Attack of the Learning Engineers

Attack of the Learning Engineers

May 29, 2019 4 By JR

Not my own original title this week, but I just read Attack of the Learning Engineers by Martin Weller, and was about to comment when I thought, ‘hey, I can just blog a quick reflection and hopefully it’ll ping back’. This turned into a longer post, and I forgot to change the title before publishing.


I recall reading something years ago (at least it feels like years ago) in what I assume was a publication like Inside Higher Ed, announcing the Learning Engineer as this brave new profession that would solve all of our learning woes in industry and higher ed. What I recall most about it, aside from the strain of rolling my eyes so hard, was that the author and whoever was proposing this term blatantly ignored the landscape or work, titles, and the history of learning professionals. It’s not all that surprising, as you don’t have to be in education and learning related fields very long to see how our history is either dismissed or ignored.

I thought Learning Engineer would be something that sprung up, and like all bad ideas, disappear again and we’d carry on. Then, last week a whole new round of discussion around renaming learning professionals to become Learning Engineers. Now if you’ve worked as a learning professional, you might have very well gone through a number of job title changes. Educational Technologist. Instructional Technologist. Instructional Designer. Learning Designer (this one has its own naming crisis and loads of articles claiming IDs should switch to this). Instructional Systems Technologist. Learning Experience Designer. There’s tonnes of names, and the job descriptions for a whole bunch of related roles overlap quite a bit. I recall that during one of my seminars in grad school that we had a specific class dedicated to “looking for instructional design work” and the advice was basically to ignore the titles and go straight for key terms in the job descriptions. That advice has worked pretty well.

Recently both Matt Crosslin and Martin Weller have offered their thoughts via blogs on where the debate stems from or what it might mean. Matt points out that the framing of Learning Engineering isn’t exactly distinct from what has traditionally been called Instructional Design. He also mentions that this desire to change terminology stems from folks wanting to carve out a niche for themselves within EdTech. Martin distinguishes between how he interprets Learning Engineering as pursuing an exacting, scalable, replicable science vs Learning Design which implies there is a messiness and balance between technical precision and creativity. He closes his post with

So, not to be overly dramatic (but yes, I am going to be overly dramatic), learning engineer vs learning designer represents the battleground for the soul of education. Choose wisely.Martin Weller

Aside from the sense I get that grasping at Engineer as a designation for learning professionals is more about positioning and seeking authority through title (or prestige or whatever, folks in North America at least hold “Engineer” high in terms of class), it bothered me in another way. My brother was a civil engineer. I remember lots of the labs and classes he took. I remember seeing the type of work he was tasked with, all of his homework spread out on our dining room table. I recall how proud he was to receive his iron ring, a ceremony that Canadian engineers have which symbolizes the pride and care they must take in their profession. I remember how he worked diligently towards obtaining his P. Eng. designation. There was a lot to it.

In addition to that, since I’ve started working in universities I’ve become more and more aware of accreditation processes for specific disciplines. As a former K12 teacher in my province, the B.Ed I obtained had to meet certain criteria. Our medical college has all kinds of requirements to remain accredited. Engineering is one of these disciplines that has strict rules they have to follow to be accredited and in turn, are able to graduate students into the engineering fields. It’s reflecting on my brother’s experience, and knowledge of accrediation and regulation that at first made me really uncomfortable with folks running around calling themselves learning engineers. Then this gem popped up:

So I shared that this week on Twitter, and hey look, it’s not just Canada:

There was some other post that came through my feed, where after offering a bit of personal opinion on ID, LD, LE, etc. titles the author proposed Learning Architect. The argument was really thin. It still suffers from what I see as an attempt to co-opt the prestige that comes with the title of architect. But now, I had a hunch that it would also be protected. Turns out, that’s protected in multiple countries including the US, Canada, UK, and more.

So, given the regulatory bodies, accreditation of programs, and backgrounds of folks who work as Instructional Designers, Learning Designers, Learning Developers, etc. a change to Learning Engineer or Architect should be pretty far off. One last thing to consider is the diverse background that many IDs come to the field with. How many times have you heard someone refer to themselves as an Accidental Instructional Designer? If we moved to a title that required a regulating body to certify folks in our field, the pool would change dramatically. I’m not sure what that would do, but I have enjoyed working with IDs from a wide range of backgrounds because their experiences that lead them to this work compliments my path. Our approaches to learning are different but we learn quite a bit from each other and I think come up with great experiences for students who encounter our instruction.


Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash