October 7, 2015

Some implications of online open publishing

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One of the differences between an online open textbook and a commercial printed textbook is that developments with an open textbook are continuous rather than episodic. Since the April publication of Teaching in a Digital Age, my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, there have been several developments around the book. Now is an appropriate time to bring readers up to date on these developments, because they indicate some broader issues around open publishing..


Demand has remained strong throughout the summer. There are roughly 200 site visits a day, where readers can read online without downloading, although this can peak up to 500 visits a day on some days. However, most people do not spend much time reading online at the web site, but prefer to download copies to their desktop or tablets. Almost 12,000 copies have been downloaded in total since April, and downloads have been averaging about 60 a day since September 1. About 80% of the downloads are as pdfs, suggesting that people still prefer a more print-like way of reading. The other downloads are for mobile learning, mainly on tablets. I have to say though that I much prefer to read the book online, on my laptop. The graphics fit much better and I can see the comments that readers have made.

Print on demand

BCcampus has this week listed the book on the BC Open Textbook web site, from where it can be downloaded, as well as from the book’s own site. It is now also available on demand in a full printed version. I am grateful for BCcampus making this possible, because there is clearly demand from many readers for a full printed version of the book, judging from the number that have downloaded the pdf version.

The cost though of the fully printed book version is high: $17 for the black and white version, and $53 for the full colour version, to which you need to add shipping costs of around $20-$25 just in Canada. And this is just a direct print and distribution cost without any profit or overheads included. I’m still waiting for delivery of the printed versions, so I can’t comment on the quality, but it is some indication of the value of having the book freely available online, especially as the printed version will not have the interactive functions of the online versions. Online versions are clearly not only a much cheaper but also a more educationally effective option than a fully printed version.

There is a lesson here for authors. The reason the printed version is so expensive is because the book is long – over 500 pages – and because of the very liberal use of colour graphics in the original web version. The cost of print-on-demand is directly related to the length of the book and the use of colour. So if you want the printed version of your open online book to be easily affordable, keep down the number of pages to around 200, and use colour graphics very sparingly or better design for greyscale images. However, I deliberately designed the book to be used as an online resource rather than as a static printed book, and the online version will be updated over time while the printed version will have to be updated at less frequent intervals. I wouldn’t expect anyone to read the book through from cover to cover, except over a longish period of time. So if you design primarily for a low cost print-on-demand open textbook, you will lose some significant educational affordances of online learning.

There is also a lesson for readers. There is a real downside to sticking to a traditional print version of an open textbook. It will cost you financially, and you will not get the same affordances that you will get by using an online, digital version. Nevertheless, clearly many faculty and instructors – and probably many students as well – still seem to need to go through a transition period before feeling comfortable reading and studying fully digitally.

Podcasts and minor editorial changes

I have been slowly adding short podcasts to the book. Their purpose is to give a personalised view on the content of each chapter. In particular I have shared some of my motivation for writing the chapter and my more personal views on some of the chapter topics in the podcasts. I have also made some minor editorial changes since April 1 as a result of feedback from readers.

Here is a summary of the changes since April 1:

  1. 19 April 2015: Podcast for Scenario A added
  2. 3 May 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 1 on the book’s structure and on skills development, and the order of Sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 1 reversed, following reader feedback.
  3. 16 August 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 2 on why this chapter is important and on the relationship between epistemology, learning theories and teaching methods added.
  4. 17 August 2015: Podcast added to Chapter 3 on why a chapter on campus-based teaching methods was needed.
  5. 23 August 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 4, on the relationship between quality, modes of delivery, teaching methods and design and on some of the issues raised in this chapter. Also some editing of the text to clarify the distinction between teaching methods and design models.

However, I ran into a ‘block’ when I came to do podcasts about MOOCs (Chapter 5), not because I don’t know what to say, but because I can’t keep calm when discussing MOOCs! Each time I’ve tried to do a podcast on MOOCs, I got carried away and it’s ended up far too long and far too vitriolic for measured contemplation. However, the rain is coming back after a wonderful dry summer in Vancouver, so I will try to finish all the podcasts over the fall – including the ones on MOOCs. I will then update you again early in the new year.


