Developing Learning Experience Designers

Digitalization is slowly transforming the way executives learn. Several attributes characterize this change. First, learning is moving from being an event-based activity to one that is integrated into everyday life – and hence something that happens continuously. Second, learning is less and less L&D driven, and more and more learner-led – comprising diverse learning moments, not all pre-selected and guided by “the learning function”. Finally, learning is no longer mass-tailored to address the needs of a generic cohort, but personalized to meet the requirements of a unique individual – and moreover, it is adaptive over time, with data used as input to guide future activity.

New, exciting tools are constantly being built; collectively, they hold the promise of enabling this cross-context, learner-led, data-driven learning that we aspire to. For a learning professional, being up to date on the latest trends is essential. But technological savvy is only half the story. In itself, shiny new technology will not guarantee a new way of learning; the technology needs to be deployed well. To do so, learning professionals must couple an awareness of what is possible today with a deep understanding of learners’ needs. By reflecting on needs that are either unmet or for which there is a suboptimal solution, they can devise ways to address them in new, more effective ways.

This capability, to combine cutting-edge technology with extraordinary pedagogy, requires a significant shift in mindset. In part because of the novelty of a learning professional’s toolkit; but also due to the speed with which this toolkit is evolving. In the stable context of the past, an instructional designer explored the occasional new way of doing something, and scaled the novel approach if it worked. But no longer do we live in a period marked by isolated episodes of rapid change, between long periods of little or no change; change is constant. As a result, learning professionals must abandon their comfortable lives as instructional designers, and embrace the demanding yet promising profession of the “learning experience designer”.

Designing Digital-age Learning

To understand what distinguishes a learning experience designer from an instructional designer, we must reflect first on the process of designing digital-age learning. If we think of learning journey that is continuous, learner-led and data driven- i.e. a learning journey enabled by digitalization, four steps can help frame the design process.

  1. Explore the need.

The starting point is to assist the learner in clearly expressing a need, i.e. the problem the learner is trying to solve. This should be described in terms of what the individual wants to be able to do (skills), know (knowledge) or argue (attitudes). Given the nature of digital-age learning, i.e. learning embedded in everyday life, it is critical that this need be closely related to the demands of the learner’s current and future role.

  1. Identify opportunities.

The second step involves helping the learner identify opportunities for learning, or “learning moments”. This is a list of common situations and scenarios (i.e. contexts) in their everyday life where the learner is most likely to encounter a relevant experience. What makes a learning moment such is the fact it triggers a reflection related to the need that is being pursued. Hence, all the learning moments on aggregate and over time make up the learning journey – each learning moment being a meaningful interaction at a point in time and in a particular context.

  1. Enable the journey.

The third step is critical; it involves providing the learner with the toolkit necessary to engage in his or her learning journey, and get the job done. Part of the toolkit is technology-related; a digital learning engine that helps learners do such things, amongst others, as capture, organize and store information (text, audio, video); detect and visualize patterns to make sense of data; share and discuss insights with peers; connect to a rich multimedia knowledge base; receive context-aware notifications; and engage in social collaboration. Another dimension of toolkit is the people who support the learning process – i.e. the L&D professionals. These individuals must facilitate the learning journey, which implies being comfortable such things, amongst others, as enabling whatever technology the learner needs; partnering with other HR functions and line managers to involve them in the learning process; and guiding learners to relevant information inside and outside the organization.

  1. Assess and personalize.

The last step involves analyzing data from the learning cycle. Data is important because of its power to personalize the learning experience. First, historical data can be used to draw insights, which allow the individual to reflect on the past and make appropriate corrections to the next cycle. Second, cross-sectional data (i.e. the data of other learners) can open the door to suggestions of what to do next. Indeed, outputs can be compared to those from other learners, and from that comparison an individual can be informed real-time about ways in which to make his or her learning experience richer, based on the experience of others.

The Mindsets of a Learning Experience Designer

The Learning Experience Designer plays a critical, dual role. First, he or she is involved in the learning process, and thus charged with empowering the individual learner to pursue their learning journey. Second, he or she is a member of the broader learning team, which is being asked to bring to life a corporate-wide approach by which learning happens whenever and wherever. This dual role positions the Learning Experience Designer as a catalyst with respect to the change that is needed – transforming learning as a practice, as well as the learning function itself.

Fulfilling this dual role demands a new set of competencies and attitudes. Some of these are collective; they are held by the learning team, and can be leveraged across many activities in which the team is involved. Others are quite specific to task of helping learners shape their learning experience; hence, they are of particular relevance to the role of the Learning Experience Designer. Taken together, they represent a significant departure, in terms of mindset, from the approach of an instructional designer. How so?

