Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Is learning design like UML?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the #design4learning conference, which was conveniently on my doorstep at the Open University. Jenny Gray has already written her summary of the conference (and she though she was a bit late writing it up!)

I would like to highlight the point the organisers made with the conference name. Calling learning design "learning design" is a misnomer. You cannot design learning. Learning is something that goes on inside the student's head, perhaps most effectively under the support and guidance of a teacher. Therefore, you can only "design for learning", whatever it is you are designing: a course, a activity, a learning community, …. I think this is more than just semantic pedantry. We should all remember this, particularly when thinking about educational technology. There is no magic bullet that guarantees learning will occur. Just things that are more or less likely to encourage students to learn. (Having said this, I am going to just write "learning design" in the rest of this post, since it is so much easier!)

The main thought I wanted to share here is, however, something else. After two interesting days at a conference all about learning design, I cannot recall a single diagram shown by any speaker where I thought, "that is a graphical representation of the design of a bit of learning." Was I right to expect to see that? I don't know, but I have seen other presentation about tools like CompendiumLD in the past so I know it can be done. Pondering this as I cycled home, I got to thinking about the type of design I do know about: design of software, and though of an interesting comparison.

Activity conductingSoftware developers have a well-established way to draw the design of their software, called UML (better description on Wikipedia). Let me say immediately that I am not trying to suggest UML as a way to represent learning designs. Rather, I think it is interesting to think about how developers do (or more often don't) use UML to help their work. Can that tell us anything about how and whether teachers might engage with learning design?

There are two different ways to use UML. There is the quick-and-dirty, back-of-the-envelope way, where you draw of a part of the system to help explain or communicate a particular aspect of your design. This is the way I use UML as can be seen, for example, in this documentation I wrote. You include the details that are relevant to making your point, and leave out anything that does not help.

The other way to use UML is much more elaborate. It is called "Model Driven Architecture" which I studied as part of OU module M885. In MDA, you try to draw complete diagrams of the design of your system using a very precise dialect of UML, dotting all the 'i's and crossing all the 't's. Then, using a software tool (that you probably had to buy at great expense) you press the magic button, and it creates all your classes and interfaces for you. Then you just need to fill in all the implementations. At least, that is the promise. As I say, I studied this as part of a postgraduate computing course. It was of some academic interest, but I have never seen anyone write software this way (though a some people do, if the references in the course are to be believed). I expect more people have bought expensive MDA tools than have actually used them. In a previous generation, the same was true of CASE tools that also failed to live up to their promises.

So what, if anything, can this tell us about learning design? Well, I can see exactly the same split happening. There will be hype about magic systems where you input your learning outcomes, and sketch your learning design, press a magic button, and hey, presto, there is your Moodle course. It won't work outside of research labs, but some vendors will try to commercialise it, and a some institutions will fall for it and end up with expensive white elephants.

On the other hand, it would be good to see a common notation emerge to represent learning designs. This would help teachers communicate with each other, and perhaps with students, about how their teaching is supposed to work. A good feature of UML is that it is really very natural. Most developers can understand most of a UML diagram without having to be taught a lot of rules. There are several types of diagram to represent different things, but they are the kinds of things people drew anyway before UML was invented. The creators of UML just picked one particular way of drawing each sort of diagram, and endorsed it, in an attempt to get everyone talking (drawing) a common language. If you want to draw highly detailed UML diagrams, you need to learn a lot of rules, but you can get a long way just by copying what you see other people do, which is a sign of an effective language. It would be nice to see such a language for communicating about learning.

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