The Importance of Learning Design

Bryan Blakeley, Executive Director, Center for Digital Innovation in Learning, Boston College
Bryan Blakeley, Executive Director, Center for Digital Innovation in Learning, Boston College

Bryan Blakeley, Executive Director, Center for Digital Innovation in Learning, Boston College

We are living in an exciting time for educational technologies. We have more tools and a greater variety of tools than ever before and an increasing awareness of their potential to facilitate learning. We continue to see prolific investments within institutions and in the broader marketplace in the development and application of such tools. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality have the potential to substantially improve learning experiences across many sectors and industries.

While these are certainly reasons to be enthusiastic about educational technologies, I want to raise a cautionary note about these developments. Even those of us with substantial experience in developing, selecting, and on boarding technical systems can fall victim to the fallacy that a new technology by itself will transform existing user behaviors. Educational technology is no different, though I would argue that the effects of seeing technology as a panacea may be particularly damaging in this area. It is crucial, I believe, to focus relentlessly on the perspective of the end user — in this case, the learner — when selecting and implementing educational technologies and that doing so requires us pay sustained attention to how we will design for learning within these environments as well as how we implement them in an technical sense.

Neglecting the design of learning experiences will negate any positives from new educational technologies, no matter how exciting or potentially transformative they may be 

An example from higher education will hopefully provide a useful example. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were widely prophesied to bring about a revolution in higher education a few years ago. Harvard, MiT, Berkeley, Stanford, and a host of other institutions provided free courses to anyone with an internet connection, including courses from some of their best-known scholars. EdX and Coursera, two of the major MOOC organizations, spent substantial sums of money to develop their technology platforms, which looked very professional and had some advanced capabilities for course authors. Despite these major investments of resources and supposed transformative potential, MOOCs did not fundamentally change the higher education ecosystem. My argument is that the reason MOOCs failed to deliver on the hype surrounding them is the same reason that many educational technology interventions fail: lack of attention to learning design.

What do I mean by learning design? In short, I mean the creation of environments that are designed in accordance with what we know about the science of how people learn. Most MOOCs provided a host of lecture videos paired with multiple-choice quizzes and sporadic peer-learning opportunities. They often failed to create meaningful social contexts for learning or pay attention to student motivation in the learning process, both of which we know are crucial to effective learning environments. MOOCs failed, I suggest, because they did not create effective learning environments despite having robust technology platforms with which to work.

 

 

The upshot of this argument for corporate training is hopefully obvious: educational technologies are meaningless investments without concomitant investments in building high quality learning experiences based in the science of learning, which will almost always include hiring staff members trained in learning design to build these experiences. Neglecting the design of learning experiences will negate any positives from new educational technologies, no matter how exciting or potentially transformative they may be.

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