On October 30 I watched a webinar (recording below) given by Joyce Seitzinger (@catspyjamasnz) and hosted by the Commonwealth of Learning. It was titled, “How Learning Design Systems can help scale and accelerate learning design”. If you work in higher education helping with the practice of digital (or post-digital education) – which is a bigger group of folk than it was 12 months ago – then I recommend the talk and the approach. Especially, if you’re having to deal with scale – large student numbers, large numbers of courses, multiple offerings etc.

Joyce’s work is important work because it engages with one of the more challenging questions facing higher education

How might the diverse knowledge required for effective design for digital learning be shared and used sustainably at scale?

aka. how do Universities move beyond providing guidance and actually help with the provision of digital education.

The literature (e.g. the intro of Jones, 2019) recognises this question as essential to higher education, but also identifies significant problems with existing solutions. Buying new technology, running PD sessions outlining the “5 guidelines for X”, or doing ad hoc instructional design projects aren’t cutting it. The work Joyce and her colleagues are doing with Learning Design Systems draws on successful practices from a different realm in an attempt to systematically answer the question.

Upon reflection, I’m wondering if I missed something in Joyce’s talk? Perhaps my limitations and the limitations of a (less than) 60 minute webinar on a complex topic are showing. The bit I missed – the components of the design system – appear to be one of the key enablers of scale in web design systems. I also wonder if/how the concept of design systems can be used without requiring learning design project teams. Before getting into those questions, I’ll start with my summary of Joyce’s talk.

A summary

A familiar problem

Joyce’s presentation started out talking about an increasingly familiar problem facing higher education, especially within Australia. i.e. the increasing complexity of the inputs and expected outputs of learning design. At RMIT Online this involves a need to design large numbers of diverse courses that are offered multiple times a year to an increasing number of students. Where the design and delivery of those courses involves an increasingly diverse modes and is supported by a diversity of partners. With subject matter experts including both traditional academics and external experts, and increasingly involving other partners. Increasingly, these courses are leading to different credentials.

These are trends I’m seeing across Australian higher education. One of the more recent has been the rise of micro-credentials partially in response to moves by the Australian Federal Government. Moves that mean Australian Universities are increasingly going to face the same problem that Joyce describes.

Design Systems – a less familiar solution

Joyce pointed out that seeing teaching as design for learning has long been recommended as one solution to the increasing difficulty and requirement for quality learning and teaching (e.g. Goodyear, 2015). What Joyce didn’t mention directly is that in higher education the practice of teaching as design for learning isn’t as widespread as it should be. In part, because effective design for learning requires a detailed and diverse collection of knowledge. Knowledge that not many teachers have and which institutions continue to struggle with providing at scale.

Joyce’s solution to this scaling problem is design systems. An idea drawn directly from web design. In web design, design systems specify in detail the common components that are used to design a web sites and applications (Churchill, 2019). Joyce points to design systems examples such as Atlassian and one more focused on digital learning from Future Learn. Churchill (2019) points to this gallery of different (web) design systems.

The fundamental idea behind design systems is not new. Manufacturing, industrial design, and architecture (e.g. Alexander et al, 1977) have been using collection of modular components to share the knowledge required to construct large scale products for quite a while. Suarez et al (n.d) cite McIlroy’s (1968) proposal for software components as a solution to the (first?) software crisis as inspiration for design systems. Tesler’s Law of the Conservation of Complexity arises from addressing a similar problem 20 years later in dealing with the production of GUI software. The hypermedia community was talking about patterns and constructive templates in the late 1990s (Nanard, Nanard & Khan, 1998). Echoing work in object oriented programming (Gamma et al, 1995) that had significant impact on practice, and later work with design patterns for educational design and network learning (Jones, 1999; Goodyear, 2005) – that had less impact on practice.

What is a design system?

I was looking for a definition of a design system to use in this post. A task more difficult than I thought it should be. The first definition that started to resonate I found here

A Design System is the single source of truth which groups all the elements that will allow the teams to design, realize and develop a product.

A source that has a nice image outlining some common elements of a design system, including: identity spec; principles; best practices; components & patterns; tools; style guide and pattern library etc.

Learning Design Systems

Design systems for the web don’t having anything to say about design for learning. Raising the question about what makes for a learnign design system? Joyce’s answer appears to answer this by adding fairly common contemporary practices in higher education, including: adopting a collection of learning design principles and standards; and, a focus on a collection of activity types.

The seven learning design principles include a focus on designing specifically for online (assessment, learning activities, resources, tools and social interactions) and explicit integration of industry relevant. These provide a shared goal for design and enable quality assurance.

Course design focuses on learning activities as the “pedagogical building blocks”. A small taxonomy of activity types is specified (assimilative, experiential, interactive, productive, social, meta cognitive) echoing taxonomies from Diana Laurillard (acquisition, inquiry, collaboration, discussion, practice, production) and the Open University (Toetenel & Rientes, 2016) (assimilative, finding/handling information, communication, productive, experiential, interactive/adaptive, assessment). Linked in turn with a focus on constructive alignment.

Wrapped around this is a collection of artefacts including: guidlines, templates, process, examples, and training. For each course, these artefacts are used by a design team including: course coordinator; designing academic; learnign designer; and, multimedia developers.


Measures provides to illustrate the positive impact of this approach, included

  • Reduction in course development time (28 to 16 weeks)
  • More reliable quality at QA checkpoints
  • Internal team spending less time on course projects
  • Improved pass rates and student satisfaction


Is it just a better conceptualised version of common practice?

Much of what was discussed in the talk – a focus on activity types, constructive alignment, course recipe type abstractions, course development teams, course standards or principles – I have seen in use elsewhere. For example, ABC Learning Design and the practices adopted by groups similar to RMIT Online (where Joyce works). Though in my experience those examples were perhaps as not complete and as consistently implemented as Joyce described.

Beyond good implementation, I’m wondering what makes this work an example of a “design system” rather than an instructional design process/team?

Which brings me to the next question.

Where are the components?

In introducting design systems for the web, Suarez et al (n.d) argue that design systems rely on the combination of 2 concepts: standards; and, components. Where they define components as

portions of reusable code within your system and they serve as the building blocks of your application’s interface.

Standards provide guidance about how those components are designed and designed with.

The Future Learn design system – fairly typically for a web design systems and cited by Joyce – provides a collection of components. Suarez et al (n.d) describe the benefit of components is that they reduce “technical overhead”. They do this by packaging necessary design knowledge into reusable buiding blocks. With a decent collection of building blocks the act of design is achieved by assembling building blocks that embody good design. Making it easier to scale good design.

Suarez et al (n.d) also argue that a design system is never static or complete. Over time improvements and changes are required. The reusable components of a design system are not meant to be static. As you use these components to do design you encounter new needs. Hence a part of of the design process is tweaking and improving the components. Given the nature of components, this tweaks and improvements can then be reused in other projects – “[t]his is the power of scaling that a design system offers” (Suarez et al, n.d).

I couldn’t see any mention of components in Joyce’s talk. The closest perhaps being the activity types. But I couldn’t see anything like the Future Learn catalogue of components. Hence I’m wondering if the ability to scale is missing?

Where are the learning activity/task components?

Even the Future Learn catalogue is somewhat limited. All of the components appear to be fairly typical web interface (content) components. For example, card, feedback message, and timeline). None of which I’d consider learning activities. Hence the Future Learn system appears likely to help with scaling the design of the web pages/sites, but not so much help with scaling learning design.

The Future Learn systems is based on the Atomic Design Methodology for web design systems. Atomic Design has five (non-linear) stages of design

  1. Atoms – Basic HTML elements that can be broken down any further. Fairly abstract.
  2. Molecules – Simple groups of atoms (e.g. search form) that have a specific purpose.
  3. Organisms – Complex collections of atoms, molecules and other organisms (e.g. a header that includes a search form). Apparently, organisms provide “an important sense of context” and used to form specific sections of an interface.
  4. Templates – A collection of components placed into a layout to specify a content structure. i.e. there is a focus on structure, rather than content.
  5. Pages – Specific instances of templates.

Folk at Future Learn describe the confusion they had drawing the line between molecules and organisms. Hence they dropped organisms.

Where would learning activity components fit in the Atomic Design Methodology? Would defining organisms as molecules that enable a specific learning activity/task be a place to add in an explicit learning and teaching focus? Or is that just too low a level for an activity that might involve numerous people, completing quite complex tasks, extended over a lengthy time period?

Web components to the rescue?

Somewhere in here is also where the PSU web component work enters the picture. This is a collection of web components which you can use now thanks to their unbundled approach. An approach which I think is potentially very useful for a design system. Though, at the moment, their components are also more focused on content than learning activities.

What about a forward-oriented design perspective?

Dimitriadis and Goodyear (2013) argue that design for learning (aka learning design) needs to be more forward-oriented. That is, there’s a need to move away from the view of design as producing a course (learning task/environment etc) so it’s ready for the start of semester. To move away from the idea that design is somehow separate from the other stages in the lifecycle of a course. Instead, when designing, there’s a need to actively consider what will be required during configuration, orchestration, evaluation, and reflection and respond to that.

