December 22, 2014

That was the year that was for online learning: thank you and goodbye, 2014

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Well, where on earth did 2014 go? It seems as if it’s only just started!

What I did in 2014

2014 though is a significant year for me, because I decided to stop taking paid contracts from April (in principle, at least). As a result, I haven’t been as engaged with the Canadian post-secondary system as previously (19 institutions in 2013), and since starting on my open textbook in May, I haven’t been keeping up and blogging about new developments in online learning as much as in previous years.

However, I have done quite lot to track down recent research publications for my book, and I did get to visit/do work at seven universities during 2014, five in Canada and two in Europe.

I was also a keynote or rapporteur at the following conferences:

  • The EDEN conference, Oxford
  • Canadian Association of University Boards of Governors, Ottawa

I also gave webinars for:

  • Alberta Upgrading
  • Universidad de Buenos Aires Faculty of Engineering

Lastly, I’ve just completed my part of the review of online course and OER proposals for the Council of Ontario Universities.

And did I mention I’m writing an open textbook?

So I’m not completely out of touch yet.

What you were interested in in 2014

Since data analytics are all the rage, let’s use WordPress statistics to see what got your attention in 2014.

Altogether, the site got just under 300,000 views, or just over 800 a day, in 2014. Here’s how these figures break down.  (I’ve not included stuff like home page visits, my biography, etc., and I’ve only included the top 20 other posts)


Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) More stats 16,715
The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) More stats 12,606
2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond More stats 9,165
What Is Distance Education? (2008) More stats 8,862
Time to retire from online learning? More stats 6,463
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) More stats 6,394
What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs (2012) More stats 4,170
Learning theories and online learning More stats 3,924
Why lectures are dead (or soon will be) More stats 3,787
Stephen Downes’ overview of e-learning: and a little history lesson (2012) More stats 3,194
E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research (2008) More stats 3,191
A short critique of the Khan Academy (2012) More stats 3,039
More stats
The role of communities of practice in a digital age More stats 2,545
Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities More stats 2,337
A student guide to studying online (2012) More stats 2,321
Does technology really enhance the quality of teaching and learning? (2009) More stats 2,066
Does technology change the nature of knowledge? (2009) More stats 2,062
Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring? More stats 2,039
Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction (2012) More stats 2,013

What does this tell me?

Students need independent advice on online program quality

The first two posts, plus, ‘Can you teach real engineering online?’, and ‘A student guide to studying online’, reflect the fact that many learners/students use the site. (The world’s largest supplier of online learning is From the many comments they post to these sites, these readers are looking for some kind of quality assurance about potential online programs. It’s sad that they come to my site, because I can’t and don’t want to act as some kind of rating agency for online programs. However, the comments on these posts do eventually form some kind of crowdsourced quality assessment. There’s obviously need for a good app for collecting together student reviews of online learning programs, so long as the site is independent of commercial pressure.

The site is acting as a open resource site for online and distance education

Yes, I’m running an OER, and I never knew! About two-thirds of the most frequently accessed sites were posted more than a year ago, but they are still attracting a lot of traffic, suggesting that these are resources that have enough staying power to meet an ongoing need for information. (This could also be interpreted as not posting enough attractive posts in 2014.) I hope my interpretation is correct, because the main objective of the site is to be a useful resource for those designing online courses.

Is interest in MOOCs declining?

Even though there were a good number of posts on my site about MOOCs in 2014 (including a comparison between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, and an analysis of the strength and weaknesses of MOOCs), none of these made the top 20. My retirement post, which included a rant about the hype around MOOCs, obviously hit a nerve. However, my 2012 post on Coursera still attracts a lot of traffic, as does my 2012 post on the Khan Academy. It may also be too early to come to this conclusion. It takes time for a post to build solid numbers, and most of my MOOC posts came relatively late in 2014.

My open textbook is on track

Three of the top posts were for my book (‘Learning theories and online learning’, ‘Why lectures are dead’ and ‘The role of communities of practice’), despite all these being posted in the latter half of the year. In addition, three of the nine steps to quality learning (which will feature in the book) were also in the top 20.