An instructional designer is focused on learning objectives; i.e. what the students should be able to do at the end of a course. This focus guides the selection and organization of content, and the order of instructional strategies. In this process, the Instructional Designer acts as a “learning expert”, using their knowledge of the principles of learning and their practical experience to find the optimal method of instruction.

Ironically, this very expertise constrains the Instructional Designer, and condemns them to being a shaper. An instructional Designer defines the learning experience through their eyes, sequencing elements to meet the desired goals in the most effective, efficient and appealing way, based on somewhat fixed toolkit. Learners are only a concern later, when they are observed going through the experience.

This inside-out, expertise-based approach is completely counter to that which a Learning Experience Designer must take. He or she is not immediately concerned with “the product”; i.e. the way in their existing “toolkit” (i.e. existing solutions) maps to particular learning objectives. This product is merely a consequence of an explicit focus on the leaner; i.e. looking at the learning experience through a learner’s eyes, and enabling a process focused on their needs, using whatever means necessary – the ones they are familiar with, or ones yet to be explored.

This approach requires a new mindset, which rests on a set of competencies and attitudes. The graph below depicts these, as they relate to the steps of the design process. In the following paragraphs, they are described in greater detail.

  • To explore the need…. Part data scientist, part design thinker.

Data is the foundation of digital-age learning. As learning moments are captured, they generate a data footprint. This data can be analyzed, to understand a person’s learning history. But beyond looking at past performance, data can also be fed back to the learner – to boost engagement as well as make future learning more personalized. This ability and eagerness to visualize and communicate data, and allow it to shape future behavior, is typical of a data scientist, and distinguishes him or her from a mere data analyst.

Equally, defining the right problem to solve is essential. Approaching this task as a design thinker would implies doing two things. First, observation must take center stage; rather than relying on what one says, observation can help discern what people really need. Second, constant questioning is essential; only after multiple rounds of questioning are the true issues revealed. This discipline allows a design thinker to suspend judgment, and look at the problem through the customer’s eyes – an empathy that differentiates his or her approach from more deductive approaches to problem definition.

  • To identify opportunities… Part co-creator, part UX-designer.

Learning that is embedded in everyday life implies that most development opportunities happen within the context of performing day-to-day work. If this is the case, acting as a co-creator is essential. Co-creation has been used to describe the act of bringing external parties, usually customers or suppliers, into a company’s creative process. For the Learning Experience Designer, it means working together with the learner to create the learning experience; i.e. identify the learning moments most relevant to the individual. While the Learning Experience Designer may steer the process, the learner has a seat at the (head of the) table. Hence, responsibility for success rests equally with both parties, a significant departure from the view commonly held of L&D as a “provider” of a learning solution.

This continuous nature of the learning experience also implies the need to think about the working environments of employees, and their behaviors within that. As said, learning is no longer limited to a course, but rather happens over time and across contexts. The Learning Experience Designer is thus charged with creating the systems and processes that allow employees to stitch together various learning moments, and create a holistic experience. This task requires the relentless focus a user experience designer has on the interaction between “the customer” and “the product”. In this case, improving the ease, accessibility and pleasure of all the activities associated with a learner capturing learning moments, reflecting on them and extracting generalizable patterns (i.e. creating an integrated learning journey) becomes a primary concern.

  • To enable the journey… Part maker & tinkerer, part prototyper.

The pace of change, in the age of digitalization, is astonishing. New technology appears almost daily. This technology opens the door to meet needs in new ways. In some cases, this means addressing an old need differently; in others, it implies the ability to fulfill a previously underserved need. In this context, the Learning Experience Designer must be comfortable with constant experimentation, and be willing to try out new paths – without fear of possible failure. This revel for the creation of new devices and the constant perfection of existing ones is typical of a maker and tinkerer.

At the same time, rampant innovation means there are, as of yet, no certain answers.  Hence, it is vital for the Learning Experience Designer to be able to use experiments as a way to test concepts; better said, as an opportunity to learn. This is a far cry from the typical “piloting” approach; through a pilot, we fine tune a solution in a representative environment prior to rollout, and typically after considerable design and development work has already taken place. Rather, just like a prototyper, the Learning Experience Designer must use experimentation as an integral part of the design and development aspect of a solution. It is the experiment itself, with limited work prior to its start, that provides the prototyper the basis to measure results from an initial use case, and iterate to a better solution.

