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Interdisciplinary design to support learning design
by Liz Masterman

The Learning Design Support Environment (LDSE) project, in which ALT is a partner, has been running for a year, and so it is timely to share our progress with the ALT community. Funded by the ESRC/EPSRC's Teaching and Learning Research -Technology Enhanced Learning (TLRP-TEL) programme, the LDSE builds on previous research into ways to support learning design: i.e. modelling and sharing practice in the creative use of technology (Agostinho, 2008), with emphasis on the aspects of a learning experience that can be planned in advance (cf. JISC, 2006). Much of this earlier work was sponsored by JISC and included research into the "generic" tools that practitioners use for learning design, the London Pedagogy Planner and the "Phoebe" Pedagogy Planner: projects to which individual ALT members have made valuable contributions.

With the LDSE project, we have more time than in the previous projects (three years) in which to research and design an online environment that will allow teachers to experiment with innovative approaches to the curriculum and the creative possibilities opened up by digital technologies. We aim to make it easier - and more appealing - for them to draw inspiration from good practice by other teachers and to gain access to the fruits of scholarly research into teaching and learning. The conceptual design of the LDSE is underpinned by a model of online collaborative learning, with teachers developing their practice through reflection, discussion and sharing of ideas and materials within and across institutions. We are currently working with lecturers in Higher Education (HE), but later in the project we will also be exploring ways to make the LDSE relevant to teaching staff in Further Education (FE) colleges and schools.

The project is a partnership of researchers from a varied range of institutions: the Institute of Education (IoE), Birkbeck University of London, the London School of Economics, the Royal Veterinary College, London Metropolitan University and the University of Oxford. Two sponsored PhD students are conducting "critical reflections" on the project through research into: a) the drivers and constraints influencing lecturers' engagement with digital technologies (Roser Pujadas); and b) the impact of "hidden" assumptions about the nature of the curriculum on their design practices (Carrie Roder).


Figure 1: Six of the 14-strong LDSE project team. From left to right: Tom Boyle (London Metropolitan), Kim Whittlestone (RVC), Diana Laurillard (IoE - Project Director), Marion Manton (Oxford), Liz Masterman (Oxford), George Magoulas (Birkbeck)

Interdisciplinary working

Partnership within the LDSE project means more than mere collaboration: our working patterns and relationships are underpinned by the notion of interdisciplinarity, in line with the objectives of the TLRP-TEL programme. So, the team members are a mixture of experts from the learning sciences, computer science, artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction (which itself draws on insights from cognitive psychology), and we are not merely sharing our knowledge but also actively seeking to understand each other's concepts and methodologies.

To establish and maintain an interdisciplinary spirit, we have organised our work so that activities are led by an expert in one discipline but involve researchers from the others. For example, the research activities are led by two team members with experience of research into learning design, but the computer scientists have played an active role in organising the workshops in which we have gathered data on lecturers' current practice. These data have provided some of the raw materials for the more technologically focused activities, which are investigating how knowledge about learning design can be represented computationally as an ontology: that is, a set of concepts and the relationships among them (see Figure 2). This means that it has recently been the educationalists' turn to cross the disciplinary boundary and get to grips with the form in which the ontology is represented (in Protégé[1]), so that they can provide an expert critique from the teacher's perspective.


Figure 2: A fragment of the LDSE's ontology of learning design developed by Patricia Charlton (Birkbeck) with George Magoulas

The ideal, expressed in the TLRP-TEL programme's call for research proposals[2] is that:

"Exposure to the concepts, ideas and methodologies of other disciplines should change the way researchers think about their own discipline."

We are certainly finding that the ability to exchange ideas across the disciplines is one of the strengths of the project, although it is perhaps too early to judge whether we have adjusted our mindsets to that extent! Moreover, interdisciplinary working has its challenges, including differences in the way we understand and use the same terms. Computer scientists and educationalists can mean very different things by words such as "scenario", "tasks" and "personalisation." Misinterpretations will most often cause hilarity, but if uncorrected they could result in ill-informed decisions that impinge upon the usability and acceptability of the LDSE to its intended audience.

Researching lecturers' use of theory

In addition to researching and building the ontology, work during our first year has addressed two central themes of the project: first, the ways in which theories of learning can inform lecturers' practice; and second, "building on the work of others": finding, drawing inspiration from and, where appropriate, repurposing learning designs and materials created by other lecturers. These are two aspects of practice in which we want the LDSE to help users to "think out of the box" (to quote a participant in our research).

Previous research by project team members had already investigated lecturers' attitudes towards sharing and reuse (Lucas, Masterman, Lee & Gulc, 2006; Masterman, 2006; Masterman, 2008), so our empirical work has paid more attention to lecturers' perspectives on the relationship between theory and practice. Data were collected during interviews with ten "informant-practitioners": lecturers and learning technologists from the partner institutions and universities with which we have close links.

