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Sample Chapter: Design for Learning

This is a sample chapter from Jenae Cohn and Michael Greer’s book Design for Learning: User Experience in Online Teaching and Learning. 2023, Rosenfeld Media.

Chapter 1

Learning Is an Experience

A group of fifteen people log on to a video conference call together. They are gathered to attend a change management training session, all logging in from different locations. Their faces float in their individual squares, arranged in a neat grid. One minute before the session begins, the grid of faces shifts to the side of the screen and is displaced by a screen-shared “welcome” slide. The facilitator for the session announces that the conversation will begin shortly.

But what’s called a “conversation” is not really a conversation. The facilitator talks for an hour as she progresses through a slideshow. The participants in their separate squares simply listen. Maybe some of them take notes. Others tune out.

Live online learning experiences like this are common, but they can often feel uninspired and, frankly, boring.

You could probably make your own list of online learning experiences gone wrong. The slide deck with tiny type that was almost unreadable. The endless blocks of dense informational text that had to be navigated in a pop-up window that looked like it was designed in the 1990s. A “next” button that can only be double-clicked for some reason. A workshop lacking clear organization and degenerating into chaos. Videos that lack captions. Seminars running over time—by an hour or more. The examples go on and on. But learning designers can do better than all of this.

Doing better means understanding that learning experiences can’t just be facilitated; they must be designed in ways that are attentive to an online user experience. Many online classes are designed simply to mimic the experience of in-person learning, largely because facilitators and instructors haven’t been given sufficient training or support in the theory and methods of online learning. Sadly, this lack of training and support has caused many learners and instructors alike to blame the online environment itself.

But it’s not the fact of being online that’s to blame for a crummy learning experience. It’s a lack of attention to what people’s experiences are like when they are online. It’s a gap between an understanding of user experience design and actual learning design.

Designing for learning means designing an environment where users have clear choices. It means creating a space where learners can find what they need in the way that they need it and feel supported all along the way.

Design for Possibility

Learning is often associated with a stodgy, formal environment, like a schoolroom with desks bolted to the chairs. That’s because learning, historically, is a lot about control: pour some ideas into learners’ minds, and they’ll come away with new knowledge. Paolo Freire famously critiqued this model, referring to it as the “banking model” of education, which assumes that learners are only there as vessels to receive and file away information (like depositing money in a bank).

But in the last two to three decades, nearly ubiquitous access to the internet and mobile devices has provided platforms that give learners a lot more agency and control in where, when, how, and why they might engage with a learning experience. And while the technology itself hasn’t disrupted “the banking model” of education, it certainly makes the deficits of the banking model all the more visible. You can try to force leaners online to watch a bunch of videos with no engagement or follow-up. Or you can attempt to keep learners still and silent while staring into a web camera. But you’re definitely not going to succeed. After all, it’s all too easy to get distracted and find new and interesting things to do online. Online, learners are no longer at the mercy of what a teacher tells them to do; instead, they get to navigate through their own experiences because the technology does not keep them confined to one place at a time. If you really want someone to learn something online, it’s important to keep them engaged and give them a reason why they should be there learning in the first place.

In today’s world, successful online learning experiences put learners in the driver’s seat. For example, Codecademy, an online learning platform founded in 2011, offers a large and growing catalog of courses in web design, machine learning, data science, and related subjects in coding languages and computer science. As of 2023, over 100,000 paid subscribers have used Codecademy to learn how to write code (see Figure 1.1).

Three columns appear side-by-side with the left-hand column showing “How a Form Works” with instructions, the middle column showing the code for generating a website, and the right-hand column showing the actual website, which reads “Davie’s Burgers at the top.

Figure 1.1
The Codecademy course enables users to see the how, what, and why of an activity all at once by showing three key pieces of information for a user learning HTML for the first time: a description and purpose for the activity, the terminal for writing the code, and the rendering of what the HTML code produces for the Web.

A typical lesson on Codecademy starts with a short introductory text explaining a concept or idea; in this case, how an HTML form works. Learners read through the explanation followed by step-by-step instructions describing the process to build a form. At each step, learners can click “Stuck? Get a hint.” A concept review provides a sample “cheat sheet” that can be used to review the main concepts in the lesson, and learners can also check the community forms to see what questions other learners asked about the lesson. In the center window, learners can run and troubleshoot their code in real time, and on the right, they can view the visual output produced by the code (a mockup for a fictional business called Dave’s Burgers).

Codecademy is one of many examples of digital learning platforms that have transformed the experience of learning in the past twenty years; others include LinkedIn Learning (formerly known as Lynda.com) created in 2002, Khan Academy in 2008, and Coursera in 2012. While these platforms have not replaced a lot of traditional learning experiences, they are designed in ways that give learners the agency to stop, start, pause, apply, and re-try new concepts without the time constraints of a formal learning experience.

A Brief History of Online Learning

The seeds of online learning experiences were planted by the internet in the 1980s. Concurrently (in 1984), Malcolm Knowles, an adult learning theorist, created a theory of “andragogy” or “adult learning” that posited four key principles as critical to helping adults learn new ideas: having a strong self-concept, having a reservoir of prior learning experiences to draw upon, having a readiness to learn, and having an orientation to what it means to learn. These four principles, he argued, needed to be applied to the growing world of online training experiences, including the integration of a clear stated purpose for the learning experience, a task-oriented way of organizing content, the inclusion of varied learning activities, and room for learner agency and direction. These kinds of principles set the stage for the continued growth of online learning in the 1990s.

By the 1990s, online courses began to emerge, mostly centered on college campuses, often in states with large rural populations, like Utah, where students would have to travel long distances to attend class in a brick-and-mortar classroom space. Online classes grew steadily throughout the early 2000s and by 2011 about one-third of U.S. college students were taking at least one course fully online.

The flexibility and ease of accessing online learning experiences has continued to be facilitated by the growth in consumer technologies that make information even more portable and convenient to access. In 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone and launched what has become a thriving ecosystem of digital learning. This growth in consumer technology has made the prevalence of learning experiences online all the greater; learners have to learn how to use their iPhones in order to continue buying and engaging with iPhones. As such, programs such as the Google Analytics Academy, the Meta Community Manager certification, Hubspot Academy, and the Salesforce Trailhead program are all growing and thriving consumer technology education programs, in large part because they count on a growing consumer base remaining interested in becoming better users and learners on the tools of a persistently growing consumer technology ecosystem. Smartphones are now used by many more learners than laptops or other large screens. Even with this unprecedented growth in access to online learning experiences, the need for theories like Freire’s and Knowles’ persisted; increased access did not necessarily mean an increased understanding of how to develop an experience that would really, truly be meaningful to learners.

The need for an immediately accessible learning experience became even clearer at the peak of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. This catastrophic event forced many people into online learning because of “lockdowns” that prevented people from gathering in brick-and-mortar spaces. From early 2020 through the end of 2021, learning experiences across industries were rapidly spun into remote experiences. It’s worth noting that the customer education industry, with companies such as Salesforce and Hubspot Academy leading the way, were leaders in developing online learning experiences prior to the pandemic. However, outside of the customer education industry, remote learning experiences were often considered “inferior” to an on-site class experience. But the experiences of emergency remote learning opened many trainers’ and teachers’ eyes to new possibilities for learning and gave a wider range of individuals more ubiquitous engagement with other learners.

The rapid rise of “emergency remote teaching” has been an earthquake in the lives of instructors and course designers, and the aftershocks continue today. There’s no unwinding the clock on the experiences that lots of students and professionals alike had with learning online, and the key for learning designers now is to consider how, with deliberate time and planning, the tools for online learning can be designed to be even more attentive to users’ needs. It’s easy to anticipate that online learning will continue to grow because of the following criteria:

  • Accessibility: People no longer need to travel to brick-and-mortar campuses or offices and can access learning from home or wherever they have access to a smartphone and a good internet. Plus, disabled learners have access to tools like closed captions and screen readers, which can ensure their access to the materials they need.
  • Social mobility: Many people have either been priced out of continued learning opportunities, such as enrolling in higher education courses, or have not found traditional continued learning opportunities to meet their needs as full-time workers or caregivers. There is a growing need for people to learn outside of formal, inflexible, and expensive channels.
  • Career growth: Learners today are often driven by a desire to change or advance in their careers. Technology drives many of these learners, who discover that they need specialized training to move up the career ladder.

This brief snapshot of the landscape of learning begins to explain why there is so much in motion now. Today’s learners are seeking ways to learn at their own pace and on their own schedules. They want to learn in their own ways, gravitating toward interactive experiences to test and practice their learning, rather than learning primarily from textbooks or a long lecture.

Learning designers and others who create learning experiences face both huge opportunities and big challenges.

Why Learners Today Are a Different Kind of User

Learning experience design reflects a growing body of work that combines user-experience design (UX) with learning science. A learner is a special kind of user, with their own needs and values. If you want to check an account balance using your mobile banking app, you can log in, look up the balance, and you’re done (if the app is working properly). If you want to learn how to design a website using semantic HTML, you need much more information. You need to learn how to learn.

