December 1, 2015

Another perspective on the personalisation of learning online

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To see the video recording click on the image

To see the video recording click on the image

I gave a keynote presentation last week at a large educational conference in the Netherlands, Dé Onderwijsdagen’ (Education Days). I was asked to talk about the personalisation of learning. I agreed as I think this is one of many potential advantages of online learning.

However, the personalisation of learning tends to be looked at often through a very narrow lens. I suggest that there are in fact at least seven ways in which online learning can facilitate the personalisation of learning. This is a blog post version of my keynote, which can be seen in full here.

Why personalisation?

Personalisation is one of the buzzwords going around these days in educational circles, like experiential learning or competency-based learning. Sometimes when I look more closely at some of the current buzzwords I end up thinking: ‘Oh, is that what it is? But I’ve always done that – I just haven’t given it that name before.’

However, I think there are good reasons why we should be focusing more on personalisation in post-secondary education:

  • the need to develop a wide range of knowledge and skills in learners for the 21st century;
  • as the system has expanded, so has the diversity of students: in age, language ability, prior learning, and interests;
  • a wider range of modes of delivery for students to choose from (campus, blended, fully online);
  • a wider range of media accessible not only to instructors but also to learners themselves;
  • the need to actively engage a very wide range of preferred learning styles, interests and motivation.

Clearly in such a context one size does not fit all. But with a continuously expanding post-secondary system and more pressures on faculty and instructors, how can we make learning more individualised in a cost-effective manner?

Seven roads to personalisation

I can think of at least seven ways to make learning more personal. In my keynote I discuss the strengths and weaknesess of each of these approaches:.

  • adaptive learning;
  • competency-based learning;
  • virtual personal learning environments;
  • multi-media, multi-mode courses and learning materials;
  • modularisation of courses and learning materials;
  • new qualifications/certification (badges, nanodegrees, etc.);
  • disaggregated services.

There are probably others and I would be interested in your suggestions. However I recommend that you look at the video presentation, as it provides more ‘flesh’ on each of these seven approaches to personalisation.

An overall design approach to personalisation

Personalisation of learning will work best if it is embedded within an overall, coherent learning design, In my keynote I suggest one approach that fully exploits both the potential of online learning and the personalisation of learning:

  • the development of the core skill of knowledge management within a particular subject domain (other skills development could also be included, such as independent learning, research, critical thinking, and 21st century communication)
  • the use of open content by students, guided and supported by the instructor
  • student-generated multi-media content through online project work
  • active online discussion embedded within and across the different student projects
  • assessment through personal e-portfolios and group project assessment.

Such an ‘open’ design allows for greater choice in topics and approaches by learners while still developing the core skills and knowledge needed by our learners in a digital age. Other designs are also of course possible to reach the same kind of overall learning goals.

The role of the instructor though remains crucial, both as a content expert, guiding students and ensuring that they meet the academic needs of the discipline, and in providing feedback and assessment of their learning.


With knowledge continuing to rapidly grow and change, and a wide range of skills as well as knowledge needed in a knowledge-based society, we need new approaches to teaching that address such challenges.

Also because of increased diversity in our students and a wide range of different learning needs, we need to develop more flexible teaching methods and modes of delivery. This will also mean understanding better the differences between media and using them appropriately in our teaching.

Making learning more personal for our students is increasingly important, but it is only one element in new designs for learning. There are in fact many possibilities, limited only by the imagination and vision of teachers and instructors.

Online learning and a knowledge-based economy

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Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Florida, R. and Spencer, G. (2015) Canada has two growth models, but we’ve been neglecting one Globe and Mail, Oct 7

Boyd, D. (2015) Canada’s party leaders neglecting renewable energy in election talks Globe and Mail, Oct 7

If you are not Canadian, please bear with me in this post, as although these articles focus on Canada, what I have to say will apply to many other economically advanced countries – and I will get to the online learning bit eventually.

The Canadian election

Three parties are running very close in the Canadian federal election, which takes place on October 19. All three parties (Conservatives, who form the current government; the NDP, the official opposition; and the Liberals), have made the economy a central plank of their campaign. In essence the election is being fought primarily on which party is best able to advance the Canadian economy.

Surprisingly though all three parties are very backward looking in their economic strategies. The Conservative government has based its economic strategy primarily around the resource-based industries of oil and mining extraction, and agriculture. It is also supporting free trade through free trade agreements with Europe (CETA) and 22 countries around the Pacific (TPP) as well as the 25 year old North American free trade agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico (NAFTA), but still with high tariffs and protection for the Canadian dairy industry. Interestingly, there has been almost no discussion by the major Canadian political parties about the copyright and intellectual property agreements in these pacts, yet these have tremendous implications for developing home-grown innovative industries.

