Pearson Bets One Small Step for Research Is a Leap for Learning Design

Pearson Bets One Small Step for Research Is a Leap for Learning Design

Pearson Education did something it’s never done before. This week the London-based publishing and assessment giant released a set of learning design principles that anyone can use to develop edtech products. While there’s nothing new in the 102-page public document—everyone knows that giving feedback and inquiry-based learning methods have benefits—the effort signals how research and industry can be tied more closely.

User research is a staple of good product design. For education that means building technology based on what we know about learning. Yet many company claims that their tools are grounded in research are murky at best.

David Porcaro, director of Learning Design at Pearson, says the decision to collect and share these learning design principles “is like putting the ingredients list on food labels. These are the things that make up our products.”

Pearson has been building this collection of learning design principles over the past three years, Porcaro says. His team synthesized existing research from the learning sciences and created a list of 45 principles—goal setting and peer tutoring, for example—that the company’s product developers and user experience designers can incorporate into the tools they build.

“We want our end-to-end process to conform to these principles,” says Curtiss Barnes, managing director of global product management and design at Pearson. By creating this list of learning theories and methods, the idea is to develop an internal vernacular for talking about how learning happens, he says.

Each principle includes a description (what is it?), capabilities (what can you use it for?) and sample design implementations (how do you build something based off of it?). It also includes a scorecard so that users can self-assess whether they incorporated the ideas in their design process.

Porcaro explains that the company recently incorporated the principles in a product update for a digital writing tool. Learning designers relied on theories about cognitive load and multimedia, and online information literacy, for example, when they built a plugin for Microsoft Word.

Pearson released the set of principles under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license, meaning they’re free for anyone to use. It’s not like the company is giving away its secret sauce—after all, most of the ingredients are common sense to instructional designers and educators.

Curtiss says the move is a way for Pearson to “put an ante on the table and say we’re serious about this.”

Since the information is not proprietary, the stakes are low for making it accessible.

Some critics have pointed out that Pearson shared the resources in a PDF document, which is uneditable. (One of the tenants of Create Commons is that material can be remixed). The company says it’s working to fix this.

The trickier part is moving from theory to design. “I don’t know how these documents translate into practice,” says George Veletsianos, Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and associate professor at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. How to actually build this research into products is the kind of information the company will likely keep to itself.

Veletsianos says that while not earth-shattering, Pearson’s design principles are a first step in creating products that are grounded in solid research about what works in learning.

“The edtech industry has promoted this idea that education has not changed since the dawn of time. It has ignored history, research and the theory of edtech as a field of study at its own peril. It would be great for industry to work more closely with researchers in developing and refining educational products.”

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