Digitally Mediated Learning… If We Start With the End, What Does It Mean Over Time #54 #cong16

By Padraig McKeon.

When I first started to live in a house with ‘piped’ television in the early 1980s I recall being curious, if not bewildered, at the concept of the ‘Open University’. Around midnight every night BBC2, would put out a series of ‘lectures’ to complement books and assignments delivered and exchanged through the post. It was beyond me as a method – it seemed more that a bit hard core – I’m not sure if the word ‘geek’ even existed at the time?

It was perhaps the analogue version of a MOOC but whereas the TV lecture proved simply to be a mediated complement to traditional study methods, the evolution of the MOOC is challenging the shape of education way beyond the parameters of where, when or how it is delivered.  

It isn’t just that MOOCs “have gone from cameras at the back of U.S. college classrooms to several full-fledged ecosystems in the global industry of online learning” (Merrill, 2016). It is more that they have spawned an appetite for ‘edutainment’ that one could argue threatens the boundaries of the modern world definition of education, certainly as we define it in the western and developed world.

That modern definition has evolved from the concept of a ‘classical education’ which emerged initially in the Middle Ages. The ‘classic’ education is rooted in three basic tools of learning: Grammar (the tool of knowledge), Logic (the tool of reasoning) and Rhetoric (the tool of communication and expression) delivered over three phases – primary, secondary and tertiary. The desire within given societies for a greater faith based or a secular outcome evolved variations but for the greater part, it was understood by educators that that classical education embraced “a canon” of knowledge that an educated person should come to know which was represented in a body of literature, poetry, history, drama, arts, philosophy, mathematics and languages.  

In the tertiary phase – university and higher education – we are now accustomed to the development of more multi-disciplinary and applied programmes, building on and evolving from the classical core and becoming staples of the wider modern higher education landscape.

I hadn’t thought too much about the baseline for that expansion before earlier this year when I began work on preparation to teach some modules in a new MSc in my area of professional experience – Public Relations and Communications. Two of the six modules are to be delivered online so I participated in some development work around MOOC course and delivery design, and it wasn’t at all what I thought it would be, from the starting point on.

The MOOC starts out in a very different place. Conole sets out the case for an approach to design which “can create relevant, engaging and memorable educational experiences that successfully address the specific challenges of learners”.

Quoting Frey she lists the key facets of design as: 

  • The importance of designing a purposeful journey and making this clear to the learners.
  • Making efficient use of the limited time available to learners.
  • Directly linking learning goals to activities.
  • Building on existing understanding and addressing any gaps in understandings
  • Providing immersive, real-world simulations or experiences.

 Diaz highlights the importance of the educator in a distance learning context getting to “know the learner… distance learners are a heterogeneous group and that instructors should design learning activities to capitalize on this diversity. Because the dynamic nature of the distance population precludes a “typical” student profile we should continually assess students’ characteristics.”

With that thinking as a backdrop, I found myself in a structured workshop to design an element of the course that I was to deliver.  There were several steps in two broad stages – planning and design.

In the planning stage, I had expected to start with the ‘Learning Objectives’ – the classic tool of stating the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire by the end of a course.

  • Instead we were asked first to focus on the expected learners and to develop personas for those people – a concept straight out of marketing school.
  • From there we were encouraged to fill in an ‘Empathy Map’ to further develop our understanding of the persona at whom the   course work was directed. In concept and in presentation it was the ‘Business Model Canvas’ for an individual customer. 
  • Next was to create a ‘Transition Matrix’ where we were asked to consider the effect of the intended learning on the target persona– using a ‘before and after’ assessment in the voice of the persona to bring the matrix to life. 
  • This was then complemented by looking at the assets that might be required to achieve that transformation – what media might easily be used by the target persona to engage with the learning opportunity 
  • It was only then, five steps in, that we looked at identifying intent from an educational or pedagogical point of view 
  • The final step in the planning stage was to set out the foundations for the planned programme which are the learning theories that it will be based on. 

Moving into the design stage 

  • We now had a brief from the planning stage which clarified the aim of the course - which clearly was very learner centric
  • From that then we looked at a selection of instruments for delivery and matched those back to the intent(s) that was/were identified earlier 
  • The shape or pattern of the course could then start to take shape by grouping and sequence activities, again built around the recipient’s needs and dispositions.
  • At that stage, the course designer could draw up a story board for the course illustrating an expected flow of activities. 
  • The final stage is to evaluate the storyboard for alignment with the aims and objectives set out, the presence of a clear purpose and logic for teachers and the presence of a flow and a narrative in the presentation.

Where is the place of ‘the canon of knowledge’ in that design process?  It is assumed that the process will deliver an opportunity for knowledge to transfer from one to the other but the creation of the MOOC is market led. The design process in my experience has more in common with the planning of a digital marketing campaign than anything else that I have dealt with.  

It raises the question, is this education?  The harder question may be ‘is education this?’ Does the scope to learn what you want, where you want, when you want and from whom you want mean that in time there will no clear definition of what a ‘good’, or as referred earlier, a ‘classic’ education means, certainly in the tertiary phase. 

In a 2010 commentary in Harvard’s daily college newspaper, the Crimson, feting the appetite of the time for multidisciplinary learning, Mironova asked “does Harvard define what is worthy of knowing and, in turn, what it means to be educated? If so, how authoritative are these judgments? In the past, it was easy to define a canon that every educated person should know because there was simply less to know. As far as recorded history went, there was less material. In the realms of literature and philosophy, less had been published”  

That is not the case now and is less so daily when you absorb the 2013 SINTEF finding that “a full 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years”

Does the combination of courses now designed entirely to meet the learner’s disposition on how, when and where to learn and the vast array of information available online, with barriers to access lowering continuously, threaten the very concept of a classical education? 

If we are to concede that it does, should we look to limit the boundaries?  Could we accept it as inevitable in the tertiary phase where the learner is expected to be self-directed in any case? Can we countenance a mediated approach to secondary or even primary education? What would be the effect? Does it matter?


Conolle, G., 2015. Designing effective MOOCs. Education Media International, pp. 239-252

Diaz, D. &. C. R., 1989. Students' learning styles in two classes. College Teaching, pp. 130-134.

Mironova, Y. (2010) What an education means - The Harvard Crimson.[Accessed 21 November 2016].

On line course report. 2016. State of the MOOC 2016.  [Accessed 16 November 2016].

Osterwalder, A.  2016. The Business Model Canvas.  [Accessed 21 November 2016].

SINTEF. "Big Data, for better or worse: 90% of world's data generated over last two years." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 May 2013. 


CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie