ABC Learning Design from the trenches

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ABC Learning Design is a high-energy, hands-on curriculum development workshop developed at UCL which has gained a lot of visibility in recent times. ABC promises that in a very short time, teaching teams can work together to create a visual ‘storyboard’ dealing to the design of a module on a blended or online format. The creators claim that this approach generates high levels of engagement and stimulates creative informed dialogue and group reflection about curriculum design among even time-poor academics. The buy-in for academics is that sessions are under 2hh, no preparation is needed, and it is based on a student-centred approach. All materials are openly shared through their website, and the ABC community has proven to be extremely willing to engage in open pedagogical practice.

I have been a long time Viewpoints user, and this tool has served me well during the years. I however struggle sometimes to guide teams through the storyboarding exercise using this tool; so I had been looking for the opportunity to experience the ABC approach and most importantly, learn if ABC meets its promises from those ‘in the trenches’. I had reviewed all the ABC material but I needed a bit more of concrete direction about how getting started. As colleagues at DCU are currently working with UCL in the Erasmus + project ABC to VLE, and organising a very successful stream of webinars and events to disseminate the outputs of this project, it seemed that the opportunity was ripe to follow through. It is also very timely for us in UL, in the context of the discussions that are taking place in our Learning Technologist Forum, and also in the context of plans for widespread curriculum transformation.

Lovely Clare Gormley from the Teaching Enhancement Unit in DCU agreed to facilitate for us a full ABC Learning Design workshop and a follow up ‘train the trainer’ session, which was attended by a group of 26 educational developers and technologist from UL and a number of other institutions on January 23rd. I was so impressed with the level of interest generated, with colleagues travelling from all corners of the country, including a day trip from and back to Sligo in dense fog! I had the opportunity to work with two great colleagues who kindly visited us on the day from other universities in the production of a storyboard of a new CPD offering for academics on the area of blended design for teaching. So here is just a little flavor of what I got out of the session, and this could help in turn someone else who is trying to get a general sense of it for the first time.

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First, a bit of preparation is required with printing of resources etc. Our printer services required that I converted everything into PDF and there was a bit of to and fro, but got there. It was a bit expensive, so probably will get these laminated and reuse in the future!

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At the outset of the session, Claire introduced ABC LD and gave some information on that can be expected and its theoretical grounding (Laurillad’s Conversational pedagogical framework (learning types), University of Ulster Viewpoints, Conole’s 7 Cs for Learning, Salmon Carpe Diem, Jessop, etc). Then, she guided us through the process:

First, she introduced the themes and the material at the back of the cards and she asked teams to choose a module from a choice between a sample provided (building a literature review), and one of their choice. Learning outcomes were needed at this point. Next, she asked us to fill a summary page for the module we would be working with, consisting of a little summary of its aim on a tweet format, a graphical representation on the learning types, and locating where it seats in the continuum.

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Then, she guided us through the storyboarding exercise itself using the learning types cards (30 mins). The point of these are to place as many of them as you need in a timeline. Then, participants are invited to flip the cards to draw inspiration for the possible activities that could enable that type of learning, both in face to face and online formats.

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Finally, using silver and gold stickers, we were asked to flag formative and summative assessment in our storyboards. To complete the session, teams would ideally share their storyboard (but we had to time for this), and decide on three action points they need to follow up as a result from the session (acquisition of skills, a discussion, etc). In my case, I had three clear outputs:

  1. Share learnings of the day within our Learning Technologist Forum group
  2. Open the conversation with my CTL colleagues on some insights that I derived from our storyboarding exercise for the way we do curriculum development in UL and the way forwards
  3. Share my learning on this post!

Tick, tick, tick!

The discussion that followed the formal workshop was also priceless, with loads of ‘tips for facilitators‘, which I very succinctly capture below:

  • Identify a course lead to work with. Prioritize programmatic approach although you don’t need to have all modules represented.
  • Ensure that participants are invited into the process, not forced.
  • Ensure that if they are going to work with their own modules, they bring their learning outcomes.
  • Customize materials with your own logos but preserve licensing. For example, DCU has removed conventional/digital columns and merged activities, made reference to their VLE and removed tools not supported, and made reference to UDL principles through prompts.
  • It may be that you adapt it to fit with institutional T&L practice (Clare shared DCU strategic connections grid http://bit.ly/dcustrat). Also, reference should be made to tools that are supported by the institution (see for example UCD’s ABC to VLE app wheel.
  • Ideally have two facilitators, and a maximum of 32 attendees.
  • Arrange tables of minimum of 2, and maximum of 6 participants. A mix of teaching and support staff is ideal, and student representation would be absolutely desirable (but needs to be discussed beforehand)
  • Find how many modules will be represented in the workshop, and organize teams that will be working together. The module lead must be present.
  • Get feedback on the workshop and encourage self-reflection afterwards.
  • Also, you need to be realistic with the time allocated: prompt that you will be interrupting the flow of conversation to pack the workshop within the allocated time. Some teams may need to regroup as part of the action plan.

To conclude, some final reflections on the experience, which are informed by my experience with Viewpoints. I found the process really energetic and engaging, and the time pressure actually added positively to this. I really enjoy the clear alignment with Laurillard’s learning types and the mapping exercise at the outset of the module, and I would see how I can tie this with a deeper review of pedagogical theories when delivering accredited CPD for academics. I also found the storyboarding flow more intuitive than in the case of Viewpoints, and I would see how it is easier to explain to others too.

I learnt that good preparation is needed and even should be mandatory, as participants really need to have a clear understanding and consensus around the learning outcomes for the module, intended audience and context. I could see in the session that this did not happen in some teams, and they would get bogged down and go in circles for ages. So in that sense, it may be that ABC is an appropriate intervention a part of a longer process of curriculum design. Also, we found that the discussion around assessment (particularly at programme level) and student and staff workloads would have to be dealt with and this could happen before and after an ABC event.

Also, I felt that there is not that much scope for turning the cards to investigate and consider the learning activities suggested within the time allocated. This worked ok in our table because we were a group of educational developers and ideas for activities just rained constantly, but I could see how teachers who are less used to this type of conceptualization may need more time to digest all these suggestions and consider them. It could be the case that you encourage teams to take away their storyboards and continue that conversation at a later stage, of course.

In conclusion, I found the approach deliver on its promise to a large extent, and Clare did a superb job managing the gig all on her own, showing a wealth of experience and in a truly collegiate spirit. The event was priceless to me because I have definite intentions to upgrade from Viewpoints into ABC for my curriculum development sessions with academics. I was not the only one in the room, I definitely got the sense that many of us will be joining the ABC troops.

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