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The Primacy of Learning Design
March 23, 2010 - 10:02pm

When it comes to effective teaching, good learning design trumps advanced technology every time. Our energy and resources are best spent in partnering with faculty to insure that their courses are designed with solid learning design fundamentals. These fundamentals include:

a) Courses broken up into units, with units usually (but not always) covering a week of course materials.

b) Each course unit designed around the number of hours the student is expected to invest for that week. (The standard is 3 hours of outside class time for every hour in class, but this can vary). Each assignment and deliverable is offered within the total time budget for the unit.

c) A set of learning outcomes for the module. These learning outcomes are relatively short, usually no more than three in total, and contain the core goals that the student will achieve in that week.

d) The curriculum for the module is included in the unit, with both full-text articles, book chapters and linked video included.

e) The use of formative, short, low-stakes assessment (usually computer graded) to reinforce the materials.

f) A set of clearly articulated deliverables that relate both to the learning outcomes and the curriculum for the unit.

g) Grading rubrics for any deliverables, so students know exactly how they will be assessed.

h) A focus on collaborative, active assignments - ones that encourage students to work with the materials to share and create knowledge around what we are studying.

Note that all of the attributes of sound learning design do not require sophisticated technologies. In fact, I usually recommend to the faculty that I work with that they can write-up their modules in a text or Word document. Using tools like a blog, wiki, or discussion board are great - but only if they are done so to support the learning objectives and are utilized within a context of sound learning design.

The learning management system (LMS) works equally well for on-ground courses as it does for fully online courses. A well designed course does not differ by how it is delivered. Utilizing the LMS to bring students through a narrative experience with the course materials will allow a course to move between online and on-ground.

Leveraging the LMS to put together a good course requires lots of work at the front-end. A well designed course is complete before the semester begins. Students can view all the course modules, but their work is restricted to the week in which the whole class is working. In my experience, a course that has been fully designed before the first day proceeds smoothly throughout the semester, as faculty can spend their energies interacting and collaborating with the students rather than putting together course materials on the fly.

Fully online courses, and programs, have the advantage that the LMS is the only classroom available. Online faculty are willing to go through a course design methodology as part of their compensation for preparing to teach online. (Note: I believe that faculty should design their own courses, even if they do so in the context of an established methodology. I've never believed in the practice of faculty teaching a course that they did not develop - although I'd be interested in this debate). Asking faculty who are not teaching online, and who do not receive a course development stipend, to utilize this course design methodology presents other challenges. My hope is that learning technologists working at our colleges and universities find opportunities to develop and scale a course design methodology to encompass as many classes as possible. I'd be curious about how other institutions have been able to increase the number of on-ground courses in which the LMS course site is developed using a course design methodology and checklist.


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