This is the ultimate test of the book: who is using it and how?

It’s still very difficult to get accurate information – web analytics are useful to a point, but they don’t give you the qualitative information that you need. That comes from readers’ comments, personal e-mails, and casual conversations with colleagues (“By the way, when I was at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico a couple of weeks ago, I met a professor who was using your book with her class. Can’t remember her name now, but she was enthusiastic about it.”)

BCcampus has an online form you can fill in if you are using the book as a resource for a class. I would really appreciate it if you could fill in this form if you are using the book, either for a course or for faculty development. This feedback is being used by BCcampus as evidence of the effectiveness of their open textbook strategy in general, but completing the form will also enable me to see where and by whom the book is being used.

I know from e-mails I have received and from comments in the book itself that the book has been adopted by three universities in British Columbia for post-graduate courses on e-learning or educational technology, by faculty in several universities in the USA, and for graduate courses in universities in Africa, Europe and Asia.  Individual faculty and instructors are my main target group and it is gratifying to know that several heads of departments and deans are using it to encourage their faculty to change their teaching methods, while other individual faculty members are independently working their way through the book. However, I really need much better data and information than I am able to get at the moment, so please fill in the BCcampus form if possible.

Webinars and presentations

The book has also led to a number of webinars or face-to-face meetings on topics raised in the book, as follows:

  • BC Educational Technology Users group: Agile design (webinar)
  • Students in the Master of Arts in Learning and Technology, Royal Roads University: Thinking about theory (workshop)
  • Community of Practice, Faculty of Agriculture, Dalhousie University: Open education and open publishing (Skype discussion)
  • Contact North (These webinars are open and free. For more information and/or to register, click here)
    • September 29: Teaching with technology: best practices and options
    • November 3: Choosing media
    • December 1: Deciding on mode(s) of delivery
    • January 12: Ensuring quality in digital learning
  • Bar Ilan University, Israel (via Skype)

I am willing to offer other webinars around the book, on request, and subject to my availability and the demand.


The whole book has already been translated into Vietnamese by the Ministry of Science & Technology in Vietnam. The Ministry is printing 1,000 copies to be distributed to universities and the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, as allowed by the Creative Commons licence for the book. I have agreed to keep in regular communication to ensure any updates are available for possibly later print editions of the book in Vietnamese.

Half the book has been translated into French, but the money for the translation ran out, and I am hoping to find a sponsor to finish it. I am working on setting up a site for the incomplete French version, to which later chapters could be added as and when they become translated.

The Beijing Open University is currently in discussion with a Chinese publisher regarding a Chinese translation. This may mean finding a way to enable the publisher to recoup costs through sales of the book in Chinese. However, I don’t want to lose the open licensing arrangement for a Chinese version if at all possible, so this is still very much under discussion.

Instructors in the Faculty of Engineering at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina are working on a Spanish translation of two chapters and an appendix.

Translation however is expensive and/or time consuming. It may in certain circumstances be necessary to change the open licence for translation into another language so that the costs can be recovered by the agency doing the translation. Another strategy is to expand on that of the University of Buenos Aires, by sharing out the translation across several Spanish language universities or departments, with each university doing a chapter each.

Again it can be seen that the very real cost of translation makes it difficult to keep foreign language versions in a completely free and open licensing arrangement, unless there is a powerful sponsor such as a foreign government ministry or other non-commercial sponsor, or unless the work is broken down and shared out among many different volunteers.


Although the three commissioned external reviews are now published as an appendix to the book, I haven’t seen any published reviews yet in academic journals. BCcampus is offering a stipend of $250 for those who write and publish a formal review for an academic journal. If you know of any published reviews of the book, please let me know.


The response to the book so far has been very rewarding, but more importantly the goal of reaching out to mainline faculty and to post-graduate education students is being accomplished through this open publication. Perhaps even more importantly, the experience with my book, in less than six months, makes it clear that open publishing is both academically satisfying and has enormous potential for educational innovation and change.

Is there a future in online learning?

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Is there a future for instructional designers?

Is there a future for instructional designers?

I hope all readers of this blog in the northern hemisphere had a good break and are looking forward to a new academic year. Your focus is going to be in getting down to work on reasonably well defined tasks, such as course design, or studying for a higher degree.

Building a career

Among you though will be a few who are wondering about your longer-term future. I am frequently asked for advice about ‘next career moves’ by people working in, or wanting to work in, the field of online learning. Here are some of the questions I get asked:

  • Where are the best jobs in online learning?
  • What qualifications do I need?
  • What should my next job be after this one?
  • My position has been terminated – what should I do next?
  • How do I move into a senior management position where I can make strategic decisions about learning technology?

The answer to these questions are usually very specific. They depend on a person’s personality, qualifications, and experience. But there are also some general issues regarding a career in online learning, educational technology or instructional design that are worth discussing and which may help people to make appropriate decisions about their future.

There is no (long-term) future in being an online learning specialist

This may come as a surprise, because online learning is booming, and there is currently great demand for people with experience in online learning. However, it is a mistake to think the future will be like the past or even the present. In particular, it would be a mistake to think that online learning will be some esoteric branch of teaching and learning requiring specialism. What is happening is that, while the proportion of online learning compared to face-to-face teaching is increasing, and will vary according to context, online learning is becoming increasingly an integral part of teaching and learning. Thus, in the future, online learning will not be a separate activity, but one component within a wide range of decisions about teaching and learning.

A second reason is only just surfacing, but we have seen in recent weeks concern being expressed about the decreasing amount of resources being spent on faculty and instructors, and in turn a greater proportion of expenditure going into ‘administration’. Part of this concern is due to the growth of specialty learning technology units, which are usually staffed mainly by non-academic categories of staff, such as managers/directors, instructional designers, web designers, media specialists, student advisors, etc. Some of these units have over 60 staff and a budget of more than $10 million a year.

This is part of a much larger problem, which is the relatively low number of tenured faculty who spend increasingly smaller amounts of time teaching, and their replacement by short-term, contract or adjunct instructors. Neither type of instructors are trained or qualified as ‘teachers’ but as subject experts, which in turn has resulted in more and more non-academic support staff being hired to support them as more and more teaching moves online.

However, the dynamic of post-secondary institutions is such that this direction could and probably will change dramatically. In the future, we will need instructors who have the skills to decide when and how to use online learning as part of their jobs, and not see online learning as a specialty of someone else.

We are still a long way from that, and over the next few years there will still be demand for specialists in online learning, and there will always be a need for a much smaller number of specialists doing research and development on new technologies, but these will be relatively few in numbers. More importantly it would be a mistake to think that you can in future build a lifelong career just specialising in online learning. It will be just one of several ways of delivering teaching.

The lack of a career path

Ah, you may say, but even if online learning becomes an integral part of regular teaching, will there not still be a need for instructional designers, educational technologists and media specialists? Probably, but given that they will need to be funded from within the overall academic budget for teaching and learning, there is likely to be continuous pressure, especially from faculty, to keep the numbers of such supporting staff down. In particular, there is unlikely to be a clear career path for such support staff.

I had an enormous battle at one university to get a reclassification of instructional designers. Instructional designers did not fit into any of the HR classification systems. I wanted them classified as academic staff – because most had Ph.D.s and all had master degrees – and I wanted a career structure, so that there was an entry level (apprentice), a career level (the majority) and at least one senior level position, so that there was a chance of promotion and some opportunity for training and mentoring less experienced staff. I did not succeed in shifting the HR system which was, as so often, rigid and unyielding to changing conditions. The instructional designers remained categorised as general administrative staff, even though they were critical to the institution’s long term teaching and learning strategy (and are now being lumped in with all the other administrative costs that faculty are complaining about).

Perhaps of even greater concern is that it is extremely difficult for an instructional designer to end up as a senior manager making decisions about long-term strategies for the use of learning technologies in an institution. These positions – associate vice-presidents or deans responsible for teaching and learning – almost always go to mainline academics who may have no knowledge or experience in the use of learning technologies. The likelihood therefore of someone who is a specialist in digital learning technologies ending up as a university or college president is remote, although there are one or two exceptions.

What to do, then?

For the next five to ten years, there should be plenty of jobs for highly skilled instructional designers, but sooner rather than later institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology. It will be a core part of their work, and as a result the demand for specialist learning technology support will decrease. The main role then will be providing some of the initial training for post-secondary instructors.

People come to learning technologies through many routes. Some are teachers or instructors who have become interested in the the use of technology for teaching. Others are web designers or print editors who have drifted into education. Some are computer scientists who started as software developers. In the future though, most teachers and instructors will need to be experts in subject areas, pedagogy, and learning technologies. These will all be integral parts of their jobs. We need to train post-graduates from the start in these areas, and to provide a two or three year probation period where they are monitored and supervised by more experienced teachers and instructors.

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, one of my professors asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. ‘I want to do research in education’, I said, expecting him to be pleased that I was going to do a post-graduate degree. ‘You’d better get some experience then in teaching first’, he said. ‘Take a post-graduate certificate in education, and get three years teaching experience before even beginning to think of research.’ It was excellent advice. I would give the same advice to young students thinking of becoming learning technology specialists.

Get subject expertise and learn about pedagogy and learning technologies, then teach for a few years, then decide whether or not you want to specialise. For those already started on a learning technology or instructional design career, strengthen your subject matter expertise so you can move (back) into teaching if necessary, because that may well be the future.

Above all, stay flexible and continue to learn, adding new skills and knowledge as the field develops. Develop excellent inter-personal and communication skills; these will be as important in the future as subject expertise and specialist knowledge.

Over to you

Predicting the future is always hazardous. I could be totally wrong. So I would really like to hear from others as to what they think the future is for instructional designers, learning technology and online learning specialists. What advice would you give to someone starting out in these areas? Or to someone more experienced looking to their next steps in their career?


Non-disclosure, plausible deniability and lack of transparency in leadership: UBC and the Duffy trial

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John Moltalbano, Chair of the Board, and Arvind Gupta, the President , in happier days at UBC

John Montalbano, Chair of the Board, and Arvind Gupta, the President , in happier days at UBC

The need to know

Even if you have been holidaying in outer Mongolia, you are probably aware (if you are Canadian) of the trial of Senator Duffy and the sudden resignation of the President of the University of British Columbia. These two seemingly unrelated events however have common themes which I wish to explore.

First, let me be clear. I have no inside information on either event. I don’t know whether or not the Prime Minister knew about the $90,000 payment to Senator Duffy by his chief of staff, nor the ‘real’ reason for President Arvind Gupta’s resignation from his position as President of UBC, after only 13 months into a five year term. But that is exactly my point. Other than those on the ‘inside’, no-one knows. And we should.

Plausible deniability

We don’t know whether Stephen Harper was a party to the deception being perpetrated by the Prime Minister’s Office about getting the Senator to appear to repay his expenses, because the whole premise of the PMO’s office is to enable ‘plausible’ deniability by the Prime Minister if anything should go wrong with the various scheming carried out by his office to protect the ‘brand’ of the Conservative Party. Damage control is the prime mandate of this office. The less the public knows of what it does and what the Prime Minster knows, the better – for the Conservative Party.


The Board of Governors at UBC also has used a common tool to manage damage control, a non-disclosure agreement which prevents anyone involved in the decision-making that lead to the resignation of the President from speaking about it. To give some idea of the legal power of a non-disclosure agreement, not one of the more than 20 members of the Board, including student, staff and faculty representatives, has given any hint of a comment about this very unusual decision. Clearly, from the Board’s perspective also, the less the public knows about it, the better.

So here we have two clear instances of leaders hiding behind damage-control tools to avoid explaining their decisions and in essence denying their responsibility for such decisions. And it looks like they will both get away with not accepting responsibility or avoiding explanations if they can sit tight and keep quiet until the public gets tired, or gets distracted by other events.

The consequences

I am angry about this, not because I feel I have a right to know what the Prime Minister or UBC’s Board of Governors does or why they did it, but because without the acceptance of responsibility for their decisions, our ‘governors’ have carte blanche to do what they like without restraint. All power corrupts and total power corrupts absolutely.

The UBC case

With specific respect to the UBC context, it seems beyond plausible that the President voluntarily stepped down after only 13 months, and so soon after setting out a bold and personal vision for the university. The reason given in the only public statement by UBC is as follows:

This leave will enable him to focus on his research and scholarly work that will be of mutual benefit to Dr. Gupta and UBC.

If you believe that then you believe the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup next season. There aren’t many plausible reasons why he would resign:

  • overwhelming personal circumstances, such as a terminal sickness in the family
  • malfeasance of some kind
  • a sharp difference of views with at least the more powerful members of the board about the President’s policies or management decisions.

Let’s look at each of these reasons. It is hard to see why a non-disclosure agreement would be necessary for overwhelming personal circumstances. Most people would understand and feel great sympathy for the President in such circumstances, and the Board would really have no reason to feel responsible for this.

There has been no suggestion of malfeisance – wrongdoing by the President. However, in the unlikely and hypothetical case that it was malfeisance, then the Board might want to cover it up to protect the university’s reputation, but this would be totally the wrong decision. This would be a perversion of justice. I personally do not think this could possibly have been the reason. No Board would be that stupid.

So we are left with the most plausible reason – a disagreement between the Board and the President about policy and/or management. Now maybe the public and students (who after all pay the taxes and tuition fees that keep the university running) may not be in a good position to judge who is right on such issues, but certainly the faculty need to know whether or not there was a basic disagreement between Board and President, because faculty are tasked with moving the university in the direction set by the Board and President.

To give just one instance, two or so years ago, under the previous President, the university launched a visionary and ambitious flexible learning strategy that would transform teaching and learning at UBC. Do faculty continue to move in this direction, was it supported by the new President, or was it supported by the Board but not the President? The reason for the disagreement of course may have been over something completely different, but we don’t know and in such circumstances the university is on hold with regard to all its previous initiatives until a new (permanent) President and administration is in place.

What should we do?

What can the public do about these decisions? In the case of the PMO’s office, I will vote for any of the opposition parties that comes forward with a practical plan that will make the Prime Minister and his/her office more accountable for the consequences of their decisions, and will put in place policies and procedures that will make government more transparent.

UBC is more difficult. I no longer work there, although I have a complex love/hate relationship with the institution. It is easy to be an arm-chair quarter-back over someone else’s decisions. Personally, though, I think there were problems with the new President, such as his firing the VP Administration within days of taking office (see here). If so, the Board should be commended for making the right decision in difficult circumstances (after all, they are the ones who hired him in the first place). However, the Board needs to come clean and give its reasons and not hide behind a non-disclosure agreement.

Lastly, I think politicians should look carefully at the use of non-disclosure agreements. They are too often used as a tool for covering up the paying off of incompetent leaders or for covering arbitrary firings when there are personal issues between a board chair and the CEO or President. Non-disclosure agreements too often encourage both bad governance decisions and above all a lack of transparency over how tax dollars are being used. But it will be a brave and clever government that finds a way to get rid of non-disclosure agreements while still protecting the charter rights of those involved.

In the meantime, both the Duffy and UBC cases point to a lack of transparency in decision-making at the highest levels in Canada. We should do better.

Thinking about theory and practice in online learning

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Taking the float plane to Victoria: always a wonderful experience

Taking the float plane to Victoria: always a wonderful experience

I ran a short face-to-face workshop yesterday on ‘Thinking about Theory and Practice’ for about a dozen students taking the Masters of Arts in Learning and Technology at Royal Roads University  My online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, is being used in this program and the instructors asked me to run a workshop on this topic, as students struggle with the relationship between epistemology, theories of learning, and methods of teaching.

The exercise

I’m not surprised that students struggle with this, as the relationships are by no means clear. I started by asking them to define different epistemologies. I then asked them what the connection was between different epistemologies and different learning theories. Then I asked them to choose from about 18 different methods or approaches to teaching (all covered in my book) and try to place them in relationship to theories of learning, as in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Thinking about theory and practice

Figure 1: Thinking about theory and practice

I also raised questions about whether constructivism and connectivism are epistemologies, or theories of learning, or both.