What are my main takeaways from 2014?

These are drawn from both my contact with post-secondary education in 2014 and the blog analysis.

1. Blended/hybrid learning is the future for campus-based universities. However, this will mean redesigning teaching (and learning spaces) to make the most of the campus experience.

2. We are demanding too much of faculty. Not only must they be subject experts and top researchers, they must also now be experts in teaching methods and learning technologies. One of the most insightful comments I heard in 2014 came from Marti Cleveland-Innes, who pointed out the difficulties of achieving the ‘complete’ faculty member. This means we need to totally re-think the approach to faculty development, including:

  • putting more emphasis on pre-service training, so that teaching as well as research are part of the requirements for appointment, tenure and promotion
  • increasing the ‘teaching’ track for promotion for those that want to focus on teaching, rather than research
  • moving much more to team teaching, with clearly defined roles for senior research faculty, lecturers (tenured and adjunct), and teaching assistants, as well as instructional designers. This of course needs to combined with the redesign of teaching
  • getting rid of the current, voluntary in-service faculty development model. This may work for a very small number of faculty, but it cannot cope with the institution- and program-wide demands that new technology and new teaching methods require. Replace it with a systematic approach to in-service training linked to academic planning and institutional change

3. Expect a continued rough ride for open educational resources in 2015. The problem remains adoption and application, rather than creation. This is not a criticism of OERs, but of a system that rewards competition rather than collaboration. However, slow progress is being made (open textbooks in BC and institutional use of OERs created by their own faculty in Ontario).

4. Cost remains a major challenge for the post-secondary education system. It is time to look at how to reduce costs without jeopardizing quality, by the intelligent use of technology. This means making some key institutional changes such as reviewing faculty teaching loads (more courses, smaller classes), reallocation of resources to teaching from other areas, in particular operations (less campus, more online) and research (fewer research faculty and more teaching faculty). If we don’t do this we won’t get the teaching methods that will produce the knowledge and skills our graduates need in the 21st century.

So to all my readers, thank you for bothering when you are all so busy, and have a wonderful holiday season, free from log-ins! I will continue to blog but you can catch up in the new year.

Using time and space in online learning

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Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This is another post on the characteristics of educational media and technology, which form part of Chapter 8, ‘Understanding Technology in Education’ for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Different media and technologies operate differently over space and time. These dimensions are important for both facilitating or inhibiting learning, and for limiting or enabling more flexibility for learners. There are actually two closely related dimensions here:

  • ‘live’ or recorded (time)
  • synchronous or asynchronous (space)

Live or recorded

These are fairly obvious in their meaning.Live media by definition are face-to-face events, such as lectures, seminars, and one-on-one face-to-face tutorials. A ‘live’ event requires everyone to be present at the same place and time as everyone else. This could be a rock concert, a sports event or a lecture. Live events, such as for instance a seminar, work well when personal relations are important, such as building trust, or challenging attitudes or positions that are emotionally or strongly held (either by students or instructors.) Thus there is a strong qualitative element about live events.The main educational advantage of a live lecture is that it may have a strong emotive quality that inspires or encourages learners beyond the actual transmission of knowledge, or may provide an emotional ‘charge’ that may help students shift from previously held positions. Live events, by definition, are transient. They may be well remembered, but they cannot be repeated, or if they are, it will be a different experience or a different audience.

Recorded media on the other hand are permanently available to those possessing the recording, such as a video-cassette or an audio-cassette. Books and other print formats are also recorded media. The key educational significance of recorded media is that students can access the same learning material an unlimited number of times, and at times that are convenient for the learner.

Live events of course can also be recorded, but as anyone who has watched a live sports event compared to a recording of the same event knows, the experience is different, with usually a lesser emotional charge when watching a recording (especially if you already know the result). Thus one might think of ‘live’ events as ‘hot’ and recorded events as ‘cool.’ Recorded media can of course be emotionally moving, such as a good novel, but the experience is different from actually taking part in the events described.

an asynchronous technology

Synchronous or asynchronous

Synchronous technologies require all those participating in the communication to participate together, at the same time, but not necessarily in the same place.

Thus live events are one example of synchronous media, but unlike live events, technology enables synchronous learning without everyone having to be in the same place, although everyone does have to participate in the event at the same time. A video-conference or a webinar are examples of synchronous technologies which may be broadcast ‘live’, but not with everyone in the same place. Other synchronous technologies are television or radio broadcasts. You have to be ‘there’ at the time of transmission, or you miss them. However, the ‘there’ may be somewhere different from where the teacher is.

Asynchronous technologies enable participants to access information or communicate at different points of time, usually at the time and place of choice of the participant. All recorded media are asynchronous. Books, DVDs, You Tube videos, lectures recorded through lecture capture and available for streaming on demand, and online discussion forums are all asynchronous media or technologies. Learners can log on or access these technologies at times and the place of their own choosing.

Figure 8.8 illustrates the main differences between media in terms of different combinations of time and place.

Figure 8.8 The separation of teachers/instructors from learners by time and space

Figure 8.8 The separation of teachers/instructors from learners by time and space

Why does this matter?

Overall there are huge educational benefits associated with asynchronous or recorded media, because the ability to access information or communicate at any time offers the learner more control and flexibility. The educational benefits have been confirmed in a number of studies. For instance, Means et al. (2009) found that students did better on blended learning because they spent more time on task, because the online materials were always available to the students.

Research at the Open University found that students much preferred to listen to radio broadcasts recorded on cassette than to the actual broadcast, even though the content and format was identical (Grundin, 1981; Bates at al., 1981). However, even greater benefits were found when the format of the audio was changed to take advantage of the control characteristics of cassettes (stop, replay). It was found that students learned more from ‘designed’ cassettes than from cassette recordings of broadcasts, especially when the cassettes were co-ordinated or integrated with visual material, such as text or graphics. This was particularly valuable, for instance, in talking students through mathematical formula (Durbridge, 1983).

This research underlines the importance of changing design as one moves from synchronous to asynchronous technologies. Thus we can predict that although there are benefits in recording live lectures through lecture capture in terms of flexibility and access, or having readings available at any time or place, the learning benefits would be even greater if the lecture or text was redesigned for asynchronous use, with built-in activities such as tests and feedback, and points for students to stop the lecture and do some research or extra reading, etc., then returning to the teaching.

The ability to access media asynchronously through recorded and streamed materials is one of the biggest changes in the history of teaching, but the dominant paradigm in higher education is still the live lecture or seminar. There are, as we have seen, some advantages in live media, but they need to be used more carefully to exploit their unique advantages or affordances.

The significance of the Internet

It should be emphasised that broadcast/communicative and synchronous/asynchronous are two separate dimensions. By placing them in a matrix design, we can then assign different media/technologies to different quadrants, as in Figure 8.9 below. (I have included only a few – you may want to place other technologies on this diagram):

Figure 8.9 The significance of the Internet in terms of media characteristics

Figure 8.9 The significance of the Internet in terms of media characteristics

Why the Internet is so important is that it is an encompassing medium that embraces all these other media and technologies, thus offering immense possibilities for technology and learning. This enables us, if we wish, to be very specific about how we design our teaching so that we can exploit all the characteristics or dimensions of technology through this one medium to fit almost any learning context.


It should be noted at this stage that although I have identified some strengths and weaknesses of the four characteristics of broadcast/communicative/ synchronous/asynchronous, we still need an evaluative framework for deciding when to use or combine different technologies. This means developing criteria that will enable us to decide within specific contexts the optimum choice of technologies. I will attempt to do this later in this chapter, but in the meantime we still have a couple of other characteristics to explore and define.

Feedback, please

1. Does this categorization of media/technologies make sense to you?

2. Can you easily place other media or technologies into Figures 8.8 and 8.9? What media or technologies don’t fit? Why not?

3. Is this an accurate or a useful way at looking at the educational affordances of the Internet? Is it really that significant a change in education?