Extending that to components, a learning activity component should not only embody design knowledge that helps with creating an effective, consistent interface. It needs to offer functionality that embodies design knowledge that helps learners and teachers during learntime (orchestration) etc. As a simple example, a component that displays options for watching films within learning material in a consistent, effective way (see image below) depending on how the institution has been able to provide access. A component that recognises the film availability changes and hence the learning materials need to be kept up to date. A process that can be painful if the film is mentioned multiple times. A component that supports configuration by drawing film availability from a spreadsheet. Allowing the teacher to change a single line and have that automatically applied throughout the learning materials.

What about when learning design doesn’t/can’t occur?

The RMIT online design system involves a team of five people with different skills helping with the design of each course. The literature has identified that this is a resource intensive approach and that such resources are not always possible. Joyce explains how their design system has reduced the required resources, enabling more scale. However, there is a limit to that. It’s not possible (yet, perhaps) in all contexts. It’s certainly not possible in the context in which I currently work. Nor has it been possible in any university in which I’ve worked over the last 30 years. Even in an earlys 90s distance education provider – where a team approach was nominally possible – it was heavily constrained in terms of staffing and restricted to a very specific set of standards. Bennett et al (2017) describe the situation like this

Design support services exist centrally or within the faculties of all Australian universities, but these are limited resources for which there is strong demand, leaving many university teachers to rely on their own skills. (p. 133)

Teachers are having to do it themselves. No designer in sight. The question then is, if you can’t rely on a project team to bring together the necessary design knowledge to help improve distance education, then how do you do it?

Goodyear (2009) introduces two images of teachers: long arc; and, short arc. The long arc teacher takes time to think about designing a course and associated tasks. A short arc teacher doesn’t have that time. Arguably, the prevalence of short arc teachers is increasing. The long arc teacher image is the focus of almost all attempts by institutions to provide “help”, which is probably why “most of the effort by L&T centres is directed to a small minority of willing academics” and such “centres are not equipped or motivated to operate strategically, at scale” (Ellis & Goodyear, 2019, p. 202). Goodyear’s (2009) suggestion to help short arc teachers – who won’t make use of traditional support measures, but do use a range of tools – is to “embed good ideas in these tools” (p. 16).

The image of the short arc teacher echoes the idea of a bricoleur. Someone when faced with a project does not engage in strategic analysis and design, but rather figures out how to achieve the project with the tools (and knowledge) already at hand. They engage in bricolage. Bricolage is a concept that has been previously used to understand the work that teachers typically do (Hatton, 1989). Given the nature of bricolage, if what the bricoleur is doing is less than stellar, then the issue lays with the tools that they have at hand.

I’m wondering if providing an effective learning activity design system might help address this? i.e. more than just a collection of web design templates, but a collection of components at the organism and template level of the Atomic Design Methodology. Components that provide support for the forward-oriented design of situated learning activities. Echoing the recommendation from Ellis and Goodyear (2019) that institutional strategy around learning and teaching should shift “to infrastructures and service interfaces for a manageably small set of particularly valued activity systems” (p. 188).

Components that can be picked up by teachers engaged in bricolage, but also be used by long-arc teachers and learning design project teams. Components that are not simply collections of purchased technologies, but proactively designed to explicitly support the forward-oriented design of valued learning activities.

The card interface is one of my early attempts at providing this type of support (Jones, 2019). The origins of the Card Interface was a startegically important push by the institution (for better or worse) to encourage the modularisation of online learning content. But the tools at hand really didn’t provide significant support to that activity. The Card Interface does a better job. It’s a tool that’s been used both by project teams and “short-arc” academics. Just this year it’s been used in 300+ courses at my current institution, and it’s spread. Since September, it’s been used in 130+ courses at the National University of Ireland Galway.

What happens when digital education is no longer web-based?

The Future Learn design system, the Atomic Design methodology on which it is based, and the work described by Suarez et al (n.d) are all based on the assumption that you’ve building websites and that you are able to create reusable components. There are two issues with that: 1) the limited forms of integration support by current common digital learning tools; and, 2) the increasing move away from the web.

The Card Interface is possible because Blackboard Learn (Classic) is at some level a collection of HTML pages and we can insert web components within it. The next generation systems – Blackboard Learn Ultra – removes this capability. Echoing the move away from the web to the app and higher education platforms and cloud infrastructures. Most of the other common digital learning tools (e.g. PebblePad, Echo360) generally don’t play well together. When they do play together they are limited to LTI lego block integration.

At the other end of the spectrum are web components (e.g. the PSU web component work). Web components provide an effective way to package and reuse work like the Card Interface. But it requires a different type of infrastructure and approach than the pay for a platform (e.g. O365) and support it approach that most higher education institutions are curently using.


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