Last reviewed 4 March 2020

Regardless of what people call learning design, it is probably one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of Learning and Development (L&D). Here, Judith Christian-Carter, individual learning consultant, takes a helicopter view of learning design and discusses what needs to be achieved to make it fit for purpose.

In the current climate, learning design is truly a multi-faceted activity, which makes it more complex and infinitely more challenging. The art and science of learning design has also come a long way in the last three decades. Often this is and has been called “instructional” design, but today it is also called learning “experience” design and “digital” learning design. However, with changes to how people are accessing learning, how L&D functions are operating and the ever-changing needs of organisations, there is now a requirement to revisit learning design to make sure that it is fit for purpose.

The aims of learning design

Effective learning design, regardless of the use of any technology or the means by which learners access it, should have the following aims:

  • be focused solely on improving a performance measure that is important to the organisation in order for it to achieve its goals and objectives

  • be designed for the learners who will be accessing it, taking into account a whole host of factors, such as performance gaps, job role, time available for learning, disabilities, required support for learning and the characteristics of the target audience

  • use the available technologies appropriately and for good reason, and not just because they are there

  • use delivery methods that are best suited to achieving the performance measure in question.

Even when learning design was only concerned with classroom-based learning, it was still not a straightforward matter of achieving an effective outcome. Many people will have experienced training courses delivered in a classroom, which had no effect whatsoever on their performance in the workplace! In today’s climate, the design of learning, in order to meet the four aims listed above, has become infinitely more complex and difficult, yet with a very high price tag if it fails to deliver what is required.

It is for this reason, that the whole subject of learning design requires not only a fresh perspective but also a deep analysis what it is, what it can do and how it can achieve cost-effective performance-based outcomes.

Ways of learning in organisations

In many organisations today, three ways of learning can be discerned:

  1. Managed learning

  2. Supported learning

  3. Autonomous learning.

Each of these has implications for learning design, especially with the increasing need to make learning more self-directed, and how the L&D function can support more autonomy in the workplace.

Managed learning

This encompasses the traditional role of L&D in designing courses for people to achieve goals ― ideally these should be performance-based, which have been identified as important. The end result is typically a one-size-fits-all course. However, a certain level of flexibility and autonomy can be provided in such a managed learning environment by providing additional resources, eg performance support aids, some of which may need to be created (ie designed). In this way, individuals can select resources to achieve the desired goal in the way that suits them best.

Supported learning

This is a key way in supporting individuals to become self-organised by using a formal process of self-development, where individuals document their own professional goals (in alignment with those of the organisation) and identify relevant sources to achieve them. This can be accomplished by providing a collection of internally created or curated courses and resources, or by promoting the wide range of opportunities on the web.

Autonomous learning

This is where the individual is in total control of their own self-improvement, learning and development. L&D can provide a service to support individuals who need help through a bespoke Help Desk service, for example, to identify sources to achieve professional goals or to foster connections between individuals.

In all three of the above it is really a matter of the L&D function adopting a much broader perspective of how learning is provided in the organisation and then deciding what additional resources are required, taking into account the required levels of workplace performance and the individuals involved. Such provision can rightly be regarded as blended learning, which is often defined as a blend of digital/online/technology-based modalities and activities and in-person/face-to-face/offline modalities and activities. The larger and more complex and specialised an organisation is, the more likely it will be that much of the above provision will need to be created or designed.

Designing with a goal in mind

A key requisite to cost-effective learning design is to always have a goal in mind ― ideally a goal that is workplace-performance related and needs to be achieved if the organisation is to achieve its objectives. Not having a clear goal in mind is analogous to trying to hit a target, where even a slight deviation at the start invariably means missing the target!

However, it is also vital that the goal is backed-up by hard evidence, which proves that it is a workplace performance gap of some kind. Then, it is a matter of analysing the gap in terms of whether it is a lack of knowledge, a lack of skills, inadequate behaviour or, even, an attitudinal problem, or a combination of any or all of these. This analysis will then guide the design of the required learning.

While this may seem obvious, putting into practice may not be that straightforward. There are many models that L&D professionals can choose from on which to base their learning design, however many of these are now somewhat dated and when applied can result in learning which is not fit for purpose. Which is where “action mapping” comes in.

Action mapping

Action mapping is the creation of Cathy Moore, an expert in learning design, which approaches the provision of learning in an analytical and problem-solving manner, and which has led to many successful learning designs. Put simply, it has the following stages:

  1. Identifying the problem and what will prove that it has been solved.

  2. Identifying what people need to do and why they aren’t doing it.

  3. Deciding how people can be helped to practice what they need to do, ie defining the activities required.

  4. Identifying the information people must have to complete a practice activity.

  5. Creating a stream of practical activities.

The end result of the above five steps is the specification of a number of outcomes/goals, each of which specifies the actions required in the workplace to achieve the outcome/goal, the practice activities required for each action and, finally, the information required to support any of the practice activities.

Cathy Moore describes action mapping as “a streamlined mash-up of performance consulting and backward design” but it works!

What’s in a name?

Some people would say there is quite a lot in a name, particularly when it comes to clear communication and understanding. In this regard, “learning design” is a catch-all term for any type of learning design, regardless of its purpose or the use of technology.

Therefore, it might be a good time for people to decide on a common name or names for this very activity and, in particular, ones that reflect what the design is seeking to achieve. In this way the current confusion and misunderstanding of this vital activity would be removed.