I’m often challenged to describe what I do and what I am, professionally speaking, and have spent many conversations grasping for a succinct explanation using relatable words: “I’m a…well, I do…umm…learning things?”
This is not coherent English. Things were much simpler when I was a teacher, a grant writer, a camp counselor. Everybody knows what these things are. Everybody is relieved when you can explain so much of your life in one tidy phrase. But my work now lies at the messy intersection of many different things and doesn’t fit neatly into any particular category or role. I’ve called myself an educator, facilitator, faculty developer, trainer, designer, storyteller and change agent. While these are all true, they don’t capture the nuance that exists where all these things collide, and they don’t lend themselves to a name that can validate the work they represent to the world.
A few years ago, I described to a friend the process of searching for a field, a title and a role to call home. I said that my work is about creating effective learning experiences that work for people, in all their complexity. “It’s like user experience design,” I said, but for education and learning instead of products and technology. “Like event planning?” he asked. Well, yes, like event planning. And curriculum development. Developmental psychology. Instructional design. Group dynamics. Neuroscience. Learning theory. Leadership. It’s like…learning…experience…design. At that time, these words did not exist in any meaningful combination. A Google search returned results on UX start-ups and conferences for wedding planners–not quite what I meant. But recently, I’ve seen the phrase emerge in some pretty fun ways.
Learning experience design is being used more and more to describe the work of those of us in education who create and support good learning, however and wherever it happens. It’s broader, and perhaps less technically-oriented, than instructional design. It’s less content-driven than curriculum design. And to me, it acknowledges the wide array of considerations that go into deliberately designing a learning experience to meet specific objectives and take into account the needs (mental, emotional, physical, social, spiritual) of your learners.
I met Joyce Seitzinger and heard the title “Learning Designer” for the first time at the Messy Session on Messing Learning at last spring’s OLC ET4Online. It was at that conference that I also began hearing connections being made more explicitly between design thinking and learning experiences in a session with Jessica Knott. Since then, I started a MOOC on human-centered design offered by IDEO and +Acumen with a group of learning-focused colleagues. The MOOC experience morphed into a project using design thinking to shake things up around teaching and learning on our campus. Most recently, I noticed that Joyce and Jess launched a collaboration on the topic of learning experience design, and the phrase gained it’s own hash tag that just rolls off the tongue: #lxdesign.
While it’s the work that matters, and the work has been happening without a name all along, I think words carry power. They legitimize, familiarize and normalize things that previously existed on the margins. They lend credibility to the people who work simultaneously at the periphery and the core of teaching and learning. They help to move the needle on the transformations taking place in education, where teaching is becoming a distributed, team-based effort, an art and a science, and a field unto itself.
I’m thrilled to know what to call it, how to describe my work in ways that are increasingly recognized and valued. More than that, I’m thrilled to know that I’m a part of a wider network, a tribe of learning designers who see what education can be, and are ready to steward it into being.