This was meant as a heuristic exercise, to get students arguing about and discussing the relationship between epistemology, theory, and practice, and why it is important to think about this in terms of learning design.

I ended my session with the following questions:

  • Constructivism and connectivism: are they epistemologies or learning theories?
  • Is there a direct relationship between epistemology, theory and practice?
  • How well do different teaching methods ‘fit’ with a specific learning theory?
  • Does technology change the nature of knowledge? If so, is connectivism an ‘adequate’ epistemology for a digital age?

Following my workshop, in the afternoon the students were divided into two teams to formally debate the motion (chosen by the instructors):

Connectivism should be adopted as the learning theory for educating students in our digital culture.

Both the workshop and the debate resulted in very thoughtful and forceful, sometimes impassioned, discussion.


It is impossible to capture the richness of the discussions in a short blog (I am hoping that the MALAT team will make an edited recording of the sessions available online). Different participants will have come away from the two sessions with different conclusions. Although I am fairly confident about discussing theories of learning and methods of teaching, I am not a trained or qualified philosopher, so I hesitate to tell students what the truth is in this area (OK, so I’m a relative constructivist).

However, here are some of my conclusions:

  • the most important is that I believe that connectivism is more of an epistemology than a theory of learning. Indeed it is an epistemology that relies on other theories of learning to explain how learning occurs in networks, although it has established conditions that make for ‘effective’ networks (see, for instance, Downes, 2007). In this sense it can be seen as an overall belief system about the importance of networks for sustaining and creating knowledge, but the mechanisms by which learning occurs in networks still need to be identified or worked out, or explained in terms of existing theories, such as constructivism.  This does not mean that over time, particular ways of learning and creating new knowledge through networking will not be identified, but more importantly, it would seem to make sense that we should be making use of networks and social media in education, since we are all becoming increasingly immersed in a connectivist world, and learning how to adapt and thrive in such a world probably requires using connections and networks for teaching and learning;
  • similarly, I am uncomfortable with defining constructivism as an epistemology. It is a strong theory in terms of explaining how learning occurs, but it takes its philosophical roots from other more general epistemologies. I would need to be a philosopher to define accurately what these would be, but constructivism is strongly influenced by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill (free will), Jean Jacques Rousseau (the Natural Human), and Jean Piaget (‘genetic’ epistemology);
  • although there is some relationship between epistemologies and theories of learning, they are not isomorphic, in the sense that a single theory of learning derives solely from one epistemological position. For instance, cognitive theories of learning draw heavily on both objectivist approaches (e.g. brain research) and more subjective or reflective approaches, such as constructivism;
  • there is even less isomorphism between theories of learning and methods of teaching, because methods of teaching are driven primarily by context. For instance, in a digital age, trades apprentices increasingly need both manual and cognitive learning. The learning of manual or mechanical skills through an apprenticeship model may be behaviourist in approach, but cognitive apprenticeship may draw much more heavily on a constructivist approach. Nevertheless some teaching methods, such as lectures or xMOOCs, are generally more towards the objectivist spectrum, while cMOOCs are more towards the connectivist spectrum (even though in practice they may include other approaches, such as more objectivist webinars, and support from teachers or experts through constructivist forms of discussion);
  • different subject areas tend to favour different epistemological positions, such as science favouring more objectivist approaches to teaching, and arts more subjective and interpretive approaches. However, it is still possible to teach science in a constructivist way – for instance through problem or inquiry-based learning – and arts in a more objectivist way (for instance, Mrs. Thatcher wanted British school children to learn the facts about British history, rather than discuss imperialism or racism and their legacies), although purists will argue that students will not become ‘true’ scientists or historians if the teaching does not reflect the ‘core’ epistemological nature of the subject area.

However, I’m a ‘relativist’ on all these points and open to be persuaded.

Does it matter?

Isn’t this all terribly abstract and philosophical? Nothing seems clear and definite, so how does thinking about these things help to teach better?

Well, if you are going to be an instructional designer, you will come across instructors and subject experts who may have a fundamentally different epistemological position from you. It will really help if you understand their position and how to take this into account when designing courses.

