Designing Learning Environments

Some thoughts on designing better learning experiences

Workshops, lectures, conferences, courses, books, games, tutorials, etc. Products and services for learning have been always a big hit. We are surrounded by them as soon as we are born, and they never leave our lives once learning begins.

In spite of how many good Learning Environments (LE) are out there, people still struggle when they have to design their own LEs. It is a common misconception that being awesome at something means that you can teach it well. In this article I intend to share some of my insights on designing learning experiences.

I myself am not a pedagogic professional. Although I have more than 8 years of professional teaching experience, I can’t quote many books or authors on pedagogy or education. The ideas in this article come from empirical observations from my daily practice in designing and hosting design courses for universities, workshops, conferences and games.

The four elements of learning environments

A LE can be divided into 4 elements: Time, Structure, Content and Reflection. These are the building blocks that a designer can define in the learning experience while designing LEs.

They way that they are related can be visualised in the following graph (Overview). The lower part is the Tutor’s Attention* — the engagement of the tutor in building the learning experience. In my experience, it is fundamental to boost the upper part (the Participant’s Attention), meaning that the tutor engages as much as the participant engages.

The upper and lower limits reflects the percentage of attention in a certain time (horizontal axis). A full box means 100% attention. To more fully understand the distinction between Time and Attention invested, have a look at this article.

Overview of the Learning Environment’s elements

Time

Time is the amount of time planned for the learner to go through the learning environment and build the knowledge/competence/skill you are offering. Time can be broken out into duration, pace and routine.

Although duration sounds quite obvious, in reality, people underestimate it. When lectures feel too long, people may not have time to join your one-week workshop; when your game takes 5 hours to complete, it means you miscalculated the duration. The best way to manage the duration is to play with pace and routine.

Pace is the speed in which you deliver content or request new engagement from the learner. Think of it like a long bike ride consisting of peaks and plateaus. On peaks you have to pay attention whereas plateaus are places where you know already how to perform and you can just repeat a certain activity. Unusual situations require your attention; usual situations can be performed by routine. You can make the learning experience be really stressful by only having peaks and few plateaus, or very boring by only having plateaus and few peaks.

Routine is when the learning experience has to be repeated in order to deliver the value. It is especially important when you are considering long-term courses. The repetition is not in going through the same content and structure repeatedly, but in experiencing the same content with a different structure. The learner will experience the same content but will learn it from a different perspective. It also provides the chance to build new knowledge on top of the previous knowledge: repeating the content and adding new related content is like building a house with the proper foundation.

Routine

Structure

Structure is the group of strategies used to deliver the content to the learners. It extends from the usage of visual and verbal metaphors (storytelling) to creating game-like experiences. Structure can also dictate the time of the learning experience (and the other way around).

It is what commonly differentiates courses (at university) from workshops. Typically in academic courses/projects, learners have the time to drift around and define the best path to experience the content themselves. Workshops that have a defined time frame, however, need to be efficient and give the learners a specific road to experience.

An experienced designer would first understand the needs, expectations and objectives of the learners (audience). Then she would define the strategies in a way that the audience would enjoy and profit from the most.

Content

Though usually seen as the most important part of a learning experience, content is overrated. Content is now easier than ever to give and consume. No one owns content anymore (that is why I think it is silly to sell content). What good professionals have are frameworks.

A framework is how a certain content is packaged and organised so that it is easier to communicate and understand. Similar to the concept of data and information, a good teacher is capable of translating and encoding the content into an objective that can help learners to climb the learning curve faster.

Raw content x Framework

At the end of the day, that is what you are teaching when you design a LE: structured and framed content that can be delivered in a variety of ways.

Books and exercises for practicing the fundamentals of user-centred design — describing stories you have collected to share the value of listening to users — will share the same content, but the frameworks and structures will differ.

It is easy to confuse framework and structure. To make a clear distinction, structure has an organisational nature, delineating, for example, the agenda of the workshop, the plan of the course, the usage of a book, etc. A framework repackages the content, translating the original message into a different form.

Reflection

Reflection is the content being framed by the participants. It is the new content produced an shared by the participants based on the experience in the LE.

Commonly rigidly defined in more traditional educational systems (i.e., “Produce an essay, with your own words, giving your opinion on cell reproduction”) and taken for granted in the more progressive ones (i.e., “Use the next 2 hours to decide on a topic of your interest”) reflection does not occur as a magical outcome of a LE. It happens when the audience has a strong foundation from which to produce new knowledge and a good framework to give it value.

For example, you go to an Unconference and there you attend a BarCamp. The usual fear is to have a one-hour, unstructured session of “discuss this topic”. A lot of reflection is being done, sure. But the quality or relevance of this content can not really be assessed. And the participants may feel frustrated: “We talk a lot, but I don’t have the feeling I have learned anything.”

This feeling of “I have learned something” is connected to John Dewey’s parameters of continuity and interaction (that I explain in this other article). Based on these principles, you can have an open-discussion-no-agenda BarCamp, at least summarise the lessons/topics discussed at the end and share them with the participants.

Of course, there are other aspects to be considered:

  • Peers — people who participate in the same learning environment;
  • Available infrastructure/resources — e.g., materials, equipment, etc.;
  • Performance of the tutor — sometimes there are bad days;
  • Context — locations and dates make a lot of difference. For example, try to host anything close to Karnaval in cities like Salvador, Köln or Venezia and you will see how difficult it is to find participants.

These aspects can also be planned and, in a certain way, controlled; however, they are quite hard to control by the usual methods when designing a LE.

