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Learning design - the slipperiest of eels

Blog posts | 08.10.2018

James Cory-Wright

Previously Head of Learning Design at Kineo at Kineo UK

Much discussed, rarely defined - that's learning design. "It's part of our DNA!" is a common cry but what do we mean when we say that? If learning design is truly at the heart of what we do, then why does there appear to be some doubt as to what is the current Kineo take on "learning design"?

Perhaps part of the problem is it means different things to different people, so there's learning design with a technology bias, versus a more pure driven content orientated viewpoint.

Learning design as a comfort blanket

Or perhaps the old certainties around "learning design" have been replaced with a more real-world ambiguity in keeping with the digital transformation most of us have experienced both in and outside the workplace.

I have always felt "learning design" as a formula based on prescriptive models was a faux-academic vanity that has bedevilled us over the years, although it must be said it has contributed to the commercial success of e-learning as an industry.

So for some people, it's been reassuring for all concerned to have learning design by numbers based on some seriously pre-digital learning theories and models. However, for other people, the world has moved on. Formal learning is dead, and now it's all about design thinking, experience design and UX. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

"The centre cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer."

WB Yeats

One thing's for certain, the old certainties as to what constitutes learning design has been swept away by the tide of tech, its ubiquity and its breath-taking capability. Now nearly all employees are online, certainly outside the workplace and often within.

This calls for a something quite different from the pedagogies that have served us in the past. To this end we now have a much more open-ended approach to learning design: much less prescriptive, lighter touch, a more agile approach if you like.

Learning design starts and ends with the customer experience

As we promise customers on our new website, "We'll help to improve business performance with learning and technology." This is a great description of our contemporary approach to learning design. It's partly about recommending the right tech solution, but it's also about content. Either way, it's a multi-layered thing. Learning design starts with a set of values typified by the open-mindedness of the light hearted Kineo Creative manifesto.

1. Creative manifesto

Creativity is a key aspect of our approach to learning design because it refers to the spark and spirit of curiosity, invention and imagination we must exhibit when we sit down with our customers and learners alike to discuss their needs, their preferences, priorities and their aspirations. The manifesto is not a manual, but its sense of humour gives a flavour of the need to be lateral as well as literal in achieving good learning design.


As well as valuing creativity, it's about having a set of principles to ensure the content we design will deliver the business benefits that drive it by being contemporary and relevant to today's learners. So, the W for web-like has become especially relevant. It's where content is heading at a rate of knots.

More and more learning design will be about making the most of tech such as Curatr, Magpie with learning beginning with digital content consumed by employees on all devices and continuing to happen socially around that.

It's happening in our art direction which is becoming increasingly full width and web-like in style and layout which is popular with our learners. Digital storytelling inspired by web documentary techniques also seems to be a logical step along with much greater use of video. The web loves video. And switching on Google analytics to help us measure and evaluate the user experience. The web leads the way for us from a learning design point of view. If there is one major influence on learning design going forward, this has to be it.

But we don't want to chuck the baby out with the bathwater. Our designs may be web-like, but they're web-like with a difference. We're still in the learning business and experience tells us that I for interactivity still has a role to play, for example by formative and summative questioning or branched scenarios, interactive video, gamification and simulations. S for self-directed is critical as it's the very definition of the online experience for most people, not least how we personalise content all the time with our searching and browsing the web. There are opportunities galore for more learning design to involve social learning whether that's interacting with other learners around curated content, resources not courses, and/or using social media to facilitate the learning experience. E for erudite counterpoints the other more lateral principles we've espoused by emphasising the significance of the literal in the sense of 'fit for purpose'.

When it comes to the workplace we need information or to learn something, not because it's fun or it looks good, but because it's useful. Substance over style. And that also means easy-to-use, accessible and inclusive. So "erudite" also refers to the importance of disciplines such as UX, needs analysis, analytics, measurement, personalisation and search. These WISE principles are made real by the design phase of our process.

3. Process - design phase

Our ISO approved design phase articulates our approach to learning design with its emphasis on experience design and design thinking such as Stanford University's Empathise, Define (the problem), Ideate, Prototype and Test. Learner sampling is especially important in helping us to shape a learner-centric design, to test it out as we go, and later, to measure its efficacy and the learner experience.

4. Kineo legacy - best practice scripting

When new content is to be created it's important to have a background understanding of the proven approach to scripting that has served us well in the past in the form of learning models such as PEET (Present Exemplify and Explore and Test) and interactive learning sequences such as 'Observe and Assess', 'Challenge and support' etc. But increasingly our learning design is moving away from this degree of formality to the more web-like, online experience we have referenced. Take a look here for some more information on learning design models.

So this is a 4 layer description of what "learning design" might mean in the modern world, but of course a) I stand to be corrected on this and b) I welcome any comments and debate on this to ensure we have a democratic definition…

If you'd like some pointers on creating great UX of your learning content or to hear more about any of the tools mentioned above, get in touch with the team today.

James Cory-Wright

Previously Head of Learning Design at Kineo at Kineo UK

James has over 25 years' experience of instructional design and video scriptwriting. He previously headed up our team of learning designers and consultants, overseeing learning content design across all client projects.