On the boundary between Learning and Instruction Designing

I came across a posting on the OU’s Cloudworks website the other week asking what the differences were between Learning and Instructional Design. I wonder if the conceptual or practical distances between learning and instructional design are to some degree elastic depending on individual interpretations, definitions, positionality, approach to teaching and breadth of knowledge of the two literatures. Sometimes there will be clear water and sometimes more murky eddies. Whilst it is important to pursue the unravelling of difference, a second direction could be to focus on the boundary between the disciplines; what can each learn from the other and is there overlap in how both grapple with the questions around what design means, how should it be done, how represented, how shared, how evaluated? More importantly, could the introduction of an alternative, and indeed different, perspective spark new questions and save us time in developing solutions.

For example, both have had to contend with methods of visualising conceptual models, the design problem, the design solution and learning or instruction at different levels of granularity. Certainly the way you visually present or re-present a design is important. For both any description is not value free as the describer and, just like the cartographer, this cannot be divorced from, say, their choice of representation form or what, and how it is, represented. Another example is the use of metaphor and analogy associated with aesthetic and performance. Learning design has certainly employed the notion of the play to conceptualise learning and music notion to help imagine how notion could work (James Dalziel speaking at the European LAMS conference hosted at the OU earlier this year). Contrast this with say Parish’s (2007) paper which I’ve just been reading that explores how principles of the aesthetic (art, plays, etc) could support or be integrated in to an instruction design. Indeed, how we conceptualise performance and action touch upon many key understandings such as ‘task’, ‘activity’ and interaction between ‘players’ or other elements in the learning event.  

But in addition to this cross-disciplinary work, both may fit within a broad practice of, for want of a better term, educational design. The question now is what can either learn from the wider design literature? One example is an intriguing study by Boiling I’ve recently come across in to different design cultures on various university design courses. The case study of design in Fine Art describes a very different more communal process of design dissemination and design critique by immediate peers. Group identity and reciprocity appear important, as does negotiations of power and the earning, within the group, of trust and status. What if this model were adopted by a number of learning design teams/ individuals who together form of cohort over the lifetime of their design process?

A second example is from a recent paper (and presentation I attended) by Vasilije Kokotovich. In this he contrasted the practice of novice and expert product designers. The paper found a correlation between the quality of the design problem definition and the degree of creativity and reasoned explanation the final designs were judged to demonstrate. Another key finding of the study was that novice designers tend to head straight to the ‘embodiment’ phase of design – that  is to say, producing the design solution (in the case of learning design, this could be interpreted as the writing, orchestrating and structuring of a course). Expert designers on the other hand took additional steps, such as dwelling on and framing the design problem. The example he gave was that when asked to design a door knob a novice would start thinking ‘what should the door knob look like’ whilst an expert may start by asking ‘what is the problem the door knob is there to solve and what other possible designs exist that could satisfy this purpose better?’ This notion that a design problem will have more than one solution certainly provides justification for learning designers to think round a problem and more creatively and compare choices on offer. More broadly, these findings could help us in supporting learning design more effectively.

Boiling, E. (2003) Design Cultures. Retrieved December 2009 from http://www.indiana.edu/~idt/shortpapers/documents/design_cultures.html

Kokotovich, V. (2008) ‘Problem analysis and thinking tools: an empirical study of non-hierarchical mind mapping’ Design Studies 29, 1. p49-69

Parish, P. (2007) ‘Aesthetic principles for instructional design’ Education Technology Research & Development