Thursday, 12 November 2009

Design distance

This is an idea that came to me during a recent meeting with Cluster C of the JISC Curriculum Design programme. I have been reviewing their baseline reports and we were discussing both how design/teaching 'roles' may be changing, and how design for learning takes place at several interrelated levels of the curriculum. I came up with the term 'design distance' to describe the distance that design decisions are being taken from the real learning and teaching process. Learners and teachers responding to the situation as it arises are very close, while those engaged in planning programmes with a 3-4 year lead-in time and no expectation of actually teaching them are very distant.

Technology – and learning design in fact – has tended to be used to increase the distance, or at least deal with an increased distance, e.g. through asynchronous, anytime learning, through segregating design from delivery as a separate instructional role, etc. But there are a few indications from the CD programme that it could be used to telescope the distance in various ways, e.g. using course tools such as Mahara to represent a curriculum to students and to the course validation committee, or using visualisations in a LD system to help designers step into the shoes of learners, or other means of supporting dialogue with learners about their learning, before they are actually engaged in it.

Dimensions of design distance would have to include time, space and role. 'Good' design acknowledges the distance, leaving unspecified those issues that are better determined at closer range. i.e. leaving room for teacher and learner improvisation. Learning design approaches can help by representing what needs to be decided at what level, to retain design effectiveness and efficiency, while leaving other decisions open (guided in various ways?) to those closer to the point of learning. Distance from the learner brings in the issue of how the designers involve and respect those who inherit their design decisions.

It feels like a useful idea - better than 'learner-centred' which has become almost meaningless, and anyway implies that designers are doing well if they *think* what they do is relevant to learners... It can be both subjective and (reasonably) objective as a description of design practice. But I'm wondering if there are any pragmatic implications? Curricula need to be designed at the lowest possible distance from learning if they are to be maximally relevant and responsive. There may problems with too great a separation of roles - design teams who are not invested and implicated in the actual delivery process – as for example the OU has begun to recognise by involving associate tutors in the design process. Engaging stakeholders in design is one way to reduce design distance, and creating flexible designs to be 'completed' closer to the point of learning is another. Must think further about this...


George said...

I think you are on to something here. The concept of distance (critical distance) seems a useful and powerful piece of an analytical toolkit. I am thinking of policy-makers who shape practice from a great distance: much greater than even a course designer who is working on a course they will never teach. Many learning technologists work at some distance from the learning locus; the practice of instructional design is (almost) predicated on defending the distance.

HelenB said...

Yes, that's right. ID depends on the distance and historically descended from it. May be one reason for defining 'design for learning' differently. Designing environments, contexts, pathways, tasks etc which are enabling of learning, while respecting the fact that learning only emerges in the activity itself. The question of proximity might possibly be complicated with the question 'enabling how?' ...?