Learning Experience Design: A Better Title Than Instructional Design?

How many times have you told people, “I’m an instructional designer,” only to be met with a blank stare? How many people are thoroughly confused about what we do for a living?

Last month, Connie Malamed proposed a new name for the field of instructional design: Learning Experience Design or LX Design. This moves the focus away from “instruction” and more to learning. Instead of focusing on the instruction or the materials, our starting point is thinking about the learners and how they will experience what we design. Connie argues this may help us focus more on learning science as well as being deliberate about designing valuable experiences.

Calling ourselves Learning Experience Designers acknowledges that we design, enable or facilitate experiences rather than courses. This gives us a broad license to empower people with the tools and information they need to do their jobs, regardless of the chosen format.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Back in 2007, I wrote What Does An Instructional Designer Do? In that post, I used this as my definition:

What does an instructional designer do?: Design and develop learning experiences

I’m emphasizing “experiences” here deliberately, even though that isn’t always how others would describe the job. I think one of the crucial things instructional designers can (and should!) do is make sure that students have opportunities to actively practice what they are learning.

This is still the most popular post on my blog, averaging about 100 views a day. Based on the traffic, it seems there are a lot of people confused about the title instructional designer. It doesn’t immediately convey meaning. While I think learning experience design would still require explanation, I suspect that more people have an immediate positive association for the word “learning” rather than “instructional.”

Learning Experience Design or Instructional Design

Change Is Hard

Realistically, changing this in the field as a whole would be challenging, if not impossible. “Learning Architect” has a lot of advantages over “Instructional Designer,” but it never really caught on. And although we use instructional design as a generic term, actual titles in the field are quite varied. James Tyer collected a list of over 65 L&D job titles. Although that list includes training and other jobs, many of those could apply to instructional designers/LX designers too.

Besides the general challenge of rebranding a whole industry (as if that wasn’t enough), we have the added challenge of being quite varied in what we actually do for our work. Instructional design is used as an umbrella term for a wide range of skills. People who just tweak PowerPoint slides, wizards at rapid development tools with no writing skills, and fabulous designers and writers who rely on research to guide their decisions, and those who do a little of everything are all lumped into the same category. That’s another whole topic (and perhaps a post in the future), but a new title might help differentiate people who work on the entire learning experience from start to finish from those who focus solely on development. I think the field has become so varied that one title can’t cover everything, so LX Design won’t be the only solution; we need to talk about e-learning developers, multimedia developers, or other titles too.

Your Thoughts?

This topic generated some great discussion on LinkedIn, so I’m hoping for more thoughtful comments here. What do you think of this title? Would you use it? Would you recommend something else instead? Do you think we should stick with instructional design and try to reclaim the title?

Debunker Club Works to Dispel the Corrupted Cone of Learning

A new group called The Debunker Club is working to dispel myths and misinformation in the learning field. From their website:

The Debunker Club is an experiment in professional responsibility. Anyone who’s interested may join as long as they agree to the following:

  1. I would like to see less misinformation in the learning field.
  2. I will invest some of my time in learning and seeking the truth, from sources like peer-reviewed scientific research or translations of that research.
  3. I will politely, but actively, provide feedback to those who transmit misinformation.
  4. At least once a year, I will seek out providers of misinformation and provide them with polite feedback, asking them to stop transmitting their misinformation.
  5. I will be open to counter feedback, listening to understand opposing viewpoints. I will provide counter-evidence and argument when warranted.

This year, coinciding with April Fool’s Day 2015, the Debunker Club is running an experiment. We’re making a concerted effort to contact people who have shared the Cone of Experience (also known as the Cone of Learning or the Pyramid of Learning).

Many iterations of this cone exist. A Google image search for “cone of learning” returns dozens of results, most of which are false. If you’ve seen something like this that said, “People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see” etc., you’ve seen a variation on this theme.

