The Open Learning Design Workshops Structure

12 October 2015 - 5:19pm by Ronald Macintyre

This section builds on the reflective account of our own learning journey as we developed an approach to designing Open Learning materials (see Designing Open Learning Journeys) and looks at the practicalities of the workshop series we have been running over the last few years. We make no claims for this as a definitive guide to designing for openness, and notable others have developed particular and successful approaches to developing learning materials. This is simply a first attempt to describe what we do in these workshops, it is an attempt to look at how our underlying ethos informs our own practice rather than a recipe for others to follow.

Session 1 introducing developing a learning journey as a design process

This is an introductory workshop, typically we allocate 3 hours to this session. It starts with introductions and statements as one would expect, but the main focus is on introducing the idea of thinking about developing a learning journey as a design process. Here we typically use some Ted Talks by Tim Brown from design consultants IDEO as he talks about and describes the development of “Design Thinking” and its application beyond products into all sorts of areas, notably social systems (Brown and Martin 2015). As a resource it is not perfect, it does not always fit the contexts in which we work, but this itself is useful as it allows us to start talking about using “found” objects in learning and ask questions about whether people need to make or whether we can reuse.

This workshop is a taster session, where we introduce the idea of open and some of the approaches we employ to design learning journeys. In our experience partners typically have a sense of “the problem” they want to solve, for example communicating a broader scale, or their role as a public facing organisation in an increasingly digital age. Often they have firm ideas about the information they want to communicate to the world. However, we start with the first step of any design process: “who do you want to talk to”. We ask participants to draw a “Rich Picture” (Bell and Morse 2012, also see of their learners that describes them and their context to us as uninitiated in their world. This user perspective can be uncomfortable, it asks people to think about who their audience is, what forms of communication suit them, and critically what they want to know, are they interested in what you have to say. It is uncomfortable because it uncovers assumptions and asks people to provide evidence for their assertions about the audience.

In this workshop we also introduce the sessions that follow which are more practical and look directly at how one constructs how to build on an understanding of the learner to develop a learning journey. We also set some homework: we ask all the participants to write up a persona (or a series of persona’s, for more see Holtzblatt and Beyer 2013) based on their knowledge of their learners. We ask for rich descriptions that we can use to test our later designs, but we also ask people to be clear about their assumptions and be able to back them up with evidence.  These are also important because most of the people we work with want to develop long term relationships with the people using the resources - understanding and empathising with the people for whom you want to create content is crucial. They are key to understanding the promises you make to your learners, and those promises allow us to explore how to enable and deliver on those promises (Macintyre 2014).

Session 2 Design brief and learner needs – choosing to develop an open online resource

By the second 3 hour workshop we have typically had a series of conversations and email exchanges in which we share the persona’s and use cases we developed, where we ask critical questions of each other’s views and over time start to come up with a sense of what a design brief looks like, addressing issues like: what is the problem we are trying to solve, its shape, dimensions, scale and scope. We then focus on those potentially diverse views within the second workshop. While looking at persona’s and use cases tends to highlight gaps in our collective understanding of the learners, their needs and wants, the next section looks at how we might structure a journey to help the learner gaps, highlight gaps we might have and the learners needs that we might not be addressing. We start to look at these people’s learning journeys, where they are, where they have come from, how they arrived, what they will do on the journey and where they will go on the next part of their journey. The use of spatial metaphors is deliberate, as we encourage to people to sit down, work on paper (drawing and writing) to create prototype journeys. Effectively what we are doing is looking at the opportunity of openness, exploring it and then looking at how to exploit those opportunities for a chosen audience (Corbett 2005).

In order to surface these issues we use Story Board as a tried learning design method which has been popularised in approaches like Carpe Diem (see We ask participants to walk through the journey with their students (thinking about the personas) - we are interested in the sequence, the narrative, the tone and the story. We do this in groups of 3 or 4 maximum and we ask participants to seek and build consensus. We look at these storyboards and try to look again at the assumptions, areas of contention and open those out for discussion in the same way we did with the personas and the “Rich Pictures”.  We ask them to think about what the critical points are in the learning journey and what people need to know to progress. We often talk about troublesome knowledge or threshold concepts (Land 2005), as a means to tease out the shape of knowledge within the content. We ask how people find their way, where people might get lost, why they are on the journey, where will they arrive. We ask participants to hold onto these questions and remind them throughout the remainder of the process.

It is at this point we start to encourage people to think about the medium: the online world as a sphere for learning. In particular we look at the affordances of internet as a space for learning, like the ability to track learners and follow them, to do interesting interactive things, to show films and audio, to connect peers across diverse contexts, but also the tendency for people to stumble upon these learning journeys at odd points, the potential to get lost in links, the possibility that people will drift, of how they know when they have arrived. The platform we use in our work is a Moodle based Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) called OpenLearn Works. We tend to talk about this a little in the first workshop, but start to focus our attention on it in the second session where we move from considering the general shape of the learning journey to start to converge on a more detailed set of prototype solutions.  We then review what we have done in the Storyboards and start to shape the leaning journey, identifying areas where we have a consensus (that we need to test) and the questions that remain (which require further research).

Session 3 developing and building the learning journey

This session can sometimes run along with the previous session, but it is probably better to leave some space for people to reflect on and discuss the implications, to refine and develop their understanding of key learning points, of how people will learn, how and whether they might be assessed, and the exit routes. It is also a time to reflect on the implications for the organisation of building a learning journey online and in the open, whether they have the resources to develop it, and even whether it fits with their long term strategy.

