Introducing Design for Active Learning (D4AL)

Image showng the University of Hull Venn Building with students in the forefront

The LTE Summer Programme (June 2018) included two days of LTE workshops where  we took the opportunity to ‘launch’ Design for Active Learning (D4AL). This post reflects on the session as well as proving an introduction to D4AL for anyone unable to be there.*

Design for Active Learning is an approach to learning and teaching enhancement, with or without technology but its 2018 – the technology is going to be in there somewhere! Ideally, a session would be blended with some prerequisite preparation followed by hands on time to develop a piece of learning, be it a module, programme or short course.

In the meantime, we’ve squeezed the fundamentals into this blog post…

One of our favourite approaches to discovery is the key questions underpinning any process of inquiry; Who, What, Where, When, Why and How so we’ve structured this post around these.

Who developed Design for Active Learning 

Sue Watling and Patrick Lynch, Teaching Enhancement Advisors in the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Directorate

Presenting at a LTE Summer programme session 

sue watling with a parrot

What is Design for Active Learning? 

D4AL is all of the following:

  • pedagogically informed approach to learning and teaching enhancement
  • evidence/data informed design and evaluation of student learning activities
  • philosophy as well as practice
  • Toolbox (activity templates) and Evidence Hub (resources, videos, literature etc)

D4AL is not about

  • auditing or quality control
  • telling teachers how to teach
  • supporting passive, didactic teaching methodologies

Where can Design for Active Learning happen? 

Anywhere where people can be together physically or virtually; technology is not required.

When can Design for Active Learning take place? 

Any time which suits staff who teach and support learning.

Why develop Design for Active Learning? 

‘Curriculum design in higher education is not a formal activity and there is little support, formal or informal, provided in most higher education institutions to help academics become better at designing learning activities, modules and courses (Nicol, 2012:4)

Nicol, D. (2012) Transformational Change in Teaching and Learning Recasting the Educational Discourse Evaluation of the Viewpoints Project, Jisc. https://www.reap.ac.uk/Portals/101/Documents/PEERToolkit/VIEWPOINTS%20EVALUATION_Final_dn.pdf

Alongside an absence of formal approaches to the learning design, LTE had observed a reluctance to engage with ‘Technology-First’ approaches to enhancement, in particular from staff who were digitally shy and resistant to making digital shifts, both in attitude and practice. We believed all staff who teach or support learning would have a vested interest in the design of learning activities for their students, and wanted to test if brokering discussions via Learning Design or ‘Pedagogy-First’ might take us where TEL-First had been less successful. Our conversations with staff this year plus experience co-leading Module Two of the PCAP ‘Effective Learning, Teaching and Assessment Design’, suggested this was indeed the case.

How does Design for Active Learning happen? (Part One) 

D4AL has three distinct processes.

  • Perspective: the philosophy of higher education e.g. its purpose in 21st century society (this might include widening participation policy, inclusive practice, being for the public good, social justice and sustainability etc) and pedagogic allegiance (this might include a social constructivist approach with an emphasis on active learning, reflective practice and critical thinking).
  • Planning: time to talk and to investigate the D4AL Toolbox and Evidence Hub for the most suitable approach to use. Questions to ask during the Planning might include the following:
    • What do you want your students to do?
    • What would success look like?
    • How will you know when you’ve achieved this?
  • Practice: Carrying out the plan and evaluating its effectiveness. Questions might include:
    • What went well and less well?
    • What would you do again?
    • What would you do differently?

We’ve tried several times to visualise Design for Active but been unsuccessful. Following the session last week, we drew these triple rings within a square.

 Also, we realised the toolbox and evidence hub needed to be defined more clearly.  The D4AL Toolbox is a collection of activity design templates while the D4AL Evidence Hub contains the supporting literature and resources.

How does Design for Active Learning happen? (Part Two) 

An initial teaching enhancement conversation might be brokered in a number of different ways. Institutionally it could be driven by red flags on a data report relating to any aspect of AMREP for examples NSS, MEQ, SEERS, or from a discussion by the water cooler, over coffee or a corridor chat. We would then meet with the programme, module or subject team to discuss requirements and plan the way forward.

Planning begins with Perspective. We’re finding asking staff to think about their rationale for teaching, alongside identification of their pedagogic beliefs, is useful CPD as well as a team building activity. After this, the team would be introduced to the Toolbox and Evidence Hub and discuss which of the activities and resources are the most appropriate.

The Practice stage will be dependent on each iteration. The idea of the Design for Active Learning Approach is it’s flexible enough to adapt to different situations. Whatever is needed, there should be an activity on the Toolbox or a resource in the Evidence Hub which fits.

Not every discussion will lead to a D4AL intervention while not every time the D4AL process is followed, will there be an automatic success. Teaching and learning are complex human endeavors and open to multiple environmental influences. What D4AL can offer, is a way forward, based on combined knowledge and experience. The processes are iterative and cumulative. The more we do with D4AL, the more we can collect evidence of what works well, less well, and what we would do differently next time.

