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Beyond learning design, landing learning in the real world

Two policeman in uniform standing in a train station. Their high visibility jackets have the word "Police" written on the back.

The task and the opportunity

I’m currently working on a large, publicly funded, research project (Project Soteria-Bluestone) as part of a team of gifted academics from a number of academic institutions, including my colleagues from the Centre for Policing Research and Learning at The Open University (OU).

The aim of this research is to bring together the best of academia and policing to transform the investigation of rape and serious sexual offences (RASSO) and create better outcomes for the victim-survivors of these crimes.  

As part of this work, I’m part of a team, working with fellow academics and the College of Policing colleagues, to co-develop new learning approaches to equip RASSO investigators with the right knowledge, attitudes, and skills to be more competent and confident in their challenging roles. Although there is further critical work ongoing this educational piece helps underpin the success of the entire programme as it operationalises a new national operating model (NOM) for RASSO investigation being developed by the wider research project.

Our working hypothesis is that if RASSO investigators have the right knowledge, attitudes, and skills they are more likely to better understand the complexity of the crimes they are investigating and, therefore, achieve more effective outcomes for victim-survivors of these crimes. From other parts of our work, we have found a strong link between investigator learning and welfare, so the benefits are broader than simply improving investigative outcomes (Williams, Norman, and Ward, et al., 2022, Sondhi, Harding, Maguire, et al., 2023.

My academic and policing colleagues have significant experience in the study and investigation of sexual violence and in adult and police education between them. Daunting as the task of building such critical police learning systems and approaches sometimes feels, I know that the right people are working on the problem.

I’m confident that we’ll create a learning approach that offers a real possibility of transforming how RASSO investigators are trained and thus what they can bring to bear to deliver better outcomes.

Richard Harding
Research Fellow, Centre of Policing Research and Learning (CPRL), Open University

What we know

In our wider research we have developed a detailed understanding of the state of learning amongst RASSO investigators and of how they conduct investigations. One of the key findings is the need for investigators to understand the contexts of, amongst other things, victim-survivors, the crime itself, the circumstances of reporting and the potentially complex relationships between the parties involved, including the police, when conducting investigations. Only by understanding these contexts can investigators deliver suspect-focused, victim-centred, and context-led investigations. This concept of context resonates strongly with our task of learning design.  

We have found that in a world where experience, practical skills and peer-to-peer learning are highly prized, the formal learning and knowledge in the sense we’re trying to build is not always as highly valued. It’s often seen as a cost or an abstraction rather than as being an investment in individual and organisational capacity and capability (see for instance; Ryan and Ollis (2023), and Roberts, et al. (2016) for wider discussion on this point). These views are deeply embedded in policing’s cultures (for they are many and diverse). We also know1 that whilst individual investigators express a strong desire to learn and keep their knowledge and skills up to date this is often not matched by the learning provision or offerings from their organisations. Even where offers do exist investigators are often unable to access learning because they feel the weight of their organisational and cultural expectations to prioritise other things. This is often to the detriment of their ability to engage formal learning.

I’m not suggesting that experience and peer-to-peer learning aren’t valuable routes to learning, but in a context where the imperative is to transform how investigators make sense of their world the perpetuation of what ‘has been’ is not the route to successfully embedding ‘what should be’. The irony that investigators are aware they need to learn new things to do things better but can’t access that knowledge because they’re too busy doing things the way they’ve always done them isn’t lost on us.

The challenge

So, the challenge we face is this; even if we build the very best learning programme to take investigators on the necessary journey to new ways of thinking and doing, if we don’t or can’t, account for the context of the organisations and individuals we’re attempting to land that learning in we face a significant challenge. Either they won’t come (or be permitted to come), or those that do will take their shiny new knowledge back into organisational and cultural settings that have the potential to eat our intent, and their enthusiasm for what we’ve taught them, for breakfast2. In many ways this is perhaps a more critical problem than that of learning design.

Although this is one example, in a particular organisational setting, it illustrates a point that educators around the world face on a daily basis. Without taking account of factors beyond the actual crafting of learning material even the very best designs may flounder and fail to deliver their intent. The wider point is that learners come to learning from a variety of spaces and positions and not being sensitive to how these contextual effects mediate their ability to access and/or engage learning might mean we don’t deliver the learning we intended, as illustrated by the well-established but less well understood attainment gaps often seen between different socio-economic groupings of students accessing the same learning material.

Personas to the rescue

Here the OU’s model of learning design has proved useful as it explicitly requires the development of learner ‘personas’ to try to understand these factors. One of the early steps in the OU’s learning design cycle challenges us to explore who our learners are and to identify what they require to engage learning. Built from data, personas represent student architypes, not individuals, and they help us by acting as reference points to ensure that the learning design is focussed on what the learners want and value. By using these approaches, we are attempting to account for the complex landscape we are endeavouring to deliver learning into.

We’ve already identified that a crucial group of learners are investigators’ managers and supervisors, as their engagement or non-engagement with the new ways of thinking and doing will be instrumental in our ability to embed them more widely. Accordingly, we plan to prioritise their training to ensure we minimise the likelihood of some well-meaning but ill-informed supervisor saying to one of our newly minted investigator-learners, “all that new stuff’s all very well, but it’s not how we do it round here.”  

Our joint mission with policing to change how RASSO investigations are conducted is critically important.  By taking account of our prospective learners’ contexts, we believe we have a far greater chance of success.  


Roberts, K. et al. (2016) ‘Police Leadership in 2045: The Value of Education in Developing Leadership’, Policing : a journal of policy and practice, 10(1), p. pav045–. Available at:

Ryan, C. and Ollis, T. (2023) ‘Learning to Become Professional in Policing: From Artisan to Professional’, Vocations and learning, 16(2), pp. 189–205. Available at:

Sondhi, A., Harding, R, Maguire, L., et al. (2023) 'Understanding Factors Associated with Burnout Symptoms amongst Investigators working on Rape and Serious Sexual Offence (RASSO) investigations in England and Wales', Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Volume 17, paad020. Available at:

Williams, E., Norman, J., Ward, R. et al. (2022) 'Linking Professionalism, Learning and Wellbeing in the Context of Rape Investigation: Early Findings from Project Bluestone'. Int Criminol 2, 262–275. Available at:

1. from our as yet to be published research data but also see the Soteria-Bluestone year one report - Source available for access here which provides additional context.

2.‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ Attributed to the management guru Peter Drucker, and made famous by Mark Fields, who later became chief executive of Ford Motor Company.

Richard Harding

Richard Harding

Richard is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Policing Research and Learning (CPRL) within the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL) at The Open University. His research has centred on co-developing evidence-based approaches to organisational change with academic and policing partners.

He is currently working on Project Soteria-Bluestone, a large multi-institutional research project aimed a co-producing improvements in rape and serious sexual offence (RASSO) investigations with policing partners across England and Wales. Prior to joining academia, he served as a police officer in a large UK police service for 30 years.

Richard’s research interests include organisational learning and change, police legitimacy, and organisational and occupational cultures (particularly in law enforcement agencies).