A version of this article first appeared in the Harvard Graduate School of Education Teaching and Learning Lab blog on May 18, 2016.
What Is A Learning Designer?
One of the interview questions I ask prospective learning designers is, “If you get this job, how will you describe your new role to your friends and family?” The way a candidate answers this question can reveal much about their understanding of and approach to the work of learning design.
What does a learning designer do, exactly? What makes this role distinct from that of an instructor, program developer, learning technologist, or media producer? How does a person become a dedicated learning designer….and why might they want to do so? In this series of posts, I will explore these questions with the aim of helping both prospective designers and those who collaborate with designers to understand the work, approach, and skills of those in this role. Specifically, I will look at the most common roles and responsibilities of learning designers (also known as instructional designers), the attributes and competencies of effective learning designers, the art and science of learning design as a collaborative process, and developmental paths toward becoming a learning designer. In this first post, I will outline key responsibilities of all learning designers regardless of context (academic, corporate, startup, government, or non-profit).
Learning design is an endlessly complex and fascinating field spanning a range of organizational contexts. Within academia alone, designers may work in public, private, profit and not for profit organizations from pre-K through postsecondary and graduate institutions. To dig even deeper, within higher education, a learning designer may be involved in campus-based programming, online and blended programming, and/or professional development programming for the wider community. Within any of these scopes of work, the designer is typically responsible for contributions requiring a wide range of skill sets.
Instructional Design in Higher Education, a report by Intentional Futures and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was written to help “institutions gain a better understanding about how instructional designers are utilized and their potential impact on student success” (page 2). The report describes four key domains of a designer’s work: Design, Manage, Train, and Support.
Based on my 10+ years in the field of learning design, and with a particular focus on the creation of online and blended educational programs, I would consider the proposed breakdown to be an accurate snapshot of the work, with two caveats. First, I would add “Develop” to the Design domain, and “Evaluate” to the Support domain. Learning Designers are rarely called upon to conceptualize a learning experience without also developing it, either in prototype or final form. This may include the development of multimedia resources, interactive exercises, text-based materials, and/or, for an online experience, the course site itself. Similarly, online learning experiences benefit greatly from iterative evaluation and improvement processes, so we should not overlook Evaluation as a critical component of the work.
How can one person be a creative designer and developer of learning experiences, a detailed project manager, a helpful trainer, and a service-oriented support person? In a future post, I will explore the attributes of effective learning designers and the steps one might take to prepare for work in this field.
Call to action/comments from current learning designers: What do you think of this breakdown of the responsibilities encompassed in your work? Do they accurately capture your role? What would you add or change?
Into Practice: Two Examples
To illustrate how a Learning Designer performs these responsibilities (Design and Develop, Manage, Train, and Support and Evaluate), I will use two projects my team and I completed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) Teaching and Learning Lab.
The first example is a short, lightly facilitated, asynchronous learning experience designed for teachers and educational leaders looking to increase the inclusivity and accessibility of their instruction. “Ensuring Success for All: Tools and Practices for Inclusive Schools” is a 10-day module developed with Professor Tom Hehir to extend the reach of the research-based principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Two of the learning designers in the TLL, Andrea Flores and Joanna Huang, worked with Dr. Hehir, a teaching fellow, and staff at PPE to create and launch this module. Their work included design and development, management, training, and support as follows:
- Design and Develop Andrea and Joanna watched video of Dr. Hehir describing UDL principles and examples from a recent webinar offered by HGSE. They considered how this content may be offered as an asynchronous learning experience with opportunities for participants to dive more deeply into the material. This work involved:
- Identifying learning goals, activities, and assessments for consideration and refinement by the teaching team.
- Dividing the material into strategically-sized “chunks” according to best practices in online learning design (see multimedia learning theory, attention span of the online learner).
- Creating orientation materials to usher participants into what may be to them a new learning modality.
- With an understanding of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, ensure the course is accessible to a diverse range of learners across various abilities, genders, races, cultures, and other dimensions impacting the experience of our learners.
- Using graphic design skills and tools, developing a visual template and navigational structure for the experience in the learning platform (Canvas).
- Using programming skills and tools, building out the content pages, discussions, quizzes, and other resources in the learning platform.
- Using user experience (UX) design skills and tools, ensuring language, flow and functionality of all aspects of the experience in the learning platform are as clean, intuitive and engaging as possible.
- Create a project plan and timeline for faculty, PPE, TLL, and IT to follow to produce the module by the designated launch date.
- Function as project manager within the TLL to ensure coordination of media team, technologists, and IT resources based on timeline.
- Develop procedures for, and ensure that reviews are conducted and changes implemented for, usability, accessibility, quality, and technical functionality.
- Advocate for the learner and the learning experience as the primary drivers of all decisions.
- Train identified facilitator(s) in the use of the learning platform (Canvas) as well as best practices in facilitating online learning. For this project, this work was done by PPE, though the TLL is working on guidelines for the effective facilitation of online discussions (and learning in general).
- Support and Evaluate
- During the run of this module and future experiences, the TLL works closely with IT and PPE to iron out any technical or teaching and learning challenges that come up.
- Each short-form module benefits from the lessons learned from the prior offering. As the UDL module is the second one we have developed, the design reflects improvements identified by learners in the first module. This iterative improvement will continue with each new module.
The second example is a semester long, highly facilitated, online learning experience designed for current educational leaders looking to further their development. The Certificate in Advanced Education Leadership (CAEL) features four semester-long modules, the second of which, Managing Evidence, is running as we speak.
Managing Evidence was created with Professor Marty West to equip leaders with the skills needed to evaluate studies of education interventions and their implications for system-level decisions, and to strengthen the capacity of systems to base decisions on high-quality evidence. I worked with Dr. West, a teaching fellow (the newly minted Dr. David Blazar!), Brandon Pousley, Learning Technologist in the TLL, and Danielle Thomson, Special Projects Administrator at PPE to create and launch this module. As the learning designer on the project, my work included design, management, training, and support as shown below. For brevity, I will share how our work added to or slightly differed from that of the designers described in the example above.
- Design and Develop I helped the team consider ways in which learning goals that are traditionally met in campus-based programs might also be accomplished online, and to understand the unique affordances of the online format. This project required all of the design work described in the example above, as well as:
- The development of interactive exercises for use within the course. These include use of rapid development courseware (Articulate Storyline, Engage, and Quizmaker) as well as an online tool for multimedia discussions (VoiceThread).
- Working with the team (including T127 Practicum student, Dustin Hilt) to build in meaningful opportunities for learners to connect with one another and create a vibrant learning community throughout the learning experience (see connectivism, discussion strategies, and self-determination theory).
- I wrote about other principles impacting the design of CAEL modules in this blog post.
- Manage This project required all of the management work described in the example above, as well as the creation of custom processes and tools such as an asset tracker, a cross-departmental timeline of responsibilities, and a unique edit decision list (EDL) mechanism for use with the TLL’s media team.
- Train Brandon and I contribute to the Online Learning Facilitator (OLF) Handbook, a guide for the people responsible for facilitating the learning experience for up to fifteen people each. Brandon’s team also created videos and documentation for using various aspects of the course site and participated in a live training for the OLFs as well as the first Live Online for learners, orienting them to the learning platform.
- Support and Evaluate As with the example above, the TLL works closely with IT and PPE to iron out any technical or teaching and learning challenges that come up. We also collaborate with the teaching and delivery teams to design the weekly learning evaluations, the results of which are discussed in our weekly “Learning Loop” meetings. Here, emerging questions and opportunities for improvement are addressed in thoughtful and strategic ways so that our own learning does not end.
What are your examples of work you have done to Design and Develop, Manage, Train, and Support and Evaluate?