Any other comments or suggestions are of course extremely welcome.


  • passive or interactive
  • single or rich media
  • the educational affordances of:
    • text/graphics
    • audio
    • video
    • computing
  • making decisions


Bates, A. (1981) ‘Some unique educational characteristics of television and some implications for teaching or learning’ Journal of Educational Television Vol. 7, No.3

Durbridge, N. (1983) Design implications of audio and video cassettes Milton Keynes: Open University Institute of Educational Technology

Grundin, H. 1981) Open University Broadcasting Times and their Impact on Students’ Viewing/Listening Milton Keynes: The Open University Institute of Educational Technology

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education

Are you broadcasting or networking when teaching online?

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Broadcast or communicative? 2

My next three or so posts will be looking at key characteristics of media and technologies, again as part of Chapter 8 on ‘Understanding Technology in Education’ for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘. In this post, I look at how media and technologies can be classified along the broadcast/communicative dimension.

Key technology characteristics

Understanding the characteristics or affordances of each medium or technology that influence its usefulness for education will help clarify our thinking of the possible benefits or weaknesses of each medium or technology. This will also allow us to see where technologies have common or different features.

There is a wide range of characteristics that we could look at, but I will focus on five that I think are particularly important for education:

  • broadcast (one-way) or communicative (two way) media
  • synchronous or asynchronous technologies
  • live (transient) or recorded (permanent) media
  • single or rich media
  • passive or interactive.

We shall see that these characteristics are more dimensional than discrete states, and media or technologies will fit at different points on these dimensions, depending on the way they are designed or used.

Broadcast or communicative technologies

A major structural distinction is between ‘broadcast’ technologies that are primarily one-to-many and one-way, and those technologies that are primarily many-to-many or ‘communicative’, allowing for two-way or multiple communication connections. Communicative technologies include those that give equal ‘power’ of communication between multiple end users.

Broadcast media and technologies

Television, radio and print for example are primarily broadcast or one-way media, as end users or ‘recipients’ cannot change the ‘message’ (although they may interpret it differently or choose to ignore it). Note that it does not matter really what delivery technology (terrestrial broadcast, satellite, cable, DVD, Internet) is used for television, it remains a ‘broadcast’ or one-way medium. Some Internet technologies are also primarily one way. For instance, an institutional web site is primarily a one-way technology.

One advantage of broadcast media and technologies is that they ensure a common standard of learning materials for all students. This is particularly important in countries where teachers are poorly qualified or of variable quality. Also one-way broadcast technologies allow for the organization to control and manage the information that is being transmitted, allowing for quality control. Broadcasting media and technologies are more likely to be favoured by those with an ‘objectivist’ approach to teaching and learning, since the ‘correct’ knowledge can be transmitted to everyone receiving the instruction. One disadvantage is that additional resources are needed to provide interaction with teachers or other learners.

Communicative media and technologies

The telephone, video-conferencing, e-mail, online discussion forums, most social media and the Internet are examples of communicative media or technologies, in that all users can communicate and interact with each other, and in theory at least have equal power in technology terms. The educational significance of communicative technologies is that they allow for interaction between learners and teachers, and perhaps even more significantly, between a learner and other learners, without the participants needing to be present in the same place.

Which is which?

This dimension is not a rigid one, with necessarily clear or unambiguous classifications. Increasingly, technologies are becoming more complex, and able to serve a wide range of functions. In particular the Internet is not so much a single medium as an integrating framework for many different media and technologies with different and often opposite characteristics. Furthermore, most technologies are somewhat flexible in that they can be used in different ways. However, if we stretch a technology too far, for instance trying to make a broadcast medium such as an xMOOC also more communicative, stresses are likely to occur. So I find the dimension still useful, so long as we are not dogmatic about the characteristics of individual media or technologies. This means though looking at each case separately.

Thus I see a learning management system as primarily a broadcast or one-way technology, although it has features such as discussion forums that allow for some forms of multi-way communication. However, it could be argued that the communication functions in an LMS require additional technologies, such as a discussion forum, that just happen to be plugged in to or embedded within the LMS, which is primarily a database with a cool interface. We shall see that in practice we often have to combine technologies if we want the full range of functions required in education, and this adds cost and complexity.

Web sites can vary on where they are placed on this dimension, depending on their design. For instance, an airline web site, while under the full control of the company, has interactive features that allow you to find flights, book flights, reserve seats, and hence, while you may not be able to ‘communicate’ or change the site, you can at least interact with it and to some extent personalize it. However, you cannot change the page showing the choice of flights. This is why I prefer to talk about dimensions. An airline web site that allows end user interaction is less of a broadcast technology. However it is not a ‘pure’ communicative technology either. The power is not equal between the airline and the customer, because the airline controls the site.

It should be noted too that some web 2.0 tools (e.g. YouTube and blogs) are also more of a broadcast than a communicative technology, whereas other social media use mainly communicative technologies with some broadcast features (e.g. personal information on a Facebook page). A wiki is clearly more of a ‘communicative’ medium. Again though it needs to be emphasized that intentional intervention by teachers, designers or users of a technology can influence where on the dimension some technologies will be, although there comes a point where the characteristic is so strong that it is difficult to change significantly without introducing other technologies.

The role of the teacher or instructor also tends to be very different when using broadcast or communicative media. In broadcast media, the role of the teacher is central, in that content is chosen and often delivered by the instructor. xMOOCs are an excellent example. However, in communicative media, while the instructor’s role may still be central, as in online collaborative learning or seminars, there are learning contexts where there may be no identified ‘central’ teacher, with contributions coming from all or many members of the community, as in communities of practice or cMOOCs.

Thus it can be seen that ‘power’ is an important aspect of this dimension. What ‘power’ does the end-user or student have in controlling a particular technology? If we look at this from an historical perspective, we have seen a great expansion of technologies in recent years that give increasing power to the end user. The move towards more communicative technologies and away from broadcast technologies then has profound implications for education (as for society at large).

Applying the dimension to educational media

We can also apply this analysis to non-technological means of communication, or ‘media’, such as classroom teaching. Lectures have broadcast characteristics, whereas a small seminar group has communicative characteristics. In Figure 8.7, I have placed some common technologies, classroom media and online media along the broadcast/communicative continuum.

Figure 8.6

Figure 8.7

When doing this exercise, it is important to note that:

  • there is no general normative or evaluative judgement about the continuum. Broadcasting is an excellent way of getting information in a consistent form to a large number of people; interactive communication works well when all members of  a group have something equal to contribute to the process of knowledge development and dissemination. The judgement of the appropriateness of the medium or technology will very much depend on the context, and in particular the resources available and the general philosophy of teaching to be applied;
  • where a particular medium or technology is placed on the continuum will depend to some extent on the actual design, use or application. For instance, if the lecturer talks for 45 minutes and allows 10 minutes for discussion, an interactive lecture might be further towards broadcasting than if the lecture session is more of a question and answer session;
  • the important decision from a teaching perspective is deciding on the desired balance between ‘broadcasting’ and ‘discussion’ or communication. That should then be one factor in driving decisions about the choice of appropriate technologies;
  • thus the continuum is a heuristic device to enable a teacher to think about what medium or technology will be most appropriate within any given context, and not a firm analysis of where different types of educational media or technology belong on the continuum.

You will note that I have placed ‘computers’ in the middle of the continuum. They can be used as a broadcast medium, such as for programmed learning, or they can be used to support communicative uses, such as online discussion. Their actual placement on the continuum therefore will depend on how we choose to use computers in education.

Thus where a medium or technology ‘fits’ best on a continuum of broadcast vs communicative is one factor to be considered when making decisions about media or technology for teaching and learning.

