Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Designing for 21st century learning

Post-millennial technologies have indubitably changed the nature of pedagogy, since learning contexts nowadays encompass a wide variety of electronic and mobile technologies alongside traditional hard copy media including books, lecture notes, handouts, blackboards and other resources. I use the term ‘pedagogy’ throughout this book to describe activities focused on promoting learning, rather than andragogy (with its male connotations) or gynogogy (which just sounds silly!). Beetham and Sharpe argue that ‘pedagogy embraces an essential dialogue between teaching and learning’ (2013, p. 2) which is more helpful than setting the two terms in opposition to one another.

The diversity and ubiquity of social and digital media are changing the nature of interactions between learners and curriculum content, with a greater emphasis on learning how and learning why than on learning what. While content remains important, in many subjects where material dates fast, the ability of graduate practitioners to access up-to-date information on which to make informed decisions and to take appropriate action, alongside the ability to filter and prioritise data, become as important as retention of a basic knowledge base (for example, in medical practice, research can change appropriate prescriptions and drug dosages over a matter of months). Pedagogies need to take this into account if they are to remain relevant.

The concept of instructional design underpinned much computer-based design in the early days, requiring competence to be systematically built from simpler skills and knowledge to progressively more complex and advanced capabilities and understanding. Although many will argue that instructional design is an excellent basis for skills training, this approach seems less relevant today, when learning is not so much linear as acquired through multiple sources, including the web, and can be self-constructed, eclectic, haphazard, and serendipitous.

Arguably, Biggs and Tan’s emphasis on constructive alignment (2011) is more helpful for 21st century learning, since they argue that we should be aiming to align (constructively!) what we reckon the students need to know or do at the end of a programme of learning with the content we deliver, the pedagogies we use and the ways in which we assess their learning – as well as how we evaluate our own teaching.

Advice for those starting to design 21st century learning:
  • Focus from the outset on what the students are learning rather than what the academics are teaching.
  • Check out national quality assurance and Professional, Subject and Regulatory Body requirements, so your programmes are fit for purpose.
  • Value students’ comments as they can give you perspectives from a user point-of-view on the curriculum as it is to be experienced from by the learner.
  • Create virtual spaces to provide a repository and discussion area for the curriculum design process.


Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (2013) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing for 21st century learning, 2nd edn, Abingdon: Routledge.

Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 4th edn, Maidenhead: SRHE/Open University Press.

For more detail on effective curriculum design, see Chapters 2 and 3 of Brown, S. (2015 Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives.