Learning by Design: The Development of a Learning Design Strategy at Michigan State University

Learning by Design: The Development of a Learning Design Strategy at Michigan State University

By Dànielle DeVoss, Professor of Professional Writing & Associate Chair and Director of Graduate Programs

A picture of a crowded lecture hall with a green overlay.

Twelve years ago, I chaired one of the eight committees that advised the then-Associate Provost of Libraries, Computing, and Technology.

Twelve years ago, in 2005, Twitter and YouTube had just launched. Google Drive didn’t exist. MSU allocated MSUnet users with 5 megs of space to publish a web page or store files.

In 2005, academia writ large had moved through a boom (the late 1990s) and then decline (the early 2000s) of online learning, utopically considered to be a way to reach all students, any time, any place. A lot of our initial efforts tanked; some succeeded. We learned important lessons for what the future might look like.

Today, in 2017, MSU hosts one of the most innovative large-enrollment online courses in the country: SW 290, Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse, which had 76 students enrolled this past summer. Most of our faculty use D2L, MSU’s course-management system, in some capacity. Our hybrid course offerings are extensive, and we offer several graduate degrees entirely in an online format. The vast majority of our students have phenomenal computing power in their pockets.

Today, in our bricks and mortar spaces, we have Rooms for Engaged and Active Learning (REAL)–classrooms that allow for levels and layers of connectivity and collaboration we may have fantasized about in 2005. All of our publicly scheduled university classrooms offer technological affordances to facilitate learning, ranging from rooms set up with multiple projection systems to rooms with document/object projectors. Our large classrooms are set up with rapid response systems for polling and idea generation.

MSU has historically been an innovator in technology use, policies, planning, and delivery. From our Academic Technology Service units to the tech coordinators and assistants in our units, to the students who push us to think differently and to think further about the integration and use of digital tools, we are a culture of innovative technology use.

Being innovative is one thing. Anchoring innovation strategically in a way where innovation can be nimble, scaffolded, infrastructural, and sustainable is a direction MSU is pointing toward now, with the development of a Learning Design Strategy.

During spring and summer 2016, a small group of administrators, faculty, and students worked together to articulate the institutional values and habits of being that shape our everyday professional lives, and our experiences as Spartans. At every discussion and with every document, we placed learning at front and center. We imagined learners as a broad group–including students, of course, but also staff and faculty, administrators and partners. We imagined learning as a complex, multifaceted activity, engaged across space, time, technology, and tools. And we imagined digital tools, technologies, and spaces as always orbiting around learning and learners.

Through this thinking, we developed a draft Learning Design Strategy to present to the MSU community. We present this draft in three layers:

First is PURPOSE, where we situate MSU’s core values and strategic framework–quality, inclusiveness, and connectivity, as expressed through our Bolder by Design imperatives.

Second is PRACTICE, where we discuss the institutional habits or practices we value and enact–the habits by which we articulate the institutional core values of quality, inclusiveness, and connectivity.

Finally, we discuss PERFORMANCE, which introduces a set of heuristics that serve as thinking tools for us to enact the Learning Design Strategy as a resource to help shape, advance, and enrich the work we do.

In 2001, then-university president Peter McPherson predicted that “more change than ever will be required and the university must balance its priorities carefully while continuing to adapt.” President Lou Anna K. Simon, in the Bolder by Design initiative, has called for us to be, by 2020, the national model of a high-performing public research university, providing high-impact, high-value results, experiences, and services in every area of our mission.

A Learning Design Strategy is crucial at this particular scholarly, public, technological, and cultural moment. We can’t rest on our digital laurels, congratulating ourselves for hosting phenomenal MOOCs; patting ourselves on the back for being a home for innovative minors and learner opportunities; or thinking we’ve done what we need to do to create an ecosystem of sustainable, robust digital learning.

What we need to do now–as a university and as a community devoted to learning and learners, at all phases of their personal and professional lives–is strive to articulate the long-standing values we hold dear as an institution and make sure those align with the ways in which we engage learning on a daily basis.

Today, in 2017, rather than convene a set of committees to chart MSU’s digital learning futures, we instead want to crowdsource this work.

To do so, we need broad stakeholders. We need supporters. We need nay-sayers. We need students, staff, and faculty. We need representatives from across MSU to contribute to the development of our Learning Design Strategy.

We need you to participate in this important discussion. You can do so by visiting the PURPOSE, PRACTICE, and PERFORMANCE sections of our Learning Design Strategy and telling us what you think in the comment section at the bottom of the PRACTICE and PERFORMANCE pages.

Need a place to start? Consider answering the following questions:

  • Does this current strategy reflect your own practices?
  • Are there other institutional habits that we have missed and need to add?
  • How do you guide, inspire, and shape learners?
  • How have you been guided, inspired, and shaped as a learner?  
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