Module 1 – Designing for flexible learning

This course introduces some key theories and processes relevant to designing for flexible learning contexts. It will explore issues relating to:

  • learning design;
  • flexible contexts;
  • theories and perspectives of learning;
  • analysis of learners and their learning contexts and learning needs;
  • specification of learning outcomes and objectives;
  • selection, sequencing and synthesising of content;
  • the match of learning strategies, content and delivery media;
  • the match of proposed learning outcomes to the assessment of learning outcomes; and
  • the evaluation of programs.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this module, you should be able to:

  • demonstrate an understanding of the general principles of learning design;
  • outline general educational theories and perspectives on learning that influence learning design practice; and
  • participate in reflective discussion on the impact of technology on education and training.

Activity 1.1

Begin by describing your current understanding of designing for learning in flexible environments. You might consider:

  • any theories or philosophies that guide your practice;
  • education or training projects or programs where you have had the role of a designer;
  • how you would describe the field of design for learning to a colleague who is not a designer.

Post your thoughts to the Module 1 forum on StudyDesk. Keep your posting brief and focused on one or two key ideas that you identify in the subject. That will facilitate relevant responses. If you have more ideas share them in additional posts.

Designing for learning

All educators are engaged in designing for learning but the terminology used to describe the process varies. In the latter part of the 20th century the most widely used term was instructional design but more recently there has been a shift, at least in some quarters, toward learning design. That shift parallels the shift away from an objectivist understanding of knowledge as capable of being transmitted from teacher to learner toward a constructivist understanding in which knowledge is built by learners from their experience, which may include input from a teacher. As the emphasis has shifted from teaching to learning thoughts about design have moved from instructional design toward learning design, which is concerned with understanding and improving the learning process.

Brisbane firm, Instructional Design Australia, offers a brief explanation of the differences among educational design, learning design, and instructional design. In their view, all three have value with educational design at the 'top of the tree' and the others focusing on the processes of teaching and learning from different, but complementary, perspectives.

Instructional design developed in response to the need to provide efficient and effective training to large numbers of people, especially in the US military. Those origins resulted in the development of a systematic process that was widely adopted using a variety of models that emerged over time. Although more recent approaches to learning design are more flexible and may be more appropriate to the needs of contemporary designers the systematic and structured approach of instructional design provides a firm foundation on which to buidl with some assurance that essential elements are included. Hence it has been used in the structure of this course.


George Siemens (2002) in his article, Instructional design in e-learning, provides a useful short introduction to the field of instructional design.

Designers for learning

The roles of the designers of learning can be as varied as the contexts within which they work. As noted above, even the terms educational designer, learning designer, and instructional designer vary depending upon context and the precise role

An international organisation with a global membership, the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction has developed Instructional Design Competencies which are worth considering. The following reading provides an introduction to the field of instructional design and an overview of the IBSTPI standards as they existed in 2008. A new edition was published in 2012.


Read Competencies for the New-Age Instructional Designer by Sims and Koszalka (2008).

Reflect on how relevant these competencies are to your area of work.

Discuss this with your peers in the discussion area.

Brown and Green (2006) suggest that the task of designing for learning is to create something that enables a person or a group of people to learn about a particular topic, develop or improve a set of skills, or encourages the learner to conduct further inquiry.

As practitioners of a “linking science”, designers for learning are adept at examining and making use of ideas developed in many disciplines, sometimes borrowing development models created for activities similar to designing instruction (e.g., software development). One tradition within the discipline of design is taking a systematic approach and following accepted protocols for development. However, designers may also take an eclectic approach, borrowing ideas and strategies from several sources.

Design theories and models

Instructional Systems Design (ISD) and the ADDIE model

Instructional Systems Design (ISD) provides one model or framework for the systematic design, development and management of educational materials and programs. This systematic model of design is often referred to as the ADDIE model because it consists of five phases – Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. The simplicity of the ADDIE model has resulted in it becoming widely known, popular, and long lived. Tyson (2009) posted questioning the continuing relevance of ADDIE and describing how its representation has varied over the years. He presented a traditional waterfall versioin in which the 5 phases of ADDIE proceed one after the other from beginning to completion of a project and contrasted that with an olympic rings model in which the phases are interactive and iterative. A quick search in Google reveals that others have produced a profusion of graphical representations of ADDIE.

ADDIE has been used to provide a “shape”or framework for this course. The following graphic organiser represents this framework and as you work through the content of the course, the phases will be explored in more depth.

ADDIE model

In summary, the ADDIE model proposes the following phases of learning design:

  • Analysis - the analysis phase of designing a flexible program generally involves analysing the learner and the learning context, assessing learner needs, determining learning goals and learning outcomes, and analysing the content.
  • Design – in this phase, we consider the sequencing of content, media selection, decide on what learning strategies to use, how learning outcomes will be assessed and feedback provided.
  • Development – this is when the learning materials and activities are developed based on the outcomes of the analysis and design phases.
  • Implementation - the implementation phase is not addressed in detail in this course. However, you are encouraged to later implement your design and perform an evaluation that you will plan in this course.
  • Evaluation - this phase measures the effectiveness and efficiency of the learning design. Evaluation should actually occur throughout the entire learning design process - within phases, between phases, and after implementation.


