Navigating the learning design landscape: A response to Shironica Karunanayaka’s “The challenge of designing learning experiences” 

Professional Identitylearning designer educationLearning design landscape
Shironica Karunanayaka’s provocation, “The challenge of designing learning experiences’, articulates a selection of challenges and opportunities around the creation of learning activities. She asserts the importance of designing “learning activities with a clear purpose and supported with a strong theoretical view of how learning occurs’. This response invites the reader to consider the section in relation to three questions: What theoretical resources does each chapter bring to your learning design work and how do these theories intersect in your current landscape? How does the context from which this work emerges reflect or diffract aspects of your context? What does each chapter demand of us, as readers, as professionals? And how do we feel about those demands?

In her provocation, "The challenge of designing learning experiences", Shironica Karunanayaka articulates a selection of challenges and opportunities around the creation of learning activities. She asserts the importance of designing “learning activities with a clear purpose and supported with a strong theoretical view of how learning occurs and highlights a selection of frameworks and theories that support the design of learning activities. She emphasises the importance of an awareness of both context and “disparities and marginality” in learning design. Her provocation foregrounds two fundamental orientations to learning activity design: authentic learning (Herrington et al., 2014) and Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2018) while identifying three sites for addressing design challenges: pedagogy, technology and content. For each of these, she offers a concept to help the reader think through a possible response 

When I first read Shironica’s provocation, I found much that resonated with my own practice. From a primarily practice-oriented perspective, I see significant value in being consciously aware of which theories, models and frameworks inform our work. Furthermore, I find the three areas Shironica identifies: pedagogy, technology and content, to be an essential starting point for structuring the theories, models and frameworks that shape our work.  

As part of my work, as a staff development practitioner in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town, I teach about learning design as part of a postgraduate diploma in educational technologies, and work with academic staff to incorporate appropriate elements of learning design into their teaching practice. This year we leaned heavily into the metaphor of the landscape when talking about learning design: our participants were travellers through this landscape, they could collect skills and knowledge and then choose what and how to create based on who they were, where they were creating and what they had encountered on their travels. When I think about my teaching this year alongside Shironica’s provocation, the following three questions emerge: 

  • What might be found in the landscape of learning and instructional design? What models, theories and frameworks can be “picked up” in this landscape? 
  • How does our “home” context shape our trajectory through and experiences in this landscape? 
  • How do we feel as we traverse this landscape? 

“Picking up” theories, models and frameworks 

The fields of learning design and instructional design have generated a multitude of instructional design and learning design models, focused on prescribing or mapping the design process (Bennett, 2023) and answering the question “what should the learning designer do next?. Scholars have responded to this profusion by analysing and attempting to categorise these models. For example, over five decades ago Andrews and Goodson (1980) focused on analysing the processes and dimensions encoded in instructional design models. More recently, Branch and Dousay (2015) categorise a selection of models as being classroom-oriented, product-oriented, and systems-oriented, and Stephaniak and Xu (2020) offer a systems thinking review of models, pointing to the need for iterative, contextually attuned models. While these models are central to learning design work, they are by no means the only models, frameworks or theories that shape learning design practiceAs I have already noted, learning design work is shaped by a complex network of theories from a variety of disciplines for example, theories that try to answer questions about how students learn, what students should learn, how memory or motivation function, how belonging functions in online learning spaces. While many instructional design models simply ignore the wealth of theory around them, other models weave theories in so seamlessly, that picking out the theory of learning is almost impossible (see for example, Conole’s 7C’s model (2014) or Salmon’s Carpe Diem model (2013)). While these well-known reviews have offered insight into instructional and learning design models, there are fewer attempts to undertake the herculean task of identifying and mapping the diversity of theories, models and frameworks which shape learning design practices and products 

In her provocation, Shironica covers a great deal of valuable ground about what learning designers should know in order to respond to these learning design challenges and makes reference to what learning designers need to do able to do. Shironica has curated a valuable selection of useful and well-established theories, concepts and orientations, and organised them in relation to theories and frameworks that support choices pertaining to content, pedagogic and technology. This list’s value is in that it is not exhaustive but rather a meaningful selection, based on Shironica’s extensive experience and scholarship. Instead of focusing on a “theory-agnostic” instructional design or learning design model, or a completely “interwoven” model, Shironica offers learning designers a structure to navigate the smorgasbord of theory that could inform our practices, encouraging us to connect the particular theories or frameworks that shape our approach to pedagogy, technology and content. 

When we asked for proposals for this section of the book, we received a wonderful diversity of proposals. While some chapters, echoing the field’s interest in process-oriented models, focus on the design process itself, other chapters focus on the design of learning activities, materials, and assessments. Regardless of focus, all the chapters draw on multiple theories, models and frameworks, some with roots in other fields, disciplines or spaces such as social semiotics, universal design for learning, authentic learning, culturally responsive learning, equitable learning design, chunking and sequencing, affordances, Theory U etc. While some authors foreground a conceptual focus indigenous learning, visualisations of data, mathematics, others foreground the complex interplay of activities, materials and assessment for specific groups of people – educators, tech advisors, learning designers. The diversity of models, frameworks and theories that surface in this section reflect a pressing challenge in the field and practice of learning design – the body of knowledge on which the practice draws is large, comes from different disciplinary spaces and is not strongly structured (for further discussion, see Czerniewicz, 2010). Is the field of learning design moving towards a consensus about key theories, frameworks and models with which most practitioners and scholars would be familiar or is the field still in a proliferation phase? Or, is learning design, by nature an applied field which draws from a wide range of disciplines likely to always be informed by a rich library of intellectual resources?  

Given the landscape, we must reflect on how we prepare novice learning designers, educators working with learning design and learning designers, and associated professional staff (for example, video editors and graphic designers) for this theoretical complexity, and how we support them as they figure out which models, theories, and frameworks to pick up on their journey. 

Connecting context and field 

Learning design work happens across the formal educational sector, from schools to higher education. Learning design work of various kinds is undertaken in training spaces, and in spaces designed for informal or post-formal learning. While learning design and instructional design have deep roots in historically advantaged countries, the Global South has found opportunities to undertake this work in materially different circumstancesLearning designers and others who do learning design work find themselves in contexts that are simultaneously radically different from, but also remarkably similar to, each other. Thus, it is essential to consider the intersection of theoretical options with specific locales and teaching environments.  

The context in which a learning designer or those undertaking learning design work strongly shapes the models, theories, and frameworks are picked up on the journeyAs we collect these resources, we must be able to filter them through the contexts in which and for which we design. Theories that insist on the social situatedness of learning (see for example communities of practice theory a la Lave and Wenger (1991), Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological systems theory (1977, in Shelton, 2018), and work that focuses on the transformative potential of education such as Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000) support our understandings of how the society outside the classroom permeates the learning space itself, shaping curricula, pedagogy, assessment and the institutions and structure of learning. In learning design, the success of the learning experience – a student’s learning, their attainment in assessment, their pleasure in the learning, their commitment to future study or practice in the field – is not entirely within the control of any one individual, not the student, the lecturer or the learning designer. Instead, it is a collective activity, determined in part, but not wholly, by what and how the learning designer selects from their journey. As Fawns, reporting on his work with O’Shea notes, “Learning cannot be entirely predesigned, because students will not simply do what teachers want or expect” (2018, p. 140). While Fawns is talking about/to teachers, this is equally true for anyone who does learning design work. In addition to the individual agency of students, learning is shaped by a host of factors at varying levels of the ecosystem. Thus, learning designers and others who do learning design work may need to exercise their voices to create the conditions that make learning possible, or to mitigate the obstacles that make it more challenging. Based on contexts and capacities, they might need to contribute to policies, advocate for support and argue for structural change. They need to do so in order to improve the work they do as learning designers, and to create the most conducive environment for their actions. 

Articulating the self 

Becoming a learning designer is about more than doing learning design workIt’s also about emotional experiences in relation to a landscape of practice and the resources in that landscape, and it is about developing the human resources to engage with this work.  

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations that have challenged some of my assumptions about learning design work. Working with a colleague who is blind has prompted me to reflect on many of the design activities, which seem to be, at best, challenging and, at times, entirely inaccessible. I, as do many sighted humans, enjoy visuals, and find them aids to recall and often short-hand representations of complex arguments. Working closely with someone who is unsighted has led me to question how to create learning experiences for someone whose fundamental frame of reference and way of learning was inaccessible to me. In another instance, I was in a workshop for which I had created slides, when a colleague commented, “Shanali, that slide is unreadable to me”. The slide was a list of pedagogical strategies – but instead of presenting it as a list, I had created thought bubbles and popped each term into a bubble. The thought bubbles were assorted colours, with good text-background colour contrast. I was confused – “Why?” I asked.  “The way my brain works,” they explained, “the colours are hopelessly overwhelming! I struggle to just read the text with all the extra visual elements.” While I was sitting there processing, no doubt looking like a goldfish, he kindly and patiently explained that recent life experiences have led to the realisation that this response could well be linked to a kind of autism. To finally hammer home the challenges of sensory and neurodiversity, a friend, who I deeply admire, recently reminded me, “Shanali, I have aphantasia. All that time people spend on visuals for slides - I can’t re-imagine them afterwards anyway. I need the text.”  

My response to each of these instances was, at least initially, a veritable stew of negative emotions. At first, the voice in my head is frustrated and defensive: 

I’ve carefully selected the best activity to learn something or how to do something. This way of learning this thing works, at least in my head, for “most” people. Should I deprive the rest of the class of this delightful experience to allow all students to have the same experience? Or should I design an alternative experience for this student? Where will I find the time to design multiple possible learning pathways, resources and lessons?  

The frustration is quickly followed by disappointment with myself, laced through with shame: 

I should know better. I should do better. Everyone has the right to learn in the ways that suit them. It’s my job to make the pathways and make or find the resources that people need to learn.  

Each of these instances has left me feeling rather overwhelmed, both affectively and cognitively by what feels like the enormity of the task at hand. The more that I recognise that each of the people I interact with is an individual with very specific capacities, needs, and aspirations some visible and some entirely indetectable to my eyes the more I appreciate how difficult it might be to design and teach in ways that meet the needs of each staff member and student even part of the time.  

I see this “overwhelm” reflected around me in my colleagues and students who do learning design work. The bar for good learning design work can be set wonderfully high by the theories and frameworks which guide our practice. I see colleagues frustrated when the beautiful designs and innovative suggestions they make, guided by the theories with which they work, are not taken up by the academics they work with, or not received by students in the ways learning designers expect. But, if I consider the specific context in which I work, in a context characterised by extreme material challenges and complex human relationships, the gap between what we would ideally do and what we are able to do can pose challenges for educators, learning designers and students alike.  

Navigating the coming section 

The chapters in this section address a number of interesting questions in the field (for example, how do we organise learning design work, how do we support student learning, how do we do assessment better?) and each chapter addresses these with a particular selection of theoretical and conceptual resources, and critically, from a particular material or physical context. In so doing, each of the subsequent chapters offers some insight into a part of the global learning design landscape. As we approach engaging with the complexity of the final section of Learning Design Voices, I invite you to consider three questions: 

  1. What theoretical resources does each chapter bring to your learning design work and how do these theories intersect in your current landscape?
  2. How does the context from which this work emerges reflect or diffract aspects of your context?
  3. What does each chapter demand of us, as readers, as professionalsAnd how do we feel about those demands? 

By so doing, my hope is that we, practitioners and researchers alike, become more aware of the diversities in our learning design landscapes, better able to choose our trajectories, resources and companions, in a way that produces not only high-quality learning designs, but also greater satisfaction for all doing the work of learning design 


Andrews, D. H., & Goodson, L. A. (1980). A comparative analysis of models of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development, 3(4), 2-16.

Bennett, S. (2023). What might learning design become in the post-COVID university? In T. Jaffer, S. Govender, & L. Czerniewicz (Eds.), Learning Design Voices. EdTech Books.  

Branch, R. M., & Dousay, T. A. (2015). Survey of instructional design models (5th ed.). Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

CAST (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2. 

Conole, G. (2014, April). The 7Cs of learning design: A new approach to rethinking design practice. In Proceedings of the 9th international conference on networked learning (pp. 502-509). Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Czerniewicz, L. (2010). Educational technology Mapping the terrain with Bernstein as cartographer. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(6), 523-534.

Fawns, T. (2019). Postdigital education in design and practice. Postdigital Science and Education, 1(1), 132-145. 

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury. 

Herrington, J., Reeves, T. C., & Oliver, R. (2014). Authentic learning environments (pp. 401-412). Springer New York.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Shelton, L. (2018). The Bronfenbrenner primer: A guide to develecology. Routledge.

Stefaniak, J., & Xu, M. (2020). An examination of the systemic reach of instructional design models: A systematic review. TechTrends, 64(5), 710-719. 

Adaptable ABC: Learning design for all Using Laurillard’s learning types as a lens for course design in a chemical engineering undergraduate courseWeathering the storm by using the Rapid Development Prototype model in online course designDevelopment of a blended course for continued teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic: Experience and lessonsE-Learning tools for contrasting contexts Reflecting on the knowledge-identity nexus in the learning design of an online postgraduate short course"My Choice, My Voice!": Exploring the intersection of technology and pedagogy to foster learner-centred learningA trip to the supermarket: Towards authentic learning design in mathematics for underprepared first yearsDesign principles for developing critique and academic argument in a blended-learning data visualisation courseRethinking and recasting the textbook: Reframing learning design with open educational practicesThe digital divide and the accessibility of print-based learning materialsTen principles of alternative assessmentReimagining authentic online assessment for large classes in a low-tech environmentInclusive online assessment practices in distance learning education explored through autoethnographic narrative vignettes

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