Designing Learning @ UCEM

Our flexible approach to online learning gives students the freedom and support to balance their study, work and home commitments, while working towards their career goals. Students can take flexible routes through their study, choosing where and when they want to study, and what resources and activities they engage with. While weekly learning activities are provided to support students in planning their time, none are compulsory. Students are offered a range of options to engage with content and exchange with the learning community, which creates an inclusive and accessible environment.

Despite its flexibility, online learning is challenging. Evidence suggests that while online provision gives greater access to education, once inside the digital space those learners can find that they are in fact more disadvantaged and that achievement gaps are widened (Moore and Greenland 2017; Kizilcec and Halawa 2015). This is largely due to employment commitments combined with a lack of flexibility in assessment policies. UCEM aims to overcome this through enhanced student support and learning design. We provide students with relevant learning experiences and assessments aligned with workplace challenges, along with support throughout their studies from academic staff and support tutors. Our Educational framework provides the scaffolding to design high quality, relevant and engaging modules that takes into account the challenges our students face.


Educational Framework

To give our students the greatest chance of success, learning design at UCEM starts with learning outcomes and assessment design, with appropriate pedagogical approaches employed to provide tasks and activities that clearly support students to develop the skills and knowledge they need to develop those outcomes and  undertake their assessment.

Our approach can be broken down into three core areas:

  1. Learning design: Student outcome-led design (SOLD). A learning design model to structure our modules and provide consistency and a clear student journey.
  2. Learning approach: Active and authentic. Active & Authentic. This approach builds knowledge, skills and competencies valued in industry through active engagement with learning content, engagement among learners, engagement with industry networks, within the VLE and openly on the Web.
  3. Teaching approach: Online presence. Tutoring and facilitating asynchronous and synchronous online presence from the beginning of the module, including teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence, to create a holistic supported learning environment.


Framework elements

SOLD is our learning design model. It is based on the principles of backwards design, a model used for designing courses for both online and face-to-face settings across the world. Wiggens and McTighe, in their book Understanding by Design (2nd Ed., 2005), describe the three steps of backward design.

  1. Identify desired results. What should students know and be able to do at the end of the course? These are your learning outcomes.
  2. Determine acceptable evidence that students have achieved these learning outcomes. These are your formative and summative assessments.
  3. Plan learning experiences, instruction, and resources that will help students be able to provide evidence that they have met the learning outcomes.

This alignment of desired learning outcomes, assessments, and teaching and learning activities provides consistency for students and supports more accurate construction of course concepts. We begin our module design with the end in mind, using an assessment-first approach. Starting with desired learning outcomes, clearly stated in measurable terms, and working backwards through assessment activities, teaching and learning activities, and content delivery.

Our pedagogy builds on theories of constructivism (Piaget), social constructivism (Vygotsky), and cognitivism. We group these perspectives into a ‘participatory’ approach, which encompasses the concept of active learning. Our focus is to foster engagement with learning content, engagement among learners and engagement with industry networks. This is in contrast to more transmissive approaches, which require students to be more passive, for instance watching or listening to lectures. Consider the difference between listening to someone report on a meeting versus when you are in the meeting debating a topic with colleagues. The differences in approach are self-evident.

Fink (2013) suggests thinking about active learning as the intersection of three components:

A ‘rich learning experience’ is a concept that aligns with both learning outcomes and assessments and provides opportunities for students to learn new concepts and skills or to practise concepts and skills they have recently learned. Providing activities for students that ask them to actively participate, either individually or in groups, is an important way to both increase motivation and support learning.

Educators around the world have used participatory pedagogies to create many different techniques and approaches to support learning and teaching. In our module design, UCEM uses a number of different approaches that particularly support our learners to have an authentic experience, i.e. to be of relevance to industry. These include inquiry-based learning, competency-based learning, problem-based learning, situated learning and design-based learning.

An example from a real estate development module might be having students explore a local building they feel is successful for their community. They observe the types of amenities, design and surrounding area and demographic, and connect their observations to course concepts about environmental, economic and social sustainability and place-making. Online, the students could share pictures or video of their exploration and their reflection with the class through a tool such as FlipGrid or in a discussion forum, where they can compare and contrast their experience with those of their classmates.

To support the design of participatory learning activities in our modules we have developed a set of ‘learning types’, adapted from Professor Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework. Our six learning types are represented throughout the module design and development process in our storyboarding, exemplar learning activities, moodle templates, and finally in the user interface and scaffolding for learning that our students interact with. 

Active learning requires active teaching, and our modules will be designed to encourage a greater online presence for our module teams. Being actively involved in your module will promote student success. While online classes provide students with more flexibility and new ways to collaborate, success in the online environment is directly related to how present and engaged the tutor is in the virtual classroom. This is supported by a number of researchers in teaching and learning, and many others studying the psychological and sociological aspects of learning and computer-mediated communication.

Being present in your online class is not only about good practice and supporting student learning and engagement. Tutor presence and communication is what makes the difference between a class being considered as a distance education class versus a correspondence course. Distance education contrasts with a correspondence course in that it includes ‘regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor’ (OLC, UPCEA and WCET (no date)). Interaction cannot be primarily initiated by the student. The instructor must initiate interaction too. Simply posting recorded lectures or textual materials online, along with exams or quizzes, are unlikely to meet evolving teaching excellence guidelines and may influence whether students can use financial aid to enrol (for US students a course must have ‘significant faculty-student interaction’).

Garrison (2011: 22) proposed an approach which addresses holistically the social dynamic of learning without a face-to-face context. We have adopted his three types of online presence in the planning and design of UCEM’s modules.

  • Teaching presence: This is tutor interaction with students and content. This includes course design, facilitating discourse, direct instruction, and responding to students.
  • Cognitive presence: This is students and faculty interacting with content. This includes critical thinking about content area and constructing meaning.
  • Social presence: Students interacting with each other and their instructor. This includes trust and respect; community and purpose; and open conversation.

Whilst the module design process does not cover development of online teaching skills, this is area we can explore to identify useful resources or approaches to support particular activities. At the end of the module development a Tutor’s Guide will be provided to support tutors and teams in delivering the module, facilitating discussion, in the moment interaction and being present online.



Biggs J (2003) ‘Aligning Teaching and Assessment to Curriculum Objectives’ in AdvanceHE [online]. Available at:  [accessed 3 April 2019].  

Fink D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass:

Garrison, D. R. (2011) E-learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Kizilcec, F & Halawa S (2015). ‘Attrition and Achievement Gaps in Online Learning’ in Proceedings of the Second (2015) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale, ACM. New York: ACM.

Laurillard D (2002) Rethinking University Teaching. A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies. London: Routledge.

Moore C & Greenland S (2017) ‘Employment-driven online student attrition and the assessment policy divide: An Australian open-access higher education perspective’ in Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 21(1) [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 April 2019].

Piaget, Jean (1968). Six Psychological Studies. Anita Tenzer (Trans.), New York: Vintage Books.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wiggens G & McTighe J (2005) Understanding by design, (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.