New Field of Learning Engineering Edges Toward Definition – by Pamela S. Hogle

There’s a movement afoot to bring L&D into a more data-focused age, featuring a state of perpetual evaluation and iteration. Some call it learning engineering, and a new eLearning Guild research report, Learning Engineering: A Primer by Ellen Wagner, explores this movement in depth.

The vision of a “learning engineer” was first articulated 50 years ago by Herb Simon, Wagner explained in a January interview with Campus Technology. “By increasing the use of scientific methods and business processes, Simon believed it would be possible to improve the returns on investment in college infrastructure and operational management, which in turn would lead to increased efficiency and better outcomes in curricular development, teaching, and ultimately, in student learning,” Wagner said.

Defining learning engineering

Though it is a decades-old concept, the field—and very definition—of learning engineering is still in flux. Scholars and practitioners describe a learning engineer in a variety of ways, including:

  • From Stanford University scholar Candace Thille, director of learning science and engineering at Amazon: As a “bridge” between learning research and teaching practice, the learning engineer “will design learning environments and data systems that provide student and instructor feedback, support continuous improvement [in] learning design and facilitate rapid progress in the science of human learning.”
  • Wagner quotes Harvard University professor and researcher Chris Dede’s definition: Learning engineers are “professionals who understand theoretical and evidence-based research about learning and learning measurement, apply those finding to test their value in the crucible of specific situations of practice, and refine initial approaches to develop heuristics and models to make students’ learning more efficient and effective.”
  • Google’s Chris Jennings regards “continual formative evaluation” as a key strength of learning engineering, which depends upon the effective use of data and data analytics to achieve better training and performance support results, according to Wagner’s report.
  • Huntington Lambert, dean of the Harvard Extension School, describes efforts to define learning engineering: “We used to go in with instructional designers and help tell a teacher how to teach. Instead, we changed our approach to say we are going to produce faculty for learning success in the modes in which our students can learn, and that was our beginning of a foray into learning engineering,” he said. “We are not replacing faculty with technology; we are using technology to enhance faculty’s effectiveness and hopefully to engineer great learning outcomes.”
  • EDUCAUSE describes learning engineering as “the application of engineering design methodologies in developing learning technologies and infrastructures to support learners and learning.”
  • Janet Kolodner, who founded a master’s program in learning engineering at Boston College, describes learning engineering as “the systematic application of principles and methods from the learning sciences to support and better understand learners and learning.” She adds, “The discipline leverages human-centered design approaches to iteratively develop and improve design solutions that address specific learning needs and opportunities—often using technology.”

A learning engineer’s skill set

“As learning and performance support technology become more sophisticated, eLearning professionals are realizing their need for new skill sets. Among these are data visualization, programming and coding, and techniques from learning science and data analytics,” Ellen Wagner and Olivia Blackmon wrote in Learning Solutions.

IEEE ICICLE, an organization whose mission is to define learning engineering as a discipline, has identified a set of skills that learning engineers would possess. These include understanding:

  • Current and historical product trends, and the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of learning technology implementations
  • Data standards and regulations around learning data and privacy
  • Best practices in technical project management and in the design of learning technologies and learning ecosystems
  • Factors contributing to success and failure in the design, development, deployment, and outcomes of learning technologies

Many instructional designers and other L&D professionals are already mastering these essential learning engineer skills and using them daily. The impetus is on proponents of learning engineering to differentiate this emerging discipline from instructional design and create a coherent and compelling argument for redefining L&D professionals as learning engineers.

That may well begin with a philosophical shift that Wagner describes as “basically agreeing to live in a state of perpetual formative evaluation readiness.”

Explore learning engineering

Take a deeper dive into what learning engineering is and how it could affect eLearning professionals. Download your free copy of Learning Engineering: A Primer today.

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