Image search results for Cone of Learning

The original cone was developed by Edgar Dale and didn’t include any numbers. The later versions are the “corrupted cone” with fictitious statistics added.  Will Thalheimer’s post from 2009 debunking these claims is where I learned it was incorrect. Common sense might give you a hint that these numbers aren’t really based in research though. Think about it–how many times have you see research where all the categories broke into even 10% segments?

As part of the Debunker Club’s efforts, I discovered a post on Dane’s Education Blog called A Hierarchy of Learning. Although this post cites a great debunking article (Tales of the Undead…Learning Theories: The Learning Pyramid), the blog author only says that he “appreciate what it conveys.”

I left the following comment on his Learning Pyramid post.

Thanks for collecting so many resources on your blog. I can see that you’ve worked really hard to share many links and ideas with your readers.

However, the information above, though it may appear to have scientific support, has been exhaustively researched and found to have no basis in science. In fact, the “Tales of the Undead” link you cite debunks it.

An article from the scientific journal Educational Technology shows no research backing for the information. (Subramony, D., Molenda, M., Betrus, A., and Thalheimer, W. (2014). The Mythical Retention Chart and the Corruption of Dale’s Cone of Experience. Educational Technology, Nov/Dec 2014, 54(6), 6-16.)

The information presented is likely to produce more harm than good, promoting poor learning designs and hurting learners.

While we might abstract some beneficial notions from the percentages portrayed in the misleading information — namely that encouraging realistic practice has benefits — there are numerous faulty concepts within the bogus percentages that can do real harm. For example, by having people think that there are benefits to seeing over hearing, or hearing over reading, we are sending completely wrong messages about how learning works.

Most importantly, recent advances in learning science have really come together over the last two decades. The misleading information was first reported in 1914, with no research backing. It’s better to follow more recent findings than information that has no scientific basis. See, for example, the book Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn is another great selection.

I’m part of a larger community of folks called the Debunker Club who are attempting to encourage the use of proven, scientifically-based learning factors in the learning field.

I’m going to be posting about this misleading information on my blog. I hope you’ll comment and respond to my post if you wish. I (and the debunker community in general) want to learn how other people feel about the issues and ideas surrounding the original information and our approach to debunking myths and sharing evidence.

If you’re interested in dispelling misinformation and improving the learning field, please join the Debunker Club and participate in the conversation.

Best and Worst ID Projects

What are your most successful and least successful ID projects? Two graduate students have asked me this in interviews, and it’s a good question for reflection.

Most Successful

One of my favorite courses was an online graduate course on cultural competence for K-12 teachers. The evaluation for that course asked if it was a “transformative” experience for students. I knew I was setting a high bar when I wrote the evaluation, and I expected that most students would say that they learned from the course but that it didn’t really transform their teaching. However, about two thirds of the students said this course was truly transformative; it made them completely rethink their approach to teaching.

It was a challenging course, and it really pushed people out of their comfort zones. That’s where the real learning happens regarding diversity though. We used storytelling successfully in that course to bring the theory to life and help people make emotional connections. Students also told many of their own stories and shared experiences in the discussion forums. I consider this one of my most successful projects because it really inspired people to change.

Screenshot from the diversity course

Part of a story used to teach identity development in the cultural competence course

Least Successful

One of my very first freelance projects was not successful, although it was an excellent learning experience for me. I made a number of mistakes that I now know to avoid. It was a subcontracted project, but I didn’t have a detailed Statement of Work (Mistake #1). I briefly discussed a scenario-based approach with the owner of the contracting company, and I thought he understood what I planned (Mistake #2). The client reviewed and approved the storyboard, but the owner never looked at anything until I had the full Captivate course completed. I didn’t make sure I got sign-offs from the owner at each stage (Mistake #3).

He was aghast that I hadn’t created a traditional “click next” page turner course and demanded (in all caps) that I scrap everything and completely recreate the whole course over a weekend. Since I couldn’t complete that amount of work in his time frame, I offered to either do a smaller revision over the weekend or a full revision in two weeks. He wouldn’t accept that his demand was impossible, so I didn’t get paid for the rest of the project. I know now to have better agreements in place, especially regarding reviews and revisions. If the owner had reviewed the course at the storyboard stage or we’d had a better definition of the course in the agreement, I’m sure we could have come up with a solution that worked for everyone.

Your Best and Worst?

What are your best and worst ID projects? What have you learned from those experiences?

Tips for Starting to Freelance

In August, I quit my job as a long-term contractor at Cisco to officially make the leap to freelancing. I did some side projects earlier in the year, but not enough to replace my full-time income. I want to share my experiences and tips from these first three months as an independent contractor for anyone else thinking about making this change.

Man leaping between two rocks

Get a Project First

If you’re currently working, don’t quit until you have a project lined up. Obviously, not everyone has this luxury, but if you do, stay put until you’ve signed an agreement with a new client. In my case, I had been talking with a potential client for several months before a project finally came up that was big enough to justify quitting my job.

Put Money in Savings

This is hardly unique advice from me, as I received it from several people myself, but save up money before you start. You need a cushion in the bank to cover expenses when you’re getting started. Many clients have a 30-60 day lag before you get paid, so even if you have billable hours from day 1, it may still be two months before you get a check.

As with the previous tip, I know not everyone is in as fortunate a position as I was. If you are working currently though, and are thinking about moving to freelance, start saving now. I’d been considering this switch for over a year, so we had 6+ months of living expenses saved before I left Cisco. That has significantly reduced my stress levels.

Be Ready for Delays

I’ve experienced a lot of “hurry up and wait” with clients. I finally get a PO signed, but then the SME isn’t available. The design document is approved, but the rest of the project is held up

When I quit my full time job, I had a big project lined up, one that would easily cover my expenses and keep me working pretty much full time for two months. I figured I didn’t need to work too much at getting other clients right away since I’d be too busy with this big project to do anything else anyway. Then most of the work got pushed back from August to October, and I was caught off guard. Fortunately, as noted above, my husband and I had money in savings to cover some slow weeks, but I wasn’t expecting the amount of delays I’ve had. In hindsight, I wish I’d gotten other clients lined up sooner. On the other hand, I took the slow time to build my business website, set up an LLC, meet with a CPA, etc., and it was nice to have the down time to address those details.

Multiple Income Streams

One independent contractor I know has talked about never wanting to be “owned” by a single company again after a less-than-wonderful experience as a salaried employee. Michele Martin made this great observation a few weeks ago: “Would you rely on a single company’s stock for your retirement fund? Why, then, do you rely on a single organization for your salary? … Strength and security is found in diversity, not homogeneity.”

Part of my mistake with not being ready for delays was still relying on one particular client for my work, then scrambling to find something else to fill the time when the project was postponed. Now I know there will be delays and slow periods, so I’m building up clients so I’m not so beholden to one organization or another. I’m not quite where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there.

Professional Liability Insurance

One thing I didn’t initially realize I needed is professional liability and errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. A few clients have asked about it though, so I’m getting prices now and plan to have it soon. Other people I’d talked to about freelancing had mentioned setting up an LLC, getting a privilege license for the town where I live, and so on, but nobody talked about the insurance. I’m not sure if many people don’t get it, or if everyone I talked to just assumed I already knew about it.

Build a Network with Social Media

Most of the clients and potential clients I’m working with are people I connected with through social media. In a single two-week period in October, 10 different people contacted me about potential instructional design contracts, and 6 of those found me through either my blog or LinkedIn. The typical path people take is searching for a phrase like “instructional designer” on Google, finding a post like What Does an Instructional Designer Do?, and then visiting my business site or portfolio. It’s too soon for me to know what else I may have to do for marketing in the future, but so far, my blog is definitely working as a marketing and networking tool.

Your Tips?

I got some good tips and resources from several people when I asked previously about getting started as a freelance instructional designer. Those of you who have made this leap yourself, or are thinking about it, what other tips do you have?

Image credit: Leap by tricky ™

The New Learning Architect

These are my live blogged notes from Clive Shepard’s presentation titled The New Learning Architect, part of the eLearning Guild’s Thought Leaders Webinar Series. Clive’s book of the same title is available for purchase if you have a Kindle (which I don’t, so I haven’t read the book). (Update 10/16/11: Clive pointed out in the comments below that the book is also available in paperback.)  Additional information and excerpts from the book are available on the Onlignment site. Any typos, mistakes, incomplete thoughts, etc. are mine, not the presenter’s. My side comments in italics.
Clive saw too much “us vs. them” with people supporting traditional vs. new learning methods. This book looks at how to bring those strategies together.

We are born as learning machines. Simplest learning model is just doing things; automatically as we do things, we learn unconsciously. With conscious effort (reflecting, observing, experimenting), we learn more. Doing – learning – doing – learning

Who/what contributes to learning? Model, inform, facilitate, support

  • Teachers, coaches, facilitators, etc. can facilitate this conscious learning.
  • Peers–we have tended to not acknowledge this much
  • Info/Content
  • Experts

Poll questions about how we learned when we first started in our current field, how we learned when we last switched jobs, how we learned a completely new sport/hobby.

People starting in a new field had fairly even split across options (formal learning, coaching, peers, JIT info, experience). Switching jobs was more experience and JIT info. New sport/hobby was heavily for expert/coach.

The point is that how we learn ourselves depends on the situation. We can’t just make generalizations about a single method being right in all situations.

Four Contexts

  • Formal: Learning to do something. Just in case, all the trimmings
  • Non-formal: Learning to (just in case, easy does it) (Coaching, OJT, podcasts, etc.)
  • On demand: Learning to (just in time and just enough)
  • Experiential: Learning from (doing and reflecting)

Two perspectives

  • Top down: organizations need employees to perform, managers decide what needs to be learned
  • Bottom up: employees want to perform. People take more responsibility for their learning than in the past

What employees need for bottom up learning to thrive:

  • Motive (may be intrinsic motivation b/c we want to learn, but may be external rewards or other reasons)
  • Means (access to tools, resources; having skills needed)
  • Opportunity (have to have time to do it; need authority or right to do it)

Great table with examples in each of the four contexts, bottom up and top down, but too much for me to capture here. (Update 10/16/11: The table of the four contexts is available on the Onlignment site.)

What can we do to support experiential learning

  • Systematic job rotation
  • Enrichment projects
  • Performance appraisals (when not used to abuse people)

Employees can engage in formal learning on their own; they can choose to take formal classes. That’s bottom-up formal learning

On demand: we can’t possibly provide everything that people need, so giving people opportunity and confident to use tools like search, wiki, forums, is important

Bottom up experiential learning: personal reflection, reflecting with others, blogging, getting a life

Example: Traffic wardens. This group doesn’t have much career advancement and not much motivation to learn, so not much experiential learning. More formal learning (like compliance training)

Example: Software engineers. This group has more discretion in time, works from home sometimes, much more opportunity for experiential learning. We may not need to provide too much structure, but support and permission, opportunities to practice are important. This is a different kind of architecture.

Consider the organizational goals and the individual learning population. Given those goals, assess priorities for the learning contexts. Get the right balance between top-down and bottom-up learning.

What is a learning architect?

  • Not a learning builder (at least not necessarily–one person might have both roles)
  • More of a consulting role
  • Can’t just be one because you call yourself that
  • Take responsibility to do more of this, not just what your clients say they want. You wouldn’t go to the doctor and say “I’ve done all the research online, just write me a prescription.” Need to make the client aware that you know more about learning than they do and you can make recommendations they wouldn’t think of

Question: How does learning architect interface with instructional designer?
Answer: Design happens at multiple levels. Finding the right balance for tools is the architect, but specific details are the instructional designer. All aspects of the same role, but broadening the responsibility

Question: Does the job market have the option for learning architect?
Answer: The job market may not have that formal title, but if you’re responsible for all the ways a group learns, this is the learning architect. Title might be learning consultant

Image credit: Blueprint by square(tea)