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The Really Smart People Who Are Designing Tomorrow's Learning Experiences

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The Goal of Good Design

"It's really about creating effective learning experiences," says David Porcaro, Director of Learning Capabilities Design for Pearson. David and his colleagues are baking in learning sciences research into the next generation of education tools for learners—of all ages.

"We're collaborating with other Pearson researchers, designers, developers, and subject matter experts on digital learning experiences," he says, "and when we're able to achieve a good design it means learners see better outcomes."

Agile, Integrated Teams

"Designing for learning means understanding and applying numerous kinds of research -- from the learning sciences through to user behaviors with mobile technology," says Jeff Bergin, who is Vice President of Learning & Experience Design at Pearson, "and by partnering these research methodologies together, we can innovate more rapidly."

"A lot of tech companies invest heavily in user experience design," says David Porcaro, "but fail to invest in academic research that guides the design process."

"A lot of academic labs invest a great deal in research," he says, "but they don’t focus enough on user experience design."

David says there are several PhD's in the group, with a wide breadth of knowledge. "We're not just building theory," he says. "Our main goal is to apply our research to make better learning tools."

It's a continuous, collaborative process to try to get things right.

And says Jeff Bergin: "we're always looking at the research to see what's best for learning.”

A Great Tool Made Better

Pearson Writer

One of Pearson's most popular learning tools is the Pearson Writer. It's a support tool for students as they write.

"We integrated the Writer into a sidebar for Microsoft Word," says John Sadauskas, a senior learning designer at Pearson. "Before, you had to use a separate browser window to refer to your essay outline, manually paste your bibliography into your paper, and refer to the writing tips in the guide."

"Now, because the tool is integrated with the writing experience, learners are much more likely to refer to their outline. They can also add bibliographies to their papers with a single click, and ask the Writer for feedback when they need it without leaving Word," he says.

"We want to see evidence that our designs are supporting learning," says Dan Shapera, Manager of Design-Based Research for Pearson's Learning Experience Design team. To test this experience early with users, the Learning Design team conducted participatory research with students.

"Not just, 'How do we enhance each learning tools?' but also, 'Can we demonstrate with student data that the tool is having a positive effect?’”

The sidebar is slated to be rolled-out in April.

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The Social Science of Design

"I studied birding in school," says Brendan Reeves, a senior user experience researcher at Pearson. "I couldn't write a line of code to save my life."

Still, the researcher who's trained in neuroscience has an important role in Pearson's design process.

"We have to understand our users at a behavioral level," he says. "We have to identify a problem that actually needs to be solved, then provide a solution that's useful."

"That's why social science and pedagogy is so important."

Unexpected Results

During some recent work, Brendan and his colleagues discovered something they didn't expect.

"So many learners today are returning students, whether older students or parents or former military," he says. "And you might assume that they'd be far behind millenials in their use of technology in learning."

"The research flipped that assumption on its head," Brendan says. "Younger students 18 to 22 who grew up on Facebook used technology in learning in a minimal way. They're using a ton of technology, just not for learning."

"The older and returning students—people who are pressed for time or who are single parents—they're looking for optimized learning anywhere they can find it," he says. "They're using tons of technology to help them get their work done."

Brendan says: "So much of our work is just solving the right problem."

"That way, we can build products that help students of any kind learn."

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