The creation and design of an e-learning resources does not necessarily need to involve the use “user centred design” and the philosophy of epistemology and semiotics. The creation of an e-learning resource such as a virtual learning environment often start their lives out with learning and pedagogical aspect being the primary design principle. Over the time the evolution of these resources does empirically involve epistemology and semiotics but this could be an accident of design and not a structured, logical, philosophically driven process.

In this paper I will look at the use of “user centred design”, epistemology and semiotics in the creation of a virtual learning environment, in this case Moodle.

The theories of epistemology range back in the form we acknowledge now to the works of James Frederick Ferrier (1808–1864) and even as far back as Plato. It is a branch of philosophy related to knowledge or the theory of knowledge. The history of which is well documented in the studies of Fichte, Bolzano, Husserl, Ferrier and Meyerson.

Psychologist and philosophers define knowledge differently. Psychologist often referring to the declarative memory and non-declarative. Declarative is broken down in to semantic and episodic. Semantic is the storage of general knowledge about the world, rules and language. Whilst episodic is storage of spatial and temporal memories associated with an event (Bernecker, 2010).

When philosophers distinguish kinds of memory they refer to experiential (or personal), propositional (or factual), and practical (or procedural) memory (Bernecker, 2010). Russell (1997: ch. 5) uses the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description to differentiate between experiential and propositional memory.

Experiential (or personal) a person can gain knowledge through sense and reasoning. For example I can examine a plant and through experience learn the characteristics about it. This is an empiricist point of view and empiricism and knowledge comes from sensory experience. Experiential must involve first hand participation and first-person perspective and involves qualitative experiences (qualia) and imagery (Bernecker, 2010, p. 2)

Propositional memory is memory of true propositions or facts (Bernecker, 2010), and can be viewed as past, present, future and timeless knowledge and is not limited to things that a person has had direct dealing with. For example it is a known fact that the Battle of Hasting was in 1066, we do not need to have witnessed Harold’s demise this is knowledge of the past. The present events are factual knowledge and have to be so, otherwise a person’s decision making process could not move forward. Knowledge of the future can be a fact for example, next Wednesday I will be in work teaching Geography and finally it is a known fact that 2 + 2 equals 4. Bernecker (2010) surmise’s that propositional memory doesn’t require qualitative experiences and imagery. Rescher (2003) concludes that it is a condition that one has come to occupy in relation to information.

Practical knowledge stores previously required skills, for example I know how to ride a bike it is known implicitly or unconsciously. When we are children we learn how to walk down stairs and retain this knowledge for the rest of our lives ie know how to……Martin Heidegger viewed this has more important than propositional knowledge (SEP, 2013), but he repeatedly dismissed epistemology as short-sighted, inept, and useless (Bartels, 1985).


If we base our thinking on Bartels we can ask why do we need epistemology?  A number of philosophers offer reasons for our need for epistemology, stating human inquisitiveness, the need to know and a way of being. A few including Heidegger say the need for it is limited, but there may be a need to look at the world outside ourselves for fear leads us to need knowledge and explanations.

In terms of using epistemology to design e-learning I believe there are a number of question that need to be answered.

Is e-learning design based on epistemological principles or pedagogic principles,  and is this process a conscious or un-conscious decision making process by the designer?  Or based on pragmatism and empiricism?

Semiotics is the study of signs, this science was first proposed early in the 19th century by Swiss linguist Saussure the pragmatist Peirce.

Saussure argued that there was no inherent or necessary relationship of that which carries the meaning the “signifier”- a word or symbol and the actual word that is carried the “signified”. For example the meaning of CAR could be carried by any other signifier it just happens in English the meaning is carried by CAR.

Peirces ideas distinguished between three types of signs, the icon, index and symbol and whether a sign belongs to one category or another depends on its relationship between the sign and itself, called the reference and the meaning.

An icon is a sign that stands for an object by resembling it for example pictures, maps or diagrams and are based on similarities.

An index refers to the object via causal links for example smoke is a sign of fire.

Symbols refer to their object by virtue of law, rule or conventions. Words, prepositions and text are examples. No causal link is suggested.  For example a red rectangle could mean danger, love, stop, hot, anger etc.

These outline the views of semiotic cognition in humans. The fact that humans utilise signs which are arbitrary and need have existence in their immediate experience is what makes though possible. Cognitive semiotics was initially developed at the Center for Semiotics at Aarhus University (Denmark)

Ideas can be brought to mind and manipulated without being directly experienced, meanings can be expressed in various ways through a variety of sign systems-language music, pictures and humans can create via signs a world entirely separate from one of direct experience. (Cunningham & Shank, 2005)

Semiotics is often employed in the analysis of text which can exist in any medium and may be verbal, non-verbal or both.