Online learning platforms are complex information systems. Designing these systems draws upon several fields, including:

  • Information design (or information architecture): A process for designing how users move through complex systems. Information design makes information both findable and understandable.
  • Instructional design: A process for designing and developing learning experiences.
  • Learning science: Theories and practices developed from neuroscience, psychology, and education research to inform how people learn.
  • Visual design and UI: An understanding of how the visual layers of an online experience look and behave.
  • User research: Research to learn about learners’ needs and behaviors.
  • Content strategy: A process for imagining and planning the content across the product or experience.

Language from these fields informs the planning, sketching, prototyping, and production of digital learning experiences.

A Model of Learning Experience Design

Learners are not sponges who absorb information through osmosis. But many learning platforms are unconsciously based on a model that defines learning as information transfer. Even formal courses often present learning as expertise being delivered directly from instructor to student. Current work in learning science and related fields suggests, however, that learning is an active process. Learners do not absorb knowledge; they actively create new knowledge.

That’s why you need to design the learning experience with a specific learning experience design model in mind. The learning experience design model begins by centering on the learner. The learner’s interactions with the instructor, course website or platform, learning activities, and other course materials to support the learners’ practices combine to form the essential learning experience, as shown in Figure 1.2.

A circle with the label “Learner” contains an arrow that points in two directions: to the word “Learner” and to a cloud labeled “The Learning Experience,” which includes contributors to the experience: the Instructor, the Website or Platform, Learning Activities, and Practice.

Figure 1.2
This user-centered learning experience design model demonstrates how the learner’s behavior, motivation, and engagements with the course need to impact the course design just as much as the course design needs to impact and engage the learner.

This focus on the learner and their behavior in the experience design model happens not just through direct instructor-to-student feedback, but also through an automated framework. For example, in Duolingo, every time a user completes a lesson on the app, they receive automated acknowledgement of their progress and a score sheet detailing their performance, including the areas where they excelled and struggled. The next time the user logs in, they receive a customized set of lessons that are aligned with their progress report. So, if the user succeeds in lessons on using, say, modifiers in Spanish, they see lessons about modifiers less frequently. And if the user struggled with conjugating verbs in prior lessons, they see more lessons on verb conjugation, which will reinforce the user’s need for practice in this area.

In the case of the automated language learning app, the user is getting real-time and automatic adjustments (feedback) based on their performance in the activities. This process is often referred to as an individualized learning experience. This kind of automation is not possible in all learning contexts, but this model of design centers the user in their experience and offers them materials that are aligned with their needs, at least as far as the robot understands them. In Chapter 11, “Reviewing Your Learning Experience,” we’ll explore the benefits and limitations of using robots or other forms of artificial intelligence for feedback.

We’ve found that many instructors tend to overemphasize the content of their courses, seeking that one perfect reading or that one perfect example that will enable them to get their point across to learners. In contrast, the experience design model encourages designers to focus on what the learners are doing—or how they are using the content and why.

This doesn’t mean that content for learning can’t be designed in an interactive way. But interaction is not the same thing as learning.

Peloton’s instructional exercise content library is a perfect example. Peloton bike users get access to a novel range of exercise videos that they can play whenever they’d like, and they are incentivized to interact with those videos through several features. Exercisers can track their progress, earn badges for completing a certain number of workouts, and compete with other Peloton users on a live leaderboard to gamify their experience.

Where Peloton excels is by building a powerful community. Peloton users can identify “friends” to add to their accounts so that they can invite others to join rides with them and build accountability networks. This community helps users build strong motivation to take more classes and be in a community together. Most Peloton users don’t expect to become professional athletes by purchasing access to the Peloton app or buying a Peloton bike. They want to build a habit by investing in a commitment, not developing mastery.

When users ride on a Peloton bike, they are not receiving feedback about how effective their form is on the bike. Rather, they are receiving instructions and incentives to keep them exercising. There are videos to help them set up the bike and strive for better form, but short of remaining uninjured, they may never really know for certain if they’re riding the Peloton bike like a professional athlete. And that’s OK! That’s likely not their goal. But it’s worth understanding and appreciating the difference. Building a habit and a motivation to learn are part of a learning experience. But without getting direct feedback on how to improve, learning isn’t possible.

Interaction design and learning design are not the same thing.

