Back in the day when I taught 8th grade Science, I worked at a school that most would label “inner city.” I had a room that was not designed for Science experiments, a small stash of equipment (most of which didn’t fit the state standards at the time), and $200 to cover all supplies and experiments for the whole year. Which doesn’t go very far considering the price of Science equipment, even back in 2000.

Oh, and I was fortunate that at some point they had replaced the standard school desks the other classrooms had with those huge black science desks that re-arrange more easily.

So I was forced to get creative (i.e. cheap) with my lab experiments. My favorite experiment was using a handful of dirt to explain the big bang theory. All you need is a white poster board and a handful of dirt and pebbles from outside. The handful of dirt represents the universe before the bang as you squeeze it your hand. Throwing that handful of dirt at the poster board represents the big bang. The resulting splatter on the poster board shows what happens after the bang. Simple, effective, and low cost.

Sometimes people think when I refer to “teaching the big bang with a handful of dirt” I am insulting something, but the truth is its really just a reference to doing the best you can with the tools you are forced to use. If I had had a better classroom set-up (with sinks), I could have let the students do the experiment. More money would have meant being able to buy kits that do the same thing, but that make a better “splat” (big bang) on a piece of paper. Even more resources and flexibility would have meant being able to show computer simulations on an overhead projector so that the students could have compared their splats to the model. And so on.

This post is inspired by a Twitter conversation with Whitney Kilgore, which I think eventually indicated we were talking about different angles on the idea of what drives design. Ultimately, I hope Whitney saw that I wasn’t disagreeing with her or debating, but saying that out of the two over-arching ways to approach design, I prefer one over the other while not thinking one is better than the other.

To explain what I mean, I’ll start off by looking at how we as instructional designers really have two over-arching approaches when we design courses: one where we are have to let the tools drive the learning design because of various limitations, and the other where the learning design drives the tool selection because we have many options. One is where we make do with what we have, and the other is where we get to do whatever the design dictates.

You can design really good courses either way. However, when you are limited in your tool selection due to budget or even campus policy that says you have to use a specific tool, you have to make concessions to get those tools to work for the design.  Most of us that are in education have been used to being either limited by budget or administrative decisions for so long that we don’t even realize the concessions we are making based on these limitations.

A lot of what I am talking about here was covered by Jim Groom in his “there’s more to education than the LMS” keynote at the OLC Emerging Technology conference last year. Its not that the LMS is evil – all technology has its possibilities and its limitations. Being forced to use a tool like an LMS means being forced to accept those limitations, even if your learning design will suffer immensely from those limitations.

Of course, there are also those courses that work well within the possibilities of an LMS, and others that use parts of the LMS in connection with outside tools very well. I teach a highly rated college course for the UT Brownsville Ed Tech department that just uses the LMS, a discussion board, a textbook, six pages of content (including syllabus) and four projects. This course was very well designed by the staff at the University (I am an adjunct for the course, so I can’t claim the design :) ), and almost always receives glowing responses from the students. This is because good course design is not about finding new emerging technology to make it “work,” but using good theory to design a solid learning experience. The course that I teach is also highly rated because it’s designers let the learning design drive the tool usage, instead of letting the tool drive the learning design.

For those that are curious, this course only uses the LMS to collect and grade the projects that students create, which are everything from videos they create to webpages they design. Other than that, the course is mainly in WordPress. Oh, and we also usually get really good responses on the discussion board.

This is probably where I go all metamodern on my five readers, but neither method is necessarily “better” by default. When I worked as an instructional designer, I designed award-wining classes that resided entirely within the LMS. There are also really, really bad classes that ditch the LMS and do a horrible job in the open web. Whether you let the tool drive the learning design or the learning design drive the tool selection – that is no indication of design quality. It just dictates what possibilities and limitations you deal with, and whether it is your choice to choose tools that match the possibilities and limitations you need for the design or if that choice is made for you regardless of what your design needs are.

Of course, as we found out at Jim Groom’s keynote last year – you start mentioning the limitations of the LMS and those that love the LMS will push back. As Jim pointed out, all tech tools are designed by people for a specific purpose. This means that they have a certain paradigm or theory coded into the design. Audrey Watters and many others have written and spoken on this also. These biases don’t mean that you shouldn’t use those tools, but we should all be aware of these very real limitations that exist.

One of the reasons I get frustrated with LMS companies is that they slap some social tools in their LMS and suddenly claim that they are social constructivist or connectivist or active learning or whatever the current buzzword is. Adding a social element to your course does not suddenly mean its social constructivist in nature. Instructivism just means that the instructor is the center of the course, and discussion boards, Twitter, VoiceThread, etc can all be designed in a way that still makes the instructor the center. But there are other claims that also don’t live up to the claims. Giving students the ability to click on more links does not make something interactive. Inserting YouTube videos does not create an active learning experience. I could go on and on, but I rarely see tools in the LMS that truly count as connectivist, constructivist, interactive, or active by themselves. Which wouldn’t be that much of a problem if the LMS companies weren’t claiming otherwise.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo the question is, which one is better: letting the learning design determine what tool possibilities and limitations you teach with, or letting the tool drive the design? In a real world scenario, you usually end up with a mixture of both. Even if you are forced to use an LMS by institutional decisions, there are many tools to choose from within that LMS. However, even when you are allowed to choose what ever tool you want, you may still not find the perfect tool. In that case, you would still have to let the tool drive the design in some ways once you have let the design considerations drive the tool choice. In the real world, these are not Yin/Yang opposites that never cross over into the other. You will use elements of both in most learning contexts. Metamodernism to the rescue!

(image credit: Gozde Otman, obtained from

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

3 thoughts on “Which Came First: The Learning Design or the Tool?

  1. Matt –

    This is a great continuation of a twitter conversation that will end with resounding agreement. I kicked off this discussion with a graphic that I was using to try to make sense of the possibilities inside the LMS vs. the potential outside the LMS in a dual layered course (you can say MOOC if you want to). Just to be clear: I value your thoughts on the matter and never perceived a single tweet as anything but honest, respectful, and healthy debating of the issues.

    However, before I let you off the hook so easily, let me craft a full response to this.
    … coming soon… more thoughts on this dual layered design that you and I have been exploring for a LONG, LONG time…


  2. My concern would be that if the topic of the course is not the tools themselves, then every additional tool you add increases the learners cognitive load. We run the risk of learners needing to learn too much technology in order to get the point of the course itself – which isn’t the technology at all. So, in many ways, the goal should be to make the underlying technologies as invisible as possible to the learners – so the the technologies are not getting in the way of student learning … of course, if you are teaching a course on Emerging Technologies, that’s a whole different game, cause the course is then about the technologies … but again, we need to be careful about learner cognitive load – if they are overwhelmed with new things, they don’t have time to focus on the learning we are trying to facilitate.

  3. Matt Crosslin

    Thank you Whitney – I always need to be aware of how I am coming across on abbreviated communication mediums like Twitter.

    That’s a good point Rebecca. I left out how all of the post is really within the realm of baseline instructional design tool selection, and should take your points as that baseline for selection. One of the problems that students where I work have pointed out is that the LMS is so different from what they are used to, that it causes cognitive overload. A couple of instructors had a problem where they sent learners to all kinds of new tools online with no problems, but when the learners came back to do things in the LMS, they had major problems figuring out what to do. Sometimes the “invisible”-ness of a good UI design can lower the cognitive load even with a large number of tools, whereas a bad UI can greatly increase the load even with a fewer number of tools. But that is also going to vary greatly from learner to learner – so I am probably just spouting a lot of mumbo jumbo opinion :)

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