Agile Learning Design Opinion

Ask Big Questions for Little Details

This is part of a series unpacking each of the Principles of Agile Learning Design.

In the last post I spoke about purpose — this principle is how do we establish what that is.

From the outset ask big questions – like how do you want to change students? What will they remember in 5 years or 10 years after this course? We often remove this perspective from the design and get too bogged down in the details. Yet often the answers to these big questions contain little details, snippets of ideas that help to define what the course and the experience will be.

We have to remember that a single course sits within a much broader context. Yes it sits within a program of study but it also sits within a specific time of time for our students. It sits within a span of multiple years they have dedicated to study and advance themselves, and that this span sits within a broader life time where simultaneously life is continuing to happen around them. A course is not a static bastion free from the constraints of time and space. It isn’t an island or a bubble in time — it is connected and interconnected within the lives of all who interact with it. The students, teachers and support staff around it. And it’s for this specific reason we need to think bigger when it comes to designing a learning experience.

For many learning designers it can be difficult to engage with academics. There are often institutional and cultural barriers to setting up and working collaboratively, but coming in and working with anyone new is always a challenge. What I’ve found is that the fast you can break down these barriers the better — and an easy way to do that is to discuss the big picture. To get a sense of their broader context, understand the passion for their work, what excites them and what they hope to achieve. The big picture allows you to break down the barriers more quickly and allows you to have more organic conversation — because conversation is the key.

While we like to have projects and timelines and templates and all manner of accoutrement — the reality is that design happens via conversation. The project dynamic of course design often falls into the trap of being competing monologues – project managers with their timelines and SMEs with trying to “deliver” content like it was a parcel. People end up talking past each other, not with each other and quickly the middle ground disappears. And the middle ground is usually where the learning designer has to sit, and they have to watch their space evaporate over time.

But the conversation is the power house of design and we need to ensure that it’s happening through out the process. Asking the big questions is not just about breaking down those initial barriers, it helps to maintain focus and where we are in the grand scheme of things.

The other thing this principle eludes to is the little details. What I mean by this is that there is usually a nugget of wisdom that falls out of these conversations. Asking about the bigger context of the topic, discipline and course often engages academics in a different way. A lot of the pretence and jargon disappears and it can reveal a lot. It might be the way the academic explains a certain topic, their ideas or intended experience – but it’s often just a sentence that defines the direction for the whole project. I spent a couple of years embedded in startup world and one of the things I learnt from that is the power of brevity, being able to succinctly describe your idea was often the difference between engaging with someone or walking away empty-handed. Little details often expose the heart what we are trying to achieve together and finding them early on helps to define the design and direction. It also gives us something to come back to during the process. If you start to lose sense of where you are headed come back those details, or ask the big questions again. Are you still aligned or have you gone off course?

If there’s a nugget to take away from this post I’d pull it from Australia’s poet of the people, Paul Kelly, and keep in mind that “from little things big things grow”.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

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