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Why the learning design is so hard?

The learning design for my capstone project is approaching to the end. How do I feel? Hard yet worthwhile. Actually, I think my capstone project is a perfect example to explain why I think the learning design is so hard.

The first challenge of the learning design is the designer should constantly self-check their thinking. For example, “am I considering both the teaching goals and the user needs? Or only one of them?” In my previous article: “Reframe the problem”, I described how we defined the design problem. That is a good example to show how the designer's thinking mindset can affect the design. Based on our user interviews and learning data analysis, we found WGU students need to particularly improve their planning and evaluation learning skills in their learning process. If we only look at this problem from the learning perspective, then the design problem would be: “WGU students don’t plan and evaluate their learning well.” Then the solution would be “ teach students to plan and evaluate their learning.” However, from students’ perspective, this is not their problem. Their problem is they are not able to pass the assessment as soon as possible as they expected. In that case, the solution would focus on how to help students quickly pass the course. As you can see, neither of them is the good design problem because none of them imply the right direction of the solution. A good design problem of the learning design should reveal the hidden relation between the learning goals and the user needs. It should explain why and how the lack of skills to-be-learned are undermining students’ learning. So we reframed the design problem by including both learning goals and user needs:

"WGU students don’t strategically solve their learning problems while they expect to accelerate their learning to get the degree as soon as possible."

The logic of this problem statement is: students make unproductive efforts to deal with learning problems because they don’t effectively plan and evaluate their learning, which is the big obstacle for them to quickly pass the courses. It connects the learning goals and the user needs. Honestly, it is unintuitive for the designer to always take into account the both sides: learning goals and the user needs. I perceive it more like a mindset issue instead of the process or method issue. It is important for the learning designers to aware that, when design, we are not the educators, we are not the learners, we are filling the gap between the learning goals and the user needs.

Another big challenge of the learning design is to identify that subtle “sweet spot”, keeping the balance between the good learning “suffering” and the user-friendly experience. As we all know, struggle and frustration are sometimes necessary for learning. This is how our brain structures and grows. But we don't want to suffer the users with too much cognitive load because they will be demotivated and drop out. So we want to find a perfect balance between the suffering and the easiness. Compared with the first challenge, which is the mindset issue, I would describe this one as the technical issue because it is easier said than done.

Here is an example. One of the learning problem that WGU students have is they don’t know why they got wrong for some questions. To solve this problem, the learning strategy we scaffold students to practice is called “break it down”, which means students need to reflect on the concepts tested in the question by breaking down the solutions step by step, so that they can self-identify the concepts they got stuck. While students are eager to know the correct concepts tested in each step and the detail information about those concepts, we don’t just deliver them what they want. Instead, we give them what they need. We want to prompt students to think about by themselves first. But what is the right dose of the prompt? How often? Through which way? How do we know when the prompts are getting too annoying and would cause the drop-out? We validated our assumptions and modified the intervention through user testings. We decided to ask the students to choose the concepts they think are tested in each step from multiples choices before pointing out the correct concepts.

There is no general formula to tell what the “sweet spot” should look like. It should be very different in different learning design as the learner characteristics, the learning objectives and the learning environments can be very different. This is why the identification of the “sweet spot” is hard. The designer has to figure it out within the context.

The third challenge is about the user interviews. Unlike the user interviews about consumer products, in the learning design user interviews, users may be more likely to intentionally or even unintentionally hide their real feelings, opinions and needs. For example, when I asked a student if she would turn to her course mentor if she got stuck. She said no because she can always figure out by herself. So she has no need to ask the course mentor for help. Then I changed the way I asked the question. I told her, from our other user interviews, we found some of her peers feel frustrated about asking the course mentor questions because they don’t know how to frame the questions, and the course mentors sometimes just don't give them the feedback as they expected. Then she immediately said: “Exactly! I think that is why I don’t like to ask course mentors questions.” It turned out that it is not because she doesn't have the need to ask course mentors questions, but because she has some troubles on how to seek effective help from the course mentors. There is a famous saying in the learning science: " You don't know what you don't know." So the learning designer should think critically about the user feedback and dig deeper. It is especially hard for the designer doesn't have solid learning science training background. An effective approach to reinforce the critical thinking in the user research is to include the educators or learning science researchers to the user interviews, so that the designer can consult them to discover the real learning problems and needs.

The above three challenges are the main reasons why I think the learning design is hard and challenging for the designer. I’m glad that we found ways to overcome those challenges in our learning design. As I’m explaining why I think the learning design is so hard, you may already found why I think it is hard yet worthwhile. The biggest rewarding of the learning design for a designer is you get plenty opportunities to reflect on your own design thinking because you have to.

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