Review of Talk: EdMedia (Victoria, BC, June 2013) Keynote: Design Alchemy: Transforming the Way We Think about Teaching and Learning

Presenter: Dr. Rod Sims (Senior Lecturer, Online Learning), University of South Queensland

YouTube Capture of Keynote:

One of my staff attended the EdMedia Conference and was telling me about this keynote talk. Wow…what a great keynote message and framework for considering quality online course design. I wanted to summarize the key points of this talk and share my thoughts.

First of all, I have always believed that quality teaching and learning transcends any mode or medium. When we get all caught up in labelling and defining terms and methods of teaching, we tend to overlook the fact that designing rich learning experiences is at the heart and soul of what we should be discussing and educating teachers about! But at the same time, we need to be considerate of the discipline and the best mode for optimal learning.

When we start with the content, the text book or the technology, we get all wrapped up in going about this the wrong way. When we start the conversation about teaching and learning activities or start investigating resources or ideas from a teaching perspective, we don’t consider the learners and why it is we are requiring a course to be designed. When we get all hyped up about the way in which the course will be delivered and mastering the technology, we are truly so far off from what truly matters in learning – the learners!

I just cringe when someone says “oh put that course online to reach more people”, or “let’s get most of our courses in this program in a blended format”  – one mode or method does not work for all. Careful discussion of the intended learning outcomes and how we’ll assess student learning should be paramount in any administrative decision to “put a course online”.

Rod Sims uses the analogy of being an alchemist (the ability to transform common/base metals to profound metals like gold). This is likened to the educator who uses a variety of elements (history, pedagogy, design and application) to build worthy learning experiences for students. He talked about the history of learning and technology, what are the essentials of pedagogy and then how to go about designing. He likened designing an online course to computer lines of code:


we want to transform teaching and learning


we must adopt a design architecture that:

  • is outcomes/assessment-based AND
  • is sustainable AND
  • continuously improves AND
  • includes stake holders AND
  • and blurs the roles of teacher, designer and learner  (teacher as designer, teacher as learner, learner as teacher, learner as desinger, designer as teacher, designer as learner)

He references John Bigg’s work on constructive alignment (and noteworthy book, Teaching for Quality Learning at University), Wiggins and McTighe’s solid work on backwards design (and well known book Understanding by Design) and Diana Laurillard’s work on teaching as a design science (and book by same name, Teaching as  Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology) as educators who have contributed to this way of thinking about designing learning experiences for students. These are great books to read.

Rod talked about educators initially need to consider the design of the online course. He said you need to focus on the knowledge application (for whatever you want students to learn) and then consider the learning outcomes and link these outcomes with how the student will demonstrate his/her learning. Then, and only then – consider the learning activities and the resources required and ensure they all ‘align’. This is the backwards design model along with constructive alignment mixed in while considering course development as a design process in teaching and technology!

The part of the talk that intrigued me the most was the part on building “sustainable” online courses. He gave examples of courses that are too specific with time-sensitive content woven into all aspects (e.g., textbook editions and page numbers, chapter titles, news articles – and part of assessment methods and learning activities) or pages that focused on names of instructors and learning components that may be only at that moment in time. Instead he talked about creating a broadly designed course that references concepts and outcomes with aligned assessment methods and has solid activities to allow students to meet the outcomes…. and year after year the courses can be used because they are build upon solid foundations and don’t have components needing updating. All that needs to change are the resources (which can be enhanced or made more current).

Another part that likely got the audience chatting were his comments about the lack of need for instructional designers. He feels this is an old way of designing courses – breaking up content into sections, interspersing some quizzes and getting students to discuss a reading in a discussion area – what learning is truly going on? I tend to agree. To me, good online course design should happen once and be done by the instructor or someone who has strong teaching abilities in both the classroom and online – and hopefully with a good background in pedagogy. In this way, the teacher can choose the proper design methods and transfer classroom activities to the online environment through their expertise.

To transform teaching and learning is akin to being an alchemist….making huge transformations from basic metals to more wonderful precious metals. So this transformation has to happen in education too :


  • From Teacher-Centred –> To Learner-Centered
  • From Content-Based –> To Outcomes-Based


  • From Consumption –> To Production
  • From Watching –> To Creating


  • From Presentation –> To Elaboration
  • From Master –> To Apprentice

It was a worthy 56 minutes of time to watch and reflect on how this supports what I am trying to do with faculty in a post-secondary environment. Rod’s extensive experience with online courses was evident as he talked about the many poor courses still out there and the problems encountered time and time again with student learning in the online environment. Let’s start considering well-designed courses based on solid principles of good learning.