The Conservative economic strategy has recently run into severe problems due to a crash in commodity prices, and the oil industry in particular is in trouble due to excess capacity, low prices and increasing environmental and aboriginal land claim pressures that have resulted in difficulties in getting the oil to market.

The NDP, which has its roots in labour and the union movement, is pushing to support manufacturing industries, such as auto production. The Liberals are focusing on taxation and funding policies that are aimed at encouraging small businesses and protecting the current economy. The Liberals though have pledged a small increase (around ($100 million) to support incubators and new start-ups.

These are all very 20th century approaches to the economy, and frankly are not very different from one another at a strategic level. Where are the long-term strategies or plans that will support new knowledge-based industries?

The knowledge economy

Richard Florida, an urban economist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Greg Spencer, a research associate, have pointed out in their article in the Globe and Mail that:

the real sources of sustained prosperity and rising living standards are knowledge, innovation and creativity. Canada has neglected the development of its knowledge-based economy….Cities are the central organizing unit on the knowledge economy, with knowledge and creativity concentrated in Canada’s largest city regions.’

Florida and Spencer then go on to define five key ‘pillars’ that are needed to build Canada’s knowledge economy:

  • increased urban density
  • a shift from investment in roads to an investment in transit and high-speed rail, to make communication quicker and easier
  • more compact and affordable housing in cities to encourage young knowledge-workers to come together
  • increasing the minimum wage and replacing low-wage service jobs with more creative approaches to service provision
  • increased taxing and spending powers to cities.

Noticeably they do not mention high quality post-secondary education.

Renewable energy

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer, in a separate article argues that Canada’s government to date has ignored the potential of renewable energy, focusing instead on trying to extract and move carbon-heavy oil, gas and coal, through pipelines and tankers. Instead, he argues, future economic growth will be driven by developments in renewable energy such as solar, wind and geo-thermal power. He argues that Canada has the potential to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources within two decades.

Canada has an unenviable reputation as being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly through its production of heavy crude and bitumen from the oil sands. It is increasingly clear that there will be an increasing charge on the production of such carbon, mainly through direct carbon taxes (as has been the case here in British Columbia for a number of years, with success in driving down carbon emissions) or indirect cap and trade schemes (which are coming in Ontario and Quebec). Even major investment funds are now looking at carbon-emitting industries as high risk investments for the future. As a result the Canadian oil industry must now find cleaner ways to extract and treat oil and petroleum.

Renewable and clean energy however depends on invention and innovation to develop economically efficient sources of energy. In other words, it needs a heavy investment in developing new knowledge that will drive the development of new, clean technologies.

The increasing demand for high level knowledge workers

Neither article in the Globe and Mail made the link to the need for high level knowledge workers to grow the knowledge economy. It is as if it is almost taken for granted that Canada’s universities and colleges will develop such workers. However, although Canadian institutions may train academic researchers, engineers, media designers and developers and entrepreneurial business people, they need to have the right skills to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy. We are talking about a highly competitive market here. All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? In particular will they develop people skilled in knowledge management, creativity, problem solving, design, entrepreneurialism, critical thinking, etc.?

Online learning and the knowledge economy

This is where online learning becomes critically important. In my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I focus specifically on the kind of skills that will be needed in a knowledge intensive economy, and demonstrate that online learning has a key role to play in developing such skills (although of course it is not the only way).

However, this is just one person’s contribution. Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?

Those countries that can harness new knowledge to clean and innovative industries will surely be the economic drivers of the future. I just wish that our political parties would pay more attention to developing strategies that support a knowledge-based economy, because the fate of Canada as a prosperous country with an enviable standard of living and quality of life absolutely depends on this.


Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age: key takeaways

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Building the foundations of quality teaching and learning

Building the foundations of quality teaching and learning

I have now completed and published Chapter 11, ‘Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age‘, for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.’

Unlike earlier chapters, I have not published this as a series of blog posts, as it is based on an earlier set of blog posts called: ‘Nine steps to quality online learning.’

However, there are some substantial changes. The focus here is as much on applying basic principles of course design to face-to-face and blended/hybrid learning as to fully online course design.

More importantly, this chapter attempts to pull together all the principles from all previous ten chapters into a set of practical steps towards the design of quality teaching in a digital age.

Purpose of the chapter

When you have read this chapter, and in conjunction with what has been learned in previous chapters, you should be able to:

  • define quality in terms of teaching in a digital age
  • determine what your preferred approaches are to teaching and learning
  • decide what mode of delivery is most appropriate for any course you are responsible for
  • understand why teamwork is essential for effective teaching in a digital age
  • make best use of existing resources for any course
  • choose and use the right technology and tools to support your learning
  • set appropriate learning goals for teaching in a digital age
  • design an appropriate course structure and set of learning activities
  • know when and how to communicate with learners
  • evaluate your teaching, make necessary improvements, and improve your teaching through further innovation.

What is covered in this chapter

Key takeaways

1. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as: teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

2. Formal national and institutional quality assurance processes do not guarantee quality teaching and learning. In particular, they focus on past ‘best’ practices, processes to be done before actual teaching, and often ignore the affective, emotional or personal aspects of learning. Nor do they focus particularly on the needs of learners in a digital age.

3. New technologies and the needs of learners in a digital age require a re-thinking of traditional campus-based teaching, especially where it is has been based mainly on the transmission of knowledge. This means re-assessing the way you teach and determining how you would really like to teach in a digital age. This requires imagination and vision rather than technical expertise.

4. It is important to determine the most appropriate mode of delivery, based on teaching philosophy, the needs of students, the demands of the discipline, and the resources available.

5. It is best to work in a team. Blended and especially fully online learning require a range of skills that most instructors are unlikely to have. Good course design not only enables students to learn better but also controls teacher and instructor workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up teachers and instructors to concentrate on the knowledge and skills that students need to develop.

6. Full use should be made of existing resources, including institutionally-supported learning technologies, open educational resources, learning technology staff, and the experience of your colleagues.

7. The main technologies you will be using should be mastered, so you are professional and knowledgeable about their strengths and weaknesses for teaching.

8. Learning goals that are appropriate for learners in a digital age need to be clearly defined. The skills students need should be embedded within their subject domain, and these skills should be formally assessed.

9. A coherent and clearly communicable structure, and learning activities for a course, should be developed that are manageable in terms of workload for both students and instructor.

10. Regular and on-going instructor/teacher presence, especially when students are studying partly or wholly online, is essential for student success. This means effective communication between teacher/instructor and students. It is particularly important to encourage inter-student communication, either face-to-face or online.

11. The extent to which the new learning goals of re-designed courses aimed at developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age have been achieved should be carefully evaluated and ways in which the course could be improved should be identified.

Over to you

Although the previous blog posts on nine steps to quality online learning were well received (they have been used in some post-secondary education courses) feedback on this revised book version will be much appreciated.  I haven’t seen anything similar that tries to integrate basic principles across all three modes of delivery, so I am especially interested to see how these are perceived in terms of regular classroom and blended learning.

Up next

The final chapter, which will take a brief look at the institutional policies and strategies needed to support teachers and instructors wanting to teach well in a digital age. It will deal explicitly with what we should expect (and more importantly, not expect) of teachers and instructors, issues around faculty development and teacher training, working methods for teachers and instructors, and learning technology support.

I aim to finish this (and the whole book, at least in first draft form) by March 14. French and Spanish translations are already under way.

The implications of ‘open’ for course and program design: towards a paradigm shift

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10.10.1 Open and free Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC

10.10.1 An open and free beach, Pie de la Cuesta, Mexico
Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC


I am usually very cautious not to use the term ‘paradigm shift’, but I do believe that the term is justified by the implications of open approaches to education, especially for higher education. This post aims to set out why this paradigm shift is slowly taking place.

This is the fourth of five posts on ‘open’ in education for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The previous three posts were:

The last post will be a scenario that illustrates the main points of this series of posts.

Although in recent years MOOCs have been receiving all the media attention, I believe that developments in open educational resources, ‘open textbooks, open research and open data will be far more important than MOOCs and far more revolutionary. Here are some reasons why.

10.10.1 Nearly all content will be free and open

Eventually most academic content will be easily accessible and freely available through the Internet – for anyone. This could well mean a shift in power from instructors to students. Students will no longer be dependent on instructors as their primary source of content. Already some students are skipping lectures at their local institution because the teaching of the topic is better and clearer on OpenLearn, MOOCs or the Khan Academy. If students can access the best lectures or learning materials for free from anywhere in the world, including the leading Ivy League universities, why would they want to get content from a middling instructor at Midwest State University? What is the added value that this instructor is providing for their students?

