Applying a Learner-Driven Philosophy to Course Design


University courses need regular revamping to stay abreast of the latest academic research and to properly leverage the recent education technology innovations.  The Master of Laws course (International Law and International Relations) at Flinders University is no exception.

The institution’s co-course developer, Dr. Grant Niemann, felt it was time to review the course and posed the ‘revamp’ challenge to Nicola Parkin, Learning Designer at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching with the College of Business, Government and Law.  Together they created an unconventional design process aimed at creating an online student-driven experience.

The Philosophy

Parkin and Niemann started their development process with a deep exploration of what learning meant and how teaching could become a ‘learner-driven’ process by giving the students the freedom to pursue what it is they want to concentrate on.  They combined an intuitive approach to learning design with established learning design principles, exemplifying the six slow design principles of ‘reveal, reflect, engage, participate, evolve, and expand’

The Student-Driven Learning Process

Along the journey, they kept returning to the underpinning philosophy of their working process – the power of students to meet their own learning.  Incorporating this at every development point they even implemented this description on the first-page topic guide of every unit.

Below is an excerpt from the Topic Guide:

“The learner-driven model differs from the traditional teacher-focused model when information flows in one direction: down from the teacher and the teacher’s intervention in the processes of learning is much less dominant than the traditional model.  Part of this is because technologies make it possible for learners to be online modern-day information ‘hunters and gatherers’.  In the learn-driven model espoused here, the teacher only needs to provide the student with sufficient information to get going; ‘on the right track’.  The learner then takes over and explores the electronic knowledge domain, pursuing their own areas of interest within the broad parameters as set by the teacher.  Teachers are responsible for maintaining the right conditions for your learning: sometimes standing back, sometimes leaning in and sometimes meddling in the middle.  Your role as a learner is to take charge of our learning and to support your fellow learners in the shared journey that you take together. Learning = noticing a shift.”

Deep Pattern Approach

Every unit follows the same structure, with the same arrangement of topics, type of activities and assessments.  Parkin calls the repetitive nature of the course structure a ‘deep pattern approach’ and believes it facilitates students, as they know what to expect at any single time during the course.

The Assessment Processes

The assessment process involves an active participation of the learner.  Students can see how they are learning through peer assessment and weekly self-reports on learning.  This enables students to “own” their learning process and report back to the assessors.

The Outcomes

Students reported that the learner-driven philosophy of the course was meaningful to them.

“This online study is a first to me, but I would say overall the online learner-driven philosophy is highly positive,” explained one student. “Even shy students who feel discouraged from discussing the issues in a classroom context are more likely to participate in an online discussion situation.  In my opinion, a learner-driven approach allows for students to take charge of the discussions and interactions among themselves.”

Overall Parkin and Niemann see their unconventional process as a success.  They gave life to an outdated course and empowered a new cohort of online students to take ownership of their education and learning process.

Want to learn more about course design?  Have a look at Blackboard Digital Teaching & Learning Series

To learn more about how Flinders University created an online student-driven experience