Educational design language

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An educational design language is a notation system for creating educational designs, e.g. courses, modules, or scenarios.

An educational design language is “a tool that designers use to communicate designs, plans, and intentions to each other and to the users of their artifacts” (Botturi, 2006: 268). “Notational systems, used in mature fields of study, are closely related to design languages. The future of a technological field depends on the ability to communicate ideas and changes with others in the field. Instructional technology is one field that can benefit from a notation system enabling designers to duplicate, execute, and communicate their ideas” (Waters & Gibbons 2004: 57).

See also: educational modeling language, design pattern and pedagogical vocabulary. These entries partly look at the same issue under a different perspective.


Daniel K. Schneider doesn't know much about the history of educational design languages. I have the impression that their emergence is tied to computer-based training (Bork, 1984) and in particular drill and practice programs where flow-charts were used to define educational sequences.

Implicit design languages also were defined by authoring environments and that culminated in systems like (the now dead) Authorware that supported a visual design/programming environment. There exists also a link to instructional design methods, in particular Instructional systems design methods like ADDIE where at some point designers create scripts and/or flowcharts.

An earlier formal design language, i.e. educational modeling language was defined by Eckel (1998). : “The immediate aim of Instruction Language is a clear-cut written representation of preconceived instruction. Clear-cut implies that the instructional script written on the basis of Instruction Language, from now on referred to as instructogram, is uniequivocal as well as fully readable, criticizable and improvable. This is possible since instruction is very simple in its core [...] Instruction Language is based on the understanding of instruction as a mere alternative sequence of teaching and learning activities (Eckel, 1993:XV).

His book defines a written notation, but also used flow diagrams. E.g. he defines the flow of Minimum Instruction with the following kind of diagram:

The rest of his model concerns management of different kinds of answers, i.e. R:right, W:wrong, P:Partially right, I:Inadmissible, V:Vague, U:Unexpected, N:Neutral. Flow of instruction must deal with all kinds of possible answers.

IMS Simple Sequencing (IMS SS) can be considered as being in that tradition, but we are not aware if there exist attempts to use a visual design language to define simple sequencing modules. Despite that fact that IMS SS is part of SCORM 2004 profile, we didn't find any authoring tools...

More recent trends (since the early 2000's) are much more oriented towards a model based on a "play" (theatre) metaphor. IMS Learning Design (IMS LD) is today's most popular formal language in research and it is based on Koper's Educational Modelling Language (EML) informally published in the early 1990s. Several visual design languages create within research projects compile into IMS LD. Other design languages either do not rely on a formal language or adopt another formal representation. A joint information model of EML-like approaches was proposed in a workshop document (Koper, 2002)

Proposed joint information model for educational modeling languages, (Koper, 2002).

This UML diagram basically states that educational modeling means defining activities where persons playing a role produce outcomes using resources. Some of these resources are environments (tools). The activity can be divided into objectives, prerequisites, sub-activities (the activity structure). Support, learning, other and outcome are kinds of activities.

Such diagrams are are specifications, but not design languages that are usable by end users. They represents the formal foundations on which design languages could be built. Also at this level of specification, it remains open if/how design languages "à la Eckel" or very specialized formalisms such a quizzing languages like IMS QTI could be integrated within an activity defined in a "EML"-like framework.

Most current educational design languages adopt some kind of "activity flow" approach. Designs for educational sequences then can be defined with several notations, for example:

In practice, design languages are rarely used. Several factors could explain this: Tools are difficult to use and at the same time there is a lack of training opportunities, in particular in teacher schools. Most tools are badly maintained and difficult to find. Tools that can exectute designs barely exist or again, they hardly work. Finally, industrial designs are simple (both in industry and academia) and more complex designs are put in place informally by individual teachers.

Types of design languages

Botturi, Derntl,Boot & Figl (2006) propose a classification system to describe educational design languages. See also Developing design documents (3D) model.

  • Stratification: flat or layered. Is there unique representation or are there several "tools" to describe various objects like in coUML ?
  • Formalization: between formal or informal. E.g. UML and XML-based vocabularies are both formal languages.
  • Elaboration: conceptual, specification or implementation. These levels are based on the UML model (Fowler, 2003): the conceptual level allows to gain a global view of a design and its rationale, the specification includes all the details, and the implementation level includes includes sufficient precision to create executive code. E.g. CompendiumLD is a concept map editor, coUML can be considered a set of specification languages, the LAMS editor produces directly executable code.
  • Perspective: singular or multiple. Is there a same view or different views to describe a design? E2ML for instance allows to model both structural and temporal relations between activities.
  • Notation system: none, textual, visual. If there is a notation system, it can be either visual (e.g. like in the informal CompendiumLD editor or a formal UML-derived language) or textual like the typical XML-based educational modeling languages like IMS Learning Design.

A list of systems for educational design

This list lists systems for educational design through more or less "natural" categories. We don't include just design languages or design tools, but all kinds of systems that in one way or another support pedagogical design.

IMS Learning Design and basic editors

IMS Learning Design is a formal language (UML and XML) that is standardized. Designers are not really expected to directly use this language, it's rather expected that they use a high-level editor that then can export to IMS LD. In the same way the e-learning content editors don't need to understand SCORM 1.2.

Design tools that can export to IMS-LD or another executable formalism

There exist several variants. This category includes both visual design tools and form-based editors. Some of them can export to IMS LD. Some are general purpose and some like Collage are specialized. Some tools are operational, some just research systems.

