How Course Design Puts the Focus on Learning Not Teaching

This is the second post in a series of four on instructional design for online courses. The goal of this series is to introduce a fresh, innovative approach to course design.

1197947341_89d0ff8676Instructional design, also known as learning design, appears to be making a comeback, which is most fortunate given that I am writing a series on this very topic. Massive open online courses [MOOCs] that mimic the classroom model where the learner is passive and the instructor is not, highlights the need for fresh, new approach to course design. And it’s not just MOOCs that need help, but numerous courses currently offered online; many are in need an overhaul to create an environment focused on learning, rather than one that focuses on instruction. My aim here is to provide readers with a course design framework, information and tools for designing online courses. These tools and skills appear to be in demand by educators that are trying to adapt their courses and teaching methods to an online or blended format.  Some educators also find when entering into the MOOC world of instruction, they are in need of a different skill set from what is required for face-to-face teaching.

In the first post of this series, Why Online Courses [Really] Need Instructional Design I wrote about the dire need for instructional design: how it is needed to guide the process of learning for students, and guide the teaching of the course as well. A courses’ structure is a reflection of the design teams’ [or designer] belief in how people learn. The teams’ learning perspective translates into the choices made for instructional tools, the delivery methods, application activities and assessment methods for the course. We can see this in traditional higher education, which for the most part ascribes to the cognitive theory of learning, a theory that rests on the assumptions that learning is an internal process; a function of the learners memory. It’s an instructor-focused paradigm, where the teacher describes concepts for the learner via instruction, and in some cases relies upon visual representations for reinforcement. (Roblyer & Doering, 2010). This model still is the primary model in colleges and universities—professors lecturing to a class of [passive] students. Even though considerable research proves that students learn better when active in the learning process [in keeping with the constructivist theory], the cognitive theory prevails. George Siemens, co-founder of the first MOOC noted in a recent blog post:

The current MOOC providers have adopted a regressive pedagogy: small-scale learning chunks reminiscent of the heady days of cognitivism and military training. Ah, the 1960′s. What a great time to be a learner.” gsiemens, March 10, 2013

Before I move on and provide further examples, I’ll review four learning orientations—beliefs in how people learn. I wrote about each theory in-depth in a previous post, A Tale of Two MOOCs: Divided by Pedagogy, though here I’ve put together an image that summarizes the core principles of each.

When examining the image [above], one can see how learning theories influence the methods of instruction for a course. This diagram is not meant to be an implementation tool for course design, but an information source. In subsequent posts of the series I’ll review how learning theory is incorporated into the design of a course during the initial phase, the analysis phase [following the analysis is the development phase and then implementation].

Image depicts four perspective on learning based upon theoretical principles [inside quadrants]. Instructional methods associated with each are adjacent to respective quadrant. Orange quadrants represent a student focused learning model and blue represents instructor focused.

Image shows four perspectives on learning based upon theoretical principles. Instructional methods associated with each, adjacent to respective quadrant. Orange quadrants represent a student-focused learning approach, blue instructor-focused.

In another article published recently, The Pedagogy of MOOCs, the author suggests that xMOOCs offered through platforms such as Udacity, are a step backward for education. Rather than leveraging the technology and the thousands of students to advance learning, where students become contributors to the course, the MOOC applies instructor-centered teaching and assumes the learner is passive – an empty vessel.

Closing Thoughts
The crux of my post, the point I would like to leave with readers, is that a fresh, new perspective is needed for teaching and course design—course design is about creating environments to help students learn. As new courses are developed or transformed from face-to-face to an online format, the focus should not be on the technology, the platform, the video lectures, the forums, the instructor, but on the students —what methods will facilitate their learning? How will they learn? Stay tuned for my next post in this series.


23 thoughts on “How Course Design Puts the Focus on Learning Not Teaching

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  3. Wayne Gungl

    Looking for the last two blog posts on instructional design. I can’t think of a more relevant topic for educators in this digital age.


