Good learning design is more than modern looking videos and apps

Male and female young adult students sitting in chairs working on laptops

There’s an age-old joke, told in different ways, using multiple modalities over the years, which you have likely seen/heard before (I love free cartoon makers…):

Comic strip poking fun at difference between teaching and learning

The idea is simple: Instruction does not equate to learning.

But does it matter if we call that out, explicitly, with our titles and naming conventions? I think it does.

I’m no stranger to these discussions. I’ve heard Ministries of Education spend a week trying to determine if “eLearning” was better than “Online Learning” for an entire country rollout. Personally, I’ve spent hours of my own life trying to determine the best title for several “customized” jobs I’ve held throughout my career. (I was particularly fond of, “Strategic Academic Liaison” which resulted in my then boss continually referring to me as, “Frenchie” because the term was so European…)

I would also suggest that we, especially we academics, spend too much time and energy worrying about semantics. As much as we love to wordsmith, most other people don’t really care that much.

But in this case, I’ll make an important exception. Learning is a subtle, but important distinction that every educator should make. I think back to one of my favorite “go to” works on learning: How People Learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, 2014) – freely available through that link. The writers tell us that there is a very important difference between experts and master teachers, but that difference is found in the measurement of learning.

Experts use jargon and heightened languagemaster teachers use language that demystifies for the learner. Experts focus solely on the mechanicsmaster teachers make sure both mechanic and frame are involved in learning. Experts focus on what firstmaster teachers focus on learning why first. In other words, master teachers focus on learning, whereas experts focus on generating information or content. This is likely why so few students come out of an expert’s care with much learning at all. They may be able to perform a few mechanics (for a short while) but they struggle to figure out how to connect those ideas back to the bigger framework of why or when. Simply put: they have not learned.

So, what does this subtle distinction give us? I had the honor of learning instructional design with some amazing students and teachers, but even back in 2002 I remember one “controversial”  instructional designer (I.D.) who lamented that instructional design was no more than visual design for most organizations. That really stuck with me and I have come to agree with that sentiment.

Sure, most I.D.’s can talk about scaffolding, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and quote the ADDIE model (which had NOTHING to do with the naming of our daughter…btw) and they may even know how to write a really solid curriculum map with program outcomes. But at the end of the day, look at most online courses. I’ve seen tens of thousands of eLearning modules created by instructional design teams in my time and I can honestly say that while most were pretty, even modern looking, they mostly share another trait. They are boring.

How can I say something so controversially subjective like it is a fact? Aside from the thousands of affirmative comments from educators and students I have heard over a decade, think about what we actually tell online learners. We say they need to be more motivated, more self-disciplined, more focused, and more organized than non-eLearners. In other words, we tell them to overcome a poor paradigm with grit and tenacity as we can’t/won’t really help them…

So why is eLearning often boring? I don’t have room to list every reason, but I’d say it starts by replicating the face-to-face classroom without the benefit of dynamism, emotion, or nonverbal arousal. In other words, we took a modality that is likely boring 7 times out of 10 and replicated it, replacing most of the interaction with reading. Or, in some cases, we took a professor who might be dynamic in person, put them in front of a camera, and recorded their talking head in an uncomfortable, inauthentic situation for 10-45 minutes. So eLearning usually means reading all the stuff face-to-face students read AND reading all the rest of class interactions too.

Why else is it boring? Because we don’t actually use scaffolding, curriculum mapping, or brain science to construct powerful discussions most of the time. We know that learners need spaced repetition, to some degree or another, but we don’t often implement that in our design. I’ve seen course developers and designers give a nod to scaffolding by saying, “I had to bring this concept from Module 1 back into the conversation in Module 4…” Really? Two whole times? The learner gets two shots at this concept? Why not 5? Why not 7? Why not the amount their brain actually needs to retain it, which can be between 2 and 20, depending on the individual, time, and motivation?

And now we’re into neuroscience. Ugh. I know, I know…put four Neuroscientists in a room and it seems you’ll get five opinions regarding what we “know” about the brain. But there are a few things most reasonable people can agree should be part of every conversation with regard to learning. It is a learning designer’s job to know those things. Cognitive load, spaced repetition, neurotransmitters pegged to arousal, anticipation, focus, and reward (etc.) are all things a learning designer should be versed in. Add to that the behavioral, education psychology which often promotes the neuroscience studies in the first place, and the portfolio of concepts just got bigger. But when was the last time you saw true, constructivist methods of learning in an online class? How often do you find satisfying collaboration experiences in an eLearning context? We know these things are powerful strategies if leveraged properly, yet we stay myopically focused on directional text, 508 compliance, gaining attention, and providing automated feedback. (Don’t get me wrong, these things matter…but so does ALL of the other stuff…) And I haven’t even gotten to learning analytics yet.

Look, “learning design” isn’t the only moniker that could work here. I saw a nice blog post in researching this post recommending, “educational design.” After reading the reasoning behind it, I buy it. But the point is for us all to have some commonality to our lexicon while trying to capture the goals effectively.

Oh, one last thing. Don’t think this list of attributes is only for I.D.’s turned L.D.’s. Every designer, professor, instructor, or facilitator should be held to these same standards if they intend to move from expert to master teacher. Every practitioner should be focused on the right educational goals. And our goal should always be learning, shouldn’t it? I think maybe it’s time for our MSID programs to look for a new acronym. Just sayin…

Good luck and good learning my friends.

Dr. Jeff D. Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University

“Instruction does not cause learning; it creates a context in which learning takes place, as do other contexts. Learning and teaching are not inherently linked. Much learning takes place without teaching, and indeed much teaching takes place without learning.” – Etienne Wenger


About the Author
Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden (@bordenj), Saint Leo University’s Chief Innovation Officer, is a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer, all while creating an incubator of innovation learning at SLU. Having continuously taught for 20 years as well as consulted, trained, and presented ways by which to transform education at scale, Jeff has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Jeff has testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, blogs for Innovations, provides global keynote addresses, publishes in both Education and Communication periodicals, and has been asked to transform teaching and learning, at scale, for Saint Leo.  Jeff is also a regular contributor to the Teaching & Learning blog.

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