The new (?) learning designer (engineer)


Dr. Jeffrey Grabill

Jeffrey Grabill, Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and Director of Michigan State University’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

The process of building a Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology will likely be a long one. There will be a number of iterations relatively quickly (in the first couple of years), and there must be a commitment over time to the sorts of attentiveness that will enable the Hub to grow with the larger university community and maintain its ability to innovate.

Given that the Hub is fundamentally people and their work, nothing is more important than figuring out who MSU needs us to be — quite literally.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a specific sort of new learning designer that in some sense each of us might need to become. I am going to think out loud here in the form of a very short essay, by which I mean an attempt to wrestle with ideas (to use an older notion of “essay”).

It would be a mistake to read my essaying to mean that I am driving toward one specific kind of intellectual to the exclusion of other flavors. I’m actually not sure what I mean by this “new sort of intellectual” yet. But I am pretty sure that we need to grow a new sort of intellectual here at MSU.

Let me explore.

I begin with an obvious given: we have learning designers on campus and in the Hub. Thank goodness. As I speculate about a new sort of learning designer, I am assuming some baseline set of skills and intellectual dispositions that attach to the ways we’ve educated and developed learning designers to this point in time.

We are also fortunate (or cursed) to live at a moment in which most accept as a given that there will be changes in higher education, both real and imagined, both needed and perhaps not so, both smart and dumb. In most of these accepted stories, it is online education and more broadly technologies for learning that seem to be the driver of change.

I am not the only one who has been thinking about “new” learning designers.

For example, in a new report from MIT on online education as a catalyst for change, they propose that universities create a new sort of person, the “learning engineer.” Their learning engineer begins, as we might expect, with learning designers as commonly prepared and expands from there:

learning engineers must have a knowledge base in the learning sciences, familiarity with modern education technology, and an understanding of and practice with design principles. Preferably, they will also have a deep grounding in a specific discipline such as physics, biology, engineering, history, or music.

The focus on learning sciences and disciplinary knowledge is interesting to me (more on this below). Learning designers might object that they have these sorts of experiences and knowledge (and if so, I want them to object; I want this conversation, and I also want this sort of knowledge at MSU). The MIT report soon becomes a long laundry list of skills, experiences, and education required for the learning engineer. A big list. Too much, perhaps. Or perhaps too unfocused.

Another, related identity is the learning experience designer/architect. We have a few of these among us, thank goodness. As articulated by Joyce Seitzinger and Jess Knott, this is a fairly specialized intellectual with her gaze concentrated on interfaces and technologies as experiences. The learning experience designer facilitates

the team that develops the products and services to deliver [a learning experience]… You coordinate all the parts while not a user or a subject matter expert.

Here are the key criteria:

User experience planning and development
Responsible for the execution of strong interaction design and visual design principles
Facilitating dialog around end-user requirements and business requirements
Guiding clients through key design engagements
Performing user research
Driving innovative solutions within platform constraints and technical limitations
Developing interaction models and conceptual frameworks of experience
Researching interaction design trends
Researching technology trends

Its hard to argue that these skills and dispositions aren’t essential, particularly for high quality online learning or learning that is significantly mediated by technologies.

Yet we need a bit more. We need a specific kind of empowered and empowering intellectual. So what do I really have in mind?

First, we need this person to be a researcher. Now, “researcher” and “research” are often loaded terms that can sometimes be used to to establish boundaries and exclude. What counts as research in one place doesn’t count in another. We worry about what counts as evidence. As we should. I am interested in people who have some experience and comfort with thoughtful, systematic ways of framing and conducting inquiries and who are self-conscious enough to consider questions of how research works in other places. Our new intellectual needs to know how to think like a researcher.

Second, we need this person to be versed in the habits and practices of design thinking. I don’t understand “design thinking” in this instance to refer to a specific process or school of thought. Rather, we need people who know how to ask good questions, who begin by opening inquiries, and who can help people to think differently by deploying modes of facilitation.

Which brings me to the importance of facilitation, the third characteristic. Facilitation here means a set of moves that can be made to enable others around a learning curve, and more importantly, a stance with regard to learning that sees it as people-centered and shaped by learners’ interests and needs, their prior experiences, their companions, and other distinctive features of their specific socio-cultural and physical environments. To facilitate is to be committed to the joy and wonder of ongoing processes of change.

The fourth issue refers to the MIT report and the importance of knowledge of a specific discipline. I agree. But it doesn’t matter to me what discipline. Its more important still to know how one learns in a specific disciplinary context rather than what is learned, which brings me to …

the fifth possibility, which is teaching. Would I like this person to be a teacher with some experience? Yes, doing the work matters. Would I like this person to be teaching while working as a learning designer/engineer/artist? Yes, perhaps, as that might make for a highly productive mix.

Finally — and my, oh, my what a wish list this is becoming — is the need for some understanding of the business of education. We live and work in complex institutions. We are an enterprise. There are models, logics, markets. Understanding them allows us to nudge the institution to serve students well, allows us to use the weight and motion of the institution to move the world in positive ways, and allows us to find those times and places to disrupt.

Does any one person possess these habits, characteristics, and capacities? Probably not. But I’m not sure that is the right question. The right question might be something like, do these characteristics equate to an empowered and empowering intellectual who can work across an institution like MSU?



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