Design learning experiences – not instruction!

Someone came onto our stand at the Learning Technologies the other week and asked, ‘OK, so you people at Saffron know social learning. What about anti-social learning?’ That intriguingly sly question got me thinking about what our role is in facilitating learning in our customers’ organisations: what exactly is it that we be should aiming to design and implement?

Consider the best versus the worst experience of “instructor-led training” in the classroom. The worst is staring at the back of someone who’s facing his or her slides and reading out the bullet points in an emotionless monotone (while you’re reading them at a different speed). The best is being in a class with a trainer who engages you and everybody else in the room in a dialogue about the subject. For example, the trainer may ask you a question but, instead of telling you whether your answer is correct or incorrect, then asks other members of the class for their opinion of your response. All answers are good answers: it’s important to know whether you’re right or wrong but it’s just as important to know why.

Today e-learning is an essential part of the training blend, in order to meet both organisations’ and learners’ expectations of availability, cost and timeliness. At Saffron we design e-learning that aspires to the best classroom experience – e-learning that makes eye contact – as you’ll know if you’ve been following the Spicy Learning Blog. Within the constraints of the medium, we aim to hold a conversation with our learners, anticipating and answering their concerns. For all that, e-learning remains a solitary, self-paced, self-study experience and one that perhaps runs the risk of becoming anti-social learning.

Social learning acknowledges a well known but often ignored truth that people learn best when they’re motivated to teach themselves and others. Adding social learning to the training blend counters any anti-social bias in e-learning design and provides a powerful underpinning for an organisational change programme, where the aim is to explain, motivate and persuade and not just to instruct.

That brings me to my title. Musing on anti-social learning got me thinking about why I don’t like “instructional design” as a name for what we do. The term instruction reminds me too much of PE at school: Arms Up! Bend Knees! Stretch! Instruction, in that sense, is completely contrary to the tone of our courses (and yours too, I hope). What we actually aim to design is a complete programme: an enjoyable, engaging and effective experience that uses, in each case, an appropriate blend of instructor-led, self-study and social learning.

So here’s my suggestion. Why don’t we call ourselves learning experience designers rather than instructional designers? It applies, incidentally, as much to our graphic designers and programmers of interactions as it does to those of us who write the storyboards. In other words, let’s set ourselves the expectation that, collectively, we design learning experiences, not instruction!