Learning experience design FAQ with Chief Learning Consultant Cara North and JD Dillon
Hybrid learning. AI. The future of L&D jobs.
Cara North, Founder and Chief Learning Consultant of The Learning Camel, and ITK host JD Dillon, Axonify’s Chief Learning Architect, tackled it all on a recent episode of In The Know where they shared their insights into some of the most-asked questions about learning experience design and what organizations can do to elevate their learning experiences. Here’s a look at the biggest takeaways from their conversation.
What’s the biggest challenge facing L&D right now?
North: The biggest challenge is being true to oneself.
So often, [L&D professionals] are brought into these ‘guided’ projects where the stakeholder already has their mind made up: ‘I want a video! I want e-learning! I want instructor-led training!’ Transforming that change management perspective to find the true problem and how to solve it is a big issue because it’s a slippery slope.
People that are newer to the profession, like new instructional designers, tend to fall into the trap of becoming an order taker. But it sets a dangerous precedent of jumping ahead to the solution without first ideating the problem.
Is workplace learning a science or an art?
North: When you look at the fundamental backgrounds of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, there are a lot of scientific pieces of the learning process.
I like to equate learning to the scientific method and trying to figure out solutions to important problems. Failure and trying are also a big part of the learning process that I don’t think get enough love and respect, especially in organizational workplace solutions. I definitely think there’s a science to it.
Dillon: Focusing on the word itself, the concept of learning is an internal personal process of acquiring and retaining knowledge and skill. So the artistic or creative side of what we do is not the learning itself—it’s how we help facilitate the learning, the ways deliver messages or the routes we take to engage people.
There’s a creative element to any work, including the work we do in learning and development, but it’s all wrapped around the science of knowledge retention, and everything has to be born from there. If we miss that part, we won’t have the desired impact or see the behavior changes we’re looking for.
Are learning experience design and instructional design the same thing?
North: If you reference the canonical instructional design definition from the ‘40s and ‘50s, it originated with a military-inspired background, really focused on systematic instruction. I agree that it’s been poorly defined, but it’s evolved. And through that evolution, instructional design and learning experience design have become different things.
To me, learning experience design is an evolution of instructional design. I highly recommend reading through Michael Molinda’s chapter on the origins of instructional design to see how we’ve taken pieces from all sorts of different places to create modern learning design. It’s so different than the OG way of rank and file.
But it’s not about one term replacing the other either. I think they coexist right now because we haven’t yet updated their definitions. For me, pure instructional design is about the content and content only. When I think of learning experience design, I think about the content, context, modalities and all the other ongoing pieces to help employees grow to their own capacity.
Dillon: I think we [as an industry] have poorly defined what ‘instructional design’ is. If you look at job descriptions for instructional designers across different companies, you’ll see wildly different expectations and requirements. Some people build content. Some are more business partner oriented, identifying problems and doing needs analyses.
Some people design the solution but don’t build the output. Some people facilitate.
We have a tendency in L&D to change the words, but not change what we actually do and how we approach solving problems. I think the difference between these titles is a bit more wordsmithing than it is meaningful change.
Do people need to have specific industry experience to work in L&D?
North: The biggest superpower of any learning development professional is not having the institutional knowledge and in-depth experience from doing the job every day because when you go to develop training solutions, you’ll be bringing a fresh perspective into the space.
Is it great to have relationships with SMEs [subject matter experts] that can kind of fill your knowledge gaps? Absolutely. And that’s critical. But you can also have the advantage of bringing a journalistic and more unbiased perspective to help solve issues and bring out the best in your team’s content.
Dillon: It also helps avoid the ‘this is how we’ve always done it here’ situation so you can ask questions and probe in different ways than if you’d been locked into a particular perspective for an extended period of time.
That said, there can be benefits to having experience and credibility when you walk into conversations. But I look at it through an operations lens to focus more on the transferable learnings from the experience you do have. You can take from similar kinds of work or similar environments and have an understanding of what doing this type of job is like, even if you haven’t done this type of job specifically before.
Do people need formal training to be effective learning experience designers?
North: I’m formally educated, but I strongly disagree that you need formal training to be an effective learning experience designer because [L&D professionals] come from so many individualized backgrounds. I think that it’s dangerous to make a blanket statement that someone needs to be formally educated in anything.
Some of the most gifted learning development professionals that I know do not have formal degrees in this at all. Your own informal learning and upskilling is a journey that you take on your own—and I don’t feel like you need a piece of paper to prove to me that you’re an effective learning and development professional. The only caveat to that is if you do apply for roles in higher education, they typically do require formal degrees.
Is hybrid learning here to stay?
Dillon: I don’t think hybrid is a real thing.
There are people who are sitting in a place doing a thing, whether that’s working in a meeting, collaborating or experiencing some type of training activity. And then there are people who are remote—those that aren’t in the physical place who are dialing in, in some fashion from somewhere else.
It becomes dangerous to use the term hybrid because either everyone doesn’t get the right experience and it doesn’t really fit their needs, or we lean too much in one direction. I think there are two experiences we have to design for versus trying to split the difference.
North: So often people are not given the tools to be successful or get on the same page as everyone else. I think of it more as a poor modality.
Should people learn how to use certain software to be a learning experience designer?
North: It’s really important that we focus on the content rather than the tools. If you want to eventually get some software, why not? But I don’t think that it’s 100% necessary. There are folks that are called ‘e-learning developers’ out there that will gladly hop on a contract and build your learning plan, but you don’t need software to do that, in my opinion.
Dillon: There’s a mistaken set of expectations out there that lean people in this direction. In a lot of cases, even in job descriptions, we might be looking for the wrong types of things, requiring people to have certain technical competencies and not focus on the other skills that are much harder to teach.
I’d rather have someone on my team who’s a great problem solver, asks great questions, collaborates effectively and builds champions out there—and teach them how to use a piece of software—versus someone who’s really good with a specific development tool and then try to work backward to solve problems using that tool effectively. For me, it’s an expectation challenge, less a technical requirement.
How can L&D teams escape being order-takers?
North: It’s hard and depends on the composition of your team and where you sit in the business. Often the onus of this actually falls onto L&D leadership, because individual contributors can only do so much if their leadership isn’t aligned. So if you have good leadership that helps blaze you down this path, I think that you can do it. But if you don’t have leadership alignment, you’re going to have a bad time.
Dillon: I’ve seen it done, but I also know it takes time. It’s not an overnight shift, and it’s not something where we can just change the name of our department and suddenly be perceived differently. People bring baggage to conversations with learning and development because they have experiences when it comes to education and previous training departments that they’ve worked with. So it’s something we have to work on and influence the path towards, but we can definitely get there.
Will artificial intelligence reduce or impact the number of learning designers and developers?
North: There are so many people in this space that focus on just pure content, and I feel like that’s a very dangerous and transactional lens to approach this work through.
So if you’re only about making PowerPoints and building e-learning, and can’t evolve to do more aspects of the job, then in my opinion you’re going to be replaced quickly.
Dillon: AI and technology, in general, take care of the unremarkable side of work. If your job requires a lot of templated work, a machine can do that right now. A machine can also write really good multiple-choice and assessment questions.
I think it’s important for everyone to take a look at their workflow and the tasks that they complete, and not only ask, ‘Can a machine do this type of work?’ but also, ‘Should we be doing this type of work at all in a world where technology’s changing and our relationship with technology is changing through the evolution of AI?’ There’s an unavoidable reality to the fact that certain work will be taken care of differently.