Learning designers work in a challenging environment. As explained in The Creative Learning Designer’s Defence Kit:
- There are more learning problems to be tackled, and they are more complex
- Theories of learning are changing radically
- Technology is providing an ever-expanding range of learning strategies and methods
In this environment it is more important than ever for the learning designer to base the design process around a robust, clearly articulated strategy that will meet learners’ needs. The designer must think strategically, avoid the temptation to jump into detail, and be as confident as they can be that the high-level approach they are taking addresses the core learning problem.
It was always very important for learning designers to be clear about the high level approach they were taking. They might have to decide for example, whether the learning resource was based around simulations and scenarios, whether it was founded on solving common problems, or whether it was based around group activity in the workplace. Such decisions fundamentally affect the nature of the learning experience, the design process and the learning methods used. In the current environment, being clear about a high level approach – a learning strategy – is absolutely critical. Designers are now faced with a wide range of more complex problems, and have available an ever-increasing number of possible approaches they can take to address them. There is greater opportunity both for effective design, and for disaster.
At the same time, there are more temptations than ever for the learning designer to bypass high-level thinking. An increasing number of re-usable components, such as page and interaction templates, can be taken “off the shelf” and assembled using simple authoring tools. And this can be doubly tempting given time pressures and client expectations. Yet such components and tools have embedded within them assumptions about the kinds of learning strategies to take. For example, many simple authoring tools assume that the only learning strategy available is a linear course followed by multiple choice quizzes; (if indeed this is a strategy). This is rather like assuming that because the different components of a bathroom are available – the toilet, bath, sink, radiator – the most important part of the design has been done.
An effective learning strategy serves a number of purposes:
- It articulates how the learning problem will be solved, at a level of detail that is easily understood.
- It provides a unifying idea around which to base a design. Experience from a number of design disciplines shows that a unifying core idea can provide a solid basis on which to evolve ideas. Other design disciplines use terms such as “treatment” or “approach” to describe the unifying idea.
- It provides the basis for communicating intentions within the design team and with clients and other stakeholders. It can promote understanding and allows for co-ordinated action, yet hides potentially distracting details.
- It connects underlying theory with practical action. Learning strategy should be underpinned by theories of learning and of learning design. Indeed some researchers closely equate learning strategy and learning design theory.
A learning designer should follow these guidelines in developing a learning strategy.
- Make learners drive your design. An effective learning strategy should be largely determined by uncovering what learners need and want, using iterative prototyping and understanding the learner context. The learning designer, client and subject matter experts will have varying degrees of input into the process, facilitating, elaborating on, and interpreting learner feedback.
- Base the learning strategy on explicit principles of learning. The learning designer needs to be well versed in a range of theories of learning and of learning design in order to connect and validate a learning strategy. For example, a scenario-based approach may be ineffective unless it is driven by the principles of problem-based learning; a community-based strategy may lack direction and purpose unless it is based on the principles of social learning, community of practice or cognitive apprenticeship.
- Think experience within an environment, not content within a course. A learning strategy is all about the experience that a learner will have within a learning environment. The experience may be physical, cognitive or emotional; the learner may move around a room or outside, explore a virtual world, click the mouse button, touch things, even read a little...The point is that it is the experience that cultivates learning, not the content. So it is the experience that needs to form the heart of the learning strategy. And the experience takes place within an environment that may be online, offline or both, indoors or out, lasting months or years, or seconds. The starting point of a learning strategy does not have to be a “course”.
- Base the strategy on an understanding of the constraints. All design activities occur with boundaries set by constraints. The range of constraints on learning designers, and the options available to them, are greatly increasing. The designer not only has to understand the constraints that exist, but to know their origin (who is imposing them) and their importance, so that informed trade-offs and design decisions can be made.
- Align the learning strategy with the organisational culture and beliefs. Various researchers have pointed out that an organisation’s culture and beliefs about learning significantly influence the learning strategies used. For example, if an organisation is hierarchical and process-driven, it may be unwise to use strategies based around personal discovery and initiative – unless challenging the culture is the aim of the exercise. This is one reason that most tools that try to match particular strategies to specific conditions are not entirely helpful. A particular learning need may be met by a specific strategy in one organisation, while in another organisation the same strategy would be inappropriate.
Some sample learning strategy summaries/excerpts
A learning strategy worksheet is available here