Visual design/modelling languages

Some designers use one or several UML languages like UML activity diagrams. Other extend the UML framework and others use their own notational system. Most of these systems are only used by a very small population. Except for the UML tools which are popular in computer science, these languages are all very recent. Usually, they don't produce executable code.

  • BPMN (Business process modeling notation) and BPEL (Business Process Execution Language, used in Model-Driven Learning Design)
  • UML (in particular UML class diagrams and UML activity diagrams)
  • E2ML Visual scenario design language
  • coUML Visual scenario and content design language
  • PALO Visual scenario design language
  • poEML Visual collaborative scenario design language
  • MoCoLaDe Visual scenario design language, LD compatible
  • SCY-SE Visual scenario design language

Visual design languages

Same as above, but easier to use, since not formal. Doesn't produce executable code.

  • CompendiumLD. A concept map editor for learning design. Compendium LD maps also could be given to learners.
  • Table éditor (does it have a name?). See Sobreira and Tchounikine (2014).

Formalisms and tools different from IMS LD

Attempts to enlarge or to modify the IMS-LD framework. These projects include their own meta-model (i.e. their representation of what a pedagogical scenario is) plus a toolkit for design and execution. Most are still very much under development.

Design and execution systems in production

This category includes operational online authoring and execution systems that support learning design. LAMS has a visual design editor, CeLS a forms-based interface.

  • LAMS (see also LAMS) (système d'édition/exécution learning design)
  • CeLS

CSCL research

The Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) community also started to work modelling what they called scripts and to develop notational systems, e.g. see Kobbe et al. (2007) or Dillenbourg & Tchounikine (2007).

  • See CSCL script for the concept
  • FROG A CSCL platform based on orchestration graphs. (Alive project as of 2019).
  • CPM (a UML profile and system somewhere in between CSCL and learning design) - dead project ?
  • Collage A macro-script configuration tool (based on the idea of flow patterns) - was distributed at some point
  • Cool Modes A system that includes several visual design tools for learners (and teachers). There exist also other microworld systems that include visual design languages. - live project, tools are available
  • S-COL (Wecker, 2010) - probably never distributed ?
  • XSS framework (Streng, 2011) - probably was never distributed
  • T2 (Sobreira & Tchounikine, 2012). According to the authors (p. 586), 25 CSCL macro-scripts collected from the literature could be represented. - not distributed ?

Traditional sequencing

IMS Simple sequencing is a formalism that supports mastery learning. It is included in the SCORM 2004 profile (version 3 and later), but it is very difficult to find an LMS and design tools that support this standard.

Systems that focus on the semantics of contents

These formalisms and associated tools allow to create pedagogical documents with semantic structure (and therefore markup).

Light-weight systems

These systems are often included under "teacher tools", i.e. tools that allow a teacher to prepare lessons without too much insisting on detailed scenario design.

Alternatives and anti-models

Visual multimedia authoring languages

There exist other products, e.g. hypercard revival systems.

Microworld design languages

Most of these microworlds are considered to be an expressive digital medium for the learners themselves. Nevertheless, the teacher also can create pedagogical designs like simulations or CSCL scenarios for use by learners. Or he can use these as demonstration tool. He also can create half-baked models that are then given to the learners for further work. Some examples are:


Web sites to share designs and scenarios. There exist several types. Some tools just point to an associated learning object repository. Sometimes the tool integrates direct access to the repository. Here are some examples

  • Cloudworks is repository for designs (in simple verbal form)
  • Systems like LAMS point to a community page where registered users can upload and download executable and editable LAMS packages.
  • Systems like CeLS include the repository in the interface.

Non-educational languages

  • BPMN, the business process Modeling Notation. As of 2010, the current version is the BPMN 1.2 design language and can be translated to BPEL. BPMN 2, under preparation, is both a design and an execution language and partial implementations exist.
  • SCUFL, an e-science format (see Taverna workbench)

Evaluation schemes

Since most design languages and systems are recent as of 2009, evaluation criteria and methods may yet be open to debate. Most evaluation schemes are designer-oriented, i.e. proposed by people who invent design languages and implement design systems.

Botturi (2005:335) proposed an issues- and elements-based evaluation framework for instructional design languages:

1. Issues are critical aspects that should be considered in the definition of the experimental setting. They are: context sensitivity, eclectic benefits, course quality, and time.
2. Elements are indications for the identification of key variables in the study. They are: impact on sub-activities, communication events, institutional changes, and expressive power.”

LeJeune et al. (2009) summarize the following vital issues and challenges:

  • Comprehensibility: how can EMLs be made usable for educational practitioners ? (Pernin & Lejeune, 2006; Hernãndez-Leo et al., 2007) ?
  • Pedagogical neutrality: how can an EML realize one unified, pedagogical neutral notation for supporting a large variety of pedagogically sound scenarios (Miao et al, 2005, Miao et al., 2008) ?
  • Flexibility: how can EMLs support design of wellsupported, but flexible environments (Dillenbourg, 2002; Dillenbourg & Tchounikine, 2007) ?
  • Interoperability: how can EMLs build on existing learning platforms and contents (Ardito et al., 2006).

To that we would like to add another most important one: To what extent is the system available, operationable, documented and maintained ?

Finally, we would like to argue that such top-down evaluation schemes should be complemented by idiographic methods, e.g. repertory grid technique based analysis.



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Acknowledgement: This article or part of this article has been written during a collaboration with the EducTice group of INRP, which attributed a visiting grant to DKS in january 2009.