Designing Open Learning Journeys

13 October 2015 - 1:37pm by Ronald Macintyre

open education is a social justice issue

This article looks at some of the work conducted by the OU in Scotland (OUiS) over the last 4 or 5 years with partners to bring new content into the open. It provides an overview of the approaches we have used to help us design these learning journeys. It examines the work that has influenced us, our own journey as we have refined and developed the approach and details the process and outcomes from the learning design workshop plans that are slowly developing and evolving out of those experiences.

Early Approaches and Influences – a series of case studies

The process of and questions about open education and design arose out of work OUiS did under the auspices of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Innovation Voucher Scheme. Here we describe the work with a group called Community Energy Scotland (CES). CES faced a problem: funding for the support they provided to communities was dwindling while requests for support were still forthcoming. They looked to us to help them create an online learning journey for communities looking to improve the energy performance of communal buildings, and we looked to the OU’s Labspace (now replaced by OpenLearn Create) as a space to host this journey: being online and available to use was more important than being openly licensed.

Knowledge about how to support these communities was based on the experience of front line staff, and we needed to find a way to capture this knowledge and communicate it more widely. I had been using persona’s and use cases as part of my work for the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute. We used approaches from User Experience (UX) development to codify the knowledge, getting front line staff to create “imagined communities” and design the learning journey around them. We ended up using these communities to structure the course (Macintyre 2013).

At the same time our work was also focussed on the learning at, for and through work. Our work was principally with Trade Unions (TU) in the workplace and we became interested in aspects of role/work design, and learning for doing more generally (Macintyre and Heil 2013; Macintyre and Thomson 2013). The underlying ethos was on the role of education providers outside the academy and supporting those distanced from education. However, it led to encounters with countries with different labour market relations, specifically the Scandinavian countries where some of the early co-operative design approaches emerged, first with workers becoming involved in process design and later with end users engaged in product design (Gregory 2003). Ultimately this shaped the development of the co-design and participatory design movements (Kensing and Bloomberg 1998; Bjongvinsson 2012) and the emergence of “Design Thinking”.  For us this was a fertile time and influences seemed to crash together, with the work of Yishay Mor (see Mor  2012, and more recently Yishay Mor - participatory patterns workshops) and colleagues in the 2013 OLDS MOOC, along with “Design Thinking“ advocate Tim Brown (see the Harvard Business Review - When everyone is doing design thinking is it still a competitive advantage and on the Ideo site Ideo design thinking website) drawing on similar routes albeit in different ways, and in turn shaping our understanding. All these influences seemed to have a lot in common with the underlying principles and focus of community development, where I had worked as a consultant.  I had also been a community member in initiatives with communities and Third Sector organisations exploring questions of local democracy, participation, drawing out hidden voices, in particular approaches to participatory action research (see Wikipedia - Participatory action research). All these influences about how to deal with complex problems and ensure people have a voice also informed our approach.

This mix of tools from UX development, of design thinking, of community empowerment and participatory design methods have all come slowly, rudely together with the joins often showing into an approach to working with partners.

Our Journey

While for me the work began with Community Energy Scotland, others in the team were also thinking about open education. Most notable was the work of Lindsay Hewitt, first with the Bridges Programme and most recently with Caring Counts (Hewitt 2013). While techniques might differ, the underlying drivers, the sense that open educational resources provided us with opportunities to work in areas that often fall outside formal curriculum, and gave our partners an opportunity to explore and develop what open and freely available resources might enable for their organisation and the people they support. As this sense of bringing new voices into the academy developed alongside a focus on design thinking, on participatory design, it became clear that while these design approaches often worked well with known problems and clear solutions, the most difficult issues often do not have clear solutions. One of these challenges for open education resources and practices we identified early on was the demographic profile of users, and we began to see this as a “Wicked Problem”, and look at how approaches to “Wicked Problems” (Buchanan 1992) might help us define the problems and the solutions.

In consultancy with a Local Authority on low energy technologies in social housing we had been using “Soft Systems” (see Openlearn - systems engineering: challenging complexity and watch Communicative Art - the art of rich pictures) methods to explore how people learned and adapted to those new technologies. It reached into questions about fuel poverty and we realised the experts on energy systems and fuel poverty were social housing residents who had learnt through doing. We started working with a local energy charity and exploring the idea of creating a series of learning resources on energy generally and the low temperature heating systems that were becoming popular in social housing. We began using “Rich Pictures” to tease out the main issues as well as energy control strategies employed, we also used this approach to work out how we might communicate these to others. Our plan had been to create an open online resource, but residents were keen to see a well-crafted simple leaflet that could be shared and adapted by the numerous local organisations that worked with people in fuel poverty. Together on lots of big bits of paper we drew up “wire frames” with layout and text for the leaflets, then got a designer with experience of working in a community setting to work with residents to capture their ideas in a flexible and adaptable format. We went in wanting to create an online resource and left with a leaflet (Macintyre 2014a).

We began to refine our approach to using soft systems to identify the problem and engage in divergent thinking and then “Design Thinking” to converge around prototype solutions, refining our approach to creating design spaces (Sanders and Westerlund 2011) in a pilot with a Highland school.  We worked with teachers to meet the challenges of developing and interdisciplinary curriculum posed by Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. Our experience of using systems approaches like “Rich Pictures” suggested this was a good way to tease out information on practical aspects of living in remote rural communities, and we used this to get pupils to identify and work up a series of design briefs to address challenges they faced. We then took them through the design stages, prototyping and testing their ideas. We employed a range of techniques including personas to refine and test ideas, storyboarding and wire frames for technical ideas (Macintyre 2014b). In another pilot we worked with the Trust for Conservation Volunteers Scotland looking at routes into Citizen Science for older people. Working with a “Lunch Club” in Fife we employed similar techniques, getting people to sketch out the opportunities and challenges of engaging in collecting biological data and working up prototype solutions which they then tested on themselves and then later cascaded out to their peers (Macintyre In Progress).


Through these experiences we started to develop a sense of what it meant to work with partners to bring new voices into the academy. It was not a formulae, but it was a structure and a series of tools that allowed the partnership to identify critical areas, refine their approach and together create free and open content. In some respects it was our shift from thinking about content and licences to a broader sense of what openness meant for our own practices and what it might enable as we looked to smudge the boundaries between the academy and those in the informal education sector. We sometimes grandly called it bringing new voices into the academy, but on reflection it possibly has more to do with Martin Weller’s (see Martin Weller's blog) work on the open academic and a long and winding journey to explore Coughlan and Perryman’s question on the “public open scholar (Coughlan and Perryman 2012) which for us shifted to “what does an Open Educational Practitioner look like”. We explore some of the practicalities of this in the course being developed as part of OEPS and in a related article on the Learning Design Workshops.

Image source: Open Education is a social justice issue - photo by Beck Pitt CC-BY 4.0 taken at the OpenTextbook Summit, Vancouver in May 2015


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Last modified: Wednesday, 19 Jul 2017, 13:23