What is Learning Design? (Podcast episode 1)

In the inaugural episode of our new podcast series Adventures in Learning Design, Tim and Laurie explore what we actually mean by that term. This is an abridged version of that conversation. To hear it in full – and to enjoy one two strained metaphors – check out the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or on our podcast homepage.

Let’s begin by breaking it down into its constituent parts. What is “learning” first of all?  According to our extensive experience (and what Wikipedia has to say on the subject) it’s the accumulation of knowledge, skills, behaviours or information through study, through lived experience, or through teaching. 

So, when we talk about learning, we’re talking about the individual human being changing as a result of being taught something, studying something or experiencing something – as in physically changing.  Your brain is rewired in some way. 

And the design part? The best definition I’ve got of this was given to me really recently by Steven Dean, who is an entrepreneur, partner at PreHype and furniture designer, and teaches at New York School of Visual Arts. And when I asked him “What is design?” his response was: design is the practice of looking at situations in the world that can be improved and improving upon them. Specifically, applying your observation, skills, and creativity to improve on something that you feel needs it. 

Let’s go one step further. It’s not just looking at something that needs improving, but about creating the best possible solution using your creativity, observation, inquiry and expertise. So, putting those together, ‘learning design’ falls out as:

Using observation, expertise and creativity to look at what can and should be improved in order to increase a learner’s chances of acquiring new knowledge or skills, whether through experience, teaching or study. 

What makes learning design such a challenging thing to talk about is the nature of the end result. Other design disciplines like furniture design or visual design, for example, have very tangible outputs. There are tactile, physical things – or things that you see or hear in your environment – that really speak to the design that has gone into them. They’re manifesting. When it comes to learning design, what we’re trying to manifest is a change in somebody’s knowledge, behaviour or mindset. 

A learning designer’s job is to increase the likelihood of that happening: making informed design decisions that will encourage the learner, to make it easier for them or to remove barriers. By failing to apply learning design you increase the likelihood that there will be impediments to learning that you hadn’t thought of. For example, by not considering the context in which someone is going to be trying to learn something, what a learner is bringing to the party in terms of their existing knowledge or level of motivation.

A useful mental metaphor for this might be a music studio mixing desk. Picture those long desks that you see in documentaries like Behind the Music where you’ve got rows and rows of faders, switches, dials, gauges and lights, all of which influences a really specific aspect of that final mix. 

There are a billion different ways that you could ultimately mix this song down. The role of a learning designer is to tune their ear to what needs to come out of that mix and to use all of those dials and faders to optimise every detail in order to get to that point. A learning designer knows how all of these different switches dials can be adjusted to achieve a desired learning outcome. And what do we mean by switches, dials and faders in this somewhat strained metaphor? It’s things like the platform learners will be working in. It’s the type of content they’re interacting with. It’s the volume and pace of content that they interact with; the audio assets, the video assets and they’re design. What does the course look like? What is the journey through the course? How are all of the learning objectives connected? 

A skilled learning designer is someone who knows which buttons to press or which faders to move in order to get the desired effect. That’s not going to be immediately obvious, unless you have that experience and knowledge of what makes effective learning.

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