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Learning Design and reuseability

A recent article by Stephen Downes about the reuseability of instructional or learning designs in general, and those compliant with IMS Learning Design in particular, caused rather a response in the CETIS Educational Content Special Interest Group (EC SIG). We examine the issue and summarise the discussion.

The Design, Standards and Reusability article raises a fair few points, but its main issue is the claimed paradox of reuse of instructional / learning designs. That is, specifications of not just content, but a whole learning experience- including the roles of participants, how and when content is presented, opportunities for discussion, resources that are available to learners, etc.

Using the IMS Learning Design specification as an example, Stephen Downes seeks to demonstrate that the promised reuseability of learning designs is impossible: in order for a design to work, it needs to specify particular, contextually appropriate learning objects in it. If it specifies contextually appropriate learning objects, it is by definition not reuseable.

A learning design could, for example, specify a pedagogically sound and proven sequence of activities around a few learning objects about, say, AC and DC electricity in physics, to be used by a group of twenty 17 to 20 year olds in an FE college. Should anyone wish to reuse that design, they'll either have to have the exact same learning context (i.e a course in physics for twenty learners, etc. using the same curriculum), or else they'll have to tweak the design by opening up the learning design and swapping out the context specific material, and putting in objects that are appropriate for a different context. And, according to Stephen Downes, that's not reuse.

Most of the objections raised to this argument centre on what exactly constitutes reuse. Educational Content SIG members Andrew Middleton and Gayle Calverley simply state that, as far as they are concerned, reuse is about adaptable examples that require tweaking. It can't be about lifting designs wholesale out of their context and just run it.

In this respect, SIG coordinator Sarah Currier point out, IMS Learning Design was only ever conceived to support adaptation of examples, never decontextualised chuncks of stuff suitable for wholesale lifting. A competent learning designer or instructor is always needed in the process of lifting a learning design from a repository and using it for learning and teaching.

The main reason behind that decision is, in SIG member Ann Jeffery's opinion, the fact that it is people, and not machines who will ever be able to create, design and repurpose sound learning designs that work for a particular context.

Part of the issue here is terminological: Stephen Downes talks about 'instructional designers' as the authors of learning designs. Rightly or wrongly, the term has been associated closely with a pedagogically very narrow approach to training, with little time for collaboration, exploration of issues or critical thinking. Partially because of the term, and partially because of what Gayle Calverley thought was a narrow definition of 'context', Andrew Middleton suspects that what Stephen means by 'instructional design' is focussed on the "red herring" of adaptive instructional systems: programs that are capable of supplanting teachers by constructing complete learning experiences out of diagnostic tests and existing learning material. The notion has been around in e-learning for a long time, and has not led to any very convincing implementations.

The same issue prompted Ann Jeffery to wonder who the 'instructional designers' are. If they are not the actual teachers, then how would they be able to know the context in which their designs are going to be used? Also, is it even desirable to have a small elite of technically savvy instructional designers who determine the 'right' learning experience over the heads of the teacher who is actually there?

If the 'instructional designers' are the actual teachers, then the whole issue becomes moot. Most teachers -online or off- ought to and want to tweak good examples for their own practice. They've been doing that since time immemorial with textbooks, journals, videos and all the other teaching and learning technologies that everybody uses, and nobody notices anymore.

If 'instructional designers' mean teachers, the point raised by Bush (2002), and cited by Stephen Downes, about "missing support from recognized instructional design experts" for the IMS Learning Design specification and its Educational Modelling Language (EML) forebear is harder to interpret. Both EML and Learning Design were largely created by a team of pedagogical experts and practitioners from the Open University of the Netherlands, based on a wide ranging survey of what other pedagogical experts and practitioners have been doing over the past century or so. In other words, IMS Learning Design was made by expert-instructional-designers-as-teachers for instructional-designers-as-teachers.

What also raised some questions with the Educational Content SIG members was Stephen Downes' alternative to reuseable learning designs: "...disposable design, that can be created once, as needed, and then discarded, never to be used again." To Andrew Middleton, disposible objects is exactly what we've already got, and trying hard to get away from. Ann Jeffery wonders "How many thousands of pounds are spent on material development using things like Authorware that can't be reused? That is a very high cost in both financial and human terms."

While the reuse-by-tweaking ethos of Learning Design won't give the full financial benefit of lift-and-run-reuseability, Sarah Currier points out that adapting an existing IMS Learning Design is much less labour intensive than starting from scratch. Provided that there will be good tools.

One area that Sarah did think was apposite in Stephen Downes' critique of learning design was the ability of teachers to know what kind of pedagogical approach had been taken in the making of a particular learning design. When searching for a good learning design to tweak, the actual content of the design is not as important as the approach to learning implicit in it. Swapping out the content is easier than changing a topically relevant design that has a completely inappropriate set of activities and resources.

In the end, though, the central point of the debate is where one thinks reuseability lies: lift and use wholesale, or adapt good examples. If the former, either real reuse is not possible, or else it will be with de-contextualised 'shovelware' (Anderson, 2002) that requires the learner to adapt. If the latter, it will be using a specification that has flexibility and properly separates design from content, and, above all, on good tools that make the tweaking easy.

The discussion continues on the Educational Content SIG mailing list archive

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