It is important to have this gap because the third session focuses much more clearly and carefully on developing and building the learning journey. It is a point where both sides start to commit resources to the process and we see a shift from developing, so called ideation, to a much clearer building focus. It is the part of the design process when we move from addressing issues through divergent thinking (generating lots of ideas) to convergent thinking (starting to focus on what we are actually going to do) (Corbett 2005). Again we tend to use visual techniques to capture this and I rely heavily on spatial metaphors to get people to map out the journey. I ask people to think about the topography of the journey, the places where learners are (physically/virtually), the places you want to take them. I ask them to set out landscape features, the ideas and concepts highlighting key areas. Typically we would set these out on large sheets of paper, perhaps setting them on the wall and drawing out the journey. We then look at how we are going to form this landscape, its features, the text, video, audio, adding this with coloured post it notes and identify the way-markers to allow people to locate themselves and (as appropriate) us to collect data about them. Then we look at landscape interpretation, the support, spaces for discussion and reflection and assessment, again layering these with notes.

As a facilitator I recap by going through the plan we have created, and talk about the implications for decisions, share experiences from other partners and try to ensure we have a shared view of the journey. This means asking questions about key learning points, whether they ought to be assessed, how they will be assessed, explore and delve into what people mean by peer sharing and so on. This still appears to be a messy stage, untidy looking, but it is the raw material we use to start to develop a shared work plan.  With everyone in the room we start to allocate responsibilities, look at resources, schedule further meetings, and try to come to a realistic timetable. This is not the final revision stage, changes can and do happen latter once the written material starts to take shape, but by going through this process we find both sides of the partnership have a clearer sense of what they hope to achieve and how they will achieve it.

Session 4 + Creating and re-versioning content

I say + because creating and re-versioning content might extend over a number of sessions.  They tend to be quite focussed, looking at and reviewing written content, setting schedules for media production, developing a more detailed timetable and key milestones. In many ways here we drift back into what might be regarded as Standard OU module production territory (well suited to OER development, see Lane 2012). However, for us this is not a matter of taking the material from people and doing an “OU thing”, it is about participation and capacity building.  So while we form multidisciplinary teams, with our partners acting as academic authors, online learning technical professional to code and structure the work on the VLE, editors (from the partners, supported by us), film and audio as required, and critical readers (again mostly selected by the partner). We split up into teams for the different phases, with the team that led on the design following through onto the development and review of the materials and production staff becoming more involved.

While a great deal of this activity typically takes place in shared online spaces and over video calls, it is here we also start to refine our prototype. As we refine and develop the material, tone and flow become important, while we may add content and depth we try not to drift from the original concept. The design and development now starts to focus on specific elements within the learning journey. It is at this point we start to look at the design of activities, about the balance of interactive elements, and develop scripts for video/audio elements. We also refine any assessment strategy, the balance of formative and summative (with summative being recognised within the open badges framework), if assessment is part of the brief we might also look at developing things to support routes to credit.

As the process moves through production it is important to remain mindful of the brief we set ourselves, ensuring the partnership is participative and builds capacity, ensuring we keep core ideas, are watchful over mission creep, or vaulting ambitions overreaching themselves, or as is sometimes the case forgetting who is the audience. It is also vital to be able to let things go that do not work, or do not work yet.  Of course one of the attitudes and approaches that underlie the open movement, perhaps the most useful thing borrowed from the open software movement is the idea of things being in a constant state of becoming. As we draw the production process to a close we start to emphasise this sense of a rolling Beta. It is open content on an open platform, others are free to and will make copies contextualising it. The partnership will be monitoring how it works and look to improve and refine the resources once they are in the open.


In this article we have tried to set out our approach to developing open online materials in as transparent a fashion as possible. However, as I read the design literature I recognise in my own description of what we did a common problem: We have tried to be open though we acknowledge that some aspects inevitably remain hidden.  Those hidden elements, the human interactions between people in the design process are often the most valuable to those wanting to know and the most valued by participants. The other element that remains somewhat obscured is openness itself, openness is implicit, as both the underlying motivation and driver, and also within the detail informing our questions and our decisions, but for all that it is somehow still elusive. It is my sense that this is part of the difficulty one has in defining open practice, it is not that open educational practices are somehow contested with multiple definitions, though clearly different stakeholders focus on different elements, rather there is something ephemeral about open practice, it seeps through and as we try and extract its essence, we end up stripping away the context that creates it.  Perhaps if we did try and expose it, it would lie flat on the page.


Bell, S. and Morse, S. (2012) How people use Rich Pictures. In: Open University Colloquium. Pictures to Help People Think and Act. 07 March 2012, Open University, Milton Keynes.

Brown, T. Martin R. (2015). Design for Action: How to use design thinking to make great things actually happen. Harvard Business Review, September 2015, pp56-64

Corbett, A.C., 2005. Experiential Learning Within the Process of Opportunity Identification and Exploitation. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 29(4), pp.473–491.

Holtzblatt, K., Beyer H. R. (2013). Contextual Design. In: Soegaard Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation. Available online at

Land, R., Cousin, G., Meyer, J.H.F. and Davies, P. (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation
In: C. Rust (ed.), Improving Student Learning - diversity and inclusivity, Proceedings of the 12th Improving Student Learning Conference. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 53-64.
[ [Accessed 12th of October 2015]

Lane, A. (2012) Collaborative Development of Open Educational Resources for Open and Distance Learning HEAcademy, [accessed 16th of August 2013]

Macintyre, R. (2014) “Open Education and the Promises we Make”, In MOOCs -Which way Now? ALT MOOC SIG, University College London, 27th of June 2014

Last modified: Wednesday, 19 Jul 2017, 13:25