University Future-makers: Transforming higher education through value-based vision-driven learning design

By Rikke Toft Nørgård

Today, we as higher education institutions and teachers find ourselves in a rapidly changing landscape. We are told that if we do not change with it we will perish. Looking around entire new forms of universities are mushrooming (Staley, 2015), a plethora of online courses, virtual classrooms and distance education formats questions the need for classrooms or campuses, and MOOCs, personal learning environments, micro-credentials along with digital assessment and learning analytics and threatens to render the teacher superfluous (Trend Report, 2016).

If students can take our certificate from home and on their own outside institutions – what are universities really good for? And if this can happen through systems that guide the students through the process from beginning to end and where the students can take courses when they want, in the pace they want and hand in assignments that the systems automatically assess and grade the student hands-in – what are teachers really good for? Taking your own customized education in bite-sizes from your sofa just like Netflix, and without having to put up with demanding teachers, boring courses or challenging group work can easily seem like a preferable future when compared to the current state of most higher education institutions.

Long-time gone are the days where the university could exist in peaceful seclusion inside its closed gates and self-sustained ecosystem, where teachers could simply shape students thinking by telling them what they deemed to be important knowledge. Here, the university was in control of knowledge and could decide what knowledge and competencies society needed to have and what it took to be deemed properly educated. This university had intrinsic academic value and stood as an ivory tower over educated life. This university, now lost and gone, is sometimes known as the ‘mode 1’ university (Barnett 2004).

In its place, we today have the ‘mode 2’ university functioning as a factory for society’s future workforce. It has had its gates pushed open and been flooded with demands about usefulness of competencies, ranking schemes, efficiency in output and where the value of the university is determined by its utility and usefulness to society. Today, universities and teachers suddenly find themselves in a situation where they have lost control over knowledge and their own fate. Instead they are put to work in the service of society and asked to produce the right students with the right competencies for the right jobs. Here, teachers are held accountable for the production of the future workforce and that students are put through the system at a steady pace so they can enter the workforce. Here, it is society that is in control of knowledge and decides what knowledge and competencies are needed and what it takes to be deemed properly educated (Shumar, 1997).

However, even though the gates have been pushed open and society has flooded the hallowed halls of the university there is also signs that a pushback from university and teachers is on the rise as they are adapting and reconfiguring themselves to the changed mandate of higher education. Here, universities are transforming themselves into what could be called worldhood universities and sites for academic citizenship (Nørgård & Bengtsen, 2016; Nørgård & Bengtsen, forthcoming) wherein university and society, staff and students, educational developers and teachers work together in critical-creative partnerships to co-create societal value and future knowledge and citizens. University and society, developers, teachers and students are put in each other’s service in order to co-create a future society not yet known. The campus and classroom remain open but as a site for society and university, developers, staff and students to join forces and work together towards the common good and future society. It is the re-emergence of the virtuous university (Nixon, 2008) where societal value, human worth and the pedagogical formation of the future citizen is put in the centre to form a new kind of academic citizenship (Nørgård & Bengtsen, 2016). This beginning reconfiguration of the university is sometimes referred to as the appearance of the mode 3 university (Barnett & Bengtsen, 2017).

In the above, lies the true potential to create a ‘dual push’ against the boundaries of higher education and transform the university through inviting students, society, industry, government and the public to ‘participate in the idea of the university’ (Ossa-Richardson, 2014, p. 154). Firstly, to push against the walled gardens and segregation of the mode 1 university with its transmission of content from teacher to student and from university to society in closed classrooms and through static knowledge. Secondly, to push against the marketization and utilitarianism of the mode 2 university with its demands for directly applicable workforce skills, immediate utility, cost-benefit analysis and system efficiency. In this dual push, the university is simultaneously held together and opened up as university and society becomes something that thinks, act and are together in the world.

This call for new approaches to higher education at the future university is also implicitly present in the Lanarca Declaration on Learning Design (Dalziel et al., 2016) that highlight how education, educators and educational institutions find themselves in a landscape of constant change. Of critical importance is here teachers’ ability to support and promote the mode 3 university as well as students learning experience at the mode 3 university through the formation of new partnerships, structures and learning designs. But in order to do so, teachers are challenged to transform their teaching practices and curricula as to move away from both mode 1 and mode 2 transmission of content and competencies and into learning interactions and experiences that open up and embrace the mode 3 university focused on co-creation, collectiveness, citizenship, critical-creativity and cross-communication.

But if the mode 3 university is to be sustainable and valuable as higher education then we need to ensure that we are not just rapidly changing the university for the sake of changing it, that is, we need to make sure that the purpose and virtues of education is not lost along the way. This is difficult, as rapid change and waves of new technologies and societal demands make us go into survival mode and just try to adapt to change rather than being the ones that intentionally create the change. It puts us in a position where we are in danger of haphazardly changing education, taking up technologies and working with society without connecting the change to the inner soul and moral bases of the university (Barnett 2015; Nixon 2008) as well as its deeper structures and foundational pedagogies for good teaching and learning.

One way to both learn to survive in this changing landscape and create intentional new futures in teaching and learning is to become an intentional learning designer that creates learning designs based upon educational values and virtues that are driven by pedagogical informed visions. What I call value-based vision-driven learning design which indicates the fusion of higher education philosophy and theory, signature pedagogy, critical-constructionist pedagogy, learning design and human-centred design thinking. An intentional and informed combination of these fields might prove a fruitful way forward for teachers to reconfigure and reimagine their teaching practice to fit the future mode 3 university. As such, value-based vision-driven learning design focuses on creating explicit and intentional connections between a) educational values and teacher visions, b) pedagogical principles and design patterns, and c) learner interactions and learning experiences within an activity, curriculum or institution.

Here, a human-centred empathic approach to learning design is essential. As Mor, Craft and Maina writes in the introduction to The Art & Science of Learning Design: “Adopting a designer mindset means using empathy and observation to understand where the learners are, and creating things that will help them get to where you want them to be” (Mor, Craft & Maina, 2015). So, the learning design must be based on value for students – both as learners and as human beings. Reading the quote, it also becomes clear that the learning design must be driven by teachers’ purposeful visions and pedagogical craft as learning design is “the creative and deliberate act of devising new practices, plans of activity, resources and tools aimed at achieving particular educational aims in a given context” (Mor & Craft, 2012). This empathic approach and pedagogical deliberativeness needs to be connected to a moral practice of both design (Verbeek, 2011) and higher education (Nixon, 2008) so as to create an ethical human-centred foundation that designs for creating valuable and worthwhile human learning experiences. This is achieved by working intentionally with enhancing the quality of the learning experience through solving present problems in higher education through change-making and realising new visions for higher education through future-making. The process is one of moving back and forth between the inner human values and teaching visions, the deeper pedagogical principles and patterns and the subsequent formation of the students’ hand, head and heart through the interactions and experiences they have with the value-based vision-driven learning design that has the potential to form a transformational signature pedagogy for the teacher, curriculum and institution (Shulman, 2005; Gurung, Chick & Haynie, 2009).

Taken together value-based vision-driven leaning design aimed at a dual-push against the borders of the mode 1 and mode 2 university, can be said to emerge from answering core questions (see figure 1) focusing on the why, how and what of the design in ethical and human-centred ways that are designed for future teaching and learning at the mode 3 university. This is done through connecting the answers to the questions in Figure 1 in a way that mode from the why-questions through the how-questions and ending with the what-questions.

Figure 1: The core questions of learning design

This require constantly checking that the answers in the why-sections are carried over into the how-sections and there used to answer the how-questions. And subsequently, that the answers in the why- and how-sections are then carried over in the what-sections and used to inform the decisions there. If the learning designer does not succeed in this, the learning design loses its intentionality and risks becoming a ‘surface design’ that are disconnected from the inner purpose of education (why) and the deeper structures of good teaching and learning (how). It risk becoming a what-design that just make ‘people do stuff with technologies’ or ‘fulfil learning goals for the sake of fulfilling them.’

To diminish the danger of disconnect is at the heart of value-based vision-driven learning design. Where most learning design processes focus on the how-sections, value-based vision-driven learning design focus on the why-section in order to keep the learning design firmly grounded in the moral purposefulness of education and the human-centred perspective on the learner through answering the question: “What should the learner feel, experience and do when interacting with the learning design – and how is that a valuable human and educational learning experience at the mode 3 university?” This question is sought answered through constructing the learning design by taking it through a 3-layered design process going from the why to the how and ending in the what:

Figure 2: The design process of value-based vision-driven learning design

The first layer of the leaning design is concerned with the ‘why-ness’ of education as it tries to tackle a wicked problem (Horst & Webber, 1973) in the learning experience or envision completely new forms of learner interactions and experiences. This results in the materialisation of the value-based vision-driven dimension of the design.

The second layer of the learning design is aimed at the ‘how to’ of education. It transforms the values and visions of the learning experience into a pedagogical structure that intentionally shapes the student’s interaction and experience. The outcome is a value-based vision-driven learning design that creates a pedagogical formation of the student’s hand, head and heart.

The last layer of the learning design outlines the surface structure of the design with attention to the technologies, materials, content and actions that will make the design materialise. The final step of the design is to fashion the validation it in such a way that it answers whether it achieved what it was aiming for in relation to values, present wicked problem and future vision. And then the cycle begins all over again as the evaluation of the design also aims to identify new wicked problems.

All in all, value-based vision-driven learning design constitute an opportunity, if done right, for teachers and institutions to push back in ways that neither risk losing the purposefulness of education, nor withdrawing from the world and playing a role in future society and citizenship. It is a way for reconfiguring and reimagining higher education at a university in, for and with society – but not in the service of utilitarianism or towards the creation of useful workers. Rather, value-based vision-driven learning design aims at creating social value at a deeper level through “Actions creating the right thing, for the right people, at the right time, in the right place, in the right way, for the right reasons” – what Nelson and Stolterman calls “design wisdom” (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012).

We need to raise critical-creative awareness and reflection around the dangers of not making a dual-push against the boundaries of higher education so as to not create new forms of the mode 1 universities walled gardens – now just in digital form – where the walls are made of technologies, learning management systems or digital formats. We need to keep focus on the pedagogical and ethical foundation of higher education, even when we get enthusiastic about the potentials and possibilities of new technologies, gadgets or formats. It is all too easy to tear the university down or remove the walls – what is difficult is how to transform teaching and learning for the future without losing the purposefulness and head, hand and heart of higher education.


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Nørgård, R. & Bengtsen, S. (under publication). The worldhood university: design signatures and guild thinking. In: Barnett, R. & Bengtsen, S. S. (eds.) The Thinking University. Sage.

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2 thoughts on “University Future-makers: Transforming higher education through value-based vision-driven learning design”

  1. Really enjoyed your position paper, Rikke, especially this quote: “…learning design must be based on value for students – both as learners and as human beings. Reading the quote, it also becomes clear that the learning design must be driven by teachers’ purposeful visions and pedagogical craft…”

    You have me sold on the value-based vision-driven learning design. I have a similar question along the lines of what Yishay asked me: How do we get institutional buy-in? How do we get teacher buy-in? Also, what role does the learner play in the design process, e.g. in defining the value? Does s/he? Or is the role of the student based on the pedagogy that the teacher wants to emphasize (the how)?


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