Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

On a tension with teaching designs heavy on constructive alignment

Constructive alignment is an approach to designing courses where there is – not surprisingly – alignment between what the students do, what is assessed and what it is intended that they will learn. It’s gotten a lot of play in the higher education sector over recent years. It has some value, but I’ve always had some qualms about constructive alignment, but I’d like to add another observation about an apparent tension within constructively aligned courses.

Beyond my prior experience, I’m currently teaching a course designed by another academic that has been explicitly informed by constructive alignment. It’s a masters course and the design overall seems quite fitting and it it is certainly aligned. I quite like the design and think it has the potential – all other things being equal – engage the students in some quality learning. However, this alignment is also the apparent source of some tension.

The course is really very hard to get your head around. Trying to understand what a student has to do to complete the course is actually quite complicated. A part of this is the intricate, interconnection between everything. It’s just not a lecture and some assignments. Everything contributes to the end goal. This both reduces the freedom and flexibility of the students, but also means that to feel comfortable in the course they have to understand everything.

The difficulty of intricately, interconnecting all of this has also led to the design of some activities or names for activities which don’t exactly match the common definition for that name. In this case, what is called an online symposium is probably more a writers workshop or peer review session. This leads to students existing understandings creating dissonance with what is actually meant in the course.

Is a course that really tries to follow constructive alignment, destined to have to deal with a tension between difficult for students to understand and generating quality learning outcomes?


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  1. The “we can control learning, we have the technology” contrasts a little with something like this. 🙂

    • woops – sorry I mucked the html the this was meant to be this.

    • ok – here is the link – I thought you could do links in WP comments.

    • Your links worked. It’s just the settings on this template that don’t necessarily make links all that obvious. Must change that setting.

      I think the Johnson article perhaps captures a change that means that the Skunkworks approach is not the solution. Rather there perhaps needs to be a more fundamental change in the thinking – including a major shift from a limited view of managerial science – and operation of organisations as the only sensible way to harness the new possibilities/requirements.

  2. Any rule, philosophy, theory, etc. followed slavishly is bound to go awry. There is simply no model that can account for everything.

    • You are right Kevin. However, I do think that the philosophy of constructive alignment has this tendency to encourage that amount of follow through.

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