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A Shift Toward Learning Design: What It Isn't, Why It's Needed, and If It's Right for You

A Shift Toward Learning Design: What It Isn't, Why It's Needed, and If It's Right for You

At the university level, course design has traditionally been easy for faculty to manage on their own—until, that is, digital technologies began to play a role and online courses started to take off. What’s more, curricula are growing more complex and variable, employers are broadening their expectations, and students are required to engage intelligently with challenging issues such as social justice and human rights.

As a result, there is a growing demand for pedagogical design experts—instructional designers, learning engineers, and learning designers—to help deepen and enrich the learning experience for students in colleges and universities. In such an evolving and unpredictable landscape, the formal frameworks of instructional design—such as strict adherence to the ADDIE model—may need to be broadened.

Instructional design has long filled a particular need in K-12 education, government and corporate settings, but it was not until the past decade that it began playing a prominent role in higher education. Because online courses in particular are developed in advance, professors must predict where their students might become confused and then design a full range of materials, engagements, and activities to address those issues. Traditional instructional design—which emphasizes learning outcomes—is one way to support this work, but the needs of higher education increasingly call for an approach that is less structured and more adaptive. Students need tools and knowledge that allow them to navigate their future roles with agility.

One way of acknowledging the uniqueness of instructional design in higher education is by marking the shift from instructional design to what is being called “learning design.” Learning design is focused on the student learning experience and encourages productive variance within that experience, instead of concentrating on the student learning process and aiming for predictable results. Another way to think of this shift is as a move from emphasizing instructional interventions (learning from the outside-in) to those that are decidedly student-centered (learning from the inside-out). Challenging the assumptions about how we approach instructional design is one of the goals of  a new graduate degree program at Georgetown University; we hope to help students explore new ways of thinking about learning design, educational technology, and integrated and inclusive pedagogies in higher education.

It’s worth noting that the recent  report from the MIT Online Education Policy Initiative called for a similar shift, introducing the controversial term “learning engineer.” However, the term engineer demonstrates an emphasis on a structural and systems-based approach, which often begins with a problem to be solved. Rather than solve learning’s challenges with definitive answers, the learning designer as we understand it seeks to shape meaningful learning experiences by exploring and adapting to varying contexts, student backgrounds, and learning styles. Learning in this sense is not a problem to be solved but one to be explored, unpacked, and addressed.

Perhaps you know a few learning designers, even if that’s not their title; they’re busy pushing the frontiers of pedagogical design and bringing together interdisciplinary insights and teams to tackle design challenges that cannot be solved with expertise in just one area. Learning design for them—and for those of us doing this work at Georgetown—embraces the context of learning as well as the learning itself. While this shift in language may seem semantic, we believe it is one way to begin to acknowledge the increasingly complex body of practices that instructional designers are employing throughout higher education, a role that is becoming more and more fundamental to teaching at colleges and universities.

As we embrace change as the new constant in both designing for learning and learning itself, we are witnessing subtle shifts in our designs. We replace pre-set sequences with adaptive paths; we minimize formality and embrace agility; and look for evidence not just that our students have met our objectives, but that they are making meaning from them. As learning designers, our mission is to foster the creative and intellectual potential of students; formal instruction is only a part of the learning experience. It is our hope that students will not only meet certain course objectives, but also see the connectedness of things and find themselves both energized and equipped to advance knowledge, creativity, and goodwill in any setting. A mission this big calls for a reinvestment in the importance of the people who are designing learning experiences for our students and with our faculty. It calls for a mindset that sees learning everywhere.


7 Reasons Why Learning Design Might Be Right for You

  • You’re good at imagining yourself in others’ shoes.
  • You're always asking insightful questions.
  • You find design challenges invigorating.
  • You’re fascinated by what’s under the hood of the experiences you love.
  • You’re a “this/and” kind of person.
  • You can’t help yourself, you’re always thinking about learning—yours and other people’s.
  • You believe that how and what we learn can change how we think about the world and the choices we make to do good in it.

This article was sponsored by Georgetown University's Master of Arts in Learning and Design program and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.

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