How to Design Digital Learning at Scale

Pedagogy and technology

How do you run a course for 250,000 active learners? How do you enable 150,000 people to engage in collaborative inquiry learning? The answer is to develop a combination of pedagogy and technology that is designed to improve with scale.

The starting point is innovative pedagogy, where pedagogy is the “theory and practice of teaching, learning and assessment” (Sharples et al., 2012). We now know far more than we did even ten years ago about which teaching and learning methods are successful. Table 1 shows a list of core pedagogies that can inform new developments in digital learning.

Table 1. A list of core pedagogies, with examples from digital education. From Sharples et al., 2009.

Pedagogy-informed digital learning

Agile software development has become the favoured method to develop educational technologies quickly, flexibly and effectively. Multi-disciplinary teams work in self-organizing ways to deliver a series of software versions matched to users’ needs. An initial Idea Concept informs an iterative process of design and development, software release, and testing and feedback.  In pedagogy-informed design, the idea concept is a pedagogy. That simple principle flips learning technology development away from how to integrate new technologies into classrooms or workplaces, towards how to make an effective or innovative pedagogy work in a digital environment. Success comes not from whether learners are engaged with the technology, but whether the pedagogy works better in a digital setting than with traditional media.

Our interest at The Open University is in learning at scale. All the technologies in Table 1 can enable effective learning in some classroom or online settings, but not all of them will work at massive scale.

The Network Effect

The Network Effect (Metcalfe, 2007) proposes that the value of a product or service increases with the number of people using it. For example, the telephone system becomes more valuable to users as more people are connected, offering more opportunity to make and receive calls. We are exploring how the Network Effect works with pedagogy. Some pedagogies appear to get worse with scale. For example, embodied learning (such as tennis coaching) can be done well with individuals or small groups, but gets less effective as the group size increases. Some pedagogies are impervious to scale. Delivered learning, such as a lecture, works about the same to a room of students or to thousands of people watching online. A quiz to assess understanding can be administered to students in a class, or to learners online. That’s the basis for Massive Open Online Course MOOC platforms, such as EdX or Coursera, which extend online the experience of attending a lecture-based course. But which pedagogies improve with scale? Which methods of teaching and learning can harness the Network Effect to increase the learning value as more people take part?

We have demonstrated that it is possible to design methods of learning that improve with scale. Where the pedagogy is based on learning through conversation and networking, then the more people who take part, the richer the interactions. Participants bring their cultural backgrounds, personal experiences and multiple solutions to enrich the learning. We have now designed and implemented two new platforms for successful learning at scale. FutureLearn ( is the largest European MOOC platform, with over 9 million registered learners. It was established by The Open University in 2013, with a design informed by learning as conversation. nQuire ( is a collaboration between The Open University and the BBC. Since January 2019, 200,000 people have engaged in inquiry-based learning investigations with the nQuire platform.

Designs for FutureLearn and nQuire


In 2013, The Open University (OU) formed a new company to develop an innovative platform for massive open online courses. A team of educational technologists from the OU worked with software developers and interaction designers to develop the FutureLearn platform, informed by pedagogy of learning as conversation. Conversation Theory is a broad theory of how we learn by reaching agreements through dialogue. Originally proposed by Gordon Pask (Pask, 1976), it shows how learning arises from conversations linked to structured educational media, as participants share perspectives and strive to reach mutual understanding. Examples of human language-oriented conversational systems include tutorial groups and scientific communities. Conversations can be about how to perform a learning activity, or why that activity is valuable and how it can be improved. Conversation Theory provided the FutureLearn team with direct guidance on how to implement learning through conversational interactions.

First, Conversation Theory indicates that all conversations should be linked to the learning task. Instead of sending learners to an online forum where they talk in general terms about the course, each conversation should relate to the learning at hand.

Second, the digital platform should support conversations for action (where learners work together to understand a topic or perform an activity) and conversations for description (where learners reflect on what they have learned and try to reach a shared understanding of the topic).

Third, each conversation should be prompted by a ‘big question’ from the educator that guides the discussion and helps the learners to know when they are reaching agreement.

Figure 1. A FutureLearn learning activity with linked discussion

Figure 1 shows a FutureLearn video with its linked conversation. That particular video is from the British Council ‘Understanding IELTS’ course. The course was run in 2015 with over 270,000 participants. Each learning step of that six-week course had over 1,000 comments and replies, with over 65,000 learner contributions to the video shown in Figure 1. Learners on FutureLearn have enriched the teaching by sharing their knowledge and experience in conversations to address the educator’s questions.


The nQuire platform is a partnership between The Open University and BBC Education. Its design is informed by Citizen Inquiry – a pedagogy of inquiry learning that engages members of the public in large-scale shared investigations. Citizen inquiry combines the mass participation of citizen science with the personal investigations of inquiry-led learning. Like the conversational learning of FutureLearn, citizen inquiry starts with a big question, such as “Does a noisy environment increase stress?” or “At what times of day do I work best?” That leads to a collaborative investigation where many people share their personal or local data, contributing to science and to understanding themselves and their environment.

In Spring 2019, the nQuire platform hosted Gardenwatch, the biggest-ever citizen science survey in the UK. Over 150,000 people made a quarter of a million contributions to survey their garden and its wildlife.

The nQuire platform is multiply open: any person can take part in an nQuire ‘mission’; anyone can register with the platform to create a new mission and recruit people to join it; the platform can run open missions where all the contributions are shared and open for conversation; the computer code is open source. The platform has built-in safeguards, including online consent forms, secure data storage, and a process for people or organisations (such as employers, schools or community groups) to develop and test nQuire missions before they appear on the platform.

Digital learning at scale

The world of learning is changing. People of all ages, across the world, can now take part online courses and investigations. We know from over 30 years of research and development that just putting new technology into a workplace or school will not enhance learning. The biggest advances in education have come from new pedagogies: collaborative learning in classrooms and online, case-based learning for medical education, science learning through simulation, and learning from feedback and reflection. Pedagogy-informed design puts pedagogy to the fore, as the concept that guides agile development of educational technology. At The Open University we have shown how pedagogy-informed design can work at massive scale. Now, the opportunity is to extend this to workplaces and schools, to build communities of active learners who ask big questions and build knowledge through shared investigations.

Written by Mike Sharples, Emeritus Professor of Educational Technology at The Open University, Author and Lead of the “Innovating Pedagogy” Reports, UK


Metcalfe, R.M. (2007). It’s all in your head. Forbes, April 20, 2007. Available online at

Pask, G. (1976). Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology. Amsterdam and New York: Elsevier.

Sharples, M., McAndrew, P., Weller, M., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Hirst, T., Mor, Y., Gaved, M. and Whitelock, D. (2012) Innovating Pedagogy 2012: Open University Innovation Report 1. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Sharples, M., Crook, C., Jones, I., Kay, D., Chowcat, I., Balmer, K. & Stokes, E. (2009). New modes of technology-enhanced learning: Opportunities and challenges. Becta.

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