There are good answers to this question, but it means considering very carefully how content will be presented and shaped by an instructor that makes it uniquely different from what students can access elsewhere. For research professors this may include access to their latest, as yet unpublished, research; for other instructors, it may be their unique perspective on a particular topic, and for others, a unique mix of topics to provide an integrated, inter-disciplinary approach. What will not be acceptable to most students is repackaging of ‘standard’ content that can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet and at a higher quality.

Furthermore, if we look at knowledge management as one of the key skills needed in a digital age, it may be better to enable students to find, analyze, evaluate and apply content than for instructors to do it for them. If most content is available elsewhere, what students will look for increasingly from their local institutions is support with their learning, rather than the delivery of content. This means directing them to appropriate sources of content, helping when students are struggling with concepts, and providing opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and to develop and practice skills. It means giving prompt and relevant feedback as and when students need it. Above all, it means creating a rich learning environment in which students can study (see Chapter 5). It means moving teaching from information transmission to knowledge management, from selecting, structuring and delivering content to learner support.

Thus for most students within their university or college (with the possible exception of the most advanced research universities) the quality of the learning support will eventually matter more than the quality of content delivery, which they can get from anywhere. This is a major challenge for instructors who see themselves primarily as content experts.

10.2.2 Modularisation


Figure 10.10.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999 Image: Cliff, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

Figure 10.10.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999
Image: Cliff, Flickr, © CC Attribution 2.0


The creation of open educational resources, either as small learning objects but increasingly as short ‘modules’ of teaching, from anywhere between five minutes to one hour of material, and the increasing diversification of markets, is beginning to result in two of the key principles of OER being applied, re-use and re-mix. In other words, the same content, available in an openly accessible digital form, may be integrated into a range of different applications, and/or combined with other OER to create a single teaching module, course or program.

An early example of this was the development of an online, applied master’s program in educational technology at the University of British Columbia. The program started initially as a set of five courses leading to a post-graduate certificate. However, students were able to pay separately for each course, thus being able to take any one of the five courses or any combination, if that was their main interest. If they successfully passed all five courses they were awarded a certificate (nowadays, they would probably have received a badge for each course). Later, the university added five more courses to the existing five courses, and offered all ten courses as a master’s program. Students who had taken the previous five courses as a certificate were able to ladder these in and take the remaining five courses for a master (provided they met the university’s general admission requirements for graduate programs, i.e. they already had a bachelor degree). Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico, in partnership with UBC, took the materials and translated and adapted them into Spanish, enabling it to offer its own Master in Educational Technology throughout Latin America.

The Ontario government, through its online course development fund, is encouraging institutions to create OER. As a result, several universities have brought together faculty within their own institution but working in different departments that teach the same area of content (e.g. statistics) to develop ‘core’ OER that can be shared between departments. The logical next step would be for statistics faculty across the Ontario system to get together and develop an integrated set of OER modules on statistics that would cover substantial parts of the statistics curriculum. Working together would have the following benefits:

  • higher quality by pooling resources (two subject expert heads are better than one, combined with support from instructional designers and web producers)
  • more OER than one instructor or institution could produce
  • subject coherence and lack of duplication
  • more likelihood of faculty in one institution using materials created in another if they have had input to the selection and design of the OER from other institutions.

As the range and quality of OER increases, instructors (and students) will be able to build curriculum through a set of OER ‘building blocks’. The aim would be to reduce instructor time in creating materials (perhaps focusing on creating their own OER in areas of specific subject or research expertise), and using their time more in supporting student learning than in delivering content.

10.10.3 Disaggregation of services


Figure 10.3 Disaggregation Image: © Aaron 'tango' Tan,   Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

Figure 10.10.3 Disaggregation
Image: © Aaron ‘tango’ Tan, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0


Open education and digitization enable what has tended to be offered by institutions as a complete bundle of services to be split out and offered separately, depending on the market for education and the unique needs of individual learners. Learners will select and use those modules or services that best fit their needs. This is likely to be the pattern for lifelong learners in particular. Some early indications of this process are already occurring, although most of the really significant changes are yet to come:

