A call for stickiness: agile ethics in learning design

Sophie Craven
Oct 28 · 4 min read

I wrote a short reflection last week about integrating ‘sticky moments’ into learning & service design; the interventions that allow for reflection and pause.

And it got me thinking about the bigger picture of agile design and its shortcomings in the world of stickiness (yup, gonna riff on that one). Learners need sticky moments in order to consolidate and build on their understanding — and so, I think, do learning designers. And other designers. And everyone else.

Credit — http://wandaharca.com/

I’ve worked in agile content development in a few variations for the last three years. Agile can be an awesome methodology for speedy and iterative learning design, allowing you to react to learner feedback quickly and efficiently. Personally, I’ve seen it done very well and I’ve seen it done pretty badly. I work predominantly in online learning, which lends itself to an agile world; nothing could be easier than updating a piece of learning content based on performance analytics. Computer says yes, computer says no.

But what computer doesn’t do is put checks in place before you take feedback on board. Learner-centric becomes learner-as-god. Learning organisations often fall in the trap of assuming that just because the learner says X is good and Y is bad, it’s true. We situate ourselves in an endlessly looping echo chamber of our own making and then spin in circles, very rapidly. Or very agile-y.

A circle diagram of the agile process. The phases are plan, design, develop, test, release, and feedback — in a loop.
A circle diagram of the agile process. The phases are plan, design, develop, test, release, and feedback — in a loop.
Credit: Cloud Bees

But what if the learner isn’t god? What should the power dynamic be here? How are we (re)creating information and disseminating it? How much should one learner’s feedback affect that dissemination for other learners? Is it about who shouts the loudest, or is it about how many people are shouting? What happens to the quiet ones? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Does the value of learning content really degrade if learners don’t like it? People don’t like a lot of things, and not always for the right reasons. What should we change and what should we stand by?

These are all questions with an ethical bent. I think it’s really really important to talk about ethics as learning designers, because (allow me the ego boost) learning influences what people think, what they do and how they behave — for reals. ‘What good looks like’ in learning design is learning that’s actionable. Doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is.

The role of the learning designer in agile ethics

Alix Dunn, founder of Computer Says Maybe (see what I did there?) wrote a great article last year about designing ethically at speed. She makes the point that with the division of labour has come the division of ethical responsibility, and she calls for roles to be created in organisations with the specific responsibility of facilitating space for ethical decision making.

And actually I’d argue that in a learning organisation, that responsibility falls to the learning designer. Not just because LDs are usually pretty good facilitators, or because they are particularly known for their right-on moral attitudes, but because they are fully integrated both into the content development (or the production of an information environment for learners) and also into the wider learning-as-a-service system.

For me, a learning designer’s job is to see the learning journey at every level of the service provision to learners; to hold those different levels in their head at the same time. LDs are simultaneously concerned with depth and breadth. This is important because we’re not just talking about tweaks to content or better learning objectives here — if your organisation delivers learning through an app, how are the product features influencing the learner’s behaviour? If you facilitate an online community, how do the community guidelines and rules shape learner interactions? If you teach at a uni, how does the way your tutorials are facilitated change learner contribution? Learning content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We’re talking about a wider system of learning, or a learning service, and that’s exactly the responsibility of the learning designer.

So how can we integrate those sticky moments for ethical decision making into the development of a learning service? Well, there are a few orgs and people doing some cool things around this topic. The Artefact Group produced the Tarot Cards of Tech — a series of provocations built to help creators think through the environmental, social and technological implications of what they design.

Example from Tarot Cards of Tech

In a similar fashion, Dot Everyone developed a neat tool called Consequence Scanning, an agile event for iterative developers to fit into their design processes. Consequence Scanning helps teams scan for intended and unintended consequences of their designs and thus make ethically-informed decisions on whether to implement them. And founder of The Echo Chamber Club Alice Thwaite runs ethics by design workshops at Experience Haus and General Assembly.

There are probably more, but those are the ones I’ve heard about and explored most recently.

So, what do you think?

Is there a need for a version of these processes specifically related to learning design? Do they already exist in some form? I’d love to hear from learning & service designers (and anyone else!) involved in or interested in co-designing strategies, interventions and processes to ensure agile learning design stays right onnnn, man.

Get in touch below or find me on LinkedIn.

Sophie Craven

Written by

I’m a Learning Experience Designer and Copywriter. Currently working in the creative industry, I’m exploring service design, the climate crisis and tech ethics.

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