ABC and COVID-19

Learning Design in an Emergency 

In the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, academic staff from across the sector sought to maintain teaching continuity by moving themselves and their students online, doing what they could as quickly as possible with the institutional tools they had available.  For most teachers this was far from full, integrated ‘online learning’ but more an initial digitisation of their existing face-to-face methods. In own institution, UCL’s focus was on familiar platforms: Moodle for resource distribution and asynchronous communication, Blackboard Collaborate for online seminar and group-based activities and Echo360 Universal Personal Capture for short video recordings to partly replace lectures and instructional content The term we use at UCL is Teaching Continuity, emphasising the ‘business as usual’ elements for both teachers and students.

This initial phase is widely considered to have been successful at UCL, but students and teachers across the sector will increasingly demand a more sophisticated learning experience comprising richer, active and more effective modes of online education

As we progress, learning design becomes especially important. In order to develop true ‘online learning’ in even a simple form, courses will have to be redesigned around online activities. This is likely to be an opportunity to create richer learning designs, and for academics to consider a wider range of practices. Although academics may now have a motivation (albeit external) and focus, colleagues will still be stressed and time-limited, so any (re)design will require very simple workflows, step-by-step guides, checklists and so on.

At UCL, in the ABCtoVLE project and across the HE sector, the ABC ’sprint’ method of learning design has proved a well-evaluated, simple, engaging and productive practical framework to guide academic colleagues this process. As we know, the method is built around a collaborative and quite intensive 90’ workshop in which modules teams work together to produce a paper-based storyboard describing the student journey. The key pedagogical core of ABC is an operationalisation the six Learning Types framework of Prof Diana Laurillard (UCL Institute of Education). Using Learning Types has proved a remarkably robust and accessible route into teaching and learning discussion and reflection and shows how pedagogically-informed rapid development learning design is achievable.

The main issue is that obviously ABC was designed as a social, face to face, group-based activity, so we have to rethink how the ideas might be presented. Is it even possible to do a full course (re)design with academic teams in a wholly online format? Through discussion with the Erasmus team and UCL colleagues we thought of two options,

 (a) Minimal (non-storyboard) version

This is essentially an ‘abbreviated’ online workshop (based on existing formats from project partners.

Pre-workshop – things to be provided

Live session (Collaborate, Zoom etc) – approx. 60m.

  1. Participants identify the different types of teaching and learning in the course. This can be though a sharable document
  2. Discuss online options according to the choices provided.
  3. Make up a plan, identifying areas of support.

A list of key questions, to focus the participants on e.g. assessment, engagement, specific outcomes, what tools are supported can be provided.


  • Circulate and discuss plan, support team to follow up.

(b) Storyboard version

What is missing in the abbreviated version is the timeline or storyboard, an opportunity to look at the whole course. We have been very impressed by the online ABC created by the dCELL team from Laurea University of Applied Sciences in Finland who kindly shared their approach using Zoom meetings. Their wonderfully detailed blog post ‘ABC went online and this is how we did it, provides workshop timings and links to Word and Excel support documents. Within the ABCtoVLE project, partners Sorbonne have developed a shared Google spreadsheet to let teams put the activities in a sequence. Several teams have looked at possibly more ‘lightweight’ tools, such as Trello (check out this Trello template from Allison Bell), Padlet and Miro to simulate the Storyboard. We have not evaluated any of these fully ourselves but are getting regular feedback from colleagues who are experimenting with these methods.


Institutional teams supporting ABC Online probably want to undertake a technological review before the workshops. What tools are available to teachers? The Tool Wheel is a quick visual approach, linking pedagogy to technology. As an example, UCL has developed a simple framework for Moodle tools.There are two stages that can be can be done in either order,

  • Sketcha ‘snapshot’ of supported technologies, comprising the VLE, videoconferencing/virtual classroom, media tools etc. using the App wheel template, the ‘wheel of opportunities’.
  • Make a list of the tools identified and link to local support documentation (videos, web sites, tool guides, ‘how-to’s etc) – can also link to external guides from Canvas, Moodle etc.


Another aspect support teams might want to share is effective local pedagogic practice using these tools. Again as an example, UCL has produced more practice-oriented list ‘take it further’ list. The latter was based on a sheet of distance learning options we often use in the ‘classic’ live ABC workshop when working with wholly online courses.

What next?

All these ideas are very much a work in progress, and we would love to hear if you have tried any variants of or of other approaches based on ABC.

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