In my previous post, I discussed the opportunity for fresh investment in learning design effort in the face of challenging times. Now let‘s talk about what learning design is and how it can help you.
So, why do we need learning designers (LD) now? All of a sudden (in particular over the last 15 months) there seems to be a buzz around a concept that hitherto seemed irrelevant or at the very least already embedded (or hidden?) in the teaching profession. In reality, LD is not a new concept and a simple Google Scholar search would throw results tracking it down to at least early 2000s.
The LD job role has had different definitions since its inception and indeed, over the last three years I have witnessed a shift in how institutions define the role. At the same time, we often use similar definitions to describe actually different roles, such as learning designer, learning experience designer, instructional designer, learning technologist, e-learning developer, amongst others. Some institutions make distinctions between those and others have one name for all. Indeed, Mr Neil Mosley, a Digital Learning consultant and experienced learning designer, recently stated: “Why is it that in UK so many people think instructional design is simply how you layout and present information on e-learning authoring software? Seems to be a big misconception perpetuated in UK edtech” (Mosley, 2021). Ultimately, such misconception makes it hard for many to visualise how or where LDs can help.
At Pearson UK, there are clear distinctions between the roles of Learning Designer, Instructional Designer, and other roles (for example, a recent post by my colleague James Hall, explored the concepts of User Experience and User Interface designer). The LD bridges a gap between the academic teams and the content production teams, assisting tutors by bringing them onboard, empathising with them, capturing their vision and co-designing online learning experiences. This is done through a “dialogic process by nature” (Ordorica, 2019) approach and by being a critical friend (which often translates into adapting to how the academic teams want to work and offering guidance and suggestions along the way). The role materialises in producing a number of documents that analyse the requirements of a programme and proposes an overall structural design at both programme and module level. This proposal guides the subsequent design of instructional text and content materials (this is in particular for online programmes which require careful design considerations for a number of reasons, as explored in my previous publication).
Having defined what LD is, one would ask how can LDs actually help academic teams create/enhance their programmes and modules? Assuming there is a programme validation document in place, the list below summarises some of the key areas that LDs would concentrate on, offering suggestions in dialogue with tutors, and Figure 1 visualises how the elements relate:
- Identify main forms of learning that are appropriate for the programme.
- Design a combination, or combinations, of the above that contemplate the characteristics of the different modules, generating an overall, scalable structure (or a ‘learning design’).
- Identify what the students need to learn each week and how (or a ‘blueprint’ or ‘high level plan’).
- Design weekly activities (both group and individual ones), which align with learning outcomes and assessments, and define the interactions student-student, student-content and student-tutor.
- Define agendas for live sessions and when would they happen to offer student support.
- Design the order in which the different learning elements happen and how they can link to each other, so that the students navigate them and make sense of them.
As a designer, in the purest form, I am no expert in manipulating one specific raw material. This is also the case for other sectors such as product and graphic design. Indeed, I don’t think of LDs as experts in learning theories and certainly not experts in each subject matter or content material. However, we are experts in how online learning experiences can be designed considering a number of factors and principles that underpin our decisions and recommendations. For example, we need to:
- know about learning theories and how those work online, but also
- create different types of online learning activities,
- create ways to engage students with a course,
- align activities to learning outcomes,
- organise learning objects,
- structure and balance student workloads in a chronological order.
All the above while having “careful consideration of the alternative options” to complete a “jigsaw puzzle” (Australian Catholic University, 2014). In doing the above, LDs have to consider:
- how different elements are displayed on the screen,
- how students navigate them,
- how students are presented with key information.
Therefore, LDs work closely with UX, UI designers as well as Instructional Designers and, arguably, this is why all those roles could be mixed up. We adapt to circumstances, design briefs and clients. As such, LDs are able to assist academic teams for online, presential and blended courses formats alike (as I said, LD is by no means a new concept). However, as I mentioned in my previous publication, the push to expand Higher Education online (and particularly during a pandemic) has rapidly generated a steep demand for this expertise in the online realm.
Naturally, the degree of assistance that an LD would offer to an academic team varies along a continuum from tutor to tutor, just as a jewellery designer would have clients that come to their shop empty handed asking for design help, and clients that come with fully fleshed virtual 3D models for the designers to suggest details and the benchworkers to manufacture. Assessing the degree of collaboration and assistance that the tutor requires (or is happy to accept) from the LD is a delicate job: the conversational approach allows both the LD to learn from the tutor, their needs etc. and the tutor from the LD on what they can offer. I invite you to read a future publication of mine in which I will discuss the possible ‘power struggles’ in that relationship.
By Juan Armellini, Learning Designer at Pearson
Australian Catholic University (2014) Key Concepts in Learning Design [Online] Australian Catholic University. Available from: https://leocontent.acu.edu.au/file/22207b30-7a02-4e71-8948-7ed523bef6fd/3/html/ddv_1_20.html [Accessed 17/06/2021].
Mosley, N. (2021) No title. [Twitter] 19th March. Available from: https://twitter.com/neilmosley5/status/1372914100016152579 [Accessed 17/06/2021].
Ordorica, A. (2019) What is Learning Design? Teaching Matters blog. Promoting, discussing and celebrating teaching at the University of Edinburgh. Weblog [Online] 14th February, 2019. Available from: https://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/what-is-learning-design/ [Accessed 17/06/2021].