The term text usually refers to a message which has been recorded in some way (eg writing, audio and video) so that it is physically independent of its sender and receiver. A text is an assemblage of signs (such as words, gestures) constructed ( and interpreted) with reference to conventions (Chandler, 2013), associated with a genre in a particular medium of communication.



The term medium Chandler (2013) suggests can be used in a variety of ways, for example speech, writing, printing, broadcasting and mass media or media of intrapersonal communications. This having an influential role in on-line and e-learning design and content.

He continues by stating that human experience is “multi-sensory” and every representation of experience is constrained by the channel which utilises it.

There seems to be two branches of semiotic that are relevant to e-learning design, the first is the cognitive semiotic branch developed in Denmark ‘Centre of functionality’ Integrated Neuroscience-based on the integration of methods and theories in cognitive science in the form of textural, conceptual and experimental.

The second is computational semiotics-which studies the design for human computer interaction (HCI) and the mimicking of human cognition by artificial intelligence.

Current applications of Semiotics that would seem to relevance to on-line learning and e-learning are outlined by Chandler (2013) and have a more scientific principle rather than philosophical principle.

It can improve ergonomic design in situations where it is important to ensure that human beings can interact more effectively with their environments, whether it be on a large scale, as in architecture, or on a small scale, such as the configuration of instrumentation for human use.

(Chandler, 2013)

User centred design methodology is a simple and easy to understand model which incorporates all of these processes. It should address quality, usability and evaluation, be iterative in its execution typically involving four main stages and should be driven by the users’ need rather than technology. (Hussein, 2005).

Minocha & Sharp (2004) suggest designing e-learning is a combination of pedagogical design, usability and information architecture…should be intuitive interfaces and clear informational design…allow learners to focus on learning.

E-learning offers cost effective opportunity to build skills, knowledge workers require for twenty first century knowledge based economy….but this depends on the quality of the learner’s experience which is in turn affected by the user interface.

Research carried out by Corporate University Exchange indicated dropout rates of 70% for on-line learning compared to 15% in class education. Reasons often cited  by students and educators included:-

  • Poor usability
  • Insufficient engagement between learner and course content
  • Inadequate support from tutors
  • Ineffective collaboration.

It is important that in designing e-learning courses and content that pedagogic approaches are used in conjunction with user-centred-design, epistemology and semiotics.

Vygotsky theory of learning was based on social constructivism, he states that learning and progress of learning will be limited without a teacher to give appropriate intervention and scaffolding. This social constructivism is mirrored in the work of Paiget and Bruner.

Behaviourism on the other hand states that behaviour and skills are the goals of instruction, the learner being the solitary driver for developing understanding (Minocha & Sharp, 2004).

In their conference article Minocha & Sharp (2004) identify that  there is a mismatch between the educators pedagogical strategies with what the student expectations of the course are… and the instructional designers who will apply previous ‘experience’ and ‘knowledge of design’…but may not have the information architecture (pedagogical) structure envisaged by the educator. An argument that reinforces the authors thoughts that empiricism and ‘sub-conscious’ and sound pedagogical principles plays a greater role in design than theoretical epistemological or semiotic considerations.

VLEs or virtual learning environments have been at the forefront of learning technology for much of the 21st century. Forming the back bone of institutional ‘Learning Management Systems’ (LMS); with the commonly accepted driver of this move being the Dearing Report of 1997 and their increased use was encouraged in the Government’s 2005 strategy paper Harnessing technology – transforming learning and children’s services. (Ofsted, 2009).

One such LMS is Moodle and typical of a LMS often used to support course content, with educators usually adding content, providing information generally in passive format. Collaborative learning encouraged by the use of forums, self-assessment quizzes and student evaluation surveys.


Dougiamas (2012) states “The design and development of Moodle is guided by ”social constructionist pedagogy”. This also envelops the related concepts of constructivism, constructionism and social constructivism.

The author believes that at its conception in 1998 Moodle was designed solely based on pedagogical principles and through a collective of dedicated educators, designers, computer literates and much based on empiricism and little thought for user-centred-design (UCL, 2012) has gone through a number of improvements arriving at is current verison of Moodle 2.6 in 2013. However over the years the development was not linked with research (UCL, 2012) with the emergence being:-

“Mis-match between designers, practitioners, theorist and everyone in the   middle”

(UCL, 2012)

This origin and its limitation are probably demonstrated by at the criticisms Moodle has received over the intervening years from students and teachers alike.

Typical criticisms include:-

  • Takes too much time
  • Hard to find information
  • Complaint regarding collaboration with tutor
  • It is not intuitive
  • Moodle is hard to understand for a novice
  • It isn’t an environment that encourages alternative approach to learning.(UCL, 2012)

It seems that the main complaints are one of usability i.e. user-centred-design and pedagogical principles not being met because of design or the lack of design implementation. In the on-line article UCL (2012) state that ‘theorists are too theoretical’…and people often wish to just get on with developing…and goes on to question ‘does established and ratified theory need to influence design?..’