If your end goal is to design training or a course that users will be incentivized to complete, then a gamified video playlist, like the Peloton app, may very well do the trick. However, if the end goal of your training or your course is for a learner to be able to apply that knowledge to a variety of flexible situations and gain new knowledge that you can assess for authentic learning, then your learning design is going to require some well-designed interventions.

A starting point for that intervention is remembering that you’re designing for users who have specific needs. Knowing what those needs are and how you can optimize your design to meet those needs is the goal.

It’s Not All About You

When you’ve given a presentation in front of a room, have you ever heard the advice to imagine that your audience is naked? It’s a piece of advice that’s meant to calm you down and make you laugh, but it’s also advice that’s communicating something important about presenting information: the more pressure you take off yourself to perform, the better.

Imagining your audience naked is about remembering that a presentation is not just about you. It’s just as much about how you feel about the audience you’re with as it is about how you’re feeling in your own skin. And while imagining the audience naked is not advice that works for everyone, it remains popular and well-known precisely because it communicates something learning designers need to remember when leading or designing a learning experience: it’s not all about you.

When you’re leading and designing something, you’re going to have an impact. But also remember how you’ve felt as a learner in a training or a class. You might have some vague memories of how the teacher or facilitator looked and acted. But what you probably remember most is how you felt taking that training or being in their class. Now that you’re in the position of facilitating or designing a learning experience online, it’s tempting to get hung up on how learners might perceive you or the content you’ve created. And while appearances do matter, they only really matter in one way: how those appearances impact how your learners will get what they need from the learning experience.

Seeing Learners in 3D

The idea that you are not your learners has an important corollary: You need to design for real people—people who are not you.

Part of designing in 3D is recognizing the reality that learners are more diverse than you might think. You are probably already working with learners who have disabilities, for example. In fact, you can assume that about one-fifth of your audience is using some form of assistive technology to access and engage your content, from captions to screen readers. You are also probably working with learners who speak more than one language, and who may never have experienced learning in a way that’s ever explicitly been designed for them.

Chances are, you are also designing for learners who are stressed and have other demands on what researchers call cognitive load. Designing with the goal of reducing cognitive load will make learning experiences easier for learners to process, absorb, and maintain their engagement.

Online learning requires an engagement of both mind and body. Designing for real people requires learning designers to understand and empathize with people who experience learning differently than they do across many dimensions.

Learning doesn’t just happen to people. It’s a designed experience that has defined goals and outcomes. If achieved, those goals and outcomes should evoke positive feelings for the learners. Defining how the goals and outcomes of the experience align with who the learners are is an important starting point for any learning experience design project.

The Learning Design Process

Learning design is an iterative rather than a linear process. There are starting places for the learning designer, but those starting places may need to be returned to repeatedly to ensure that the vision for the learning experience is clear and that the needs of the learners are met. A learning designer may need to circle back, repeat steps, and return to earlier parts of the process multiple times (see Figure 1.3).

The steps of the learning design process are as follows:

  • Learn more about who the learners are.
  • Identify the main problem to solve for the learners.
  • Define an endpoint: a vision for the learners at the end of the experience.
  • Create a list of learning goals.
  • Build a learning map around your list of learning goals.

The diagram shows four circles that intersect: “Identify the Problem,” “Define an Endpoint,” “Create a List of Learning Goals,” “Build a Learning Map,” and in the center of all of them is “Learn about the Learners.”

Figure 1.3
The learning design process illustrates the iterative nature of designing a learning experience, all while keeping learners’ needs at the center of the design thinking process.

As a content designer you should assume that online learners will not follow the path you have laid out. Therefore, you must make it possible for them to determine their own ways through the content. The best way to understand how your learners will navigate your material is to build feedback loops and spaces for reflection and evaluation into your course or learning experience. (See Chapter 10, “Giving Your Learners Feedback.”)

This learning design model is the foundation for launching an online course experience that keeps learner-centered needs in mind all the way through.

Takeaways

  • Build a full experience, not just content. A meaningful learning experience is developed based not just about what people are learning, but how they are learning.
  • Design with the possibilities of engaging online in mind. Don’t try to resist the multiple ways that learners can engage online. Lean into the options and design for experiences that can be accessed in multiple ways.
  • Design with purpose. Know why your learners are engaging with your learning experience and remain aligned with that purpose as you begin your design process.
  • Keep diverse learner needs in mind. Embrace the fact that learners will have different needs for your courses and anticipate what those needs are as you move forward.
  • Learning design is an iterative process. There are steps you can follow from start-to-finish when engaging with the learning design process, but bear in mind that you may need to revisit and re-engage with those steps as you develop your learning experience.

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