The Three Scenarios

There are three main scenarios that can be visualised within this model:

  1. I provide the content and you decide how to do the work.
  2. I give you nothing and you have to both research the content and find your way to work on it.
  3. I give you the structure and you have to research the content yourself.”
Scenario 1 — “I provide the content and you decide how to do the work.

The tutor gives you a presentation, input, books, and texts to read, and a challenge/goal, but he does not provide you with a way to do it. It is particularly good to develop processes and methods. What usually happens is that the participants struggle with “how to work” and can’t reflect on the content.

Scenario 2 — “I give you nothing and you have to both research the content and find your way to work on it.”

The tutor gives you a challenge and you have to both research the content and define how to work on the project. Depending on how experienced you are in the topic, it might be really challenging to get anything out of it. It might work for long-term projects in which there is time to wonder and drift, but it definitely won’t work for short-term activities.

Scenario 3 — “I give you the structure and you have to research the content yourself.

That is a really good scenario for a workshop centred on a specific method with a multidisciplinary participants. In this scenario, the tutor provides the framework in which the team will work and the participants bring their knowledge. It is a good format for short-term engagement or for team building activities. The drawback might be the feeling of playing a game and that nothing was actually learned.


What is the balance?

When designing a LE, understanding the balance between the four elements is fundamental. It works like a bike ride.

Let’s say you have to do a 100 km bike route (content). If you have 10 days to accomplish it, you need almost no discipline or a map (structure). You can divide it into 10 km per day and ask people around for directions, get lost and so on. You have time to be misled.

If I give you the same task, but you have to do it in one day, the approach is different. You may need a precise map because every mistake costs you time that you don’t have.

Relying on structure doesn’t help to learn per se. Design the activities and exercises is important, Otherwise it is like a bad map. It may help you to arrive at a certain point faster, but it was a really unpleasant journey (and you learn and remember things that you associate with pleasure better, otherwise it is called “trauma”).

More time allows more content + reflection and less structure. It is like learning from mistakes, practicing reflection and developing competences by experiencing and comparing situations.

Less time requires a better structure to work on more content and have more reflection.

How does it work in practice?

Let’s see some well-known LEs to understand how these three dimensions exist in the real world. I will use a workshop that I offer called Being Visual.

Talk

A 15–25 minute presentation. The tutor speaks to the audience in a framed environment. The audience is usually 100% reflecting on the content. Not much room for sharing or drawing, though.

The tutor prepares the content (framework) and delivers it to the audience. Both are 100% engaged during the time dedicated to the activity.

Being Visual presentation at the Service Design Drinks — Berlin

2-Hour Workshop

In 2-hour sessions, the content is compromised and the focus is on the structure that will well deliver the content.

I often receive requests to do the Being Visual Workshop in a shorter time. For example, there is a conference or workshop already running and they want to have a small intro on how to draw.

Obviously, this session cannot afford all the content. So the solution is to define the main goal of the session and pick some of the content to be presented and some to be practiced.

For example, it is possible to present the basics (like presentation) and focus the session on learning how to draw icons and storyboards.


1-Day Workshop

With more time in hand, it is possible to give more input.

With 8 hours available you have to be careful. An entire day sounds promising to fill up with content, but you still have to organise the time strategically. In the early days of the Being Visual workshop, I was highly focused on teaching how to draw well (technically). For that reason, the workshop spent 4 hours on drawing over and over again, which is really good to learn, but the problem was that people had the feeling they were only experiencing one content.

I have taken the feedback of the participants on and redesigned the workshop. Now it offers 4 hours of technical-classical drawing, so participants have a really clear technical take-away, and 4 hours of applying it by learning to think more visually.

It is still not enough time for the participants to really produce content (reflection). However, they are really satisfied with the amount of content.


4-Day Project

When I am requested to do the Being Visual workshop in more than 8 hours things start to get more interesting. I had the chance to host this model for the Master students of the Master Integrated Design course at the Köln International School of Design.

With more time, I could reduce the pace and give more routine tasks so the students could focus on practicing the key points of the workshop. Additionally, this would allow presentation and analysis of more good practices (content). This also created a lot of room for reflection. The students could write summaries of what they learned on a given day and redefine the next day’s agenda based on this.

The amount of input (content) was also progressively reduced. On the last day, I only instructed the activities and had one-on-one meetings to give feedback on the produced material.


4-Month Course

If the time gets really extended, then every meeting turns into a workshop (2, 4 or 8 hours). The only difference is that the days are interconnected. Every session you have with the participants becomes an individual LE that builds on the previous one.

The experience curve has to be managed on two levels: the overall course and the individual days. In practical terms, treat the whole course as “one day” with longer hours.

I am teaching right now at the HpdK in Berlin. There I have a total of 8 meetings of 4 hours with the students spread over 3 months. The course is structured in Basics and Visualisation. The first day worked like a normal workshop (as a fast forward of the rest of the semester) and the following meetings have been an expanded version of the first day with extended and specific content.


Takeaways

Designing a LE is a project just like any other design project. It takes time and the details have to be carefully designed so that the overall experience is pleasant for the host and for the attendees.

The take-aways / value of the LE must be well-defined and aligned with the audience’s needs and goals. At least a minimum learning expectation has to be agreed upon between the parties. I like to keep them basic. Although that doesn’t really help sell workshops, the participants are always happy about what they get in the end.

This model is a draft. It will for sure be iterated. I am collecting feedback to redesign it in a following article.

I am designing a set of tools and materials to help people design LEs. If you are curious about the topic, you can read my badly written Master Thesis about how people learn design and what it means to Hack Education (it is badly written, you have been warned).

And I would love to talk about it, so hit me with an e-mail, tweet, comment or invite me for a coffee in Berlin. :-)

Mauro Rego is co-founder and Designer at Boana