New Learning Design book is out!

Grainne Conole,, Jan 26, 2016
Commentary by Stephen Downes

This is the sort of thing that might become a landmark in the field. As a collaboration among a number of different groups of proponents of learning design, it stands as a sort of marker or statement of the core values of the field. The aim of this work is to define and extend the Larnaca Declaration of learning design, first formulated a couple of years ago, which seeks to create a 'notation' to educators can use to describe and share successful strategies. The declaration employs an excellent analogy, that of musical notation, which allows us to share through the generations the thoughts of great componsers. Even jazz can be understood this way, the authors argue. "Even improvisation often uses some predetermined basic musical structures, such as the chord progressions in the twelve-bar blues."

I'm not on board with this project. In all fairness, I should engage with it more fully and formally, to tease out the nuances of exactly why I don't think this is the right approach. That work lies far in the future. Even so, let me take a few paragraphs to explain where I feel the fundamental issues inherent in this approach will arise:

  • why should there be a separate notation for educational or learning activities, as opposed to the notation we might use for activities generally? For example 'role playing' is not only a learning strategy, but a design strategy.
  • what is the basis for the proposed standardized and formalized vocabularies, and how are these vocabularies created, especially in cases where the 'educational' activity (such as roleplaying) overlaps with other fields?
  • the authors talk of the "need to create clearer conceptual foundations" - but I am sceptical that they have 'solved' learning. Compare with their description of the "wide range of theories and research methods that are used to guide decisions about teaching and learning activities". There aren't conceptual foundations yet.
  • indeed, there isn't an accepted ontology of learning or educational objects or events. Consider the "AUTC Learning Design project" described in the declaration: there is no principled distinction between a 'resource' and a 'support'. 
  • The understanding of conceptual types in learning design seems primitive compared to more established areas there notation is based on specific methodologies and principles, such as computer programming or interaction design. For example, consider the Jigsaw design pattern used as an example. The processes of combination and recombination strike me, at least, as a superficial replication of some neural network designs.
  • there is a presumption in this work that different theories can and will use the same terminology in the same way. But this does not accord with the work of people like Kuhn, who point to the incommensurability of concepts and terms between theories
  • the point of learning design is to depict "a sequence of teaching and learning activities is created independent of its implementation context," however, no vocabulary or syntax can be created independently of implementation (cf. Quine, 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism')
  • learning design is ultimately top-down and formal: the "usual expectation is that an educator who adopts a learning design will still need to adapt it to suit the particular needs of his/her learners." Compare this with discussions of (and criticisms of) 'knowledge translation'
  • it's not clear learning design as described here even makes sense outside the context of classroom instruction. As the authors note, there are different reserach methods, expectations, etc. with SCORM. How would learning design fare with an approach to learning that did not have learning outcomes or employ a curriculum?

The attempt to depict Learning Design with a common notation is an attempt to formalize in a reductive way the underpinnings of a creative act. It focuses on the world of the teacher. As a creative act, teaching can be - like drama or music - formalized in some interesting ways. But the processes of teaching and learning are not simply creative acts. They must function in a complex and often chaotic world, in a constantly changing environment where there is currently no consensus on what the fundamental objects are. It's like applying stage notation to the floor of the stock exchange, or applying musical notation to describe a busy intersection. It's just not the right tool to use to understand human interaction or the interplay of sound. And if we can't use it to foster this understanding, why use it all?

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