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  10. Jessica Vidal

    First, thank you for the diagram to clarify the four learning theories. Being an online learner at the undergraduate and graduate level, I have seen a transition from being a passive learner to a more active learner in having to not only absorb information but in learning the skills to apply it to real world scenarios. Although, educational technology may have pulled students away from the classroom, the curriculum has provided a platform for them to collaborate with other online learners and be encouraged to ask questions and not to be intimidated to provide their own perspectives on what has been discussed. I had not realized the significance of instructional design until more recently. My children will begin their first experience in virtual school starting in August and we, as a family, are very excited about it. We have been blessed with wonderful schools and teachers during their educational experience (not to take away from that). It was the idea that they would be able to individualize their learning to their pace and still engage in a virtual environment with teachers and students, that attracted us to the idea. Concerns of social skills were brought to our attention but through activities geared to their interests (art, music, culture, math, science), sports, and field trips with other online learners; they would still interact with students/peers in person. I have noticed that they enjoy applying it what they learn, thus making concepts tangible. In relation to “mortar and brick” schools, do you think schools should implement having an instructional designer as part of their staff in order to support the concept of guided learning and teaching due to the growth of online and blended learning?


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Jessica,
      Glad you found the diagram helpful! As far as your question about instructional designer for schools – I believe that K-12 schools that offer online courses do have instructional designers, likely a course design team. Though in the face-to-face schools I doubt there is a budget for instructional designers, and I don’t think they see the need. Often curriculum development is supported through district or state materials. I’m sure your kids will enjoy the virtual school experience! Thanks for reading!


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  14. Jo Murphy

    Yes Interesting. One of the ways I have considered in the Arts is the creation of a classroom WIKI.
    Even in Primary school the class can take to daily twittering and participation with other schools to create hybrid reference content.
    Seems very spot on to me, Jo


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      HI Jo,
      That is a great approach with the wiki – a great opportunity to build a community project. Have you ever heard of the Google Art Project? I believe this also may provide for collaborative and interactive learning with art from museums around the world. Thanks for commenting and reading!


  15. HighwayAngel

    Reblogged this on ISD – Learning Theories via Technology and commented:
    I really needed to see this blog about designing courses for learning and not teaching because I have always believed that as an educator we should guide students into the learning process. They (the learner) innately have the intelligence to accomplish the task. Last week we talked about the different learning styles and this week we are discussing brain’s role in learning yet the two intertwine. My key target centers on the position of how the brain learn therefore the conception that we (Instructional specialist) should design courses focused on learning outcomes not on our teaching abilities.


  16. Vipin Khandelwal

    No doubt student led learning is the best way to go forward with… but there are hindrances.
    I run a few online courses based on the approach. The challenge is to get learners continually involved in the process. That too when they have opted for learning by themselves. How do you handle this situation?


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Vipin
      It is student focused learning that is the way forward, this is slightly different than student-led. There will be times when the learner takes the lead, but a skilled educator can still lead the student, and be focused on the student.

      Yes I agree – it is a challenge getting students to be involved in the process, which happens usually when a course is ‘required’, one that is part of a degree or certificate of some sort. What I have found is that the course needs to have grades associated with student activities. In my experience if there are not grades assigned to a discussion forum for example, most students won’t participate. This is one of the unfortunate outcomes of for-credit online course work – some students are motivated to participate for the joy of learning, but most are working towards an accreditation, which means they need to be motivated by a grade to participate. Unfortunately this does in some ways reflect the behavioural approach to learning, which rests on principles of reinforcement (grades). This is why I find course design so interesting, as there is no one rule or theory that guides the process –but a combination of approaches. Thanks for commenting! I have written several other posts in my blog about student participation and grading, group work etc. have a look in the Online Pedagogy and Online Teaching categories of my blog. Thanks again!


      1. Vipin Khandelwal

        Thanks Debbie for pointing out the difference between student focus and student led. I meant the former.
        In our case, our users include people with average 15 plus years of work experience and accreditation is really not an issue as such for them. Though I agree that grades (points, a feeling of little game and competition) should go a step further in increasing motivation.
        Can I invite you to visit a course (Business 360) on my online campus I think there are things you will find interesting for the purpose of study and writing as well.
        Many thanks!

        Liked by 1 person


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