Learning Design for an age where old norms are fading away

Learning Design for an age where old norms are fading away

June 30, 2024 Off By JR

Neil Mosley shared thoughts in the post by the same title. He discusses the transition in higher education towards lifelong learning. He critiques the traditional educational model for not meeting contemporary needs and underscores the importance of flexible, multidisciplinary learning designs. He emphasizes the need for sophisticated design methods and a deep understanding of learner diversity. The piece also discusses UK-specific developments like the Lifelong Learning Entitlement and the growing relevance of microcredentials in ensuring continuous skill development and adaptability in a rapidly changing world.

There’s plenty to like and reflect upon in this article. Right off the top, there’s a quote that actually makes me think of a presentation George Seimens gave like 10-15 years ago already about continuous relationships with universities students might have.

The extent to which higher education shifts towards a paradigm that’s more lifelong than front-loaded is debatable. However, the concept of a higher education model that better supports a continuum of learning opportunities across peoples’ lifetimes is a compelling one. To quote from Stanford’s Open Loop project again, the key provocation for the sector is this: “If learning is continuous, why isn’t a person’s relationship with the university also continuous?Neil Mosley

Lifelong learning developments

Neil focuses on LLL in the UK context, but it’s similar in Canada. Some institutions dove head first into the microcredential landscape (thinking Ontario) while others are showing up years later (thinking Saskatchewan). There’s been a general shift in universities over all, I’m not sure a single one has an extension division anymore. UAlberta had the last Faculty of Extension, which I believe was also the first, being established in 1910. Extension is where universities would serve the continuing education needs of the communities and society they were close to. And honestly, when I think about actual innovation in the teaching portfolio at universities, these are the places they came from. USask for example had a real-life rail car that was a classroom which would go from community to community and broadcast class sessions over the radio. The most innovative stuff that comes out of the other parts of universities regarding distributed learning is typically more lecture videos.

That being said, some continuing ed is still finding its way to learners. I can think of CAUCE, the Canadian Association of Universities Continuing Education as the place to watch for progress and developments on this front. Many universities here have continuing ed arms, sometimes individual faculties/colleges will have their own units (usually if they’re a professional college such as nursing for example). But in the broad landscape of LLL what I’ve seen from these places still looks like university and not like recognition the way Doug Belshaw talks about skills. There must still be ways universities can support LLL in our communities that haven’t been touched upon yet.

On a more multi-disciplinary approach to learning design

The traditional notion of compressing this work into the responsibilities of one individual, often primarily qualified and motivated by subject expertise, feels increasingly sub-optimal and unsustainable. Particularly considering the other types of responsibilities they typically have. Moving forward I think we’ll need a multidisciplinary approach to designing learning experiences and journeys. This will involve leveraging the knowledge and expertise wrapped up in various professional specializations.Neil Mosley

Again, in the Canadian context, designing, facilitating, assessing learning, and evaluating courses and programs often falls on single faculty members, sometimes departments if it’s a larger program. One exception to this can be in online learning. Formerly, distance education (think correspondence courses) included collaboration with a whole team. When I first started in one distance education position for example, I worked as an instructional designer with faculty. But on my team I also worked with an IT coordinator (elearning type person), copyright specialists, proof-reader and editor, and program delivery staff. We each had a specific role to play and were experts in each area. I’ve seen the collapse of many of these kinds of teams into a kind of consulting pedagogy type position and the faculty member. The impact is pretty noticeable.

With regard to ID generally, years ago I remember reading about the full stack instructional designer which was meant to be your one stop shop for all your elearning needs (it came out of the corporate side of the ID field). It’s been a long trend that an ID knows how to apply learning theory, can do graphics, can do video and audio, can code, and knows how to use all the different authoring tools. Recently at a conference the line came up that “time spent learning to code is time not spent doing learning design” (or something like that) and that’s a similar to when I talk about martial arts, “time spent training A, is time spent not training B.” You might find one person that can do everything but a team is much more powerful IMO.