So… this has been an introduction to Design for Active Learning.  The next post will take a look inside the D4AL Toolbox and Evidence Hub and share some of the resources to be found there.


*  See https://libguides.hull.ac.uk/ltesummer/conference for Workshop Abstract


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brought to you by the letter T

cartoon person pulling a yellow letter T
image from https://pixabay.com/en/t-letter-alphabet-alphabetically-1015548/

Restructure complete. For TEL read LTE (Learning and Teaching Enhancement) For TEL Advisers read Teaching Enhancement Advisers.  T for Technology. T for Teaching.

What’s the difference or have they become one and the same? However you view learning and teaching in a digital age, the strength of our new team is how we can be both. We are all aspects of T, in varying degrees of experience and expertise.

I’ve written about the risk of TEL people not getting out and about enough Invisible Tribes and Territories of the TEL People You know how it is. Like attracts like. It seems being badged with technology can make it harder to reach the late tech-adopters, those who tend to self- exclude from anything with a digital flavour. Yet once you get talking about teaching, the technology is usually in there – it just sometimes needs a different approach.

inger pointing at a white cloud on a blue background
image from https://pixabay.com/en/cloud-finger-touch-cloud-computing-2537658/

Design for Active Learning (D4AL) is our solution to TEL isolation.

Partly a response to TEF flags signalling areas to be addressed, D4AL emerged from conversations around adopting a pedagogy first-approach. Instead of going in with tech-first solutions, unlikely to resonate with the digitally shy and resistant, this is an approach to teaching enhancement which focuses on student learning activities. These might include technology, or might not. The plan is to open doors, get to the table and so far, it seems to be working.

D4AL has provenance.

One of the most enduring education development papers, Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles For Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, has us up there at Number 3 Good practice encourages active learning. 

lego bricks from pixabay
image from https://pixabay.com/en/lego-colors-toys-build-up-disorder-688154/

The D4AL Evidence Hub is looking like an education developers pic n’ mix. Primarily about brokering discussions, the first layer of contact is a @50 minute introductory session. A conversation around the table –  tea and biscuits – coffee and cake – with a question format similar to this.

Tell us…

  • What is the context?
    • Where are you now?
    • Where do you want to be?
  • Who are your students?
  • How can our evidence hub help?
  • How will you know success? What does it look like?

Take assessment.  Topics could be team approaches to marking, encouraging students to engage with feedback, alignment with learning outcomes, suggestions for feeding forward or the purposes of the assessment e.g. is it measuring performance or looking for evidence of learning.

In the words of educationalist Graham Gibb, the best way to enhance teaching can be to rethink assessment.

Our Evidence Hub is full of resources. We’re also developing a system for sharing practice. We want to be called on not only for problems but to discover and disseminate what works well too.

Technology has a place. Take assessment again. We can provide support with digital feedback; developing banks of comments or exploring audio or video. We’ll look at arguments for and against, time saved versus time spent. Sometimes investment in a new way of working might not seem worth it but X in Y did Z and are happy to talk to you.

Previous TEL identities and knowledge are still relevant, just not centre stage.

image of the rows of seating in a large empty theatre
image from https://pixabay.com/en/theatre-show-concert-stage-2617116/

After the introductory session comes the bespoke workshop and we’ve been busy here too. Over the last year, Liz Bennett and Sue Foley from the University of Huddersfield have delivered us a D4 Curriculum Design session and Ale Armellini from the University of Northampton ran us a half day CAIeRO taster. We’ve experience of  Carpe Diem and plans to develop discussion prompt cards like those used in UCL’s ABC Connected Curriculum. We’ve also spent two days Digital Storytelling with Chris Thompson from Jisc, definitely want to offer this again, while in November Chrissi Neranzti is introducing us to Lego Serious Play.

Our D4AL workshops will have a blended element so content can be front-loaded prior to face-to-face time. They’ll be hands on and experiential, based on connectionist approaches shown to enhance engagement. I’ve been a supporter of #creativeHE for several years ,as well as facilitator on their open online courses. and keen to explore some new ways of working, There could be post-it notes, story boards, lego, prompt cards, labyrinths and poetry alongside plain paper and pen plus ideas from this Activity book from the University of Stanford’s Reflect Imagine Try sessions.

page from activity book

None of this means TEL has gone away. We might be stepping out of our TEL Tribe, taking tentative footsteps away from our TEL Territory, but in doing so, we’re hoping to attract those who say they ‘don’t do technology’. The number of NAYs, those who are neither Residents nor Visitors but Not Yet Arriveds is higher than many TEL Tribes might realise or believe. The next blog post will be looking at digital disconnection in 2017 in more detail.


*   Chickering, A. W. and Gamson, Z. F. (1987) Seven Principles For Good Practice in Undergraduate Education Washington Center News Fall 1987

#lthechat next week (Wednesday 11th October 8.00-9.00pm) is on the topic of learning design