Designs for Learning – an craft or science?

“robots” by jmorgan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My primary degree is psychology, and I recall during my undergraduate years a strong emphasis on it as a scientific discipline, with all of the accompanying rigour. The mantra that we need to ensure evidence is robust, valid, reliable, reproducible, that we are a serious discipline, far from the pseudoscientific psychobabble of yester year. Fast forward some years, and the discipline is in the throes of a crisis of reproduction (Baker, 2016; Ioannidis, 2005). In what context was the evidence gathered, and can be generalised beyond experimental conditions? Did the authors fudge the data for publications and promotion? Why can’t we replicate findings? Do we know anything with certainty?

Fast forward further, into the arena of knowledge management with Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) exploring tacit and explicit knowledge, and the desire within software systems to codify the knowledge of employees. Resulting from an aggressive business process reengineering period in many organisations, companies realised that people contained a huge amount of knowledge in their heads, not documented in processes and procedures. A lesson learned as things feel apart as employees were fired or redeployed. Approaches are taken to resolve it, that can be roughly categories into two options – (1) have the computer codify the information or (2) better support the social interactions of people.

It strikes me that there are strong parallels to the learning design approaches of recent times. Two key texts include Maina, Craft, and Mor (2015) and Laurillard (2012), along with numerous publications and learning design models, notably the popular ABC Learning Design work led by UCL Young and Perović (2015). This exemplifies an approach to make thinking visible or to codify the design of an module, or programme or instructional event in some way. Typically, this can be done using cards and paper, or more recently, using a myriad of online approaches using Miro, Mural, Trello, Excel, the OU Learner Designer tool, and more. This approach can help develop a shared language around a course design, to share it with colleagues, and even use it to help students themselves by communicating the schematic output to them in understandable ways.

On the other hand, many educators work alone – teaching, improving and evolving their modules alone, with little interaction or input from colleagues, or programme teams, or library colleagues, learning designers,  academic developers, or others, save end of year student evaluations. Here, the explicit codifying of one’s learning design makes less sense, to the individual. In this context, the essence of good teaching is a craft, not a science, and learned from experience and conversations. It has a responsivity and an intuitiveness that can’t be captured or represented for others to duplicate. It is an inherently human activity.

The challenge arises with teaching more in the digital realm, where the places and resources need to be provided and more intentionally designed. The Open University carefully work a process over two years with cross-disciplinary teams to produce these structures, and produce and share scholarship on their approach (Open University, n.d.; Weller, van Ameijde, & Cross, 2018). Care needs to be taken to ensure these are also accessible (CAST), and engaging (Fiock, 2020; Mintz, 2021). Undertaking such work in a craft approach is challenging if not impossible as a ‘lone ranger’, but is too much lost when it becomes to mechanistically articulated, without a guarantee that this intentionality will be enacted by emergent practices with the students?

Can we reach a place where the art, craft and design of learning can engage with the post-digital age, where all three can flourish within our university structures and cultures; a culture where we have moved into more open and networked learning spaces? Optimistically, some universities, like the University of Sydney’s school of business are charting a new course (Blakemore, 2021; Shalavin & Huber, 2021) through models of co-design. By building places where lecturers, learning designers, students come together, and input into these practices, perhaps we can keep the positive elements of teaching as both a craft and also a science – where the human in central, and where all views and inputs are respected and valued, and where learning designs are all the better for it.


Baker, M. (2016). 1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility. Nature News, 533(7604), 452-454.

Blakemore, L. (2021). How can we bring better co-design into our Learning Design practice?  Retrieved from

CAST, I. CAST: About Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from

Fiock, H. S. (2020). Designing a Community of Inquiry in Online Courses. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(1), 134-152. Retrieved from <Go to ISI>://WOS:000506867500009

Ioannidis, J. P. (2005). Why most published research findings are false. PLoS medicine, 2(8), e124. Retrieved from

Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. London: Routledge.

Maina, M., Craft, B., & Mor, Y. (2015). The art & science of learning design: Springer.

Mintz, S. (Producer). (2021). How to Design a Course for Maximum Student Engagement: Seven Innovative Approaches. Webinar presentation (60 min) Retrieved from

Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The Knowledge Creating Company. New York: Oxford University Press.

Open University. (n.d.). Learning Design Blog.  Retrieved from

Shalavin, C., & Huber, E. (2021). Sustainable learning design in large transformational teaching and learning initiatives Paper presented at the ASCILITE ‘21.  Proceedings ASCILITE 2021, Armidale, Australia.

Weller, M., van Ameijde, J., & Cross, S. (2018). Learning design for student retention. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 6(2).

Young, C., & Perović, N. (2015). ACB Learning Design. Retrieved from

Join the Conversation


  1. You mention a very important aspect: Feedback. In face-to-face or in online teaching feedback is a very important tool for improvement. In the end the students have to be happy and have to understand the matter while having (hopefully) fun learning it.
    So evaluations and also just having an Q&A can make the trick in getting a better educator.

  2. A good analysis of the balancing act between the craft and the science, the definable process and the creative improvisational process. Just as teachers need to collaborate on course design we need to see a similar process to change students’ attitudes away from an instrumental grade quest to a more creative process of learning how to learn. Many attitudes need to change!

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