Have a look at the “Big Dog & Little Dog's Performance Juxtaposition” website developed by Don Clark., and in particular his article Why Instructional System Design? This page provides an easy to read, introductory set of notes on the ADDIE model. The site provides a variety of other material that you may find helpful as you work through the course. Look around and note parts you may wish to investigate more fully.

Remember, ADDIE (and ISD) is one way of thinking about the design for learning process, not the only way. Some practitioners use ADDIE as a prescriptive model for developing instruction, but it is actually a means of describing the essential components of any learning design model (Molenda, 2003).

Beyond Instructional Design to Learning Design

In his article, Beyond instructional design: Making learning design a reality, (2006), Rod Sims proposes that we have moved beyond the paradigm of “delivery”, “instruction” and “instructional design”, proposing that these “epistemological traditions” are “inconsistent with the constructivist, collaborative engagements afforded by online environments” (pp. 1, 2). Writing more recently, Gráinne Conole (2014) proposes a new model based on 7Cs for learning design.


Read these two articles now and consider the merits of these models and the extent to which you might apply this thinking to your own learning design project.

Sims, R. C. (2006). Beyond instructional design: Making learning design a reality. Journal of Learning Design, 1(2), 1-9. doi: 10.5204/jld.v1i2.11

Conole, G. (2014). The 7Cs of Learning Design – a new approach to rethinking design practice. In S. Bayne, C. Jones, M. de Laat, T. Rydberg & C. Sinclair (Eds.), Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning (pp. 502-509). Edinburgh, UK.

Most teachers use some sort of model when they develop a course, whether they realise it or not. Why bother looking at learning design models and learning theories then, if you are an experienced teacher? To be thorough, whether you are a teacher or learning designer assisting teachers, it is very useful to become familiar with models that have been developed and trialled by others. As previously mentioned, using an eclectic approach to learning design - taking the best “parts” of theories of instruction and learning and applying them to your particular situation, may be the best approach.

What is flexible learning?

Many educational and training organisations in Australia and overseas have come to regard the idea of flexible learning as a panacea for the problems facing education. Interpretations of the idea are varied, with proponents referring to it as distance education, open learning and resource-based learning. Some even refer to it as technology-enhanced learning. Some say the interest in flexible learning is a response to mass education and the need to cater for more diverse student groups, particularly those who, because of situation and circumstance, are labelled as disadvantaged. Others suggest it is a response to industry needs for on-the-job training and lifelong learning. Others suggest it is a response to emerging educational theories concerning teaching and learning that acknowledge the importance of learners assuming greater control over their learning. There are others who suggest it is driven by advances in technology where it is now possible to provide students with greater flexibility (giving learners what they want, where they want it, when they want it, in their place, in their time). All of these issues have had some influence on the emergence of flexible learning initiatives at all levels of education but particularly in tertiary contexts such as universities, technical and further education institutions and industry training.

According to the UK Higher Education Academy, Flexible learning is accessing education in a way that is responsive in pace, place and/or mode of delivery.

WikiEducator offers a more expansive description:

Flexibility, when incorporated into curriculum design enables people more choice in their learning.
Flexible learning can occur anywhere, anyhow, anyway. However flexible learning in itself is complex, and not as simple as this definition implies. The interaction of four components - technology, pedagogy, implementation strategies, organisational framework - can lead to learner-centred experiences when they are well integrated (Collis & Moonen, 2001). Also there are five dimensions which can impact:time; content of the course; entry requirements; instructional approaches and resources; delivery and logistics - each with several aspects (Casey & Wilson, 2005). Therefore it is important when designing flexible learning to take a range of factors into account.

Activity 1.2

Conduct a search for scholarly articles on “flexible learning” that may be particularly relevant to your own teaching and learning context. Explore some of the web sites mentioned above and others you may find, and also consider your own experience.

  • What does the term “flexible learning” mean to you?
  • How is “flexible learning” viewed in your organisational context?

Discuss your findings and responses in the Module 1 forum in the StudyDesk.

Constructivism and objectivism

Two schools of thought in the learning theory field – objectivism (also called positivism) and constructivism (also called relativism), have influenced learning design practices. Both can use the systems approaches for analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation, but the approaches that are derived from each tend to reflect basic differences in beliefs and values. Positivists or objectivists believe that knowledge exists independent of individuals, that there are absolute truths that exist in the world. In contrast, relativists or constructivists believe there are no absolute truths, that knowledge is relative to and constructed by each individual (Hannafin & Hill, 2007).

These two viewpoints have different implications for how instruction is designed. In contrast to many individuals who have taken strong positions in support of one or the other of the two sides to this issue, Hannafin and Hill (2007) call for an understanding and respect for both sets of beliefs about knowledge creation and both sets of design practices.

Table 1.1, developed by Reiser and Dempsey (2002) illustrates the differences between objectivist and constructivist approaches. Table 1.2, developed by Hannafin and Hill (2007) provides further information about these different perspectives in relation to design of learning.

Table 1.1: Learning Design Phases with Objectivist and Constructivist Design Activities (Reiser & Dempsey, 2002, p. 76)
Instructional design phases Objectivist design activities Constructivist design activities
Analysis Content Context
  Learner Learner
  Instructional need Problem described
  Instructional goal Key concepts identified
Design Instructional objectives Learning goals
  Task analysis Identify learning sequences (group and/or individual)
  Criterion-referenced assessment Context-driven evaluation
Development Develop instructional materials Construct learning resources/artifacts
Implementation Teacher: conveying, directing Teacher: consulting, facilitating
  Learner: receiving, acquiring Learner: directing, controlling
    Focus: problem solving
Evaluation What a learner knows How a learner knows
  Knowing that, knowing how “Knowing your way around”
Table 1.2: Learning Design Phases with Objectivist and Constructivist Design Activities (Hannafin & Hill, 2007, p. 54)
Epistemological perspectives Design frameworks Design practices
Positivism Objectivism Instructional design
Knowledge exists independent of the learner Transfer knowledge from outside to inside the learner Classroom
There is an absolute truth Arrange conditions to promote specific goals Directed – teacher directing; learner receiving
  Knowledge is engineered externally Goals predetermined
    Objectives defined
    Activities, materials, assessment teacher driven
    Products given to teacher for assessment
Relativism Constructivism Constructional design
Knowledge is constructed by the learner Guide the learner in constructing knowledge Environment
Truth is contextual Provide a rich context for negotiation and meaning construction Learner centred
  Knowledge constructed internally Teacher facilitating, learner controlling
    Learning goals negotiated
    Learning problems and contexts authentic
    Activities, materials, assessment context driven and individually constructed
    Artifacts shared and reflected on, collectively and individually

Although it may appear that there are many tensions between the various schools of thought, if you adopt a more eclectic approach, you will find you spend a lot less time trying to determine which approach is the “best” and more time considering which is the most appropriate mix for your particular context. Anderson and Dron (2011) consider three generations of distance education pedagogy - cognitive-behaviourist, social constructivis, and connectivist - and conclude that rather than each replacing its predecessor in series they are complementary and quality distance education uses all three where appropriate.


Read the article by Anderson and Dron. If you prefer not to read it IRRODL offers an MP3 version in which the paper is read for you.

Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 80-97. Retrieved from

  • How does the inclusive view offered in this paper affect your thinking about designing for learning?
  • What lessons can you take for your own learning design project?

Share and discuss in the the Module 1 forum.

Concluding thoughts

According to David Merrill (2002), learning design should be based upon the following principles:

  • Learning is facilitated when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
  • Learning is facilitated when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.
  • Learning is facilitated when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  • Learning is facilitated when new knowledge is applied by the learner
  • Learning is facilitated when new knowledge is integrated into the learner's world.

The ADDIE model provides a framework for stepping through the basic phases of learning design. Most learning design theories and models have common fundamental underlying principles and it is important to understand that principles of design are far more important than believing in the superiority of one perspective, theoretical framework, or methodology over another.

Activity 1.3


  • Why must learning designers understand how people think?
  • How important is it in your context to be aware of how people think and how people learn?
  • Can both perspectives (positivist and relativist) be “right” when approaching learning design?

Post and discuss in the Module 1 discussion forum.


Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 80-97. Retrieved from

Brown, A., & Green, T. D. (2006). The essentials of instructional design: Connecting fundamental principles with process and practice. New Jersey: Pearson.

Conole, G. (2014). The 7Cs of Learning Design – a new approach to rethinking design practice. In S. Bayne, C. Jones, M. de Laat, T. Rydberg & C. Sinclair (Eds.), Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning (pp. 502-509). Edinburgh, UK.

Hannafin, M. J., & Hill, J. R. (2007). Epistemology and the design of learning environments. In R.A. Reiser, & J.V. Dempsey, (Eds). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. (2nd ed.). NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction: a synthesis. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Molenda, M. (2003). In search of the elusive ADDIE model. Performance Improvement, 42(5), 34-36. doi: 10.1002/pfi.4930420508

Reiser, R.A., & Dempsey, J.V. (Eds). (2002). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Sims, R. C. (2006). Beyond instructional design: Making learning design a reality. Journal of Learning Design, 1(2), 1-9. doi: 10.5204/jld.v1i2.11

Sims, R. C., & Kosalka, T. A. (2008). Competencies for the New-Age Instructional Designer. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. van Merriënboer & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 569-575). New York: Routledge.

Tyson, J. (2009). Is ADDIE still a relevant model? Retrieved from