Researching the design challenge

This post reflects on the research conducted at the Inspiration and Ideation stage of the Learning Design Studio, which is part of the OU module H817 Openness and Innovation in elearning.

The Inspiration and Ideation stage of Learning Design was to review case studies and theoretical frameworks to develop design patterns and principles. The purpose of this was address the design challenge based on evidence of what might have been done before and from case studies of learning designs in similar contexts.

The challenge

In my previous blog post, I described the process of articulating the context. The context refers to the design space and the concerns of the learners and is what the designers have to work with. The challenge is the change that is desirable to be effected in that context. For our project, the challenge was: 

to design a mobile learning application that will facilitate learning through the exploration of the UNESCO world heritage site the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland. The project is geared towards young people from the ages of 10-14, but will also be applicable to overseas tourists and students. The challenge is to engage the learners while at the site as part of a broader seamless learning approach, where the learning can be consolidated when back in the classroom. Typically, the learners will visit the site as part of a field trip, and the challenge is to use mobile and social devices to support the learning goals around understanding and appreciating the historiography of the site including discussion around legend, myths and how people in history have interpreted the site and how it came into being.

It was important to articulate the challenge so that the type of research conducted would look for a similar contexts such as field trips, local history, learning in outdoors environments (as opposed to museums) and use of mobile devices.

Reviewing the evidence

I chose two case studies which seemed to align with the context and the challenge. This was an enjoyable and interesting  activity that increased my own understanding of mobile learning ‘in the wild’, approaches to learning about history using augmented reality and geo-location, and group interactions in informal learning contexts with mobile devices.

  • The first case study was a comparison of offering audio tours around Nottingham, UK (Fitzgerald et al., 2013) which compared a people-led tour (with human guides narrating scripted audio) and a technology-led tour (with smartphones where GPS activated audio at selected points) on the subject of the issues around the interpretation of the 1831 Reform riot.
  • The second was an account of designing field trip activities for primary level students visiting the Chinatown area of Singapore using mobile devices (So et al., 2009), where the learning outcomes were to facilitate knowledge building in an outdoor location. This study demonstrated how the design evolved from an instructivist approach of consuming information at points in the field trip to one where students used Google Maps to track their own journey, making and sharing  notes and observations with peers and culminating in a review of the artefacts students made.

For each case study, I wrote a design narrative summarising the key points and lessons that might be derived for designing mobile learning in the field. Another team member contributed case studies and narrative, so the team had a body of evidence from which to derive design patterns and principles.

The Learning Design process instructed the team to write design patterns and principles derived from the insights gained from analysing the case studies in order to ‘formulate [the] insights into “building blocks” for design’ (OU module materials, Mor, 2013).

Despite the existence of a template, deriving the patterns was challenging partly because I wasn’t sure what level of granularity or generality to aim for in the patterns. Using the design narratives as the source, I devised a pattern about promoting critical thinking and higher order skills when on a field trip through clear learning goals (preferably learner derived) as well as specific activities.

In addition to the case studies, I also chose a Theoretical Framework for Mobile Learning (Herrington et al, 2009), which informed writing a principle of using the learners’ own devices and one about using mobile devices to produce as well as consume knowledge. These were uploaded to the group’s project site for review and discussion.

The case studies, design narratives, patterns and principles helped to develop some key design directions which the team could agree on. The possible tensions between mobile devices as distractions in an outdoors setting and the possible negative effects of group cohesion was something we had already identified in the personas’s factors and concerns and which surfaced in the patterns and principles. so we knew we’d need to take account of this in the design. The opportunity of using the affordances of mobile devices for enhancing learning in contextualised situations and at outdoors sites was an exciting prospect to inform the design, especially where co-creation of content and development of an artefact could be part of the activity.   Thus, the process also informed what we would not do, in this case only deliver media to users on mobiles at points at the site, and we would not make the activity linear and prescriptive. These insights helped when it came to developing the storyboard.


Reviewing case studies of similar contexts and challenges and finding theoretical frameworks that can inform a design is something that I’d do instinctively, especially if it is a context I am unfamiliar with. This activity took a more structured approach to reviewing  case studies and theoretical frameworks with the additional instruction to derive patterns and principles. The idea is to have a bank of patterns and principles that a learning designer can call upon. Writing a pattern was unfamiliar  and it took some time to conceptually understand not only the purpose but also what a pattern looked like. Was it a recipe? Was it a FAQs? Was it a do’s and don’ts? What is the level of detail? Who is the pattern for? How makes a good pattern? Are patterns peer reviewed?

Looking at some other patterns was useful, but many of the examples we were pointed to seemed incomplete. This is one of the activities I would like to go back to, understand better and consolidate, as although I derived a number of patterns and principles for our project, I am not sure that in a future real-world project,  I would go out and seek other patterns (where would I go? Wouldn’t it be better to read the actual case study or design narrative?), nor would pattern writing be something I would necessarily include in a learning design process I was managing, where time becomes a constraining factor.

One final thought about the importance of evidence-based design is that it brings a level of objectivity to the process.  While this was not the case in our team, developing narratives, patterns and principles could also help diffuse tensions and disagreements in teams or with stakeholders holding differing views about a design direction, by using the objective (but still interpreted) evidence to inform design.


FitzGerald, Elizabeth; Taylor, Claire and Craven, Michael (2013). To the Castle! A comparison of two audio guides to enable public discovery of historical events. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 17(4) pp. 749–760. Available at:

Herrington, A., Herrington, J. and Mantei, J. (2009) ‘Design principles for mobile learning’ in Herrington, J., Herrington, A., Mantei, J., Olney, I. and Ferry, B. (eds) New Technologies, New Pedagogies: Mobile Learning in Higher Education, Sydney, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, pp. 129–38.  Available  at edupapers/ 88/

So, H.J., Seow, P. & Looi, C.K. (2009). Location Matters: Leveraging Knowledge Building with Mobile Devices and Web 2.0 Technology. Interactive Learning Environments, 17(4), 367-382. Available at:


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