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Another Look at Atomic Learning Experience Design

In: DesignShowing my Work

Welp, the presentation from Hades has come and gone. We completely upended everything we were going to to in favor of a (kinda) flipped style. We decided to put our presentations online (we have a Canvas course) and spend the session helping our attendees make stuff using Screencast-o-matic and Zaption. Though the whole experience was really, really painful and I’m not in a hurry to do it again, our attendees really loved it and that’s what matters. It also gave me more time really dig into the concept of applying atomic design to learning experience design.

First, Design Backwards

The first hurdle the concept had to clear was backward design. Backward Design is a model for course development. It has quite a lot in common with Action Mapping, which I fell in love with a couple of years ago, but it’s language and frameworks work better for higher ed. Essentially, the process is to start with a few big ideas for a course (what are the essential concepts, themes or processes?). Then you break each of those down into learning outcomes (what are the measurable knowledge, skills, and attitudes, associated with each big idea). Then you begin to design your assessments (What evidence will indicate how well students have met each outcome?).  Next, you design learning activities (what activities would best help students individually, collaboratively, or reflectively practice applying the concepts?). And last, of course, you create content to help the students complete the activities. As I said, a LOT in common with Action Mapping. But what does that have to do with a modular approach? Well it was important that the modular approach would fit into this language that was already in use within the organization. The last thing I wanted or needed to do was to cause confusion. It took some thought and many conversations but it turns out that it does fit well, when you consider course design as the function of two interrelated phases: first, you design backwards. When you approach the steps of designing assessments and activities, then you are transitioning into the BUILD phase. This was an important distinction for my thinking because, otherwise, these two concepts can seem at odds with one another.

Design is Agnostic, Building is Dependent

Initially, I was trying to keep in line with Brad Frost’s atomic approach which is one of thinking about the smallest pieces, the atoms, first and organizing them into larger and larger structures as appropriate (a Lego-type approach). The problem I ran up against was that, in course design, typically, you already have topics that you’ve considered important and you are simply filling up those topics with content (see the Backward Design process above”when you begin to think of big ideas and create learning outcomes, chances are you are also thinking of course topics, ways to organize your content). That seemed to make the atomic design approach a wash. It was doing something completely different, right? Well something my colleague, Mike, said really helped my thinking and that’s the idea that design is agnostic, but building is dependent. That is, regardless of the mode of delivery (face-to-face, hybrid, blended, or online) the way you design a course will be the same. However, the mode of delivery will absolutely affect how you build that course out. For example, if I were to teach a course fully online and asynchronously, I might organize my course content into topics with subtopics. However, if I were teaching a hybrid course, I might organize my course into Weeks and each of those weeks might contain a pre-class section, a during class section, and a post-class section. Even if it was the exact same course, the build of the course would need to match the mode of delivery. And this is where the atomic approach can have some benefit.“,

Atoms, Molecules, Modules?

So after I got over my fear that atomic approach simply had no place in course design, the next thing to tackle was that of language. What do atoms and molecules actually mean for course design in higher ed? This was where things got really, really hard. Atoms seemed to have an immediate appeal, those have continued to make sense as the smallest building blocks of a course: specific content, practice (which maps onto the learning activities concept in Backwards Design) and formative assessment. But man, molecules, organisms? How did those work? Again, it wasn’t easy. The idea behind both of these was that you would mix and match your atoms to create larger structures, as appropriate. But we also knew that there was a sense of top-down design in course design because the typical faculty member would have topics in mind. However, molecules still seemed to make sense. In the end, our molecules can be described broadly as a combination of content, practice, and assessment atoms that form a lesson or tackle a specific topic. This applies whether you are teaching that hybrid course or the fully online course I described earlier. Essentially molecules are a group of atoms that work together. How they work together is dependent on the course flow and that’s fine. Then, the penultimate structure became the module (we were also striving to use Canvas language here and in Canvas LMS, the module is the largest organizational unit). The module is a combination of molecules that culminate in a summative assessment. This is a great description because it also offers leeway, depending on a course build. Many courses have a summative assessment at the end of every week (or module), but it’s also possible that you might only have a summative assessment at the end of every 3 course weeks. This structure allows for both. Here’s a video I made as a part of our hybrid module (You can see more on the institute page, including a graphic I made):

So What’s the Point?

The reason why this concept was so interesting to me was two-fold: First, it allowed me to present a variety of content and learning activities that could be mixed and matched. Instead of everything consisting of video, the idea I push is that you have a menu of atoms and you should choose the atoms that align with your learning outcomes. Again, this maps on well to Backwards Design. If you have a skills-based learning outcome, then video (or only video) is not going to be the best way to deliver that. Instead you might want to use a game or a simulation or a different type of assignment. This drives the point home. Secondly, I also wanted to think about design in terms of patterns. What types of patterns might we build in a pattern library for online learning? Would they look different for higher ed than for professional development? (my gut says maybe?). How might this be helpful for my current clients? Any other higher ed folks push a similarly modular approach? What do you think about modular building in course design?