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Agile Learning Design

Be Water

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


The last principle is one that gets to the heart of what I see as the role of the learning designer:

As the Learning Designer the roles and responsibilities in the process need to adapt to the course, the discipline and the individuals you’re working with. Don’t define your role or pigeon-hole yourself. Be there to support and ask what needs to be done. Match the needs of the course. LDs can write, model, check and develop — so be comfortable with your expertise and with the fact that what you do may need to change. Your role is to shepherd the course through its development. The most adaptable thing is your relationship with the SME.

“Be water” comes from a clip of Bruce Lee I saw a long time ago:

I’ve heard the metaphor used a number of times in different settings (it was particularly big in Responsive Web Design) and I can’t think of one more apt to describe the role of the Learning Designer. Getting a course developed really comes down to the people involved in the process, the process doesn’t make the course, the people do. What the aim of Agile Learning Design is to describe a process that works with people, not against them. It gives us structure and momentum and substance, but it doesn’t do it through conformity or rigidity. Instead it creates ways of harnessing our creative energies and steering them in the direction required to create momentum and not waste time or energy spinning wheels.

The key to success however lies within the relationship between those in the project team, and this is where the learning designer comes into play. When we are working on courses across different disciplines, with different individuals with their own unique set of skills, practices, knowledge and ways of working you need to accept that as the norm. Putting all of those differences into a process that is rigid is just a recipe for disaster. Rather than a collegial project the process itself creates conflict and division, an us vs them situation that isn’t healthy or beneficial.

The Agile Learning Design approach is an attempt to avoid that, but to do it requires much more from the learning designer. Knowledge of pedagogy is not enough. Knowledge of technology is not enough. Skills in facilitation is not enough. What is required of the Learning Designer is to step into the process and be what it needs. To be water.

If the project requires:
– leadership
– guidance
– a helping hand
– hands on development
– dialogue and conversation
– negotiation
– editorial services
– prompts and suggestions
– discussion
– documentation
– notes and ideas
– diagrams and maps
– documents and files
– walkthroughs and demonstrations
– tech support
– someone to talk to
– someone to talk at
– a comforting word
– an appreciative comment
– a deep breath
– a brief pause
– a reassessment
– a kick in the arse
– a light on the hill
– a point in the right direction
– someone to take the wheel
– someone to make sense of it
– align our goals
– articulate our goals
– advocate for the learner
– advocate for the teacher
… then that’s what the Learning Designer needs to do.

What the Learning Designer needs to do is be the force that guides the course through to completion.

What that requires is someone suited to working in a complex environment and who feels at home there. This is not someone who requires control, or order, or the answers. This isn’t someone who wants to do the same thing day in day out. It is someone that wants to be challenged and to work in field that asks them to learn, adapt and do more. It is a career suited to the lifelong learner, to those that seek, to try new things and that can embrace the chaos!

The Learning Designer isn’t one type of person or just one role. One of the things I am really grateful for is working in a team of people that have a wealth of talent across many facets. As individuals we all have our strengths and weaknesses, different skills and personalities and approaches, but when we operate as a team all of the gaps and chinks in our armour disappear. I know a lot learning designers operate as “lone wolves”, but I think there is a huge benefit for challenging that structure within our institutions. As a team we can accomplish so much more and to a much higher standard. We aren’t reliant on an individuals proficiency or skills, instead we can draw from across the team. We compliment and enhance each other and can step in to take on anyone of the roles I listed above and help our a colleague. That team approach means we have a different mindset when faced with a problem. Instead of feeling overwhelmed we simply invite the team in, swarm around it and find a solution. We use those different skills and personalities to find different ways of seeing the problem, which opens up novel solutions that as individuals we would never have thought of. As a team we are truly agile. We can adapt to change and take it in our stride.

What lets us do that is the flexibility of the roles we have. We are like water, filling into the process in whatever guise we need. And that changes day-to-day too. What it creates is a variety in our work that is unique. It allows us to explore, to try (and occasionally fail) but to do it in an environment that is supportive rather than competitive. Ultimately what it does is build better relationships with our academic partners. Yes, partners. What we’ve been able to establish is a quality working relationship where there is trust in what we bring to the table as Learning Designers. That while we don’t have the subject matter expertise, we know what we’re talking about and how to do our job. Part of that is that we work on creating and developing that relationship. That we introduce ourselves and our process as collaborative, that we are here to support the academic and this initiative, that we are here to make their life and job easier, and that they don’t need to know all of the tools and systems and pedagogy — that’s what we bring to the table. By working with academics and where we match our service and support to what they need, shows that we are really operating as partner.

The concept of “be water” plays into the evolving nature of the Learning Designer, moving past instruction and mix modes, methods, technologies and modalities. The Learning Designer is a trans-discipline career and as a profession are just starting to recognise that nature, and so too are many of our institutions are too. I see a parallel with other design disciplines that start on the outside, brought in to consult on a specific task, to be getting a seat at the table. The next step though is giving us the space and opportunity to lead the conversation, to drive the experiences we seek to create.

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By Tim Klapdor

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

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