  • To assess and personalize… Part optimizer, part disruptor.

The Learning Experience Designer thinks expansively, constantly exploring ways to improve the learning experience. But when he or she finds a new way of doing something that is effective, it is time to shift gears – and focus on exploiting it, just like an optimizer would. Optimization is the action of making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource. In today’s times, when the window for exploitation is increasingly narrow, doing so in a timely manner is particularly important. Indeed, digitalization has brought about rampant exploration, and this in turn has increased the speed with which new solutions are being discovered. As a result, the shelf-life of any novelty is far shorted than it was in the past. Given this context, knowing when to scale and how to do quickly is vital, if one is to take advantage of what inevitably is a short-lived opportunity.

At the same time, a Learning Experience Architect must be sensitive to the fact that a learner’s needs are not fixed, but rather must be continuously reexamined. He or she must leverage the desire to meet these needs, as they evolve over time and contexts, as a source of inspiration for trying new approaches. In doing so, the Learning Experience Designer must, if necessary, act like a disruptor; i.e. be willing to challenge the status-quo, and put all aspects of a current approach up for grabs. Disruption differs from innovation in that it uproots and changes how we think and go about an activity. In that sense, a Learning Experience Designer must come to terms with the fact all solutions, not matter how good, should exist in perpetual beta. And therefore, his or her role is to constantly improve them, sometimes in radical ways, to meet the learning needs of the learner.

Developing Learning Experience Designers

Recent research has evidenced the fact that HR teams lack the competencies and attitudes to support digital age learning (see G. Auricchio doctoral dissertation, “A Study of the views of Senior Learning and Development Professionals in Flagship Global Companies Regarding their Use of Blended Learning in Executive Leadership Development Programs”). In other words, people working in corporate learning do not possess the appropriate mindset. If that is the case, how might they develop it – and become the Learning Experience Designers that we need, if the shift in corporate learning is to occur?

One thing to keep in mind is that evolving from the current, program-centric, L&D-run approach to what we describe as “digital-age learning” is not a quick fix, nor something that happens overnight. It takes time. And during the transition, two realities need to be maintained. On the one hand, programmatic learning must continue to exist – and co-habitat the learning agenda with experiments with cross-context, learner-led, data-driven learning. On the other hand, the learning function must still be visible to employees as an “organizer of learning experiences” – before fading away, as learning itself becomes a dimension of the organization’s way of life.

Learning Experience Designers are catalysts in this transformation process. They are part of the current learning function, and through their involvement are pushing it to become part of the culture, or “how things are done around here”. They also are responsible for the learning offer; i.e. a recommended program, which they are hoping to evolve to be “a journey that you (the learner) control, and I (L&D) enable”. As a result, they must juggle two mindsets; the traditional one of the Instructional Designer, and the new one of the Learning Experience Designer.

Performing two significantly distinct roles at the same time is not an easy task. But it is necessary for the transition to occur smoothly. Indeed, it is this ability to become equally adept at sustaining the status quo and considering changes to it that underpins the success of the digital transformation of corporate learning. Which is why developing the mindset of a Learning Experience Designer cannot be approached as an “integral reset” process; it must be gradual.

With this in mind, L&D professionals are advised to engage in a series of “stretch” experiences. A typical experience of this kind exposes the individual to new approaches, in a contained environment. This allows the individual to experiment first-hand with a different, out-of-the-box way to address a particular learning need. Importantly, the experience also must make time for reflection and sense-making, so that insights can be extracted and these in turn can begin to influence the practice of individual, and hence their behavior.

One example of stretch experience is that which this group has started to design, and is considering to implement for its members as well as other interested organizations. It requires participating L&D professionals to engage in designing an individual learning journey using as a model the four steps outlined previously, and the capabilities and attitudes related to each step. In the process, participants will be provided with a toolkit to facilitate their progress in the design – which will include such things as a digital infrastructure, masterclasses, peer-sharing, a multimedia knowledge base, etc. As an outcome, each participant will deliver, in the context of their organization, a digital-age learning experience; some type of cross-context, learner-led, data-driven experience, for a particular need and cohort.

The transition to becoming a Learning Experience designer is not easy. And many learning professionals are bound to drag their feet. But for change to occur, we must step out of our comfort zone, embrace what we do not know, and consider how these new elements can be used to address certain needs. Only in such a way can we begin to construct a new approach to learning, based not on prejudices but rather informed opinion. A learning that leverages the extraordinary technology of today, but is rooted in the cutting-edge pedagogy of yesterday.

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