Why we need to change how we design courses.

There are many courses out there that do a great job of teaching manual, dexterity and physical capabilities. From bricklaying, hairdressing, to gas-fitting, there are course that are focussed around manual processes. However, there are huge numbers of graduates from tertiary programmes that cannot perform duties required of employers on day-one simply because they have not learnt how to do something. Their learning may have been told ‘why’, and even ‘what’ is expected, but it has not enabled them to perfect the skills associated with the ‘how’.

It remains remarkable to me that so many course and programme specification documents, replete with (sometimes well-formed) learning outcomes, have NO psychomotor outcomes. There are few courses that could not be improved by including an assessed outcome associated with using a tool or technology.

To prove the point I asked colleagues informally before Christmas whether they could think of a course where there was NO tool or technology use in play. Without further prompting, most agreed that Excel skills, SPSS, CAD tools, even library databases all required a degree of incremental competence but that these had not been in any way ‘taught’, let alone assessed, within their courses. One provocateur suggested that their course required only the ability to write and reflect. It took little effort to unpick this given that writing in this context requires a word-processing package, formatting, style sheets, spell-checking and in-text-citations, all of which are assumed graduates skills. This colleague stood their ground, suggesting that they were not employed to teach those skills; that was someone else’s responsibility.

This may be at the root of the challenge. Thirty years ago (when many of our current educational leadership graduated) your three to seven years spent at University was a valuable time spent in proximity to the sources of privileged knowledge, the esteemed Professor or the library. You had a whole life after graduation to develop the rounded skills associated with being whatever your chosen lifetime employment might be. That is simply no longer the case. The ‘academy’ no longer contains the privilege knowledge. We have democratised the information sources. Even those who embark on a lifelong vocation will find the landscape around them continuously changing.

Access to the LinkedIn Learning resources, and the cornucopia of free web resources, has allowed some institutions to negate whatever obligations for manual, dexterity and physical skills development they might feel towards their students. Some course weave these external resources into the learner’s experience, others totally abdicate responsibility and deem it part of the independent learning required of learners.

One reason for this lack of attention paid to the acquisition of psychomotor skills is because it is thought harder to assess someone’s psychomotor skill set that it is to test their knowledge, and by extension their intellectual or cognitive skills. If I can’t meaningfully assess it, I’ll just avoid teaching it. It is also a function of the ‘curse of knowledge’, given that faculty have acquired their psychomotor skills in a particular technology or tool over an extended period of time and they have failed to either document that learning or indeed to reflect on it.

There are some well designed courses out there. I hope you designed or teach on one. But there is still a significant deficit in the in-course provision of support for the acquisition of psychomotor skills associated with tools and technologies in a range of disciplines. We need to design courses across ALL disciplines that are rooted in the skills that graduates require to handle the uncertain information, technology, and socio-cultural environments they face. This means designing courses first around psychomotor skills, interpersonal and affective skills, then meta-cognitive and cognitive skills. Then, and only then, should we worry about the factual knowledge element. We need programme and course designers to be designing with different priorities if we want to make learning appropriate for the contemporary learner.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

What are the four key skills required of learning designers or instructional designers?

Let’s talk about the skills required of learning designers, or instructional designers. 

Context makes all the difference. Learning design in a face-to-face University context looks very different from an online instructional designer working in a government department or commercial enterprise.

Roles using generic job titles can differ significantly. There are learning designers who guide academics in their practice (in the way ‘educational developers’ do), and others who interpret how-to notes into a short visually rich interactive screen based experience (more like a UX ‘user experience’ designer). And all points in between.

Job descriptions can be fairly meaningless.

Knowing the needs of the organisation is the best place to start. Knowing the difference between designing a series of courses as part of a University programme that is going to amount to 3,600 hours of student learning differs greatly from taking a manual and putting it into an e-learning unit that takes an hour to work through.

The nature of the organisation also determines the degree of autonomy and responsibility the designer is likely to be given. Turning a manual into e-learning may require no content knowledge at all. Just convert what’s there and you’re good. A course as part of a formal qualification either requires the designer to have some foundation in the discipline or the ability to research, corroborate, validate and extract knowledge,  and establish how best to ‘teach’ that. 

The only commonality across these roles and contexts is the ability to see things through learner’s eyes, whoever that learner is. 

That means empathy is the first key skill.

In the contexts in which I have worked in the last 25 years, the ability to overcome the ‘Curse of Knowledge’, the inability to remember what it means to be a beginner in any area of learning has been key. That means that for me, it has never been about building a team of discipline specialists. It has meant looking to build course teams that include those who possess knowledge and practical experience, and those who act as the ‘first learners’. These first learners, as designers, need to ask the simple questions, the ‘dumb’ questions, to make sure that the level at which we pitch the learning is appropriate.

This may seem obvious to you, but it’s remarkable how many designers are intimidated by specialist knowledge. Faced with a Subject Matter Expert (SME) who is ‘cursed with knowledge’ and who cannot express learning intentions at the appropriate level, a good designer has to cajole, persuade and chorale the learning from the SME.

This means that the ability to listen and ask questions as though a ‘first learner’ is the second key skill.

Designing learning that works within a specific context, say a three hour face-to-face workshop, is unlikely to work in an online form without modification. This means designers need to combine their skills of empathy and listening, of understanding the institutional purpose and the perceptions of the learner, and adapt courseware accordingly.

In the last 18 months many organisations have been forced to learn this lesson the hard way. Faced with the challenge of sustaining learning under pandemic conditions, most have made a reasonable effort of getting it right. Those that held to their core values and listened to the needs of their students and teachers have done better than those that reached for process and systems driven approaches.

A good classroom teacher, with practice, can adapt their delivery from workshop to seminar, from lecture to discussion fora, when timetabling assigns them a different teaching space, learning designers need to adapt the ‘tools’ they use to suit the learning need. Digital tools come and go, upgrades can change the way tools behave significantly. A designer who is an expert at using Rise 360 may move into a role where that tool is not available, or they may use H5P like a pro only to find that their organisation prohibits its use on their platform. A good designer looks past the tool (or space) and can identify the essence of the learning experience and make it engaging.

Being adaptable to the means of communication and associated toolset is the third key skill.

You notice that there is nothing about intellectual skills or the ability to use any particular tool. I am making an assumption that you have at least a bare minimum of digital-literacy, that you have used more than one tool, and that you know what appropriate use looks like in a given context. I am also making the assumption that you are intellectually capable of some level of judgement and analysis. 

Most importantly, I am going to assume that you are, because you have read to the end of this post, sufficiently self-reflective to consider what your skill set is, and what it should or could be. That’s a great start. 

Being a reflective practitioner is the fourth key skill. Arguably, the most important one!

If you are thinking about building a career as a learning designer, of whichever guise, these are the four key foundational skills: being empathic, a listener, adaptable, and reflective.

 

 

Photo by Halacious on Unsplash

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