  • admission and program counselling. This is a service already offered by Empire State University, a part of the State University of New York. Adult learners considering a return to study or a career change can receive mentoring about what courses and combinations they can take from within the college that fit with their previous life and their future wishes. In essence, within boundaries potential students are able to design their own degree. In the future, some institutions might specialise in this kind of service at a system level.
  • learner support. Students may have already determined what they want to study through the Internet, such as a MOOC. What they are looking for is help with their studies: how to write assignments, where to look for information, feedback on their work and thinking. They are not necessarily looking for a credit, degree or other qualification, but if they are they will pay for assessment separately. Currently, students pay private tutors for this service. However, it is feasible that institutions could also provide this service, provided that a suitable business model can be built.
  • assessment. Learners may feel that through prior study and work, they are able to take a challenge exam for credit. All they require from the institution is a chance to be assessed. Institutions such as Western Governors’ University or the Open Learning division of Thompson Rivers University are already offering this service., and this would be a logical next step for the many other universities or colleges with some form of prior learning assessment or PLAR.
  • qualifications. Learners may have acquired a range of credits, badges or certificates from a range of different institutions. The institution assesses these qualifications and experiences and helps the learner to take any further studies that are necessary, then awards the qualification. Prior learning assessment or PLAR is one step in this direction, but not the only one.
  • fully online courses and programs for learners who cannot or do not want to attend campus. The cost would be lower than for students receiving a full campus experience.
  • open access to content. The learner is not looking for any qualification, but wants access to content, particularly new and emerging knowledge. MOOCs are one example, but other examples include OpenLearn and open textbooks
  • the full campus experience. This would be the ‘traditional’ integrated package that full-time, campus-based students now receive. This would though be fully costed and much more expensive than any of the other disaggregated services.

Note that I have been careful not to link any of these services to a specific funding model. This is deliberate, because it could be:

  • covered through privatisation, where each service is separately priced and the user pays for that service (but not for others not used),
  • financed through a voucher system, whereby everyone at the age 18 is entitled to a notional amount of financial support from the state for post-secondary education, and can pay for a range of service from that voucher until their individual fund is exhausted, or
  • all or some services would be available for free as part of a publicly funded open education system.

Whatever the funding model, institutions will need to be able to price different services accurately. In any case, there is now an increasing diversity of learners’ needs, from high school students wanting full-time education, graduate students wanting to do research, and lifelong learners, most of whom will have already passed through a publicly funded higher education system, wanting to keep learning either for vocational or personal reasons.  This increasing diversity of needs requires a more flexible approach to providing educational opportunities in a digital age. Disaggregation of services and new models of funding, combined with increased accessibility to free, open content, are some ways in which this flexibility can be provided.

10.10.4 ‘Open’ course designs

The use of open educational resources could play out in a number of ways, including:

  • by students, in a learner-centered teaching approach that focuses on students accessing content on the Internet (and in real life) as part of developing knowledge, skills and competencies defined by the instructor, or (for advanced learners) being managed by learners themselves. However, this would not be restricted to officially approved open educational resources, but to everything on the Internet, because one of the core skills students will need is how to assess and evaluate different sources of information;
  • by a consortium of instructors or institutions creating common learning materials within a broader program context, that can be shared both within and outside the consortium. However, not only would the content be available, but also the underlying instructional principles, learning outcomes, learner assessment strategies, what learner support is needed, learner activities, and program evaluation techniques, so that other instructors or learners can adapt to their own context. This approach is already being taken by

We have already seen that the increasing availability of high quality open content may result in a shift from information transmission by the instructor to knowledge management by the learner. Earlier in the book, we also discussed a greater focus on skills development embedded within a subject domain than on the memorisation of content. Both these developments will enable the development of skills needed in a digital age.

These developments are likely to lead to a severe reduction in lecture-based teaching and a move towards more project work, problem-based learning and collaborative learning. It will also result in a move away from fixed time and place written examinations, to more continuous, portfolio-based forms of assessment.

The role of the instructor then will shift to providing guidance to learners on where and how to find content, how to evaluate the relevance and reliability of content, what content areas are core and what peripheral, and to helping students analyse, apply and present information, within a strong learning design that focuses on clearly defined learning outcomes, particularly with regard to the development of skills. Students will work mainly online and collaboratively, developing multi-media learning artefacts or demonstrations of their learning, managing their online portfolios of work, and editing and presenting selected work for assessment.

10.10.5 Conclusions

Despite all the hoopla around MOOCs, they are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with what they want: high quality qualifications. The main barrier to education is not lack of cheap content but lack of access to programs leading to credentials, either because such programs are too expensive, or because there are not enough qualified teachers, or both. Making content free is not a waste of time (if it is properly designed for secondary use), but it still needs a lot of time and effort to integrate it properly within a learning framework.

Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but they need to be properly designed, and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OER need skill and hard work to make them useful, and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good.

Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programs, or choose not to.

