Interdisciplinary design to support learning design
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.
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.
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
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),
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
expressed in the TLRP-TEL programme's call for research proposals
"Exposure to the concepts, ideas and methodologies of other disciplines
should change the way researchers think about their own discipline."
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
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
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 www.wordle.net)
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:
challenges which we are ready to meet as the project moves into its second
- 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.
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
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 www.ldse.org.uk.
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