We found that "theory" is, in effect, an umbrella term that covers theories in the true sense (i.e. explanatory or predictive accounts of how people learn), conceptual frameworks and models for implementing theories as learning designs, and taxonomies. A number of interviewees said that they used one, or a range, of theories to inform their world view of teaching, constructivism being the most common (see Figure 3). Others felt that theory had little value and based their teaching almost entirely on pragmatic constraints such as "time, number of students, distance from each other, the things that they have to get done in a certain amount of time" (quote from a lecturer involved in online learning).

Figure 3: A word cloud showing the theories, frameworks, models and taxonomies most frequently mentioned by the LDSE's informant-practitioners. One of the almost invisible items is Behaviourism, suggesting that "unfashionable" theories may have their relevance even in a Constructivism-dominated culture (created at

However, despite these differences, knowledge of students' needs and preferences was central to everyone's teaching.

For some, theory was also integral to the reflective process. As one interviewee put it, "l think the fact that you reflect upon your experience of teaching and that's guided by the theory [...] for me, that would be the role of theory."

Thus, in the LDSE we will need to recognise an eclectic range of approaches when supporting lecturers' decision-making and reflection. The aversion of some lecturers to "formal" theories means that we should keep them tacit when users do not need to know them, and adopt some kind of progressive disclosure where we believe that explicit knowledge of a particular theory, model etc. might help to take the user beyond their current practice.

Towards a prototype tool

What might a learning design support environment look like? Working with teaching staff at the London Knowledge Lab, our Human-Computer Interaction expert Brock Craft (IoE) has been experimenting with possible visualisations for the user interface, creating "low-tech" mock-ups in PowerPoint (Figure 4).

Figure 4: "Paw print" visualisation of the overview screen for the LDSE

Another IoE team member, Dejan Ljubojevic, has been exploring what "building on the work of others" might mean in practice. He has used Adobe Flex to develop a simple prototype that demonstrates how users might instruct the LDSE might search repositories of learning designs and other resource banks to retrieve learning designs that match specific requirements: e.g. intended learning outcomes.

In late June we evaluated Brock and Dejan's work with a group of academic staff from London Metropolitan University, all of whom were experienced in e-learning. In a lively workshop they provided feedback that has enabled us to formulate, with supporting evidence, a number of high-level guiding principles for the interface design. Their comments also underlined two of the tensions inherent in tools of this kind:

  • Between the iterative and "messy" nature of learning design as a process and the systematisation of that process necessary in a computer-based tool; and
  • Between the need to provide structure for inexperienced staff and to allow more advanced users the freedom to experiment in an open workspace.
These are challenges which we are ready to meet as the project moves into its second year.

Conferences at which we have presented the project include CAL '09, the American Educational Research Association, the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIED 2009, where the team hosted a workshop), LAMS (in Australia and the UK) and, of course, ALT-C.

The workshop paper by Patricia Charlton, George Magoulas and Diana Laurillard at AIED 2009 has been published in the conference proceedings. In addition, Diana Laurillard and Liz Masterman have contributed a chapter, "TPD as online collaborative learning for innovation in teaching," to the volume Online Learning Communities and Teacher Professional Development: Methods for Improved Education Delivery, edited by J.O. Lindberg & A.D. Olofsson (Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference).


The LDSE project is funded under the ESRC/EPSRC TLRP-TEL  programme, phase 2; ref RES-139-25-0406. To learn more about the project, please visit our website at

Liz Masterman
Senior Researcher
Oxford University Computer Services

Agostinho, S. (2008). Learning design Representations to Document, Model, and Share Teaching Practice. In L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinho, & B. Harper (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Learning design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies (pp. 1-19). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.

JISC (2006). Background to the JISC Circular 1/06: Design for Learning Programme (briefing document). Bristol: JISC. Retrieved 30/09/09, from

Lucas, B., Masterman, L., Lee, S., & Gulch, E. (2006). Sharing and Reuse of Learning Designs for English Studies: A UK Higher Education Perspective. In R. Philip, A. Voerman & J. Dalziel (Eds.), Proceedings of the First International LAMS Conference 2006: Designing the Future of Learning (pp. 55-64). 6-8 December 2006, Sydney: LAMS Foundation. Retrieved 30/09/09, from

Masterman, L. (2006). Evaluation of Generic Tools Used in Design for Learning. JISC E-learning and Pedagogy programme. Retrieved 30/09/09, from Tools Report v1.1.pdf

Masterman, L. (2008). Phoebe Pedagogy Planner Project: Evaluation Report. JISC Design for Learning programme. University of Oxford. Retrieved 30/09/09, from


[2] Available at

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