Structuring outcomes with an active verb, subject and context are also shared.

These resources from 2013-2017 are being shared to support colleagues new to teaching online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consultancy for International Higher Education from Simon Paul Atkinson

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