Course: Technology for Learners

What makes designing learning experiences different from other design challenges?


When designing learning experiences, it is easy to get lost in the multiple facets of learning theories, pedagogy, classroom practice, design thinking, and technology. Using the conceptual and design frameworks we learned in class, I created a concrete process map to help designers center their thinking as they navigate the learning design process.


The goal of the illustration is to capture the connectedness and the complexity within the learning design process. While the vertical structure is useful for centering the designer’s focus, it is far from linear as it appears. The learning design process embodies the iterative, trial-and-error spirit of design thinking. It is the questions and concerns guiding this process that make designing learning experiences unique.

Start from the bottom of the image and scroll up


Advice to a Future Learning Designer

What makes designing learning experiences unique

1. The Learners. They are not users of products, but human beings with a multitude of ways of acquiring and processing information, understanding content, creating knowledge, and interacting with the world. Begin with your learner when designing a learning solution.

Understanding the target learner is a unique challenge. Designers need to understand not only what she needs to learn, but also why she is learning or struggling to learn it. To reach this understanding, get inside the learner’s head and heart. Start with what design thinkers are amazing at. Use Empathy Map and do Needfinding — interacting with users to learn about their goals and values to be able to uncover their needs and opportunities for improvements.

But when it comes to empathizing with your learner, consider the dynamic between the individual and her educational context. Figure out what unique components define her needs, goals, and values. School system? Learning standards? Key Trends? What is the role of her learning environment?

2. The Learning Context. To get a sense of the context that shapes the learner’s mindset, examine the horizon. NMC Horizon reports offer an overview of key trends and technologies driving educational change. The US National EdTech Plan presents different opportunities and cases that contribute to these trends. Explore the Revised Bloom Taxonomy to broaden your view of learning objectives and outcomes. What does it actually mean for your learner to learn? Where do her goals and needs fit in the matrix of knowledge and cognitive process dimensions.

3. What is Worth Learning? After understanding facets of learning you are addressing, connect them with content. Where do you start? End goals. Play the teacher’s role and ask, what is a result we want students to walk away with at the end of my course? The Backward Design Process offers a simple 3-step framework for identifying learning objectives in terms of 1) the “enduring” value and understanding 2) essential knowledge and skills, and 3) things worth being familiar with.

After asking the ‘what?’ go ahead and ask the ‘how?’. How do we determine if the learner has attained the desired learning objectives? Define acceptable evidence for assessing her understandings and learning outcomes. Don’t wait until the testing stage at the end. Because understanding develops through ongoing inquiry and rethinking, it’s important to view assessment as a collection of evidence over time instead of a single moment-in-time event.

4. Is Technology Necessary? Will this particular medium influence learning? Never forget to ask yourself this question once you have identified what your learner needs. As you brainstorm solution ideas, establish the relationship between your idea, the medium you are designing around, and the context you are designing for. Sometimes it is important to set aside what you want to design, in service of what your learner needs you to design (If you’re serious about designing edtech solutions, start with the learners).

Use the Theory of Change framework to articulate your long-term goals and then map backward to identify necessary preconditions. How does technology help to fulfill those particular preconditions? Let your problem and prototyping decide whether technology is necessary.

5. The Learning Theories. As you into enter the Ideation stage, take the time to justify your design rational for each idea. Collect evidence, from 20th century cognitive psychological theories to contemporary research on innovative pedagogies, to support your design decisions. Research articles on the Growth Mindset, the Protégé Effect, and Four-Phase Interest Development Model, for example, offer the potential for understanding learner’s motivations for engagement. How can these theories help you design learning tools with motivations beyond the usual individual reward systems of gamification?

6. Learn from your Non-Learners. The Teachers, Parents, Facilitators, Content Experts, Policy makers, Educational Leaders — they are multiple facets of the same diamond. It is easy to lose sight of them but when you get lost, they are your best guides. Talk to them, learn from their experiences, borrow their insights.

With the TPACK framework, consider what teachers already know and are experiencing. How do they interpret learning technologies and judge their usefulness? Use this information to articulate the area of pedagogy, technology, and content knowledge you are designing around. If this feels overwhelming, make up new words! Interactive component synthesis. Structuring support. Self-scaffolding. Don’t be afraid to mix & match or add your own spin to the buzzwords.

7. Assessment as a learning opportunity. Use assessment not simply as a way to test the effectiveness of your prototype, but as an opportunity to get greater insights into your learner. With the acceptable evidence you have initially defined, examine whether your learning objectives have been met. If yes, how? If not, why? There are multiple ways and metrics you can use to access learning, from measuring engagement to introducing self-report. See which one is right for you for each individual stage of testing.

Choice-based assessment allows you to understand how the learner makes learning choices. Shift the focus from the results—whether she makes the right or wrong choice—to the process of what, how, and when she chooses to learn. This provides the necessary feedback for identifying the source of the problem and improving your prototype. Don’t forget to take advantage of the real-time assessment capability of digital technologies to capture your learner’s process of decision-making.

8. Failure as a learning opportunity. At this stage of testing, don’t be afraid to fail hard and fast. ‘Version failure’ means making small failures that lead to incremental but meaning improvements over time. ‘Predicted failure’ applies especially to prototyping — only by creating imperfect early versions of prototypes can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.

9. Impact over scale. Be patient. As Larry Cuban writes, the educational landscape is made of interactive moving parts. Classrooms, schools and districts as loosely-coupled systems vulnerable to external influences. Change will happen slowly. The path to technology integration is not straightforward and clear-cut like a bullet. Use this time wisely to improve and demonstrate your theory of learning.

While teachers are slow to use your product in classrooms, learn how to best support them. Instead of focusing on scaling, test your product with a small group of adopters (Popularity of Ed Tech Not Necessarily Linked to Products’ Impact).

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