How to Create Optimal Learning Experiences with a Learning Design Framework

What drives development of new pedagogy, a new way of teaching? Changes in society, student expectations, and technology are motivating innovative university and college professors and instructors to re-think pedagogy and teaching methods. Contact North, Ontario’s Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors


This article is a revised version of an earlier post published on January 22. This is the first in a three-part series about Learning Design for Educators. This first post introduces the concept of learning design and a framework that educators can use to create optimal learning for students. The framework encompasses three sets of resources, content sourcesweb-collaboration and human resources. We introduce here a new approach to teaching, one that leverages resources to create learning experiences for students—a somewhat different approach from traditional instructional strategies.

Designing Learning Experiences versus Teaching
As the opening quote suggests—it’s society’s changing values and expectations, influenced heavily by advancements in technology, that are pressuring educators to change and adapt instructional practices. It may be that a different approach is needed; one that shifts perspective on how teaching is done—where an educator is not a ‘teacher’ in the sense of the traditional methods associated with it, but uses tools, resources, and different methods to achieve the same desired outcomes. Much has been written about the changing role of the teacher in today’s digital age, which often suggests that the teacher’s role has expanded—which it has, but it should not translate to more work for educators. The article at Contact North, A New Pedagogy is Emerging…And Online Learning is a Key Contributing Factor outlines reasons for new methods, what is needed to incorporate such methods, and outlines key elements to include in the alternative strategies. What the Learning Design Framework provides is a visual tool that highlights resources within three dimensions that educators can leverage to create learning experiences for students that are learning and working in a networked environment.

The Learning Design Framework
Designing effective learning experiences in a networked society involves leveraging three sets of resources, 1) content sources, 2) web-collaboration resources, and 3) human resources.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 12.01.40 PM
Learning Design Framework for Educators, by Online Learning Insights

1) Content Sources
There is superabundance of resources readily accessible on the web; rich and varied resources that are not limited to open education resources. Content sources for education are web pages or sites hosted and maintained by education institutions, organizations (i.e. Wikipedia), governments, and associations. Yet the resources cannot stand alone; young learners and post-secondary students require a skilled educator to create and select existing resources, provide context to make learning meaningful. One of the challenges for undergraduate students is managing information and making sense of content sources in order to extract knowledge; to analyze, evaluate and synthesize sources. Content resources are one dimension of creating learning experiences, for the most part content resources are static, though more malleable than a textbook.

2) Web-Collaboration Resources
Another dimension to designing learning is making it dynamic by using applications and tools on the web that allow learners to interact, share and construct. Web collaboration platforms, also known as Web 2.0 tools, are sites on the web that are not static but facilitate interactivity, collaboration—connecting learners to others and allowing learners to share, communicate, and work on creating content together. The result is that meaningful learning occurs during this process of collaboration. Social platforms are also included in this dimension given the growing emphasis on social media and its role in everyday life. The boundaries between social media use in work, personal life and learning spaces, are blurring and educators that integrate social media in learning environments are in a better position to connect with learners and increase opportunities for meaningful learning.

3) Human Resources
High school and under graduate students need to learn how-to-learn. Individuals with advanced education already know-what-they-don’t-know, and can create their own learning path to learn an unfamiliar topic, typically done by accessing resources [human, content, etc.] as needed. This human element, the third dimension is critical for students without an advanced education. The majority are not equipped (yet), to know what resources to draw upon, where to find them, and how to discern what is accurate and worthy. The full responsibility of teaching though, does not need to rest with just one teacher. The educator that can leverage the human resources available i.e. teaching assistants, tutors, peers, takes pressure off him or herself and creates diverse and optimal learning for students. It’s very likely that a new category of learner support will emerge in the future—learning support specialists, which Tony Bates mentions in his article, 2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and beyond.

The Learning Design Framework is a starting point for educators. It’s not intended to be a prescriptive formula, but a tool to guide learning design, and help frame discussions and ideas for creating effective learning experiences for students.

