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Why focus on pedagogy?

Christina Smart
Last modified 05 Jul, 2005
Published 09 Mar, 2005
Including a strand of work looking at the practice of teaching and learning along side developments in technical infrastructure is a new venture for the JISC. This article looks at why the e-learning programme is taking this new approach.

This article is based upon a detailed update of the e-Learning and Pedagogy strand activities published on the JISC web site [1].

technology leading education sketch

Fig 1: Technology and Education – source unknown

Too often technology dictates which options are available to practitioners using e-learning. The e-Learning Programme hopes to begin to reverse this dominance by including a strand of work on pedagogy along side work developing new technical tools and frameworks. As the programme develops the projects funded under the technology and pedagogy strands will work closely together to ensure that teaching practice and pedagogy inform the system and software developments and vice versa. In order to achieve this, practitioners and software developers need to find a common language in which both groups can express their needs. Sarah Holyfield explores this idea more in her article on ‘why the e-learning programme?’[2]. Scott Wilson also discusses the importance of the dialogue between pedagogy and technology in his article ‘Can web service technology really help enable ’coherent diversity’ in e-learning?’[3]

Of the four overarching aims of the e-Learning Programme, two relate directly to the e-learning and pedagogy strand;

  • to provide the post-16 and HE community with accurate, up-to date evidence and research based information about effective practice in the use of e-learning tools
  • to promote the application and development of e-learning tools and standards to better support effective practice.

The potential benefit of this approach for lecturers and tutors is that they can analyse and reflect on their teaching practice from a theoretical point of view. This should allow practitioners to make more informed decisions between comparable approaches [1]. Furthermore, practitioners will be able to search case studies to find examples of teaching practice that adopt similar approaches.

The current context

Over the past few years many HE and FE institutions have purchased VLEs to help manage the delivery of courses. However, a recent survey of institutions suggests that while this may have enhanced learner access to online resources, ‘pedagogical issues… are of less concern’ [4]. This programme strand aims to provide practitioners with tools and approaches to enhance their practice of using VLEs and other e-learning tools so that pedagogical issues become more of a primary concern to institutions.

Another recent trend is the shift from focusing on the organisation and provision of learning content to how learning activities are planned and delivered. This is reflected in the DfES’s National e-Learning Strategy.

‘we should offer teachers and lecturers the activity-based design tools that enable them to generate their own new methods of teaching through e-learning.’ [5]

Linked with the shift of focus towards learning activities is the development of the IMS Learning Design specification which is providing the possibility of standardising the way that learning activities are described [6].

Two perspectives: designing for learning and understanding my learning

The e-Learning and Pedagogy strand has funded projects under two broad themes; the practitioner perspective and the learner perspective. The first phase of work titled ‘Designing for Learning’ ran from January 2004 to October 2004 and focused on what teachers do when they are planning learning activities for students. The second phase of the work which began January 2005 will focus on students in the ‘Understanding my Learning’ theme.

The e-Learning and Pedagogy strand programme team recognise the importance of addressing the needs of the community. All the work funded to date has enlisted the help of a group of 90 experts from the HE, FE and ACL communities to define, revise and comment on projects.

Designing for learning

Over 21 reports have been published under the ‘Designing for Learning’ theme, and this article provides a brief overview of that work. A more comprehensive and detailed summary of the Designing for Learning theme outputs is also available [1]. Alternatively, the Effective Practice with e-Learning guide provides an accessible introduction to the Designing for Learning work [7].

This theme looked at four areas. The first area focused on developing ways of linking theory to practice. The second study aimed to define effective tools, resources, institutional and national support services. A third area looked at the learning design concept and tools. Finally, a set of case studies has been developed to illustrate examples of effective practice.

Establishing a theoretical basis for practice

One of the benefits of linking practice to theory is that it will help teachers to analyse and discuss what it is they do [1]. There are many different models available which enable systematic descriptions of teaching practice. A survey at the beginning of the ‘Designing for Learning’ theme suggested that teachers find practice models particularly useful. A practice model describes the approach that a teacher takes; a popular example is Salmon’s five stage model of online learning [8,9]. Of the teachers surveyed most reported that it would be useful to link these practice models with learning theories.

In her initial review of the e-learning models area, Beetham put forward a model of learning activity design, based on the factors that influence the practitioner during the learning design process. These factors are the learners, the learning environment and the intended outcomes. The model is a useful starting point for teachers beginning to analyse what it is that they do [9].

learning activity design model

Fig. 2 A model for learning activity design adapted from Beetham, 2004 [9].

The e-Learning Models Desk Study extended this initial work by mapping practice models to theory. The study was carried out by a team managed by Professor Chris Fowler at the University of Essex.

A review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models by Mayes and de Freitas concluded that there are no models of e-learning per se, only models of learning. Therefore, we need to understand learning if we want to understand what happens when we introduce technology [10].

The review outlined three theoretical learning perspectives

  • Associative view – learning as activity
  • Cognitive or Constructive view – learning as achieving understanding
  • Situative view – learning as a social practice

Each theoretical perspective implies a different set of teaching approaches or practice models.

The following table from the Effective Practice with e-Learning Guide illustrates the above perspectives and their associated pedagogies.

defining approaches to learning

Table 1. Defining approaches to learning from the Effective Practice with e-learning Guide

Mayes and de Freitas suggest that aligning theory, pedagogical approach, learning outcomes, teaching methods and assessment provides the best chance of achieving effective learning experiences for students [10].

Building on this work, Fowler and Mayes propose a mapping matrix which links the associative, cognitive, and situative perspectives with implied pedagogies, teacher and learner roles, learning tasks and learning activities. The idea is that the practitioner could use the matrix as a planning tool where teachers could be guided from the theoretical approach through the associated pedagogies to detailed plans about delivering a particular teaching session [11].

A useful planning tool for practitioners based on the mapping matrix and the learning activity design model is available in the Effective Practice with e-Learning Guide [7].

What makes a resource effective?

Teachers use a variety of resources to inform their teaching practice including e-learning tools, e-learning resources, institutional support services, and national support services. A second major study undertaken within this theme aimed to look at the effectiveness of these resources. Specifically, it addressed whether there are particular characteristics common to effective resources. This study was led by Dr Martin Oliver at UCL [12].

One major conclusion of this work is that there is no single factor that makes a resource effective. However to be effective it is apparent that three key processes need to be actively supported [13]:

  • Representing and sharing knowledge (resources that represent an understanding of a process)
  • Developing individuals (supporting people to do something new)
  • Developing organisations (supporting culture change)

By analysing the reviews six key principles for ‘effectiveness’ were defined [13];

  • Usability
  • Contextualisation
  • Promoting professional learning
  • working within communities
  • Promoting good learning design
  • Adaptability

Developing effective resources is more about the process than the final resource, and it is particularly important to put the users at the heart of the development process for both e-learning tools, support services and resources.

This set of principles can be used by those developing resources and services and they are also currently being used by the programme team to effectively disseminate the e-Learning Models framework and mapping matrix.

Learning by example

It is always useful to see illustrations of exemplary practice. So as well as the theoretical work, the strand has funded the development of a number of case studies from across the HE, FE and ACL communities to illustrate innovative and effective practice. The case studies chosen illustrate different pedagogical approaches such as presentation, discussion and assessment [14].

A case study template has also been developed so that future case studies can be produced in a standardised way. The long-term goal of this work would be to have a repository of case studies that teachers can search to find ideas and can contribute to [14]. The Effective Practice with e-Learning guide provides an overview of ten of the case studies.

Focusing on learning design tools and systems

The fourth branch of work in the designing for learning theme looks at Learning Design. A review by Britain provides a comprehensive introduction to the concept and the tools available to practitioners [15]. The review identifies three benefits of learning design:

  • The first general idea behind learning design is that people learn better when actively involved in doing something (i.e. are engaged in a learning activity).
  • The second idea is that learning activities may be sequenced or otherwise structured carefully and deliberately in a learning workflow to promote more effective learning.
  • The third idea is that it would be useful to be able to record ‘learning designs’ for sharing and re-use in the future.

While new learning design tools are now emerging, at the start of the programme only the Learning Activity Management System (LAMS) was available [16]. A project was funded to evaluate the use of LAMS with teachers and learners. Although the final report isn’t due until May, initial results are promising. Practitioners on the trial are enthusiastic about using LAMS because it allows them to visualise the learning process as a sequence of activities. That visualisation appears to encourage teachers to analyse how they sequence learning activities. Furthermore because it is so easy to build new sequences teachers continually update and modify learning activities [17,18]. Other tools that practitioners use to support learning design activities will be evaluated over the next six months.

How do I learn?

The next phase of projects will focus on learner perceptions of e-learning under the theme: ‘understanding my learning’ [19].

Understanding my learning aims to address the following key questions:

  • How can we support learners with their use and understanding of e-learning opportunities?
  • How can we promote the development of frameworks, models and systems that will improve learner’s access to and choice of e-learning opportunities?
  • What are the current approaches to the design of e-learning environments, and how can these be developed in the future to ensure that we are using sound pedagogical models?

