It’s not clear what learning designers in large organisations actually do; what their practice is. So it’s hardly surprising that there is a parallel lack of clarity around the value that learning design adds. While various attempts are being made to professionalize learning design, the day-to-day reality of learning design practice suffers from what may be called a “practice void”. This void has some damaging consequences:
- The development of processes and tools that attempt to bypass learning designers, prioritising efficiency of what is often called “content delivery” over effectiveness of learning and performance outcomes
- Bullying by clients into producing ill-considered, ineffective solutions
- Hijacking of design processes by technical and production staff, whose function is easier to grasp and who are generally more professionally qualified
What learning designers say they do
Part of the research for this site involved interviewing a number of learning designers. Their views about what a learning designer does were varied, fragmentary and confusing. Apparently, learning designers gather, structure and re-present information, write scripts, investigate learning and performance problems, understand usability and interface issues, provide support to graphic designers on aesthetic issues, design experiences, act like a film director...
And apparently they don’t. It was fascinating how most items on this list were strongly contradicted by interviewees. It’s also interesting how, when presented with descriptions of what learning designers should do, according to ISD methodologies and the various bodies attempting to professionalize learning design practice, almost all of those interviewed characterised such attempts as unrealistic.
There were also some striking contrasts between the views of learning designers and designers from other disciplines. Very few learning designers, at any level, were able to articulate clearly what “design” actually meant in terms of a process or a way of approaching tasks, and most had very narrow views of the role of creativity in what they do. Where learning designers valued creativity, they tended to regard it as something they did outside of their work, and only loosely related to what they were paid for. In contrast, designers from other disciplines were generally capable of explaining the subtleties of design process and thinking, and all of these regarded creativity as the foundation of their work.
Of course, the latter group has an unfair advantage: almost all were professionally trained in their discipline. Outside of the US (where “instructional design” courses are still generally somewhat conventional and conservative) most, learning designers lack any form of qualification in what they do.
Mapping the practice void
In attempting to understand the nature of the learning design practice void, I observed that learning designers tend to position themselves along two dimensions:
- Whether they are primarily writers of content, or whether they were high level conceptual thinkers
- Whether their primary interest and expertise is founded on theories of learning, or on the practice of marketing, communications or entertainment
Plotting these two dimensions against each other suggests four broad roles that learning designers play in practice. The question remains whether a learning designer should aspire towards a very broad range of competence or whether they should attempt to specialise. Lessons from other design disciplines might suggest the latter.
The practice void has another, and in the long term more dangerous, aspect. Not only do views differ widely about what a learning designer does, but the values around how they work appear to contrast with those of other designers. Learning designers appear to regard structured processes, personal organisation and clarity as central to how they work, whereas other designers prioritise exploring uncertain problems and looking for novel solutions. Learning designers felt at home in a secure, stable environment where they could apply logic to the problems they faced, whereas other designers were accustomed to an uncertain environment where their intuition could guide them. (Of course this is something of an over-simplification; both types of thinking are required, as discussed here). The worrying thing is that the environment in which learning designers work increasingly requires them to be more like other designers, embracing uncertainty and thinking flexibly rather than seeking certainty and structure.
Both aspects of the practice void may be evident in a small piece of research also carried out for this site. A number of learning designers took an online personality/temperament test, based on the popular MBTI.
The results were compared with those of a similar survey of design students, studying interior, graphic and furniture design, undertaken by researchers at the UK’s Open University. While the OU survey showed just over 40% of design students as having one of two MBTI profiles (ENTP and ENFP), no consistent pattern emerged for the learning designers. Further, only a very small proportion of learning designers had either of the two popular profiles typical of designers in general.
Defining a learning designer
It is hardly surprising that there is a degree of confusion about what learning designers do and how they do it; their shared “practice”. Learning design is a relatively immature discipline, coping with a substantial degree of change. A remarkably low proportion of its practitioners (at least in the UK and Europe) are formally trained.
It is worth briefly mentioning that the journey towards a more coherent learning design profession has a variety of different starting points. Cultural influences, both professional and regional/national, have a strong role to play. For example, in North America, the legacy of over-structured, mechanistic methods influenced by Instructional Systems Design means that their route towards true design processes is different from that in, for example, the UK where there is no history of such methods being rigorously applied. Also, learning designers from a traditional, face-to-face training background (ILT) have quite different priorities and values from those who with technical CBT backgrounds. The former often find that thinking of themselves as “designers”, in the sense promoted in this website, is a challenge; they are accustomed to delivering content engagingly, not solving design problems. The latter tend to regard themselves more as engineers, defining requirements rigidly and comprehensively, then converging towards an optimal, engineered solution.
There are certainly very many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to be put in place before learning designers can be said to have developed a widespread professional practice, that is genuinely “design-like”. However, it would seem that, in addition to a sound knowledge of learning theory, a learning designer needs to know:
- that they're solving learning problems, not delivering content
- what problems (and solutions) are
- that design problems (and solutions) have specific traits; are a specific case of problem
- that design is a way of thinking
- that design thinking is usually, but not always, creative
- what creativity is
- why creativity is important in what they do
- what a generic design process is, and its characteristics
- where creativity is important in a design process.