Part two of this series: Why Educators Needs to Know Learning Theory

Further Reading

Image Credit:  “Learn” by roger.karlsson, Flickr

Review of Instructional Design Models Applied to K-12 Learning Environments


Over the last few months I’ve conducted extensive research into instructional design models used in the process of course design. I’ve researched the history of instructional design [also known as ‘instructional systems design’] and its applications from the 1930’s to present. I’m writing, or least attempting to write, a book for educators that describes how to develop effective, relevant courses in our digital age using a dynamic instructional design model. The first chapter covers the history of instructional design with a focus on education learning environments as opposed to business or military settings. And though I’ve found considerable literature about design principles, methods and models applicable to higher education, there is dearth of published writings on instructional design models specific to K-12.

K-12 Educators Need Instructional Design Skills
Even in current literature there appears to be few resources for K-12 educators that provide instructional design models with accompanying principles to guide the development or re-design of courses for K-12 learning environments – whether it be for blended, face-to-face or online courses. However, the gap is justified by the fact that teachers for the most part, have access to already developed curriculum materials either via textbooks for specific subjects created by the publisher, materials created by instructional designers within a school district, or lesson plans/curriculum available via various platforms, i.e. Open Education Resources, Open Connexions, Discovery Education, museums for education, etc.  However, I suggest that there is a need for K-12 educators to be equipped with skills in instructional design. Teachers need this skill set to adapt  curriculum in order to provide relevant learning experiences for their students. Furthermore, with the proliferation of technology tools and applications that teachers have access to and are even encouraged to use, i.e. the flipped classroom method, or iPads, suggests that teachers need to know how to use these tools effectively—to be able to assess if, and how a given education tool supports the desired learning objectives. And if it does, how to incorporate the tool using a sound pedagogical strategy.  I’ve encountered several examples of instructional design advice for K-12 teachers that are well-meaning, but fall short on pedagogy and instructive guidelines for implementation.

The lack of a current instructional design model for K-12 and higher education is partly what has motivated me to create one – however the purpose of this post is to review existing models specific to K-12 and examine the principles of each to identify what may be useful in today’s learning contexts.  I also encourage readers to share any design experience or advice that might be helpful to other readers.

Instructional Design Models Defined
Before reviewing details of the models, I’ll share a definition – what a course design model is, and why a design model is even worth considering.

“Models, like myths and metaphors, help us to make sense of our world. Whether derived from whim or from serious research, a model offers its user a means of comprehending an otherwise incomprehensible problem. An instructional design model gives structure and meaning to an I.D. [instructional design] problem, enabling the would-be designer to negotiate her design task with a semblance of conscious understanding. Models help us to visualize the problem, to break it down into discrete, manageable units.” Martin Ryder, University of Colorado Denver, School of Education

Design Models Frequently Referenced for K-12 Learning
Though the definition and application of course design models vary widely, some educators have classified models into different types as the following article, Comparison of Alternative Instructional Design Models does:

“Instructional Design models are classified into three types, classroom, product and system (Gustafson & Branch, 2002). Classroom models are of interest to, and are usually designed for, professional teachers from K-12, community colleges, vocational schools, and other related areas. These models take into consideration the environment of teachers… The output of these models is small, a unit or module of instruction used within the school year.” Marlene Fauser, Kirk Henry, and David Kent Norman

In principle I disagree with this classification and description. Instructional design models should be flexible enough to be applied to all learning environments – K-12, face-to-face, blended environments, higher education, etc. However, there is value in analyzing the models, and identifying previous and current applications in various settings—in this instance K-12.

Gerlach/Ely Model
In 1971 Vernom S. Gerlach and Donald P. Ely developed the Gerlach & Ely instructional model; a prescriptive model that is most suitable to instructional planning/designing when the learning objectives and instructional content are predetermined.  Its key feature is that the steps of content selection and specification of objectives are completed synchronously (diagram below), making it applicable to a K-12 environment.

Gerlach and Ely Instructional Design Model
Gerlach and Ely Instructional Design Model

The ASSURE model developed by Heinich, Molenda, Russell & Smaldino uses an acronym to describe its fundamental principles: Analyze Learners, State Objectives, Select media and materials, Utilize media and materials, Require learner participation, and Evaluate and revise. Sharon Smaldino’s following statement [teacher and one of the model’s creators] describes the philosophy of the model, “To ASSURE good learning, I believe it is not one single thing that a teacher or designer should consider, but I do believe that there are areas of emphasis“.  instructional


Morrison, Ross and Kemp Model
This model is the most flexible. The circular nature suggests that design is fluid, with no specific beginning point, which the authors describe as adaptable. There are nine core elements that make up the model, and the diagram indicates that each element is mutually supporting.  The textbook, Designing Effective Instruction written by the developers of the model (Morrison, Ross & Kemp) indicates that the focus of the model is for classroom instruction.  The most recent edition of the book [now in its sixth], discusses the role of technology in the classroom and describes how to incorporate technological tools in instructional planning.

