The post-COVID era has seen more learners shift online, opting for quality blended learning journeys, and with institutions scrambling to meet these increasing demands, the need for good learning design is more crucial than ever. However, creating successful learning journeys, journeys that meet the competitive expectations of an ever-expanding online learning industry, requires more than just good learning design . . . it requires good learning designers.
Let’s start with what defines good learning design. Good learning design refers to the qualities and characteristics exhibited in a learning product—learning that is interactive, challenging, and immersive. An opportunity to practice skills and apply knowledge, both new and old. Why is this important? Because good learning design leads to effective learning, something that is valuable to the learner, good for faculty, and great for the institution.
Some broad considerations to good online learning design include:
- The organization’s mission and context of learning (teaching and learning requirements and environment)
- Theories of learning (e.g., social constructivism, experiential learning)
- Target audience analysis (target audience, learners’ needs)
- Situational factors (course length, time, and mode of delivery)
The competitive expectations of an ever-expanding online learning industry require more than just good learning design . . .
it requires good learning designers.
1. Cookie-cutters don’t cut it
What does good learning design have to do with the learning designers?
The points listed above are somewhat mechanical and can be established and identified relatively easily. What is harder to ascertain are learning designers’ attitudes, beliefs, and values, which can either positively or negatively impact the overall learning product. What underlies the success of each and every learning journey can’t be a copy-paste or cookie-cutter template approach. If cookie-cutters were to cut it, then why would we require learning designers in the first place, let alone ones that espouse their values in their work? Adding values may just be the difference between merely another online course or a good online course. In short, cookie-cutter templates just don’t cut it.
2. Values in = Value out
Creating good online learning journeys starts with the values of learning designers, whether it’s online, blended, or hybrid.
For us, the values one puts into a learning product are equal to the value one gets out of a learning product. Values underpin our process and our products.
In the age of screens, great online learning must strive to be active, collaborative, and social, but in order to be successful at this, we have to work closely with faculty, subject matter experts, and institutions alike, cognizant of collaboration as a key part of our success.
Meaningful human interaction in our work leads us to humanize the design process. By placing active listening, experience building, and conscientious communication (yes, this at times includes negotiating!) at the core of our design process, we as designers are able to understand and translate the expectations of the subject matter experts. Some refer to this approach as empathetic, we call this approach authentic. And if online learning is to become the norm, its future success will increasingly depend on the ability of learning designers to relay the value of authenticity to learners through their approach to learning design. Think of authenticity as the golden thread running through our process, and as a core value, the gold standard we infer in our products and services.
So, whom are these values for?
The instinctive answer is the learners themselves and the goal is to add value to the learner and their overall learning experience. A means by which to create a valuable and authentic learning experience for the learner is to meaningfully connect with our learning experts whose vision we seek to bring to life.
However, there is a tension we as learning designers must navigate in connecting with the needs of learners, especially in the digital space. As a recent study on empathy in distance learning design practice has found, “literature on learning designer empathy and learner analysis suggests that distance learning designers are generally far removed from the learners with whom they could be empathizing” (Matthews et al., 2017).
Any designer would tell you that knowing your user is the key to a successful product, and yet we see so little meaningful research on the topic in the field of learning and instructional design. Why wait though, why not come up with another approach? We did! We address the discovery of students’ needs through the visions of the institutions and experts with whom we work.
Let’s take a look at a real-life example
For instance, a client in the compliance and standards regulation sector required we come up with the next-generation iteration of online courses aimed at training individuals working in highly specialized, highly regulated environments. This type of training had to achieve successful learning outcomes, as a failure in providing effective training could result in corporate fines, injuries, or legal action in the real world. On account of this, the course materials were dry, the approach to learning standardized, with little room for situational-based and interactive learning elements, or at least that is what the client thought.
With authenticity as their core, the team worked meticulously with subject matter experts to discover the touchpoints where human interaction with the content could be leveraged and incorporated. The solution; by placing themselves in learners’ shoes, they were able to create narratives around the technologies, tools, and protocols to create experiences for the learners that are relatable to their experiences in their organizations. The result; making the course consumable to the learners and ultimately making learners more effective on the job.
Meaningful human interaction is what drove the process of discovery leading to uncovering of challenges, needs, and strategies clients did not know they had and did not know how to solve. After all, if we can agree that no two courses are the same and that no two learning designers are the same, then what produces effective learning is undoubtedly the ability of learning designers to employ good values in their work.
In short, if we lacked the ability to connect as humans, we would fail at achieving our goal of humanizing the online learning experience—for both our clients and learners.
Watch out for part two of this blog series where we further explore the importance of values in learning design practice at Construct Education.
About the Author:
Christo Visser is a social anthropologist, and learning designer working to create high-quality, equitable educational experiences in the digital space.