Effective design in any discipline demands that a designer is skilled in identifying constraints, and comfortable with accommodating shifting constraints throughout the process. For various reasons – pragmatic, technological and philosophical – learning designers are being required to take into account ever more complex constraints.
Well-established instructional design methodologies and processes tend to assume that design options are fairly limited, and constraints are clear. Yet the environment in which learning designers operate is one in which design options are greatly increasing and constraints are unclear.
All design activities occur with boundaries set by constraints. Time, budget, user preferences, organisational culture, available technology and the personal whims of clients are all design constraints that define the “problem space” in which the designer works. Constraints are the things that need to be taken into account when solving a design problem. A good understanding of a project’s constraints – and the ability to make informed trade-offs between them – increases the probability that the designed solution will meet the needs of users and clients.
A growing challenge for learning designers is that their working environment is rapidly changing:
From one in which...
To one in which...
...design options included a limited palette of simple e-learning “courses”, workshops, booklets and so on, and methodologies emphasised relatively few, clearly stated constraints (learning objectives).
...there is an ever-changing landscape of options (podcasting, social bookmarking, blogs, games, IM, mobile devices...), and constraints are many and unclear: user fashions, changing technologies, organisational cultures etc.
This could be seen as requiring a shift from an engineering way of thinking, in which all requirements are known and objectively stated at the outset, to a design mindset, in which constraints can only partially be understood at the outset, and emerge during the process. In describing a design process, researchers Shon and Wiggins suggest that: “I f people try to use all the constraints at the beginning of design that they end up having at the end, the task would seem overwhelming.”
The shift is happening for three, closely inter-connected reasons:
- The demands of working life and of user preferences are shifting learning from being disconnected from everyday activity to being more closely integrated with it. So designers need to develop a deeper understanding of the many diverse influences on learners’ lives.
- Technology is providing an ever-broadening landscape of possibilities for the learning designer. And as digital networks become integrated into many aspects of peoples’ lives, technology is also shifting from being an obvious presence, to a more pervasive, concealed one.
- Theories of learning are shifting from emphasising conformity and compliance, based on industrial models, to prioritising diversity and customisation.
Recommendation: a model of learning design constraints
Experienced designers in various fields undertake effective and comprehensive analyses of constraints – at least intuitively. But, given the history and traditions of the e-learning industry, many learning designers are not used to the required level of analysis, and learning design processes are not well adapted to it. For these designers it will help to have a way of explicitly identifying, logging, sorting and reviewing the various design constraints that arise during the course of a project. Models exist to do this in other disciplines – particularly architectural theory. However, constraints tend to be industry specific, and no viable model exists for e-learning.
The model introduced here combines dimensions from various sources, principally the “Model of Design Problems” developed by architect Bryan Lawson, and the “foundations of technology-enhanced learning environments”, by academics Hannafin and Land. The purpose of the tool is to provide a structure for identifying constraints, so these can be explicitly discussed and managed. Of course, a model such as this cannot be comprehensive, or maintained in the same way as a risk log, as that would be unwieldy and impractical. But it can be useful in bringing requirements and constraints to the surface and ensuring they are considered effectively.
In using the tool, the design team, including the client where appropriate, considers the constraints that are required by each of the four sources of constraints. They use the five types of constraint to identify and categorise the constraints.
There are four sources of constraints:
- Designers. These bring with them particular beliefs, expertise and preferences. They may be more or less able to manage particular technological concepts, or handle certain cultures. Given the subjective nature of much design, designers are not neutral. However, they are the most flexible source of constraints.
- The client. In much current e-learning, the client is the primary generator of constraints, interpreting user needs and providing “content”. However, as e-learning becomes less concerned with content, and user needs become more complex, it is critical to uncover a client’s agendas and beliefs, examine organisational influences, and avoid “the rush to content”.
- Users. Users should be the primary source of design constraints. However, many traditional forms of TNA (training needs analysis) are too limited to provide deep insights into users’ need. Designers need to develop skills in uncovering users’ genuine needs and wants. See Understand the context, and Prototype early and often.
- Legislation. The e-learning industry has been unusual in operating in a relatively unregulated environment (as compared to architecture or product design where health and safety issues are significant). The recent (2003-2005) issues surrounding disabled accessibility, and the naïve ways in which the industry has responded to them, is a sign of this unfamiliarity. Legislators are the least flexible source of constraints.
There are five types of constraint:
- Pedagogical. These concern the underlying beliefs about knowledge and how people learn, as well as the activities, methods and structures of the learning environment. Misunderstood pedagogical constraints can have a crippling impact on the success of a design process.
- Aesthetic/symbolic. These concern the appearance, tone and feel of the learning environment. The impact of aesthetic constraints varies enormously, from negligible to critical.
- Technological. These concern the capabilities and limitations of the available technology
- Cultural. These reflect the values of the organisation. It is worth noting that there may well be cultural differences between supplier and client organisation that will need to be considered.
- Pragmatic. These concern the practical issues such as resource availability, time and budget
A tool, with brief sample questions, is available here.