The approach to user-centred-design in e-learning have changed progressively over the years. The traditional approach was based around the face to face education. Educators providing information and student taking the information with very little time to ask questions and formulate ideas (JISC, 2004), with this design just being pushed in to CAL (computer aided learning), with the computer replacing the teacher. This has led to poor engagement from the students and a poor experience and limited cognitive progress. VLE’s were mainly seen as an add-on but not essential (JISC, 2004). Sigala, (2002) identifies this approach to e-learning as the initial stage by educators and refers to it as ‘webify’ and ‘webification’, she concludes that ‘there is very little reward for an educator’s or students in the webification of face to face course notes.’

More recent models have tended to focus more on student centred aspect rather than the tutor. A number of models are available based on constructivism and can lead to pedagogical principles (JISC, 2004) including:-

  • Mayes Conceptualism Cycle
  • Laurillards Conversational Model
  • Biggs and Salmon.

These are outlined in detail within JISC, 2004. Effective Use of VLEs: Introduction to VLEs. and I refer you to them for additional detail content.

Referring back to Moodle, if we remind ourselves of the pedagogical concepts behind it we have a social constructionist pedagogy, people working together to produce social artefacts. For example a document a manual or a presentation. Social constructivism focusses on the learning by an individual through social interaction within the group.

Figure 1 indicates the typical framework of a Moodle e-learning course, its framework having sub-consciously semiotic undertones in its design. Semiotic design is being used to divide up Moodle into its three major components. The administration on the left, typical of the familiar structure of web 1.0 design. The central section in the contents and where students are presented with resources and activities and finally the right column typically used for social interaction and notifications. The framework seems to deliberately divide the areas into Admin, typically the teacher’s domain, content area representing the classroom, and finally the social area, maybe representing the staffroom or playground and afterschool chats?

Figure 1

Navigation and Administration Course Design and ContentAllows you to Add Resources and Activities, also general topic information


BlocksGeneral information


Mashables (Twitter)


Figure 2 Outlines the standard Activities and Resources that can be added to a Moodle course.

Figure 2

Resources are very much content driven and if used without user-centred-design consideration and limited pedagogical thought are often the reason for the negative comments received from students and educators resulting in lower engagement. This mirrors the statement made by Sigala’s ‘webification’ of face to face notes. Dougiamas and Moodle’s pedagogic stance is social constructionist and this is very much reflected in the ‘activities’ available. The central column in Figure 2 shows this, with many revolving around social interactions, for example forums, wikis, chat, and surveys.

From this brief overview of Moodle’s core components it is clear to see that Moodle has the framework to enable user-centred-design and design models. For example Mayes Conceptualisation Cycles and its key focus of exposing people to others concepts to build knowledge and the ability for tutors to give feedback is easily encapsulated within Moodles framework. Build into this a pedagogic principle such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, scaffolding learning objectives and you have a robust learning environment within an online environment.

Moodle structure organises files and content in a hierarchical organisation and merely reflects file structure of the internet itself (Baynes, 2008, p. 400) which itself tries to create an environment that is familiar to early writing and historically formed our ways of thinking.

One of the more obvious development in the evolution of Moodle has been to increasing use of icons. Baynes (2008) in her article highlights the growing importance of the use of icon and refers to ‘iconic turn’ which logic of the image as it emerges on our screen has growing influence on our working, thinking and learning practice (Baynes, 2008, p. 395). She also cites Eikone’s reference to the ‘knowledge society becoming a society of images.

Baynes continues in her article to explain how visuality increasingly mediated between pedagogy in H.E. and the digital space, the learning space being the virtual learning environment. It is this argument I would put forward that the design of a virtual learning environment such as Moodle was design based on pedagogical principles and not user-centred-design and the philosophy of semiotics. This I believe was particularly true for the early development of Moodle and it social constructivism principle. One argument for this could be the wish to isolate itself and students away from wider non-digital-world.

We can use semiotics to retrospectively analyse Moodle and draw conclusions. Moodle’s recognisable ‘orange’ M (Figure 3), could be an attempt to mirror the corporate image produced by the yellow McDonalds M. However the similarities stop there, the Moolde M has a distinctive indicator of it educational links in the form of the classic black ‘motar board’. This could be interpreted as an attempt to associated itself with an older traditional teaching practice and instil some familiarity into its being and ask us to value the modern VLE with the older didactic teaching, and  as a signifier of authority.

Figure 3

To conclude, the use of semiotics and user-centred-design are a key ingredient in the creation of e-learning content but the greater importance is the use of pedagogical consideration and the epistemology embedded within learning.



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