Comments, please

I find these media characteristics increasingly difficult to maintain as technology develops. It used to be easy to separate ‘broadcast’ technologies such as print, radio and television, from ‘communicative’ technologies such as mail, the telephone, and conferencing. However, as we increasingly digitalise technology and more importantly services, these distinctions tend to break down. Nevertheless we still see these distinctions appear even in the latest technology applications, such as xMOOCs and cMOOCs. My view then that it is important to be aware of these differences in technology, because trying to force an essentially broadcast technology to be communicative is, I believe, likely to lead to all kinds of problems for learners (as we have seen with peer assessment in xMOOCs).

So: what do you think? Is this still a useful distinction? Can it help in media and technology selection?

Also: some feedback on the graphics, particularly Figure 8.7. Does this work for you? How would you present this (apart from hiring a professional graphics designer!)?


Synchronous vs asynchronous

Live vs recorded

Passive vs active

Any other dimension that I’ve missed?


EDEN 2015 conference, Barcelona

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Casa Batllo, Barcelona - yes, it's Gaudi

Casa Batllo, Barcelona – yes, it’s Gaudi

What: Opening Out the Educational Landscape

This is the European Distance Education and eLearning Network’s annual conference with several themes:

  • expanded learning scenarios
  • opening the classroom to expand education
  • learning analytics from the learning perspective
  • empowering learners
  • expanded learning scenarios from the teacher’s perspective
  • new generation of methodologies

When: 9-12 June, 2015

Where: Catalonia Barcelona Plaza Hotel, Plaza España, Barcelona, Spain

Who: The Open University of Catalonia (UOC) is the host institution in collaboration with the European Distance and E-Learning Network.



Barcelona is my favourite city after Vancouver. UOC is a very interesting institution. EDEN usually runs excellent conferences. What are you waiting for?

Choosing design models for a digital age

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Oh, dear, it appears that I missed out in posting the conclusion to my Chapter 6, on Models for Designing Teaching and Learning for my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, so here it is:

Choosing a model

This chapter covers a range of different design models or approaches to teaching. There are many more that could have been included. However, it is clear that there is a choice of possible models, depending on a number of factors, most of which are listed in Chapter 5, Building an Effective Learning Environment.

Your choice of model will then depend very much on the context in which you are teaching. However, I have suggested that a key criterion should be the suitability of the design model for developing the knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age. Other critical factors will be the demands of the subject domain, characteristics of the learners you will likely be teaching, the resources available, especially in terms of supporting learners, and probably most important of all, your own views and beliefs about what constitutes ‘good teaching.’

Furthermore, the models by and large are not mutually exclusive. They can probably be mixed and matched to a certain degree, but there are limitations in doing this. Moreover, a consistent approach will be less confusing not only to learners, but also to you as a teacher or instructor.

So: how would you go about choosing an appropriate design model? I set out below in Figure 6.20 one way of doing this. I have chosen five criteria as headings along the top of the table:

  • epistemological basis: in what epistemological view of knowledge is this model based? Does the model suggest a view of knowledge as content that must be learned, does the model suggest a rigid (‘correct’) way of designing learning (objectivist)? Or does the model suggest that learning is a dynamic process and knowledge needs to be discovered and is constantly changing (constructivist)? Does the model suggest that knowledge lies in the connections and interpretations of different nodes or people on networks and that connections matter more in terms of creating and communicating knowledge than the individual nodes or people on the network (connectivist)? Or is the model epistemologically neutral, in that one could use the same model to teach from different epistemological positions?
  • 20th century learning: does this design model lead to the kind of learning that would prepare people for an industrial society, with standardised learning outcomes, will it help identify and select a relatively small elite for higher education or senior positions in society, does it enable learning to be easily organised into similarly performing groups of learners?
  • 21st century learning: does the model encourage the development of the soft skills and the effective management of knowledge needed in a digital world? Does the model enable and support the appropriate educational use of the affordances of new technologies? Does it provide the kind of educational support that learners need to succeed in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world? Does it enable and encourage learners to become global citizens?
  • academic quality: does it lead to deep understanding and transformative learning? Does it enable students to become experts in their chosen subject domain?
  • flexibility: does the model meet the needs of the diversity of learners today? Does it encourage open and flexible access to learning? Does it help teachers and instructors to adapt their teaching to ever changing circumstances?

Now these are my criteria, and you may well want to use different criteria (cost is another important factor), but I have drawn up the table this way because it has helped me consider better where I stand on the different models. Where I think the model is strong on a particular criterion, I have given it three stars, where weak, one star, and n/a for not applicable. Again, you may – no, should – rank the models differently. (See, that’s why I’m a constructivist – if I was an objectivist, I’d tell you what damned criteria to use!)

Figure 6.20 A comparison of different design models

Figure 6.20 A comparison of different design models

It can be seen that the only model that ranks highly on all three criteria of 21st century learning, academic quality and flexibility is online collaborative learning. Experiential learning and agile design also score highly. Transmissive lectures come out worst. This is a pretty fair reflection of my preferences. However, if you are teaching first year civil engineering to over 500 students, your criteria and rankings will almost certainly be different from mine. So please see Figure 6.20 as a heuristic device and not a general recommendation.

Common design characteristics

It is worth noting that, once again, there is extensive research and experience that point to the key factors to be taken into consideration in the successful implementation of teaching, whichever design model is being used. In essence we are talking about using best practices in the design of teaching. Although different design models have different approaches to teaching, there is a significant number of the core principles in the design of teaching and learning that extend across several of the design models. These can be summarised as follows:

  • know your students: identify the key characteristics of the students you will be or could be teaching, and how that will influence your methods of teaching
  • know what you are trying to achieve: in any particular course or program what are the critical areas of content and the particular skills or learning outcomes that students need to achieve as a result of your teaching? What is the best way to identify and assess these desired outcomes?
  • know how students learn: what drives learning for your students? How do you engage or motivate students?  How can you best support that learning?
  • know how to implement this knowledge: What kind of learning environment do you need to create to support student learning? What design model(s) will work best for you within that environment?
  • know how to use technology to support your teaching: this is really a sub-set of the previous point, and is discussed in much more detail in other chapters
  • know what resources you have, and what can be done within the constraints you have to work with
  • ensure that the assessment of students actually measures the intended learning outcomes – and unintended ones.

Design models and the quality of teaching and learning

Lastly, the review of different models indicate some of the key issues around quality:

  • first, what students learn is more likely to be influenced by choosing an appropriate design model for the context in which you are teaching, than by focusing on a particular technology or delivery method. Technology and delivery method are more about access and flexibility and hence learner characteristics than they are about learning. Learning is affected more by pedagogy and the design of instruction.
  • second, different design models are likely to lead to different kinds of learning outcomes. This is why there is so much emphasis in this book on being clear about what knowledge and skills are needed in a digital age. These are bound to vary somewhat across different subject domains, but only to a limited degree. Understanding of content is always going to be important, but the skills of independent learning, critical thinking, innovation and creativity are even more important. Which design model is most likely to help develop these skills in your students?
  • third, quality depends not only on the choice of an appropriate design model, but also on how that approach to teaching is implemented. Online collaborative learning can be done well, or it can be done badly. The same applies to other design models. Following core design principles is critical for the successful use of any particular design model. Also there is considerable research on what the conditions are for success in using some of the newer models. The findings from such research need to be applied when implementing a particular model.
  • lastly students and teachers get better with practice. If you are moving to a new design model, give yourself (and your students) time to get comfortable with it. It will probably take two or three courses where the new model is applied before you begin to feel comfortable that it is producing the results you were hoping for. However, it is better to make some mistakes along the way than to continue to teach comfortably, but not produce the graduates that are needed in the future.

Even when we have chosen a particular design model or teaching approach, though, it still has to be implemented. The remaining chapters in this book will focus then on implementation.

Feedback, please

1. What other criteria might you have used for deciding on an appropriate model?

2. Is this the best way to make a decision about a particular design approach to teaching? If not, how would you go about it?

3. Any other comments about design models for teaching and learning? Any important ones missed?


Chapter 8, on ‘Understanding Technology in Education.’ (Chapter 7 on MOOCs has already been published.)