For the past few months, I’ve spent a bit of time working towards a definition of learning design that works for me. Definitions are really hard to do. They sound easy, but once you start to unpack things it gets quite difficult, very quickly.
I don’t know if I’ve got my definition sorted yet, but I’ve had some thoughts.
Design is a Process
The first one is that learning design is a process, as opposed to a task. It’s not an individual or singular thing, and you you can’t simply apply learning design to a course or set of materials. Learning Design is the process of producing and crafting those things. The fact is that any design can’t be done to something, because it is the way of doing it. The process of design includes developing an understanding of the audience, of the project constraints, the medium and the intent — all of which shape the final product. Design is the act of thinking about the whole, of negotiating and shaping the experience that the learner will have and the space in which it will happen.
Learning Design isn’t Teaching
With that in mind the second thing I’ve been thinking about is what skill-set makes for a great learning designer. In most cases learning designers come into the field from an education background. Of course learning design is, at its root, about education but over the past year I’ve started to question whether those roots in education are actually a hindrance rather than a benefit.
The reason for this is that for the most part education as a discipline is still only concerned with teaching and developing teachers that are still primarily focused on face-to-face instruction. And learning design … well it isn’t teaching. The design of a course, the assessments and the methods of delivery are not the same as the teaching of that course. They are quite different skill sets. Think about the roles and expertise of the mechanic and the driver – one has a deep understanding of the whole vehicle, the driver about how to make it navigate through the course as fast as possible. The roles are tied together but they are very different. The best mechanics are not the best drivers and vice versa.
There’s always a house
To put it another way I’m going to resort to a common analogy — the house, or rather the building of a house.
A teacher is very much like a trades person. They work with the materials directly. There are tools of the trade, as well as an art and craft to working with the materials and tools available. To craft a house you want talented trades – each with their own specialty, and a clear demarcation of skills and practice. The trades don’t usually design the house – but they will have a view of what the design could be, which is informed by their particular trade and skills. If they were to make their own house, they would tend to stick to what they know, not necessarily one that was informed by a harmonious choice of trades and materials.
Learning design is a level of abstraction away from working directly with the materials themselves, and about getting many trades – subject matter experts, designers, media production, technologists and teachers – to work together to create a whole. In this analogy the role of the learning designer aligns more with that of the architect. The architect doesn’t get their hands dirty in the actual building of the house, but they are required to understand the nature of each of the trades employed. A good architect understands what each medium is capable of doing and how it can be used. The architect isn’t necessarily a skilled craftsman, because at the end of the day they’re not there doing these things themselves. What they are doing is designing the experience of that house. After all, you don’t just erect a building, you build a house to live in – to experience it every single day.
Designing for the client
This analogy of the architect also begs the question – who are the clients? Most often learning design is applied as a response to teaching, not learning. That’s like the architect designing the house with the plumber in mind. The purpose of design is not to service the trades, but to meet the requirements of the client.
A great architect doesn’t come up with the design on their own, there’s a whole philosophy and process that sits behind the practice of architecture. There’s a requirement to understand the client, to be able to develop a clear brief, of being able to put yourself in their shoes and empathise with them in order to understanding how the construction, the space and the people all fit together. This is what a design discipline has to be able to do.
So the reality we need to acknowledge is that learning design is a design discipline. And as such learning design has more commonality with design than it does with education.
< pause for dramatic effect >
It’s not that education doesn’t matter, or that research doesn’t matter or that teaching doesn’t matter. It’s the opposite of that, it’s understanding that all of those elements require a skill and a craft on their own, but in order to be effective learning designers, we must think of them as a whole and how they work together as parts of the student experience. The essence of great learning design is crafting that experience, of being able to craft a space to learn within. When we think about great architectural buildings, it’s their function that really drives how they work. Yes they may be striking, but really great architecture is one that provides you with a great experience.
It’s not just pedagogy
Part of why I want to articulate learning design as a design discipline is because education as a discipline is almost entirely focused on the teacher. What we end up being focused on is working on a brief to answer, how are we going to teach a course , rather than learn in a course.
Pedagogy is important, but it’s just one of the trades. When we only frame the conversation around that one thing, in competition with everything else as opposed to working together, we lose sight of the whole. When we get so tied up in those singular elements, like pedagogy, we forget that no one’s really going to notice the craftsmanship that went into it if the rest of the experience is awful. It doesn’t matter how good of a brickie you are, if the cabinetry doesn’t match the fit and finish, or if the electrics don’t work properly, or there’s a loud banging every time you turn on the taps. All of those things radically changed that experience.
Learning design tends to get fixated on the trades – on the pedagogy or on the technology – and it loses sight of the students experience. They forget that the aesthetics matter, the way we speak matters, that we need to build trust, onboard and on ramp the experience, cater for novices and experts, that time is a constraint now more than ever on learning – all of these things matter. All of these things can radically change that experience – no matter how amazing the pedagogy or the technology. The whole matters.
Shifting how we think about learning design to being the process is incredibly liberating. And daunting. But at the same time it makes more sense, it gives weight to the case for learning designers to be involved in the whole process, not just given a task at some point and asked to make it ‘designy’ (trust me, as a trained graphic designer that is thing). But it also gives weight for having more cross-disciplinary teams. To involve everyone in the process and be more inclusive. That as architects, learning designers needs to have a much broader skill-set, and that education is only ever going to be one facet of that.
I’ve long been a proponent of thinking about learning design more as experience design, but I think it’s the design that’s actually the key. It’s the process of design and what that represents that is the important part. It’s the whole, it’s … it’s the … vibe.