Learning design for remote or blended contexts

When it comes to lesson planning, ‘learning design’ is something that may be mapped out to the minutest detail, if time allows, or some teachers prefer to leave rather more to instinct. But how does that decision change when teaching in a remote or a blended context?

Regardless of the setting, there will always be a need to think about and plan for a whole range of learning design elements. These include acquiring knowledge, discussion, collaboration, the sequencing of communication and activity, and whether that is minute by minute, synchronous/asynchronous, online/offline, collaborative/individual, formal/informal, high-stakes/low-stakes, acquisition/consolidation/retrieval, creative, passive or interactive.

The mix of learning design elements that need to be planned into remote or blended lessons is something that Ofsted considers in its recent research report. When adapting a classroom curriculum to remote education it found that principles of learning design such as scaffolding, interleaving and retrieval practice were still important but that remote teaching does need a slightly different approach. 

This is because, according to Ofsted, many dynamics of classroom teaching – such as pupil interactions, relationship building, providing feedback, delivery of practical components of a lesson and other experiences – are not directly replicable in a remote environment. Adaptations to teaching remotely that the leaders Ofsted spoke to had used included:

  • a closer focus on verbal explanations and exposition, and presenting concepts in ‘bitesize’ segments, so that pupils could concentrate for short bursts of time and teachers could check pupils understood the learning points regularly
  • shortening the length of lessons to aid pupils’ concentration spans and to reduce screen time when working at home
  • using a variety of different ways of presenting information, although still making sure they are an appropriate fit to the task; for example, modelling on a whiteboard, using videos, teacher demonstrations of practical work to introduce and reinforce key concepts, using dual coding (combining words and visuals such as graphics and images) to present ideas and concepts
  • ensuring time for pupils to practise what they have learned, for example through independent work or pupil discussion
  • avoiding open-ended tasks that can potentially overwhelm pupils (just as in the classroom, most pupils will be novices in the content being taught) but providing opportunities to scaffold concepts

Learning design models

According to Jisc,

“achieving the right mix of learning activities, tools and technologies for each unit of learning is the art of the learning designer”

and there is no one single pedagogic approach that should be taken when designing learning with digital technologies. Certain approaches suit certain learning outcomes and it is equally important to select the right digital tools to support your aims. However, there are frameworks to help.

Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at UCL Knowledge Lab, is the creator of the Conversational Framework concept; the notion that the teaching-learning process is an interactive exchange of concepts and practice, using the ideas of social construction and collaborative learning. A good, speedy entry point into this way of planning and designing learning is her distillation of the main educational literature on the key findings and principles about learning in this short (five minute) video.

UCL Knowledge Lab is also the source of the Learning Designer tool, a free online tool to help educators design teaching and learning activities and share their learning designs with one another across all subjects. It’s worth a look, though many teachers are likely to find it too time-consuming to explore in depth, especially under the current workload and time pressures.

Another model that is gaining attention is the SAMR (substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition) model. It was developed by Dr R Puentedura, following research into how the use of digital technology was transforming classroom-based teaching and learning. It offers an opportunity for online learning design to include not just substitution activity but activities that take account of the platforms and tools and reinvent lessons. Jisc has a good overview of the model and its uses.

The SAMR model ©Lefflerd via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

Learning design in practice

For asynchronous, pre-recorded lessons, detailed planning is vital, says Oak Academy’s curriculum manager, Katie Marl. She draws on the data derived from Oak’s thousands of lessons to suggest that scripting pre-recorded lessons is key:

“When teachers script their exposition it clarifies and sequences their thinking and that makes explanations and instructions much clearer and more precise and concise.”

She also recommends more scaffolding than might be needed than in a face to face lesson, but less teacher talk. Shorter lessons are more likely to be completed and also mean fewer teacher mistakes and therefore fewer takes with all the workload implications that brings.

However, in a live lesson situation, being able to change course in a lesson, in response to feedback or emerging needs, is likely to provide a better fit to any particular group of students at any given time, when real needs as opposed to perceived or assumed needs become apparent. 

This, of course, poses an interesting conundrum if one is assembling a blend of live as well as recorded teaching and is considering the mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Using technology

The Ofsted research report gives the example of one school which uses a Teams/Zoom platform,  which allowed a teacher to be video-recorded and the lesson streamed (live or pre-recorded) to pupils situated in another classroom or at home. This ensured that pupils who were not in the physical classroom would have access not only to the full content of the lesson but also digital tools to facilitate real-time scaffolding and feedback. This included touch-screen technology for posing immediate questions to the teacher, the use of chat-boxes or the ‘raising hand’ feature of video meeting software.’

However, there are also simpler (and cheaper!) tools teachers can experiment with. In this January 2021 blog post from Edutopia, the author gives some practical illustrations of how to use the Google tool Jamboard to achieve a variety of outcomes and to engage students in an interactive way, in a remote, or blended context (hybrid in the terminology of this article). These ideas could be adapted or transferred to other comparable tools, and may give food for thought to anyone reflecting on the details of learning design in any given lesson or activity. The list features concept maps, inductive learning, ‘gallery walk’, ‘our corners’ , ‘idea lineup’ and ‘vocabulary vine’.

Making time for exploration and innovation

Of course, exploring new models and tools to create great learning design that transforms rather than simply transmits takes time, which can be hard in a period of crisis, as we’ve all seen. Finding space and place for teacher innovation and experimentation can be tricky but some teachers have found that simply taking a little time to touch base with colleagues virtually, replicating those staffroom conversations, can flag up useful ideas which often turn out to solve multiple problems and, ultimately, improve efficiency and collaboration within the team.

Here’s how it’s working for Laura Smith, assistant curriculum leader of English at Sandbach High School:

On BlendEd, we’re showcasing teacher voices so that this kind of collaboration can also happen nationally and internationally, making it easier for teachers to find approaches to learning design that have been tried and tested within the profession. Checking out the search results on the site for ‘learning design’ is a good place to start.

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