What is learning design?

Photo credit: Andrés Ordorica

In this post, Andrés Ordorica, an Instructional Designer in the Educational Design and Engagement team (Information Services), answers the most frequent question he is asked as in his job: ‘what is learning design?’…

When embarking on projects with academic colleagues, it’s important they understand the process of learning design and why we are working together. Without this awareness, we can’t work productively or collaboratively. Creating visibility of our team’s work at the University of Edinburgh has become an important mission. Not only to ‘brag’ about the great work we do, but to communicate to our colleagues that we are an available resource.

The interesting thing is that learning design is found in lots of places, but many don’t realise when they are interacting with learning design, which is the point! Good learning design shouldn’t be obvious or feel contrived. It should feel natural and organic. So, what is it then?

In its most concise form, learning design is both the experience of teaching and learning. It does not matter if this is online, in-person or a bit of both. Learning design can help shape all forms of effective learning. Learning design is a process that encompasses the thoughtful planning of a learner’s journey, constructing that journey, delivering it in some form and, finally, reflecting and reviewing on the outcomes. This process can be of huge benefit to the person teaching because it gives her pause to reflect on her teaching styles. It pushes him to consider why and how he will assess his learners. It teaches us about teaching!

Approaching learning by design is about considering all the aspects of the teaching and learning experience:

  1. What does the learner need to know by the end of the learning experience?
  2. How will the learning occur (offline, online or a bit of both)?
  3. How will the instructor interact with the learner?
  4. How will the learner be assessed?
  5. How can we capture data to reflect on the learning?

Learning by design involves asking lots of questions, seeking lots of answers and then throwing in some more questions. It is a dialogic process by nature.

Within Distance Learning at Scale (DLAS), we work with academic colleagues to design and build online learning. Specifically, we design MicroMasters that are hosted on the edX learning platform. But online learning and digital education can look quite differently depending on who is doing it at the University. It might come in the form of a lecture-recording hosted on a virtual learning environment, or a post-graduate degree taught on an online learning platform. Other offerings include MOOCs, digital skills training and open-educational resources. The University truly has been at the forefront of online learning within higher education.

Digital education offers opportunity to think creatively about the learner’s journey. It also pushes instructors and academics to think critically about how they teach. As learning designers, we are aware of the limits of online learning. We cannot create every type of learning experience that occurs in the physical classroom. However, there are many tools and environments we can use so that the teaching is effective and innovative.

One of the most rewarding bits of feedback my team has received was when an academic colleague told us that the process of learning design finally gave him opportunity to think reflectively and critically about how he approaches his teaching. Learning designers ultimately are not the teacher or the instructor. We are facilitators, investigators, technologists, confidants and people genuinely enthused about learning. A few of us have experience of teaching, but all of us have experience of learning. That is deeply valuable when creating learning materials in partnership with academic colleagues. We can advocate for both sides of the learner’s journey.

As learning designers, we seek the answer to the elusive question: what makes good learning? The answer is ever evolving and it should be. Because it means we are always reflecting, always improving, and always working towards a richer learning experience.

We are not attempting a revolutionary act by designing learning. Instead, we are encouraging a more considered approach to why we are all here: sharing the wealth of knowledge that is alive and well at the University of Edinburgh. Teaching and learning is essential to education and we are here to promote that.

Andrés Ordorica

Andrés Ordorica is a learning designer and creative writer. A trained playwright, he began working as a creative arts facilitator in San Antonio, Texas. This eventually led him to design online learning for the likes of Facebook, Visa and American Express (which is a journey that is better explained in person). He has worked in the private sector, further education and now HE. He now co-designs online MicroMasters for Distance Learning at Scale. He is a huge advocate of democratic approaches to education and promotes accessible and inclusive learning models. He is a trustee of Artlink Edinburgh and a published writer and arts journalist.

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