Myrtle Adams-Gardner: Academic Developer (Instructional design), University of Witwatersrand,

The focus of this short piece is to provide academics with pedagogical advice to design and develop an online course. Most academic developers have reflected on the below question at some point and during the COVID-19 as higher education locally and globally transition to online the question is most relevant; 

  • How can a constructivist theory of learning be adopted as a conceptual framework to reconceptualise online learning curriculum design? 

Working within a framework that enables quality learning and teaching for online learning practices can assist academics to develop teaching strategies to better the student’s online learning experience. 

Constructive Alignment as a Conceptual Framework 

In an online learning environment, constructive alignment as a learning model creates opportunities for meaning-making. Designing online courses requires approaches to online facilitation that allow individual learners to solve their problems in a world that makes sense to them while collaborating with other students to make meaning about what is being learned. Biggs (2014) positions constructive alignment (CA) as an “outcomes-based approach to teaching in which the learning outcomes that students are intended to achieve are defined before teaching takes place”. The author explains constructive alignment as a framework to conceptualise teaching strategies and assessments for students to achieve the outcomes and the standards set out to be achieved by the curriculum. For constructive alignment to be well implemented it requires institutional policies and procedures to be in place and cascaded and adopted. Biggs (2014) claims that to enhance teaching and learning quality is to take the form of quality enhancement rather than a mere checklist of quality assurance. 

The challenge in my practice remains how the academic uses the content to get students to engage meaningfully in online discussions and to participate with the learning activities in an aligned manner. The below artefact illustrates the use of a constructively aligned course design. 

It is against this knowledge that I adopted a design model to guide conceptualisation of teaching strategies in the course design. 

Figure 1. Artefact used in student presentation in a PGDip (HE) course 

A teaching strategy has to develop key aspects of the content for the student’s learning experience in online design. According to Laurillard (2002, p. 63), the three key aspects to be addressed when to write learning outcomes and designing an effective teaching strategy are; 

(a) the conception of the topic, 

(b) representational skills (the bridge represents the medium that will be used to share 

information to the learner, a type of connecting instruction) learning artefacts can include, lecture recorded videos, readings, links to youtube videos, the university library 

(c) epistemological development (to what extent can the student use the learning in 

resources provided to engage with the content) 

An instructional designer’s view of the online course design unfolding 

The first consideration of planning for online course design usually involves consultation with the academic to discuss the course curriculum, clarify the assessment strategy for the course and to discuss the technical capabilities of the learning platform. Having a good view of the courses’ weekly modules/sessions/units provides one with a good understanding of what is to be taught and how the teaching strategies will allow for deep learning. Having a clear view of the concepts to be assessed assist in developing teaching strategies for online teaching that builds students’ knowledge and skills. The online course used as a case in this short piece used a mix of group and individual learning-oriented tasks to design the overall assessment strategy innovatively. Weekly learning activities were designed that students must participate in as a contribution towards group work. The course followed a learning trajectory over seven weeks that required students to participate in online activities; complete a group assignment (relying on educational technology tools) and complete an examination equivalent. The group activities contribute towards the students’ completion of their group assignment as a final summative assessment (examination equivalent). A formal exam is scheduled comprising multiple choice questions and open-ended short essay questions. The course uses technology-enhanced tools to aid collaborative efforts required amongst students to complete some of the online activities. 

Having institutionalized support to enhance teaching practices has shown to promote learning centredness and a culture of learning in higher education. A constructively aligned learning pathway is designed for students and they can practice what is being taught. 

Applying a principled design model for online Villarroel et al., (2018) proposed a design model that takes into account various steps to identify pedagogical strategies that can be aligned to the content disseminated via learning technology means. The academic’s role in this process is crucial to ensure that the students’ knowledge construction is enabled with information that will instil the informational seeking abilities to learn. The model by Villarroel et al., (2018) can serve as a framework for what Moeed (2015) describes as rethinking formative assessment as a theory of learning and not of assessment. In online learning the teacher provides a pathway that the learner will follow but the assessments will aid and deepen learning for the student. A study by Villarroel, et al. (2018) on barriers to the introduction of authentic assessments, the author criticizes practice for lacking a common aim to inform assessment design at an individual course level, emphasising the relevance of authentic assessments to replicate tasks and performance standards which aim to foster graduate attributes (self-regulated, autonomous and motivated in life-long learning) to develop employability capabilities to enter the world of work. The model illustrated below has been successfully implemented in two higher education institutions in the research study by Villarroel et al., (2018, p. 847-850) and adopting it to a more localised context in South Africa would require insight into the diverse variances in the steps it proposes. 

Figure 3. Model to build authentic assessment. 

The various steps take in consideration the graduate attributes required in the work context and requires a type of diagnostic assessment, described by Luckert and Sutherland (2000) as diagnosing a student’s strengths and weakness to determine readiness to a particular programme and the type of learning support required for remedial action to address any skills gaps that may exist. Aligning the curriculum to a set of competencies to achieve the desired outcome can provide academic developers with pedagogical considerations when designing curriculums. 

The second step shifts the design focus to considerations made in step one about the graduate attributes and competencies to be developed and thus providing a context of learning that incorporates both a macro and micro level understanding of the work learning context. It means that to create an action learning task it fosters higher-order thinking skills to apply the concepts to be taught in a real-life manner. Incorporating a clear understanding of what is expected in the assessment process requires a transparent manner for sharing assessment criterion with students. This should be evident in step 3 of the proposed model where the teacher engages the students about the assessment criteria and thus develop the student’s ability to make a judgement about their learning and enhancing their decision making and problem-solving skills. 

The final step brings together the characteristics of feedback as an authentic learning design principle. The authors’ positioning of the model suggests that feedback during the learning (formative) assessment process reduces the focus on testing, usually associated with summative assessment and creates a nexus for these two assessment types to foster sustainable feedback in considering the pedagogical strategies that integrate real-life experiences in the learning and work context. 

To achieve this ecosystemic approach to online learning, Laurillard (2002) most associated with the use of technologies to support learning, states (as cited in Ashwin, 2015, p. 189) that “we need to move towards a reconceptualization of teaching and learning. 


The adoption of a constructive alignment framework (outcomes-based learning) allows the academic to align tasks to learning outcomes. A clear course map assists in determining the time students are to take to complete tasks that require students’ commitment, proficiencies in computers and understanding of what is expected of them to be successful in their studies. By engaging with the different activities which are aligned to level descriptors in the learning outcomes, students can develop the learning attributes to carry out the various cognitive memory processes in online learning. 


Ashwin, P et al (2015) Reflective Teaching in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury. Chapter 9 

Biggs, J. (2014) ‘Constructive alignment in university teaching’ HERDSA Review of Higher Education. Vol. 1 

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching a framework for the effective use of 

learning technologies. Routledge Chapter 4: Generating a teaching strategy 

Luckert & Sutherland (2000). Assessment practices that improve teaching and learning. 

Course notes (PGDip HE, 2019) 

Moeed, A. (2015). Theorizing Formative Assessment: Time for a Change in Thinking. The 

Educational Forum, 79:2, 180-189 

Villarroel, V., Bloxham, S., Bruna, D., Bruna, C., & Herrera-Seda., C. (2018). Authentic 

assessment: creating a blueprint for course design. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher 

Education, 43:5, 840-854.