What Martians (and others) can tell us about learning design workshops

OK, so the Martian headline is a little bit of a clickbait but bear with me, fellow earthlings, and its relevance should become clearer in due course. In today’s post, I’d like to talk about some recent experiences I’ve had facilitating workshops intended to help faculty embark on the design of online and blended programmes at DCU. It might be useful to explore what lessons were learned and consider how to potentially apply those lessons to the format of future workshops.

So what’s been done to date? Not surprisingly, time is always very limited so there are typically 2-3 workshops of no more than 2 hours in length. So far, in designing these initial sessions, I’ve deployed a number of approaches to help participants articulate a shared vision for their proposed programme. Drawing on techniques from Conole and Mor, we have included elements of:

  • Persona development: where participants are asked to come up with a credible profile of two or three potential students, highlighting motivators and potential obstacles
  • Course features cards exercise: where participants are asked to select 16 ‘ideal’ course features/elements from a set of pedagogy-oriented prompts
  • MOOC design patterns cards cross-check: participants review further potential course features (eg 6 minute videos, fishbowl approach) and select for their wish-list

These have all proved useful for getting creative juices flowing, but somehow I suspect that when we move the conversation to the learning outcomes something goes awry. Despite some discussions around the required programme and module learning outcomes, I’m not 100% convinced that these are being considered in as much depth as Biggs (or me!) would like. Quite possibly I’ve been making assumptions about how much people already know about writing learning outcomes that are not only clear and measurable, but are pedagogically-appropriate and constructively aligned. So what to do about it?

Well firstly, I believe there is a need to carefully step through the anatomy of a learning outcome, exploring both programme and module requirements, and discussing why learning outcomes matter. For some, this may be a revisiting/refresh exercise. But for many participants, this may be new territory which requires a ‘back to basics’ approach. Let’s be honest here, I think very few people enjoy dissecting learning outcomes but if they are going to serve as the foundations for course design in higher ed, then they do need to be discussed in some detail.  For the purposes of these workshops I won’t get into the politics but instead will focus more on how to write them in accordance with generally accepted standards.

But even the most elegantly written learning outcomes in the world are simply not enough without an assessment strategy that ensures the programme does what it says on the tin. About a year ago, I attended a very interesting EDIN workshop presented by Ivan Moore who introduced us to the principles of Orthogonal assessment, a technique which seems to hold promise as a way of unpacking the detail of potentially fuzzy learning outcomes. According to Moore, orthogonal assessment requires that you stipulate the core criteria by which you will make judgements about whether or not a learning outcome has been achieved.  This requires drilling down into the detail of each learning outcome at the design stage. He argues that this approach puts the focus on assessment of the learning outcome, instead of inadvertently focusing on the assessment components as so frequently occurs.  As the screenshot below illustrates, this approach can be visualised in the form of a table for each learning outcome with the criteria listed on the left and a description of various achievement standards (most importantly the minimum threshold standard) described in relevant columns to the right.

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 11.07.20
Above slide extracted from Ivan Moore presentation at EDIN workshop, April 2016

In previous workshops, participants have been asked to write such criteria after the sessions but there have been completion issues with this for several reasons. Writing these criteria collectively, as part of the workshop, may be a better way forward so next time (e.g to support a forthcoming online MSc in medical diagnostics and therapeutics), I plan to integrate this exercise into the workshop itself. To help attendees get their heads around it, we’ll start with a simple example where I ask participants to create the essential criteria needed to assess someone who needs to prove that they can make a cup of tea for the President of Ireland (a proud tea drinker, if I’m not mistaken). The ‘someone’ in this case would be a Martian who, presumably, knows nothing about the tea-making process. By way of illustration, here’s a highly simplistic draft example that lists the various criteria that need to be fulfilled, in my opinion, with some initial descriptors of various levels of achievement in tea-making expertise.

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 15.12.49

So to conclude, while I’ve mentioned the ideas above in previous workshops, my new plan is to step through the learning outcome criteria work during the workshop itself, allowing sufficient time for peer review of proposed outcomes and criteria.  Time will tell as to whether or not this approach works (Will participants be able to apply the same rationale to their courses? Is this approach feasible? Will they run screaming from the room?) but unless I’ve been abducted by aliens, I’ll be back to tell you how it goes.

Conole, G., 2014. The 7Cs of Learning Design—A new approach to rethinking design practice. In Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning (pp. 502-509).
Moore, I. (2016). Towards Best Practice in Assessment. Presentation for EDIN Conference.
Mor, Y., Warburton, S., Nørgård, R.T. and Ullmo, P.A., 2016, September. MOOC Design Workshop: Educational Innovation with Empathy and Intent.In European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning (pp. 453-459). Springer International Publishing.






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