The learning problems that designers need to tackle are becoming more complex. As this happens, it is more important than ever for designers to get to the root of learning needs; to deeply understand the learners, their environment and what needs to change. And this focus on learner needs should be sustained throughout the learning design process, not just during an initial analysis phase.
However, learning designers face a number of obstacles in getting to the root of learning needs, not least current practice. It is common for learning designers either to over-analyse, using traditional training needs analysis methods, or largely ignore learner needs, relying instead on clients and subject matter experts.
It is common practice in the e-learning industry to either carry out over-complex training needs analyses, or largely ignore learner needs.
Traditional training needs analysis methods can be highly effective in situations where the substance of what needs to be learned is relatively stable and can be clearly defined. But such situations are become less and less common. As a result, if traditional methods are used, including job analysis, task analysis, manual and social skills analysis, audience analysis and so on, they may take so long that they are ignored. Requirements can change quickly, so that by the time a lengthy analysis is complete, at least some of the requirements analysis may have to be revisited.
One of the main drivers behind the use of traditional analysis methods was the need to define learning objectives comprehensively and to a high degree of precision. This reflects the engineering mentality underlying instructional systems design methodologies. If a true design approach is to be adopted, in which problems are revealed and understood through exploration and design, such comprehensiveness and precision are less important. Indeed, no other design discipline has a history of the kinds of detailed objective-setting typical of traditional instructional design.
In less traditional environments, the opposite problem exists. The over-complexity of traditional methods is one reason why many learning initiatives design on the basis of almost no analysis of what learners require. Other reasons include attitudes and practices on the part of both clients and e-learning developers.
Clients may obstruct access to learners as they are concerned that involving learners will:
- increase time and cost (however, see the evidence here)
- introduce requirements that will not be containable or manageable
- increase risk
And in addition to the concerns raised by clients, e-learning providers may not be keen on involving learners because they believe this may:
- expose learner needs that may not be met through content development (i.e. content-based e-learning isn’t needed)
- expose their lack of research skills
- make their development processes less predictable
What is required is an approach, or a set of approaches, that allows the design process to begin on the basis of an understanding of learner needs, yet which does not take too long, or get lost in unrealistic detail. In order to form part of a genuine design process – as opposed to an engineering one – needs analysis should be both holistic and emergent.
Some of the techniques employed by user-centred designers may appear to be relevant. For example, in Action Centred software design, the tasks people carry out are closely monitored and software designed around the performance of these tasks. However, with e-learning design, the software is only part of the story. What is more important is what is going on inside heads of learners – which typically is hard to identify. The contribution of the learner to the design – filtered through the expertise of the learning designer – must go beyond developing an effective interface, and help with identifying learning needs, formulation of the learning strategy and so on.
It would appear that three forms of investigation, derived from a range of design disciplines, will be useful in assisting learning designers. Each has a slightly different, although overlapping, purpose:
- Understanding the context; context analysis is common in interface and software design, as it gives a picture of the environment in which people will use the product or service, and in which learning problems may occur
- Involving learners in examining solutions; iterative prototyping approaches, in which users examine solutions in order to refine their understanding of problems, are widely used in industrial and product design
- Finding out what learners like; discovering what motivates people to engage with particular products and services is a critical part of product design and advertising