One of the benefits touted for this model is its flexibility due to the circular nature and lack of starting point, though I view this as a significant flaw in the design as it ignores key principles of creating effective instruction which does require at least a logical sequence based on how people learn.

Kemp, Morrison and Ross Model of Instructional Design

I realize that I have only included a few of the many models, however the ones I’ve mentioned appear to be referred to, and implemented widely.  Stay tuned for more posts about instructional design as I work through the research and writing of my book.


Online Course Design with ‘X’ in Mind

I share in this post how the ‘X problem’ approach to problem solving is helping to create a unique course design framework for online courses.

Image: Got X Problems? Design Mind on Air (link in resources below)

I’d hit a roadblock in my ongoing efforts to create a course design model for educators to help with the development of online courses and MOOCs. But this week it felt like I hit gold when I discovered the ‘X Problem’ approach to problem solving. I had an aha moment when reviewing the method described in “Innovation X” (2010), a book written by Adam Richardson, Creative Director of the global innovation company frog design, inc. 

In previous posts I’ve shared the research project I’m working on, which is to create an updated course design framework that is relevant and applicable to 21st century learning and instructional modalities. In a previous post Why Online [Really] need an Instructional Design Strategy, I described how educators need to implement a course strategy, particularly for online courses, and in a subsequent post reviewed several instructional design models. These design models mentioned in the post such as the familiar ADDIE model, are not flexible enough to create courses for today’s varied, dynamic and sometimes chaotic learning environments.

“Isn’t it time for the MOOC providers to review the learning design so as to ensure the course is built on a flexible emergent design, rather than a rigid, one size suits all online course principle?” (Guardia, Maina, & Sangra, 2013)  

And there is a need, as the above quote suggests. Though not only for MOOCs, but for other formats that include blended/hybrid formats, fully online and competency-based learning.

The X Factor
I’ve been stymied to come up with something new that is adaptable, yet solid in its learning theories and principles. It was this web page that [finally] moved my thinking about a course design framework forward.  It was the table on the page comparing five different design methodologies that prompted me to look at the concept of design, not just in context of an educational problem. Richardson describes how X problems fall into a class all of their own, “a new class of 21st century challenges that defy conventional planning”. I discovered the book after listening to Richardson discussing his book in a brief podcast interview on Design Mind where he shares this:

“The process focused on design in X-problems consist of a cluster of four challenges that come up over and over again for companies of all sizes, across many industries. Often each of the four is looked at and dealt with in isolation, but in reality they are interrelated and must be treated systemically in order to be solved.” Richardson

X Factor Applied to Course Design
The ‘X’ factor applies to the education industry just as it does to others—as Richardson emphasizes the challenges within industries are universal. Richardson describes how ‘X’ represents the unknown, and the ‘X’ on the treasure map—the goal we are all seeking to achieve. In context of course design we can consider ‘X’ in terms of the variables that an instructor and course designer need to consider and analyze in the development process. And, the variables are becoming more varied and complex as new educational delivery systems and technological applications emerge for educational purposes. A course design model that considers these variables can guide the course development process to keep technology in its place [as a tool], and keep the learner needs and course goals in the forefront.

Some of the variables affecting course design are:

  • learners – their background, skill set, experience, Internet access capabilities, etc.
  • purpose of course [credit, certificate, personal development]
  • Learning theory subscribed to – constructivist, connectivist, etc.
  • course objectives and goals
  • course delivery method/platform
  • discipline of subject matter [course topic]

The Variables
The variables, as discussed determine the outcomes of the development stage of the  course design process. It is in this stage that the instructor develops the syllabus, determines content vehicles (push or pull), decides upon and creates assessment methods, determines the type and scope of learning activities, identifies guest presenter(s) etc. These variables determine the instructional and learning strategy of the course. Thus, when considering the x variables, and following the principles associated with x problem method, a course plan emerges that is specific and tailored to the course. The method supports a customized approach to course design, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Stay tuned for more updates. I have created several drafts of visual representations of this X Design model which I’ll share soon.