The pedagogical planner concept explained
For a more detailed description of pedagogical planners, refer to Cameron, L. “Developing a pedagogical planner”, in Walker, S., Ryan, M. & Teed, R. (2007). Designing for learning: Post conference reflections and abstracts. Greenwich: Greenwich University Press.

What is a pedagogical planner?

The current tools called pedagogical planners can be used for a variety of purposes:

  • As step-by-step guidance to help practitioners make theoretically informed decisions about the development of learning activities and choice of appropriate tools and resources to undertake them;

  • To inspire lecturers to adopt a new teaching strategy and support them in doing so (Falconer, Beetham, Oliver, Lockyer, & Littlejohn, 2007);

  • Provide design ideas in a structured way — so that relations between design components are easy to understand (Goodyear, 2005);

  • Combine a clear description of the learning design, and offer a rationale which bridges pedagogical philosophy, research-based evidence and experiential knowledge (Goodyear, 2005);

  • As a database of existing learning activities and examples of good practice which can then be adapted and reused for different purposes (Goodyear, 2005);

  • As a mechanism for abstracting good practice and metamodels for learning (Conole & Weller, 2007);

  • To produce a runnable learning design intended for direct use by students (Falconer et al., 2007); or

  • To encode the designs in such a way that it supports an iterative, fluid, process of design (Goodyear, 2005).

However, not all of the current pedagogical planners attempt to fulfil ALL the functions above: A number of planners are very specific and focused in their purpose; however, they still perform a pedagogical planning function, despite their limited applications.

An overview of approaches to learning

It was important that that the planning tool used in this project was able to accommodate the variety of learning styles approaches and theories. The approach that a lecturer takes is likely to be based on what they know of learning theory and practice. This can be from their training or from talking to colleagues, as well as the professional know-how they have gained in the course of their career (Knight, 2004). Biggs (2003) suggests that theory makes them aware that there is a problem, and it helps to generate a solution to it. This is where many higher education lecturers are lacking; not in theories relating to their content discipline but in well-structured theories relating to teaching their discipline. This is where the activity planner has been most effective. Reflecting on their teaching and seeing what is wrong and how it may be improved, requires academics to have an explicit knowledge of the theory of teaching that the planner has been able to provide.

Discipline specific knowledge
Lecturers report that their academic disciplines exerted the strongest influence on their course planning (Stark, 2000). The views lecturers held about the nature of their discipline are intricately linked with their beliefs about the purposes of education. Many lecturers felt that these disciplinary influences were strongly rooted in their own scholarly background and were especially dependent upon their preparation and their prior teaching experience. Discipline is the key predictor of classroom goals and beliefs about education while other factors have a much smaller influence.

It is important to understand that the general educational goals are determined through the specific subject content in which they are expressed (Ramsden, 2003). Stark (2000) found the importance of building on disciplinary orientations to support teaching improvement and of fostering understanding of disciplinary differences should not be under-estimated and that it often hampers curriculum committees in their work if they promote institution-wide generic principles. This suggested that a non-specific pedagogical planner (one size fits all) solution that cannot be easily modified, was unlikely to be successful.

Laurillard (2002) found discipline variations in the way lecturers prefer to arrange content parallel their educational beliefs and view of their discipline. Lecturers of History and Fine Arts were different from others in that they placed more emphasis on arranging content according to the way their field is structured, and the vocational fields of Nursing, Business, and Education placed slightly more emphasis on students’ vocation need.

However, lecturers need to know more than just their subject. They need to know the ways it can come to be understood, the ways it can be misunderstood, what counts as understanding and they need to know how students experience the subject. The way the subject is taught is driven primarily by lecturers’ beliefs or by the commonly agreed consensus within an academic discipline about what constitutes valid knowledge in the subject area (Bates & Poole, 2003). The nature of knowledge centres on the question of how we know what we know.

Lecturers’ disciplinary socialisation and their current beliefs about the fields they teach influence how they plan courses as well as how they teach them (Stark, 2000). This illustrates that learning design is not a science but a creative act linked to lecturer thinking that must be examined contextually. Even within a discipline, it has been found there may be a need to approach the same subject in different ways to meet the learning needs of all students (Cook, 2006). Hard-pure disciplines (such as subjects like Math and Physics) tend to make relatively less use of collaborative tools.

Whilst other groups highlight e-portfolios and other reflective technology as key tools, Natural Sciences and Math also make relatively less use of such tools. Soft-pure subjects (e.g., English and Art) value communicating effectively using different modes of expression and also use wikis to encourage shared knowledge-building and active research. Cook suggests it may be that Math and Physics make relatively less use of discussions because of the subject nature, or because the design of the learning does not provide room for discussion. He poses the question: Are the differences between subjects because there are fundamental differences in the disciplines or just the ways the learning approaches have been embedded over time?

The use of e-learning
The role of a pedagogical planner in designing learning using technology is the same as with any other learning design but there are a number of additional factors to consider: most importantly, deciding on the locus of control and working within the available resources. Technological capabilities dictate not how much learner control is supported, but how much is possible. They determine not what should be, but what could be (Hannafin & Land, 1997), hence technology can be used to personalise learning or depersonalise it. The use of technology in university teaching and learning is growing rapidly, with many claims for its increasing impact on the processes and outcomes of teaching and learning. Much of this is occurring in an ad hoc way, driven by the technology itself (Boud & Prosser, 2002). Many of the developments adopt a teacher-focused rather than student-focused perspective in the process of translating teaching practices into new forms. They involve designing and presenting materials using new technology rather than utilising knowledge of how students’ experience learning through the technologies. Our planner offers some alternatives in the form of different types of teaching techniques adapted for online delivery (eg, role plays, Problem-Based Learning, Predict-Observe-Explain, etc) so that the lecturer can explore a range of options to find an approach that they feel is appropriate to their context. Once a lecturer has selected a teaching technique or “template” from the planning tool, he/she can then add their discipline specific content to the template.

The ideal e-learning model would describe how to engage the learners in meaningful tasks, give rapid feedback, encourage reflection through dialogue with tutors and peers, align assessment, and would encourage the creation of a community of learners through discussion (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004). Guidelines for best practice in e-learning can be structured around five key areas (Boud and Prosser (2002):

  • Engaging learners — Taking into account their prior knowledge and their desires and building on their expectations;

  • Acknowledging the learning context — This includes the context of the learner, the course of which the activity is part and the sites of application of the knowledge being learned;

  • Challenging learners — This includes seeking to get learners to be active in their participation, using the support and stimulation of other learners, taking a critical approach to the materials and go beyond what is immediately provided;

  • Providing practice — This includes demonstration of what is being learned, gaining feedback, reflection on learning and developing confidence through practice;

  • Learners should be given time and opportunity to reflect. When learning online, students need time to internalize the information (Ally, 2004).

In addition to the teaching and learning benefits of e-learning, there are also benefits to lecturers in the increased efficiency of tracking and monitoring students’ progress. Yet despite these potential benefits, e-learning is still not uniformly adopted across the disciplines, or even within individual institutions (Knight, 2004). Making the move towards e-learning presents lecturers with a complex set of challenges — they may need to develop new skills, embrace changes in the nature of their role and then reassess the pedagogies they employ. In many cases of “e-learning transformation,” teaching and learning approaches have often simply been re-hosted, not re-defined (Hannafin & Land, 1997). The activity planner can provide lecturers with step-by-step guidance that helps them make theoretically informed decisions about the learning activities, tools and resources they will need to attempt e-learning with some confidence.

In this project we have shown that the complex task of learning design for the higher education environment can be improved with good guidance, inspiring examples, and supportive tools. The learning designs provide an opportunity to share examples of good design practice, which can be tailored to meet the lecturer’s particular requirements.