Second, there is nothing more practical than a good theory. If you have a theory that is convincing to you in terms of explaining how learners best learn, this should drive your teaching practice. It may not tell you exactly what to do as a teacher, but it should enable you to work out for yourself what to do – and more importantly, what learners need to do. But this theory needs to fit with your overall epistemological position about the nature of knowledge in your subject area.

Third, teaching is a pragmatic profession. It may take several different approaches, depending on the context and above all on the learner. In some contexts, such as safety compliance, employers don’t want workers questioning the process; they need to learn exactly what to do in a particular circumstance (behaviourism rules). In others, where problem-solving is essential, rote learning is not going to help dealing with a new or unanticipated danger.  Having a range of options in terms of teaching approaches for a range of different kinds of learners and contexts is more likely to produce results than slavishly following one particular method.

Lastly, all this uncertainty and choice illustrates why teaching and learning are not well defined activities that can be easily mechanised. Humans are better than machines at dealing with uncertainty and fuzzy or ambiguous circumstances, but only if they have a deep understanding of the options available to them and the circumstances in which each option is likely to succeed. This means thinking carefully about epistemology and theories of learning as well as various methods of teaching.

Galiano Island, on the way to Victoria

Galiano Island, on the way to Victoria. Vancouver Island is in the background.

Some (further) thoughts about ‘agile’ learning design

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Peter Rawsthorne's model of agile learning design

Peter Rawsthorne’s model of agile learning design (see references at end)

In my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I felt I needed a separate section on agile learning design, to capture some of the innovative teaching that is happening online. I based the section in the book very much on ETEC 522, ‘Ventures in Learning Technology‘, which is part of the University of British Columbia’s Master in Educational Technology. The course is designed and taught by two very innovative adjunct professors, David Voigt and David Porter, supported by Jeff Miller, a brilliant instructional designer.

As soon as I finished the book, I discovered that there was in fact a small but significant literature on agile learning design, and that there were other people ‘out there’ practising agile learning design.

So when I was approached by the British Columbia Educational Technology Users’ Group (ETUG) to do a ‘Tuesday’s ETUG Lunch and Learn’ (T.e.l.l) webinar on any aspect covered in the book, agile learning design was an obvious choice. ETUG is a great community of practice, and there were bound to be several agile learning practitioners in the group. So I prepared a few slides, and then used the webinar as an opportunity to have a professional ‘chat’ about agile learning design. Here’s what ensued (a recording of the whole webinar will be available from ETUG shortly and I will add the link as soon as it becomes available).

Defining agile learning design

Well, I did my best to define it in both Scenario F and Section 4.7 ‘Agile Design’: Flexible Designs for Learning’. Originally I started to describe this teaching method as flexible design, but because flexible learning has a broader and more widely used meaning, almost at the last draft stage I changed ‘flexible’ to ‘agile’, as this represented better what I was trying to get at. However, after I finished the book, I discovered that ‘agile learning design’ has a history emanating from software design, as can be seen by this diagram by Jennifer Bertram of Bottom Line Performance (2012):

© Jennifer Bertram, Bottom Line performance, 2012

© Jennifer Bertram, 2012

However, I felt that even the Bertram diagram was too ‘systematized’ to capture the ‘open-ness’ of the agile design process being used in ETEC 522 and other ‘lightweight’ design models in online learning. So from my perspective, the Bertram model is just one of many possible agile design approaches.

Designing for a VUCA world

© C. Adamson, 2012

© C. Adamson, 2012

In my book, I draw on Claire Adamson’s description of the kind of world in which our students now need to learn and live. In particular, teachers and instructors need to prepare students for a world that is:

  • volatile
  • uncertain
  • complex
  • ambiguous.

VUCA requires a strategy for coping with unavoidable changes and events that may arise. Agile learning design enables both instructors and learners to operate and teach and learn in such an environment.

When to use agile learning design?

The contexts in which there is a need for agile learning design could include the following:

  • areas where the subject matter is particularly dynamic, or where examples that illustrate more abstract contexts are frequently occurring. Subject areas that are about, or strongly influenced by, digital technologies, for instance, or political science, economics, or environmental studies, where examples and new thinking are constantly developing, need an agile design that enables changes in the subject area or the external environment to be quickly incorporated into the teaching and learning;
  • where the course or program has very diverse students with very different needs. Agile learning design allows the instructor to take into account the various needs of students and to design the course or program accordingly. Since the students and their diversity are likely to be different on each offering of the course, the design needs to change from offering to offering;
  • where appropriate teaching and learning tools are under constant change and development. For instance, any course that uses social media to enable student networking will need to integrate new tools and applications as they develop;
  • where the main goal is to enable students to develop appropriate skills to cope with a VUCA world, in whatever field they may be studying. This will mean presenting constantly changing and challenging course content, methods and tools, but within a framework that enables students to develop the skills needed to cope with such an environment.

It can be seen then that agile learning design has great potential for developing the knowledge and skills that students will need in a digital age.

Teaching economics? Would agile design enable you to include the Greek crisis? Image: Getty Pictures, 2015

Teaching economics? Would agile design enable you to include the Greek crisis as it develops? Image: Getty Pictures, 2015

Guidelines for agile design

Trying to set guidelines for agile learning design is a little like trying to establish rules for managing chaos. Nevertheless, successful agile designers need to be guided by a set of pedagogically sound principles, otherwise the course or program will quickly get out of hand, or students will feel lost and confused. Here are some suggestions, although there are many other possible guidelines that will need to be identified through greater experience from using such designs:

  • clearly defined and measurable broad learning goals that are communicated to and understood by the learners; these are likely to focus on learners covering and understanding certain core content and developing specific skills and will usually be determined by the instructor in advance of the course;
  • sub-goals or topics, negotiated with learners – particularly important for very diverse students within a course;
  • core learning materials and tools chosen in advance by the instructor; learners will be responsible for discovering and analyzing other learning materials and will be free to incorporate or negotiate the use of other tools; for instance, the instructor may decide that everyone will use a common course ‘platform’ such as WordPress, and assessment will be through a single e-portfolio software, but students may also use other tools that can be linked to WordPress and/or their e-portfolios; these decisions may vary across different offerings of the course;
  • assessment based on pre-determined criteria linked to the broad learning outcomes set for the course; again there may be room for some negotiation of assessment criteria between instructor and learners;
  • vision: a clear idea of what the overall goals, methods, and assessment for the course will be, and an open, flexible approach to achieving these goals; this is probably the most important requirement from the instructor.

Some agile learning designers may find even these guidelines to be too restrictive.

Conditions for success

We need more research and evaluation on agile learning design to determine the conditions for success, but the following are likely to be critical:

  • skilled, confident instructors supported by instructional designers with a strong pedagogical background;
  • learners will need careful preparation and orientation to a style or method of teaching with which they will be unfamiliar; it will be particularly important to stress the development of key skills that will carry over into work and life after graduation;
  • there needs to be a wealth of appropriate and relevant high quality open learning resources and digital tools that students can access and use;
  • constant and on-going communication between instructors and students, feedback, and evaluation will all be necessary to enable the course and methods are adapted as appropriate;
  • there will need to be sufficient minimum structure and content to pass any institutional or professional course approval process; the focus should be though on broad learning goals, core materials, and clear assessment criteria, rather than on detailed content;
  • at this stage, it is difficult to see how an agile design could be scaled up to large numbers of learners for a single instructor, although a team teaching approach may both strengthen the teaching and enable larger numbers of students to participate successfully.

In conclusion

I find agile learning design to be one of the most exciting and potentially powerful means of developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. Even among the limited number of participants in the ETUG webinar, there were at least two who were engaged in agile learning design. However, more experimentation, applications and evaluation are needed, and it is important that we do not converge too quickly on ‘best practices’ in this design method until it has been explored and applied more generally.

I would particularly appreciate hearing from anyone ‘out there’ who has been using agile learning design methods and what they believe are the conditions for success.


Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

Bertram, J. (2013) Agile Learning Design for Beginners New Palestine IN: Bottom Line Performance

Rawsthorne, P. (2012) Agile Instructional Design St. John’s NF: Memorial University of Newfoundland: http://www.rawsthorne.org/bit/docs/RawsthorneAIDFinal.pdf