A national survey of learners' experiences of e-learning will be carried out to address some of these questions.

Particular emphasis will be placed on the need to personalize learning experiences for students, because everyone has different learning needs and preferences. To be effective learning environments of the future will need to take these differences into account. The outcomes of this work will be tied closely to the development of new tools for teachers which is funded under the Distributed e-Learning strand of the programme.

Another theme will be supporting learning throughout life. Technology can help the learner manage the personal development and planning (PDP) process and the development of an e-portfolio. The survey will look at how learners currently undertake the PDP process and links to the outcomes of the MLEs for Life Long Learning programme[20].

There will also be a focus on widening participation, assessment and the impact of mobile and web technologies on students.

Spreading the word

In just a year there has been a great deal of activity in defining effective practice and providing a theoretical basis to pedagogy. The challenge now is to raise awareness of the models, theoretical principles, and the mapping tools that have been developed. The Effective Practice with e-Learning guide goes a long way to spreading these ideas and has proved to be very popular [21]. The team are also developing and running a number of workshops to suggest ways in which institutions can embed these ideas into institutional and individual practice. These workshops will run from May to July 2005, details will soon be available on the strand web site.

Ultimately, we need to develop learning environments that are informed by the way people teach and learn, and that support different learning perspectives and pedagogies. To do this we need to develop a common language between practitioners and developers by which practitioners can articulate to developers what it is that they need to support effective practice and developers can clearly articulate what is possible. This can only happen through dialogue between the two communities, and the programme is addressing this by including pedagogy experts in teams developing tools for teachers and in the toolkit demonstrator projects. In addition, software developers have been considering the outcomes of the designing for learning theme [22]. Scott Wilson’s article, ‘Can web service technology really help enable ’coherent diversity’ in e-learning?’ discusses how in the future the development of learning environments can be informed by the associative, constructive and situative learning perspectives and what the user interfaces of such systems might look like [3]. As these new technologies become available pedagogy really will begin to inform the development of learning environments and we will start to reverse the dominance of technology.

Further reading

The Effective Practice with e-Learning guide provides an accessible introduction to the theory, as well as ten of the effective practice case studies. The video clips are particularly engaging [7].

To find out more about the work of the Designing for Learning strand read Designing for Learning; An update on the Pedagogy strand of the JISC e-Learning Programme [1]. Summaries of the activities undertaken in each theme are also available in quarterly updates from the e-learning and Pedagogy strand web site

A paper on the background and rationale of the understanding my learning theme provides more information on planned future work [19].


A full list of the reports published in this strand is available from the JISC web site

[1]Designing for Learning: An update on the Pedagogy strand of the JISC e-Learning Programme. Can be downloaded from the JISC web site

[2] Holyfield, S (2005) Why the e-learning programme?

[3] Wilson, S (2005), "Can web service technology really help enable ’coherent diversity’ in e-learning?":

[4] Managed Learning Environment Activity in Further and Higher Education in the UK. JISC / UCISA report (2003)

[5] Towards a Unified e-Learning Strategy (2004). DfES

[6] CETIS (Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards) web site

[7] Effective Practice with e-Learning: A good practice guide in designing for learning (2004)

[8] Salmon, G (2000) e-Moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. London:Kogan Page

[9] Beetham (2004) Review:developing e-learning Models for the JISC Practitioner Communities

[10] Mayes, T. & de Freitas, S. (2004) Review of e-Learning Theories, Frameworks and Models

[11] Fowler, C. & Mayes, T. (2004) Mapping Theory to Practice and Practice to Tool functionality based on the Practitioners’ perspective

[12] Littlejohn, A. (2004) The effectiveness of Resources, Tools and Support Services used by practitioners in designing and delivering e-learning activities

[13] Sharpe, R. (2004) A typology of effective interventions that support e-learning practice

[14] The Effective Practice with e-Learning case studies are available from the JISC web site

[15] Britain, S. (2004) A Review of Learning Design: Concept, Specifications and Tools

[16] Kraan, W (2005) Getting to Grips with Learning Design

[17]Evaluation of a Learning Design Tool (LAMS) by Practitioners. This project will report in May 2005. A web site reports the project progress

[18] Smart, C (2005) Effective Learning Design using LAMS

[19] Understanding my Learning; Background and rationale. Can be downloaded from the JISC web site

[20] Managed Learning Environments for Life Long Learning programme web site

[21] Smart, C (2005) Effective Practice with e-Learning guide goes like hot cakes

[22] Scott, J (2004). Assessing the relevance of the review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models and the mapping table to designers


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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