On creating more sophisticated design methods

Learning design as a field is not especially blessed with an array of learning design methods and design representation formats. A cursory search of user experience design methods highlights a range of approaches. But for learning design, approaches are scarce and some of the widely adopted methods in UK HE are somewhat one-dimensional… This is an exciting opportunity for the learning design field to grow and an opportunity to further professionalise a field that is hampered somewhat by the inconsistency and variability in skills and professional competence.Neil Mosley

I like Neil’s measured and honest approach here. Lately, I’ve been encountering another round of people bemoaning traditional instructional design models or claiming ADDIE is waterfall and out of touch (coincidently, the latter folks have a solution to sell you). As for the non-diverse array of methods, and one-dimensional approaches I think folks would quickly claim that it’s an instructional design problem. Considering the system though, you can quickly see that there are many influencing factors that drive the consistent, while limited, approaches. For example, one position I was in slated 4-5 projects to begin in September and that the course would be delivered in January. So four months, minus xmas break, to take a project from concept to delivery. Along with this, parameters of the courses were strictly defined (universities) 13-weeks, one night class per week, three hours. The SME/instructor was being paid for less that 50 hours of time over that period (unless they were willing to work for pennies); note that in other contexts no additional pay is included at all, its just more work for faculty. All is to say that there are externalities to learning design that shape and influence its execution in a variety of contexts.

The variability of professionals, and professionalization of ID is also something that comes up a lot. I know Stephanie Moore has beaten that drum quite a bit so I won’t repeat that here. What’s worth noting is that the amazing thing about ID is that we have so many people with such rich experiences in and coming into the field. This strength is also a limitation though, as there can be very surface level approaches to and understanding of the work. I often come back to one designer I know who worked at an educational media company making educational media products, “JR I did instructional design today. ‘By the end of this course, students will be able to [motions with their finger as if looking down a list of verbs] describe…]”, boiling a research-rich field down to a single task. It’s also one of the avenues I see tropes become engrained into design processes, such as “people process visual information X times faster than text, so jam the elearning full of videos and pictures.”

I definitely look to other fields for inspiration, largely UX at the moment, and apply some of what I learn from them to my own work. So perhaps, within the constraints of the system we’re embedded in, we can make small method changes rather than trying to redo that whole thing at once.

Developing a more informed approach

The final area of focus is the need to be much more informed when it comes to learning design… The knowledge base around designing learning experiences for different types of learners via different formats such as online education isn’t exactly bare, so this points to a bigger issue. Similarly, the extent to which educators and learning designers themselves are bringing to bear the breadth of insight and understanding we have about learning itself is debatable.Neil Mosley

Oh, there’s that research-rich field reference. This points to the need for continual professional development for your IDs. The tragic outcome that’s possible if you don’t do this is garbage processes and patterns get ingrained as best practice which lack nuance and understanding of how to apply ideas in slightly different contexts. For example, I’ve seen design shops where all courses had learning outcomes written “in the style of Bloom’s taxonomy” and required one outcome for each level. This is also a place that had the taxonomy laid out as a pyramid. Note, it was never a pyramid, and that in the revised taxonomy book the authors present it as a table and a way to analyze objectives, not a rigid prescription.

I’ve seen these kinds of lack of nuanced approaches applied by very senior IDs as well. In one case, a course had discussion forums because every online course “that’s good” must-have weekly discussions. The result? A course on plant identification with the most engaging discussion questions, such as ” What’s your favourite tree?”

Where Next?

Overall, I think I agree with Neil. If IDs (or learning designers) are brought to the table to design learning experiences that actually support continued engagement between learners and universities there is potential to enable LLL in society through these institutions. However, this requires both that the designers can present varied proposals to engage learners at different levels and demographics, as well as decision-makers to be open to ideas that aren’t 3, 6, or 13-week courses.

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash