What is Learning Design?

Definition of Learning Design

Learning Design is the framework that supports learning experiences. It refers to deliberate choices about what, when, where and how to teach. Decisions need to be made about the content, structure, timing, pedagogical strategies, sequence of learning activities, and the type and frequency of assessment in the course, as well as the nature of technology used to support learning.

Recently the concept of “Learning Design” has gained momentum in the education space, mostly through discussions at conferences, webinars, ebooks, and more. Being topical though doesn’t make it new, in fact the concept has been evolving since the early 2000’s, deeply rooted in Design Thinking. So what is it? How is it different than what we had before? Why does Smart Sparrow care? Why should  you care?

For many, it also means shifting focus from the teacher to thinking about learners first — who they are, what they know, how they think, and how to reach them effectively so they get the most out of their educational experience.

It’s an intentional process that asks educators to think beyond “What do I need to teach?“ and to carefully consider “What is the best way for my learners to learn and understand this concept?”. It shifts the focus of education from simply delivering content to molding the full instructor-learner experience.

If instruction represents a form of delivery,

and if we are beyond delivery,

then we have reached a stage where we are beyond instruction. 

–Rod Sims of Capella University

How is learning design different from instructional design?

You’ll also often hear this field of work called “instructional design” — in fact, following industry standards at the time, we also used this nomenclature when we first began helping educators create courseware. But we quickly made the jump to “learning design”.

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means there was not enough data for this term.

Until not so long ago, the term "Instructional Design" perfectly captured the discipline. But in today’s screen-centered world, learning has become a more complex collaboration between the instructor, the learner, and the medium. As learning resources, tools, and delivery methods evolve in our industry, so must our language to accurately describe the creation process.

This language shift seems slight and perhaps a tad pedantic, but we, along with a growing number of educators, believe it is an important distinction that keeps our work grounded and centered around what matters: the learners. While “instruction” focuses on the teacher, what they do, and how they convey material, “learning” focuses on the learner, what they do, and how they acquire knowledge. This distinction has been a force reminding us that our focus is on helping people learn, not just on delivering instructional materials.

Learning design, a quickly-growing field

Relying on the process of learning design can make a monumental difference in any environment: K-12, higher education, corporate training and development, sports team coaching…! If someone is learning, that experience can (and we’ll argue “should“) be carefully crafted to yield the best outcomes. It guides decisions in what materials and resources are needed, what activities will be most impactful, and how to structure each moment of the learner experience for the best results.

In a traditional face-to-face teaching environment, this process can happen (fairly more) naturally as the lecturer can witness first hand the reactions learners have to the experience being provided to them. However, as we enter the realms of the digital space there is a growing need for collaboration of instructors with roles such as learning designers, subject matter experts, engineers, UX designers and graphic artists to organize, design, and develop learning programs to make this happen.

Fun fact: Each year, we see more organizations hiring full-time learning designers and creating specialised teams often called courseware development teams that sit within Centres for Learning & Teaching or Learning and Development. For us, this shows a critical shift in how the market is thinking about the possibilities and impact of education. Teaching is not a solo sport anyone.

Focusing on Learner-Centered Design

Definition of Learner-Centred Design

Learner-centered design is the process of building learning experiences by focusing on learner challenges and building fitting solutions by working through an iterative process.

For most educators, you really can’t discuss instructional design without quickly switching to the more specific topic of learner-centered design. The driving belief is that focusing instructional design projects on the needs, desires, and hopes of learners ensures that the project is successful.

Learner-centered design builds partially on the language and processes of human-centered design. It maintains people as the centerpiece and raison d'être throughout every moment of a project by continually asking, “Is this the best solution for my user?“. In this way, creators avoid designing an unusable product or “cool“ yet with unnecessary and incomplete features — ensuring that their final product is suitable for the needs of real people.

Learning Design is an iterative process, so if the process is started early there will be plenty of opportunities to refine the experience/idea before delivering it to learners. IDEO developed a very comprehensive Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit with plenty of activities, tools and methods that can be used to apply design thinking in this space.

Examples of Non-Human-Centered Design

  1. Plane seats are getting smaller, allowing airlines to fit in more passengers and thus add to their profits.
  2. Regular keyboards are becoming smaller and thinner to make portability easier, becoming less ergonomic
  3. Old Plastic milk cartons made it easy to transport milk, however were not resealable making it very messy to store for the end user

From Philosophies to Processes

At Smart Sparrow we see Learner-Centred Design as the balance between designing for positive educational outcomes (about which most education as in industry is completely obsessed with) and the process of getting there (which is more about the experiences that are meeting the needs and desires of the learners). This is a very subtle place to be, because you can create amazing experiences that learners love, that are not going to move the needle that much in terms of outcomes. Or you can focus on test prep and move the needle on outcomes offering a poor experience for learners. What we are looking to do is create experiences that keep an eye on both worlds.

Design is at the core of Smart Sparrow’s Studio and we believe in the power of following a deliberate process to achieve just that. We continually reflect upon and tweak our learning design and courseware creation processes to improve our efficacy and impact. As such, our working systems have become a hybrid of many great production processes and mindsets.

The many ingredients of our learning design process

  • Design Thinking
  • Human-centered Design
  • Learning Sciences
  • Sound Pedagogical Practices
  • Best practices in Curriculum Development
  • Backward Design
  • Data-driven Design
  • Collaborative Problem Solving

Design Thinking

Design thinking, popularized by the IDEO design, innovation, and consulting firm, is a set of processes to pinpoint deep or “wicked“ problems worth solving, and then producing logical solutions to those problems. It has been applied across a range of work, including fields not often thought of as needing design —such as restructuring an organization or solving a water crisis.

Learning design has incorporated the Design Thinking process: context analysis, problem finding and (re)framing, challenging assumptions, ideation and solution generating, creative thinking, sketching and drawing, modelling and prototyping, testing, and evaluating, allowing design teams to develop fit for purpose solutions, faster, with a continuous improvement mindset.

Follow an idea, trust the process.

Human-centred design

We’ve already mentioned human-centered design in short, but this is another idea popularized by IDEO. It takes the ideas of design thinking and folds in the human element at every point. It ensures that a desire for a sleek product or other goals do not supercede the needs of the human.

Learning Sciences

Born around 1990’s Learning Sciences is an interdisciplinary field that looks to progress scientific, humanistic and critical theoretical understanding of learning. It involves researching and testing learning in real world situations, guided by constructivist, social-constructivist, socio-cognitive, and socio-cultural theories of learning.

The same way the field of Learning Science gives particular attention to improving education through the study, learning design gives particular attention to whether or not the learning solution develops meets the projects desired goals/outcomes. Research-validated practices are the ultimate goal. However in some instances “research” can be more or less formal, frequent, and elaborate.

Sound Pedagogical Practices

There are an array of theories and methods used to teach learners. However it’s important for educators to focus on the purpose and intentionality of the method chosen at the time of teaching, not the quantity of methods they use. Sound pedagogical practices are selected according to the teacher’s beliefs, the needs of the learner, and the demands of the activity. Some examples are Modeling, Inquiry-Based Learning, Guided Interaction and Metacognition.

Our Learning Design Studio has created a library of Pedagogical Practices with a curation of most commonly used practices that are thought to be the most effective and more often requested/demanded by clients. Having a publicly available library enables our team to have consistent and accurate understanding of such practices, a way to inform their learning design and resource to explain pedagogical practices.

Best practices in Curriculum Development

“Curriculum development should always come after, and be guided by, the development of a mission, a strategic direction, and desired learning outcomes for each degree”. One of the things we put most attention to is the development of Learning Objectives. You would be surprised with how many times Learning Objectives are overlooked or developed just because it’s one of those things teachers need to do. “Learning Objective” is a very loaded term and is mostly used as a communication tool between the course developer and the university. Often times the way these objectives are written aren't useful for creating online lessons –they focus on highlighting the overarching concepts learners need to 'understand' rather than specifying what they actually need to be able to do to demonstrate an understanding of these concepts."

Through learning design we encourage instructors to think about SMART(TT) Learning Outcomes:

Background Design

Backward Design challenges "traditional" design approaches because it involves setting goals, then thinking about how these will be assessed, and lastly choosing or developing the instructional method and activity needed.

Backward Design involves 3 phases:

  1. Identify the results desired (big ideas and skills)
  2. Determine acceptable levels of evidence that support that the desired results have occurred (culminating assessment tasks)
  3. Design activities that will make desired results happen (learning events)

It is not uncommon however for educators to think about how they want to teach a concept, rather that if it’s possible to measure understanding through that specific activity. Luckily newer and more advanced technologies provide very granular learner data, and similar to Backward Design, Learning design encourages teams to plan and design for the data they want to track when creating a learning experience. This will ensure you have what you need to check learner competency, run a blended class, or to further iterate on your existing lesson design.

Data Driven Design

As we enter the decade of big data, data-driven design is becoming more commonly used, with virtually every sector leaning heavily on data when making decisions, including design decisions.

Some learn-teach tools like Smart Sparrow provide extensive data points and insights into how learners learn, how they’re interacting with the content, what misconceptions they have, flaws in your content and more. Data is very powerful in that it gives instructors control over evaluating the effectiveness of the lesson and it’s design, including deciding the right changes to make for refinement for the next cohort –the hallmark of iterative design.

Collaborative Problem Solving

Collaborative problem solving is about people working together, face-to-face or in an online environment, with a focus to collectively solve real world problems. The members of the group/team often share a common concern or have a similar passion and have the same level of commitment to the work. It’s thanks to sharing their personal expertise, experiences, tools, and methods that this approach is so valuable to instructional designers.

With the advent of technologies, the creation of learning experiences has become a team sport where instructors, subject matter experts, UX designers, graphic designers, developers collaborate. Some institutions have already started hiring such production teams; whilst others still rely on external companies to do so. The Smart Sparrow Studio comprises of people from various backgrounds, mindsets and (of course) specializations which helps in bringing diversity, perspective and unbiased approach to our work.

Learner-Centred Design at Smart Sparrow

At Smart Sparrow we work really hard to create space for creativity and exploration, in order to produce extraordinary work. We know now that designing for the digital medium is not like designing for face-to-face, hence it’s important to follow a process fit for purpose. In addition we embed a philosophy into our courseware design & production process and hence view our process as a set of guidelines. Below are the main 8 stages of a process what has yielded great outcomes for us.

8 stages of a process what has yielded great outcomes for the Smart Sparrow Studio when creating digital learning experiences. Summary of Smart Sparrow's Design Process.
  • Empathize — Think about your learner personas and how to personalize lessons for every learner — from those who fly through material with ease to those who struggle with concepts outside of their comfort zone.
  • Define — Work with Subject Matter Experts to define goals, learning objectives, and additional needs for the digital learning experience you’re creating.
  • Ideate — Brainstorm new ways to bring content to life using new question types, simulations, games, learning apps, and varied assessment items.
  • Prototype — Develop the first version of the learning experience, including visual design, content, adaptive feedback, and adaptive pathways.
  • User Testing — Collect feedback from professional testers, colleagues, and learners.
  • Refine — This is the pesky ‘+’ in the number of stages involved with learning design, and in fact this stage can occur endlessly after any of the previous three steps (you need to know where to draw the line). After you have gone through ideation, prototyping, user testings, iterate to continuously improve the learning experience you’re creating.
  • Deliver — After you finish development and run a final quality assurance check, set your new course curriculum and get ready to enroll learners.
  • Reflect — Look back to ensure goals were met and analyze ways to update and improve learning experience before next term.

Learner-centred design and technology

Technology is rapidly changing the way that we learn and teach. There are a range of tools at our disposal- new features are made available constantly and new tools are developed yearly –the landscape is getting more crowded. In recent years, there have been multiple attempts to explicate this software ecosystem, below is an attempt by Navitas, to bucket tools depending on the stage of the learning lifecycle they were designed for and impact. And it gets more complex, this graph doesn’t include the tools Graphic Designers, UX Designers, Software Developers use.

Virtual field trip of the California State University East Bay campus Navita's Next Gen Learning Lifecycle

At the end of the day the right technology for instructional design teams (aka courseware development teams) is a versatile and powerful tool that enables the creation of high-quality digital learning experiences that are beautiful, seamless, engaging and personal. Whole courseware development teams (Subject Matter Experts, User Experience Designers and Developers) should be able to collaborate in one single place, moving efficiently and speedily from concept to delivery. They should have the tools, themes, templates and system architecture in place to accelerate the development and innovation of the learning solutions they design and create.

At Smart Sparrow, we believe learning design challenges technology to innovate, and the right technology inspires new possibilities in online learning and assessment. At the end of the day if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So if courseware development teams want to improve the quality of online learning experiences, they must think deeply about the type of tools they use.

The quality of digital instruction is the new basis of great learning experiences. 95% of universities plan to launch fully online degree programs by 2020 — which will compete nationally, if not globally. What exactly will institutions compete on? Price? No, that will simply lead to a-race-to- the-bottom price war. Universities are slowly looking to invest time and resources on delivering a superior learning experience that leads to higher completion and stronger outcomes. (Eduventures, 2017).

With the right design processes, pedagogy, and technology, teams can design high-quality online learning experiences that meet the affordances of the digital medium — and that will guide a path to improved learning and online program success.