Today, designers in the educational space are moving from instructional design to learning experience design, also called LxD, and they’re making the shift for good reasons. In the past, instruction was at the center of the course development process. Today, thanks to an ever-growing body of research in user experience and learner preferences, we know there are tremendous advantages to putting the learner at the center of design when creating educational experiences. In this article, we speak with Dr. Kim Round, Academic Programs Director, and Associate Dean of the WGU Teachers College. Round and her team are launching an MS in Learning Experience Design and Educational Technology in the summer of 2022. In this article she helps readers understand why there is so much interest in LxD.
“Learning experience design begins by putting the learner’s perspective at the center of the work and designing from a lens of empathy,” said Dr. Kim Round. “The discipline combines learner empathy, design thinking, gaming design, cognitive psychology, experiential learning, user experience or UX, graphic design and instructional design in the effort to create a holistic learning experience.”
According to lxd.org, the term learning experience design was coined in 2007 by a Dutch LxD pioneer. LxD.org defines learning experience design as “the process of creating learning experiences that enable the learner to achieve the desired learning outcome in a human-centered and goal-oriented way.”
In a word, yes. Instructional designers focus on the instructional delivery and the goal of what needs to be learned, whereas learning experience designers also focus on the educational goal but give equal attention to the human and the experience they are having because of the way the course or module has been designed. What the student learns is still incredibly important, but how they feel and think while they are learning is also taken into deep consideration. “In LxD, we take a holistic approach and start with understanding what the learner’s needs and preferences are – whether they have articulated them or whether the designer will need to dig deeper through additional research to find out,” said Round.
“Prior to the pandemic, in some organizations, learning designers may have been considered by leaders as a ‘should have,’ to produce online offerings. Now, most organizations should understand their critical value much more clearly. Learning designers are a "have to have" to offer quality/hybrid experiences. Since the pandemic, we have seen teachers and faculty across the country offer courses online, with the best intentions, but learner feedback has been mixed,” said Round. “Instructors were responding to an emergency and doing the best they could, given the time and resources available. However, to bring these learning experiences to the next level, courses need to be delivered differently and empathetically for online learners. A 45-minute Zoom meeting focused solely on the faculty member or teacher talking is not likely to deeply engage the learner in the experience, and the learning outcomes are also likely to wane,” said Round.
Before joining WGU, I was working with another university and my design team was partnered with a faculty member who was a reluctant joiner to the world of online learning," said Round. "He cared deeply about his students and was concerned about the quality of their experience. As the online course evolved, he saw the complexity and thoughtfulness of the design.
By the end of the course design and delivery, he became one of our biggest cheerleaders and supporters with other faculty. Later, he shared that he felt he knew what was in the hearts and minds of his students in a more substantive way than he had experienced in a real-time lecture setting. Going forward, we need to recognize that we can’t equate the emergency remote learning of the pandemic with quality online education. Instructors did the best they could under duress and very difficult circumstances, but there’s really very little comparison. Learning experience designers have many tools and strategies to create engaging online experiences, which do not involve directly replicating a lecture in a physical classroom. They can design and personalize the experience to best fit the learner on the receiving end.”
Designers will work to first understand the learner. Then, from a place of empathy they will design the end-to-end learning experience to address instructional gaps. With more traditional instructional design approaches, the first questions may have centered on course requirements. Now, those questions follow a deep exploration of the learner and provide context for defining the instructional problem. “Here’s what it looks like in practice,” said Round. “At WGU, we’re designing for busy adult learners, so courses include content available in smaller, digestible 5–10-minute chunks. To better personalize the experience, a variety of media will be offered. We use compelling visuals, design for accessibility and differentiation, and multiple ways the teacher or facilitator can engage the learners. It requires a more work on the front end, but the result is the learner is going to enjoy the experience more, be much more engaged, and learn and recall better.”
“This is an exploding market in the best way,” said Round. “People with LxD skills and credentials can work in K12, but also in higher education with adult learners since many universities are building online offerings and need expertise in the design and development of those courses and programs. Additionally, many designers will be working in corporate training, government, and military environments.” Workplace training topped $80 billion dollars in 2020 according to statista.com.
“Some of the companies I’ve seen actively recruiting for learning experience designers today are Humana, Amazon, Booz Allen Hamilton, Oracle, Anthem, Pearson and more,” said Round. “They are realizing that learning experiences designed this way don’t just look good, they achieve better results for their organizations.”
“Much like teachers, I think this kind of educational professional is motivated by personal passion,” said Round. “Learning designers are creatives...they are makers. They may in fact be individuals with a bachelor’s or undergraduate degree in a field other than education. Many have realized they like building things but want to move beyond product and want to create impactful experiences. Often, designers may have developed a mission to improve learning experiences for others. Personally, I have a son on the autism spectrum. His educational journey deeply inspired my interest in empathetic learning design. Thoughtful design can transform someone’s life and future opportunities.”
“Because the designer can choose the environment that is best suited to their personal preferences from K12, higher education, corporate, or government, they come in with a varied background. For ten different learning designers, they came to the profession from ten different pathways including technology, museums, libraries, graphic design, and teaching,” said Round. “Everyone’s “why” is different, but many people come to learning experience design through a creative passion for helping others. I was trained as an engineer and worked in technology. Through my son, my life experiences required thinking about education differently. Along the way, I found this work.”
Because of growing job demand there is also the benefit of potential mobility, which appeals to people who may want to consider moving from one region of the country to another – or to another country entirely. Due to the nature of the discipline, many learning experience designers can work remotely, and the most competitive job candidates will have a graduate degree. “Although undergraduate degrees tend to vary, most learning experience designers have a master's degree specific to this area, which hopefully includes solid focus on design thinking; designing for diversity, equity and inclusion; learning theory; as well as social and emotional learning,” said Round.
To learn more about Learning Experience Design, read this article from Dr. Mark David Milliron, SVP WGU, and Executive Dean of the Teachers College, co-authored with Dr. Kim Round. If you're interested in learning more about the MS Learning Experience Design and Educational Technology degree program, please follow this link.