Lastly, there are no insurmountable legal or technical barriers now to making educational material free. The successful use of OER does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – i.e. the creators of materials – and users – i.e. teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements.

10.10.6 The future is yours

This is just my interpretation of how approaches to ‘open’ content and resources could radically change the way we teach and how students will learn in the future. At the start of this chapter I created a scenario which suggests how this might play out in one particular program. More importantly, there is not just one future scenario, but many. The future will be determined by a host of factors, many outside the control of instructors. But the strongest weapon we have as teachers is our own imagination and vision. Open content and open learning reflect a particular philosophy of equality and opportunity created through education. There are many different ways in which we as teachers, and even more our learners, can decide to apply that philosophy. However, the technology now offers us many more choices in making these decisions.

Over to you

This is more an opinion piece, but based on an interpretation of real developments that are taking place at the moment. I’ve tried to balance the over-hyping of MOOCs and to a lesser extent OER with an analysis of what is still more potential than reality. As with all educational initiatives, whether these developments actually lead to significant change will depend on many factors, but nevertheless I believe the potential for change is real. More importantly, the changes I have outlined here are a response to the demands of a digital age.

I will be very interested in your response to this post


A scenario that will attempt to provide a concrete vision of how these changes could play out. (I will probably place the scenario at the beginning of the chapter.)


‘Agile’ Design: Flexible designs for the digital age

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Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture,

Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture

Before I was rudely interrupted by MOOCs, I had almost finished my chapter on Models for Designing Teaching and Learning for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.‘ I have now finished the last of the design models, which I have called ‘Agile Design’ because it is a new and as yet unestablished approach to course design.

I have to admit going out on a limb with this particular section, because I couldn’t really find any prior literature that adequately describes this approach, and there are elements of other design models that appear in ‘Agile’ design, but I have seen a few examples of it and they are clearly different from other approaches to course design. All this means that I’m really looking for feedback and advice, so here goes.

Scenario E: ETEC 522: Ventures in e-Learning

Mike: Hey, George, come and sit down and tell Allison and Rav about that weird course you’re taking from UBC.

George: Hi, you two. Yeah, it’s a great course, very different from any other I’ve taken.

Rav.: What’s it about?

George: It’s how to go about starting up a technology company.

Allison: But I thought you were doing a masters in education.

George: Yeah, I am. This course is looking at how new technologies can be used in education and how to build a business around one of these technologies.

Mike: Really, George? So what about all your socialist principles, the importance of public education, and all that? Are you giving up and going to become a fat capitalist?

George: No, it’s not like that. What the course is really making me do is think about how we could be using technology better in school or college.

Mike: And how to make a profit out of it, by the sound of it.

Rav.: Shut up, Mike – I’m curious, George, since I’m doing a real business program. You’re going to learn how to set up a business in 13 weeks? Gimme a break.

George: It’s more about becoming an entrepreneur – someone who takes risks and tries something different.

Mike.: With someone else’s money.

George: Do you really want to know about this course, or are you just wanting to give me a hard time?

Allison: Yes, shut up, Mike. Have you chosen a technology yet, George?

George: Almost. We spend most of the course researching and analysing emerging technologies that could have an application in education. We have to find a technology, research it then come up with a plan of how it could be used in education, and how a business could be built around it. But I think the real aim is to get us to think about how technology could improve or change teaching or learning..

Rav.: So what’s the technology you’ve chosen?

George: You’re jumping too far ahead, Rav. We go through two boot camps, one on analysing the edtech marketplace, and one on entrepreneurship: what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Why are you laughing, Mike?

Mike: I just can’t see you in combat uniform, crawling through tubes under gun fire, with a book in your hand.

George: Not that kind of bootcamp. This course is totally online. Our instructor points us in the direction of a few technologies to get us started, but because there’s more stuff coming out all the time, we’re encouraged to make our own choices about what to research. And we all help each other. I must have looked at more than 50 products or services so far, and we all share our analyses. I’m down to possibly three at the moment, but I’m going to have to make my mind up soon, as I have to do a YouTube elevator pitch for my grade.

Rav.: A what?

George: If you look at most of these products, there’s a short YouTube video that pitches the business. I’ve got to make the case for whatever technology I choose in just under eight minutes. That’s going to be 25% of my grade.

Allison: Wow, that’s tough.

George: Well, we all help each other. We have to do a preliminary recording, then everyone pitches in to critique it. Then we have a few days to send in our final version.

Allison: What else do you get grades for?

George: I got 25% of my marks for an assignment that analysed a particular product called Dybuster which is used to help learners with dyslexia. I looked mainly at its educational strengths and weaknesses, and its likely commercial viability. For my second assignment, also worth 25%, we had to build an application of a particular product or service, in my case a module of teaching using a particular product. There were four of us altogether working as  a team to do this. Our team designed a short instructional module that showed a chemical reaction, using an off-the-shelf online simulation tool that is free for people to use. I’ll get my last 25% from an e-portfolio where I’ve collected together my contributions to helping other students on the course with their projects.

Allison: But what I don’t understand is: what’s the curriculum? What text books do you have to read? What do you have to know?

George: Well, there isn’t a set curriculum, except for the two boot camps, and they only take a week each. I’ve already learned a lot, just by searching and analysing different products over the Internet. We have to think about and justify our decisions. What kind of teaching philosophy do they imply? What criteria am I using when I support or reject a particular product? Is this a sustainable tool? I don’t want to have to get rid of good teaching material because the company’s gone bust and doesn’t support the technology I’m using any more. What I’m really learning though is to think about technology differently. Previously I wasn’t really thinking about teaching differently. I was just trying to find a technology that made my life easier. But this course has woken me up to the real possibilities. I feel I’m in a much better position now to shake up my own school and move them into the digital age.

Allison (sighs): Well, I guess that’s the difference between an undergraduate and a graduate course. You couldn’t do this unless you already knew a lot about education, could you?

George: I’m not so sure about that, Allison. It doesn’t seem to have stopped a lot of entrepreneurs from developing tools for teaching!

Mike: George, I’m sorry. I can’t wait for you to become a rich capitalist – it’s your turn to buy the drinks.

Scenario based on a UBC graduate course for the Master in Educational Technology.

The instructors are David Vogt and David Porter, assisted by Jeff Miller, the instructional designer for the course.

6.8.1 Why the need for more flexible design models?

Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever new, emerging technologies, very diverse students, and a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base, to pressure to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge, then apply that to solving real world problems.

In order to do this, learning environments need to be created that are rich and constantly changing, but which at the same time enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

6.8.2 Core features of flexible design models

Describing the design features is a challenge, for two reasons. First, there is no single approach to flexible design. The whole point of a flexible design is to be adaptable to the circumstances in which it operates. Second, it is only with the development of light, easy to use technology and media in the last few years that instructors and course designers have started to break away from the standard design models, so flexible designs are still emerging.

First, it is important to distinguish this approach from rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) or rapid prototyping, which are really both streamlined versions of the ADDIE model. Although rapid instructional design/rapid protyping enable courses or modules to be designed more quickly (especially important for corporate training), they still follow the same kind of sequential or iterative processes as in the ADDIE model, but in a more compressed form. Rapid instructional design and rapid prototyping might be considered particular kinds of flexible design, but they lack some of the most important characteristics outlined below:

  • Light and nimble: if ADDIE is a 100-piece orchestra, with a complex score and long rehearsals, then flexible design models are a jazz trio who get together for a single performance then break up until the next time. Although there may be a short preparation time before the course starts, most of the decisions about what will go into the course, what tools will be used, what activities learners will do, and sometimes even how students will be assessed, are decided as the course progresses. On the teaching side, there are usually only a few people involved in the actual design, one or sometimes two instructors and possibly an instructional designer, who nevertheless meet frequently during the offering of the course to make decisions based on feedback from learners and how learners are progressing through the course. However, many more content contributors may be invited – or spontaneously offer – to participate on a single occasion as the course progresses.
  • Content, learner activities, tools used and assessment vary, according to the changing environment. The content to be covered in a course is likely to be highly flexible, based more on emerging knowledge and the interests or prior experience of the learners, although the core skills that the course aims to develop are more likely to remain constant. For instance, for ETEC 522, the overall objective is to develop the skills needed to be a pioneer or innovator in education, and this remains constant over each iteration of the course. However, because the technology is rapidly developing with new products, apps and services every year, the content of the course is quite different from year to year. Also learner activities and methods of assessment are also likely to change, because students can use new tools or technology themselves for learning as they become available. Very often learners themselves seek out and organise much of the core content of the course and are free to choose what tools they use.
  • The design attempts to exploit the affordances of either existing or emerging technologies. Flexible design aims to exploit fully the educational potential of new tools or software, which means sometimes changing at least sub-goals. This may mean developing different skills in learners from year to year, as the technology changes and allows new things to be done. The emphasis here is not so much on doing the same thing better with new technology, but striving for new and different outcomes that are more relevant in a digital world. ETEC 522 for instance did not start with a learning management system. Instead,  a web site, built in WordPress, was used as the starting point for student activities, because students as well as instructors were posting content, but in another year the content focus of the course was mainly on mobile learning, so apps and other mobile tools were strong components of the course.
  • Sound, pedagogical principles guide the overall design of a course – to a point. Just as most successful jazz trios work within a shared framework of melody, rhythm, and musical composition, so is flexible design shaped by overarching principles of best practice. Most successful flexible designs have been guided by core design principles associated with ‘good’ teaching, such as clear learning outcomes or goals, assessment linked to these goals, strong learner support, including timely and individualised feedback, active learning, collaborative learning, and regular course maintenance based on learner feedback, all within a rich learning environment. Sometimes though deliberate attempts are made to move away from an established best practice for experimental reasons, but usually on a small scale, to see if the experiment works without risking the whole course..
  • Experiential, open and applied learning. Usually this kind of course design is strongly embedded in the real, external world. Much or all the course may be open to other than registered students. For instance, a good deal of ETEC 522, such as the final YouTube business pitches, is openly available to those interested in the topics. Sometimes this results in entrepreneurs contacting the course with suggestions for new tools or services, or just to share experience. Another example is a course on Latin American studies from a Canadian university. This particular course had an open, student-managed wiki, where they could discuss contemporary events as they arose. This course was active at the same time that the Argentine government nationalised the Spanish oil company, Repsol. Several students posted comments critical of the government action, but after a week, a professor from a university in Argentina, who had come across the wiki by accident while searching the Internet, responded, laying out a detailed defence of the government’s policy. This was then made a formal topic for discussion within the course. Such courses may though be only partially open. Discussion of sensitive subjects for instance may still take place behind a password controlled discussion forum, while other parts of the course may be open to all.

As experience grows in this kind of design, other and perhaps clearer design principles are likely to emerge.

Strengths and weaknesses of flexible design models

The main advantage of flexible design is that it focuses directly on preparing students for a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. It aims explicitly at helping students develop many of the specific skills they will need in a digital age, such as knowledge management, multimedia communications skills, critical thinking, innovation, and digital literacy embedded within a subject domain. Where flexible design has been successfully used, students have found the design approach highly stimulating and great fun, and instructors have been invigorated and enthused with their teaching. Flexible design enables courses to be developed and offered quickly and at much lower initial cost than ADDIE-based approaches.

However, flexible design approaches are very new and have not really been much written about, never mind evaluated. There is no ‘school’ or set of agreed principles to follow. (Maybe it needs a catchy name, which is why, somewhat tongue in cheek, I originally entitled the post/chapter: ‘Flash Design.’ However, thanks to Antonio Dias de Figueiredo’s comment below, I think ‘agile’ design is a better term.) The flexible design model though is not however the same as rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) which is really a boiled down version of the ADDIE approach, but it could be argued that most of the things in flexible design are covered in other teaching models, such as discovery and/or experiential learning. Despite this, innovative instructors are beginning to develop courses such as ETEC 522 and there is a consistency in the basic design principles that give them a certain coherence and shape, even though each course or program appears on the surface to be very different (another example of flexible design, but with quite a different overall program from ETEC 522, is the Integrated Science program at McMaster University.)

Certainly flexible design approaches require confident instructors willing to take a risk, and success is heavily dependent on instructors having a good background in best teaching practices and/or strong instructional design support from innovative and creative instructional designers. Because of the relative lack of experience in such design approaches the limitations are not well identified yet. For instance, this approach can work well with relatively small class sizes but how well will it scale? Successful use probably also depends on learners already having a good foundational knowledge base in the subject domain. Nevertheless I expect more flexible designs for learning to grow over the coming years, because they are more likely to meet the needs of a VUCA world.

Over to you

What I really need here are more examples of flexible learning design. Do you know a course that meets these five design principles? If so please let me know (and a link to the course or course materials would be really appreciated). I would expect that some courses built around open educational resources might reflect this model, for instance.

Now for some more specific questions:

1. Is this design model truly different from others or is it just a variation on other design models? If so which?

2. If you have experience of teaching in this way, can you add to the strengths or weaknesses of this approach and also provide  a short description of the how the course is designed?

3. Do you think an ‘agile’/flexible design approach will increase or undermine academic excellence? What are your reasons?


I will be finalizing the chapter on design models, so I will do a final post that sets out the main conclusion on design models and key takeaways from the chapter.