logo image

ATD Blog

Design for Learning: Break It Down Into Recognizable Elements


Sun Oct 11 2015

Design for Learning: Break It Down Into Recognizable Elements-4cd83954ccaaf5490834a57cb81b6002acff6a3e78d22393c3184f5d4db4daca

One of the key challenges in instructional design, whether for traditional e-learning, blended learning, or social media-focused m-learning, is how to overcome barriers to learning. 

Barriers come in many shapes, and most are exacerbated by bad instructional or learning strategies. Some can be quite subtle, to the point of being almost invisible to the designer, and it is only after the course has launched that the problems surface. Barriers exacerbated by bad learning design include: 

  • Infrastructure Rigidities: The learning management system may have significant design flaws and problems, and the interactive elements (social media, collaboration tools, and interactive databases) may not work as desired, which immediately breaks the processes of learning.

  • Interaction Limitations: This includes interactions between instructors and students, and learner-learner interactions, which form part of the knowledge transfer process as well as assessment, including collaborative projects, portfolios, and so forth. 

  • Culture of Conformity: An inflexible organizational culture which does not allow innovation or individual difference will cause progressively worsening degradation of the learning environment. Similarly, an unwillingness to disconnect oneself from legacy programs also leads to major problems. 

  • Communication Labyrinths and Silos: Many organizations put their information in tiny silos only accessible after traversing an intricate virtual labyrinth. Others rely on synchronous webinars which are not easily attended by all stakeholders, and which are archived in hard-to-find locations requiring numerous log-ins. Ideally, communication between stakeholders is made extremely easy to find, and also encourages comments, responses, and access via social media. 

Design for learning focuses on how to transform existing educational situations into desired situations where it is easier to achieve learning outcomes, explain Guislandi and Raffaguelli in a 2015 British Journal of Educational Technology article. The emphasis is on quality, and in doing so, the approach links the vision of how quality should be enacted in a program to the actual activities and procedures that are built into the learning program. 

In the learning design, it is important to think of how the design of the course can affect ways of knowing, and also how to connect to improvements in practice. 

Breaking Down "Quality" Into Recognizable Elements 

“Investigating Relationships Between Features of Learning Designs and Student Learning Outcomes," a Professional Development Collection compiled by Educational Technology Research & Development discusses how effective learning design is really all about breaking down quality into recognizable elements, and moving "quality" from an abstraction to something that can be recognized, measured, reviewed, and remediated. 

  • Learning System: Make sure that the system used in learning is of high quality. This means that it is necessary to review the learning goals and the potential users of a learning system (whether it be a learning management system, or a LMS-free approach) to assure that it can deliver what it needs to deliver. 

  • User Experience: Make sure that the learner/user experience is a positive one, and that it is friendly, not just for the learners, but also for the facilitators. 

  • Institutional Culture: What are the institutional values? How and when are certain high-quality elements perceived? What is the definition of quality? How does it extend to a sense of respect for diversity, as well as efforts to build an authentic structure that can help learners and facilitators feel confident about their ability to achieve the mission of the organization and their goals as they relate to the institution. 

  • Flexible and Forward-Looking Vectors of Communication and Change: Be willing to adapt existing structures to ones that are more flexible, and which accommodate changing technologies and locations. Ideally, learning organizations should be able to accommodate and even welcome individuals in all situations with a minimum of disruption. Further, the quality elements should extend to encouraging experimentation and innovation, with a high tolerance for failure (and success, which can bring about its own stresses and stressors). 

Case in Point: University Degree Programs/Field Research Courses 
 Let's say that we are a geology department in a state university, and we have a number of field courses. We've been intensely impacted by technology, not only in the way in which we communicate our findings, but also in the way in which field investigations are conducted. 

We require all our graduate students to go out into the field and map outcrops and retrieve samples. However, our administration and insurance providers have recently pulled the plug on the way that we were doing things in the past. They claim that there is not enough quality control in the design of the courses, so what the students bring back from the field are of dubious quality. 


Worse, they're considered dreadfully unsafe; only last month one student tumbled off a cliff and impaled herself on a cholla cactus. She was alone, and it was a minor miracle that she made it back alive. One might say it was only sheer luck that the escarpment was only 15 feet high, there was a ledge that partially broke her fall, and the cholla cactus plant was small and it broke apart upon impact. The weather was chilly and wet, so she was wearing pants and rain gear, which help minimize the impact of the cactus spines. 

Details and luck notwithstanding, what happened to her was a clear indication that the department needs to go back and revisit its design for learning, reviewing four specific criteria: 

  • System: It's possible that the system itself is not giving people an opportunity to plan their research projects well. There may not be effective templates, and it may be important to customize the approach, given that each student's research project will be slightly different. 

  • Experience: What is the user's experience? For the female student who fell down an escarpment and impaled herself on cholla cactus, it's less than ideal. But it could have been worse. Her experience in the field should not be confused with the learning design; the design should be developed so that she had a positive experience in planning and implementing her learning program. 

  • Culture: If the culture of the organization puts a high priority on eliminating all risk and all potential exposure to liability, then they may lose students. They will certainly lose innovative impulses, and many of their creative, inspired (and inspiring) thinkers will be drawn to different places, where they will potentially contribute transformative breakthroughs which could tangibly/substantially positively impact the institution itself and affect its persistence/viability. 

  • Flexibility: Communication could be improved. How about requiring digital inspections before going into the field and maintain an archive of photos of the sites (all of which are geotagged) and the gear. Also, it would be possible to use low-cost satellite phones if there is no cell phone coverage. It's not always possible to work in teams, and so it's necessary to at least have a digital nanny. 

Conclusions and Observations 
 Design for Learning articles are often cloaked in rather obtuse language which can be less than concrete. In order to really grasp the importance of the concept and the potential contribution to an organization, to learners, instructors, and a community, it's important to look at case studies. The concept of “design for learning” does, in fact, provide a powerful mechanism for operationalizing "quality" by breaking it into observable, measurable actions and by providing a platform for dissecting case studies with the idea of incorporating them in one's own learning programs.




Ghislandi, Patrizia M. M.; Raffaghelli, Juliana E. “Forward-Oriented Designing for Learning as a Means to Achieve Educational Quality.” British Journal of Educational Technology. (Mar2015) Vol. 46 Issue 2, p. 280-299.

McNaught, Carmel, Paul Lam, and Kin Cheng. (2012) "Investigating Relationships Between Features of Learning Designs and Student Learning Outcomes." Educational Technology Research & Development 60.2: 271-286. Professional Development Collection. Web. 11 June 2015.

You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In


Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy