Learning Experience Development — A dance, not a race
It’s exciting, full of promise, messy, challenging, sometimes fun, and often frustrating, but after the last file is saved and the project is handed off (and after we’ve had that good post-project rest), leave us with deep satisfaction. What am I talking about? Working with clients to develop adult learning experiences for social and behavioral change! Design for adult learning experience can serve a wide variety of purposes and projects. It can support the development of something structured like a curriculum or program guidance, a semi-structured guide or toolkit, or resources for flexible or asynchronous delivery such as a compendium of training materials or microlearning resources.
Learning experience development projects are complex, full of twists and turns, ups and downs. As designers, we hold and navigate the space between technical expertise (subject matter expertise) and the learner’s context, wisdom, and experience (lived experience). This is an exciting space, and while a few stellar resources have informed our practice, there is no codified or defined process, mainly because each project is unique, and the work we do is not in our W.E.I.R.D. context that most resources have been developed for, and the “process” is not linear.
We find that learning experience design is not well understood in our broader field of international development and social and behavior change, even by those who may have been developing programs and materials for a long time! So, it’s a good thing that we have a practice of reflecting together during a project to make explicit what we are doing, explore together ways of working that facilitate these kinds of projects, debriefing projects after completion to talk about the process, the challenges, what emerged, and what we need to do differently or make more explicit next time. We are always learning.
We offer here some thoughts on the many spaces that learning projects go through from concept to launch, mapping out not only the work that is needed to develop learning experiences that deliver on their promise and purpose but the kind of expertise that is needed at each space, approaches, and tools we find effective for that space, and some of the pitfalls and challenges. These spaces are not necessarily linear! They may be overlapping, recursive, and attended to in a different order.
The different spaces are:
Understanding and right-sizing
We often don’t know at first glance exactly what is needed to move an idea into completion, particularly one as complex as a learning experience design project. An assessment/scoping space is critical for learning projects. It takes time to orient, understand, scope, and plan what is needed. In this space you get clear on the questions: “where is this project at now,” “where do we want it to go?” and “what it will take to bridge the gap?”
This may necessitate an initial scoping contract to assess what content/materials are already available; define the overall purpose or goal of the project; define the design parameters such as format, length, and know the learners and trainers; understand contextual issues; determine the collaborative structure of the work (will it be co-creation, will there be a working group, who makes decisions, who participates, informs or shapes the content or the learning delivery); source the subject matter or technical expertise and determine when and how they will contribute to the project; source content development and design expertise and know when and how these parts will come into play, and get the timeline and level of effort right-sized to easily bridge the gap.
The work in this space also includes setting up the project for the work that is to be done. This means assembling and organizing files and other resources, making a team availability calendar, clarifying timing and timelines including external accountability or hard deadlines, making roles explicit including who contributes, who needs to be informed, primary contacts, and who manages the contract, who is accountable for the work being done, who makes the decision about direction and completion.
The more honest you are in this space, the better the project will go.
The work of understanding and scoping a project is best done as a group. You’ll need people from within the project who know about timelines, background, and context; you’ll need subject matter experts; you’ll also want someone who has instructional design expertise; you might need people with expertise specific to a delivery model such as design in lower-literacy contexts, eLearning or Learning Management Systems (LMS), use of dual facilitation or other blended learning models. The key here is that it is highly unlikely that any one person has comprehensive expertise. We are better together.
One of the biggest pitfalls is rushing through this work or trying to go it alone.
Another is starting from old information and assuming that one project is similar enough to another. Using another project’s work plan or scoping might give you some clues, but in reality, each project’s starting place and needs are quite different. Do not expect to have potential consultants develop a work plan in the bidding process. Not only is it unethical to request consultants do the work of scoping and planning prior to being contracted, but it is nearly impossible to properly scope work without seeing the actual materials and talking to the team.
It is nearly impossible for a writer/designer to properly scope work without seeing the actual materials and talking to the team. Consider an assessment or scoping contract to develop the project parameters before diving into development.
Getting to the Big Picture
This is typically the next space after scoping (or concurrent with it). This is about defining WHAT you are going to be teaching, the specific concepts, models, key ideas, definitions, and frameworks.
The work in this space is a combination of desk research and collaborative work resulting in the prioritization of concepts and a bibliography or discrete list of sources to support the development of learning based on these concepts. A preliminary sketch or outline of how concepts might be broken out across sessions or modules could also come out of this work, and be deepened in the “filling the gaps” space.
Questions that are answered in this space include what ideas will be covered? What learning materials already exist that we might build on? What new perspectives, contexts, frameworks/models or tools do we want to add or bring forward? What is our purpose in (re)creating or building on materials that already exist on these topics? What are we hoping will be achieved? What are the overall objectives?
It is also useful in either this space or during scoping to be explicit about the nature of the gap for learners. Is the gap in knowledge, skill, or motivation (or something else)?
To do this work, we find a workshop is an efficient way to bring project, design, and subject matter experts into the room at the same time.
A strong facilitation design is needed whether in person or remotely. While there are other ways to do this, in our experience trying to do this ad-hoc or asynchronously tends to have it drag on for a long time. If remote is necessary, we recommend structuring capture sessions between subject matter experts and a learning designer. If the source or reference materials have not yet been cataloged, that is also done here.
Be explicit about the nature of the gap for learners. Is the gap knowledge, skill or motivation (or something else)? Learning does not inherently lead to doing!
Filling the gaps, finding the flow
The work in this space we call hygiene.
In this space, we like to get physical. We break down materials and content into discrete elements: specific skills, concepts, messages, activities, tips, and examples. We get ideas out onto paper that we can move around — rearranging, parsing, sequencing, chunking. Sometimes we do this 4, 5, or even more times. It can overlap with shaping and developing the content; often there is a tight iterative loop between this space and the shaping space.
In this space we are looking for key “aha” moments, ultimately aiming to set the learner up to discover these ideas for themselves. We ask, “What are patterns we can use? What are the ideas we want to reinforce? Where are the natural questions?” We try on the mental model of the learner and find their flow, look for gaps that are too wide or ideas that are too big, where the learner might get discouraged, lost, or overwhelmed. We are looking to craft a learning experience that affords challenge but not overwhelms, that is supportive and interesting, and feels natural to the learner.
We need to know a lot about the learner to attend to this space.
If we didn’t already define the nature of the gap for learners, it would be critical to do so in this space. We need to know about their life and motivations, what will support their learning and what will get in the way, what are their skills and existing knowledge, and what delivery modes can we use (e.g., written, video, online, in-person, etc.). We need to know what we can reasonably expect they will be able to do or what they already know so we know how much of the content is novel, and how big the stretch is from what they currently know or do to the desired behavior or the new idea.
Once you have identified the nature of the gap, and have a good understanding of our learners, we take the concepts and begin working out what sequence they need to go in. At this stage subject matter expertise sometimes gets in the way. This is a space of patience and curiosity. You need to do work and step away from it for a while, coming back with a fresh mind.
In this space, we begin to move from looking at the whole of the learning toward looking at the session-by-session structure. Right-sizing and building. The result of this work is a fairly stable concept-level outline. However, one major pitfall of this space is to hold onto this outline too tightly. Often as content is developed at a session-by-session level the shape of the learning requires change. It is an iterative process to arrive at the right structure. If you are developing learning objectives you would develop the first iteration of those in this stage, holding them lightly as you fill in the shape of the sessions.
In this stage often metaphors begin to arise. We might hear an overall metaphor or structure for the learning.
The expertise needed here is deep knowledge of the learner and their context, the ability to quickly gain a basic understanding of subject matter, the concepts and skills, and a transdisciplinary toolbox that includes a robust understanding of how people learn, take up, and apply new ideas to their life. It also takes considerable curiosity, perseverance, and the ability to suspend subject matter expertise and take on a ‘beginner’s mind’.
Your motivation for learners is not necessarily the same as the learners’ motivation.
Giving it shape
Once you’ve got a structure, it is time to fill it in. This stage is about developing clarity at the individual lesson/session level. What are the specific concepts that will be delivered in each session? How will this material be taught? What activities or stories will bring these ideas to life? How will you demonstrate the ideas or skills? What skills need to be developed or practiced and how will this be accomplished?
What emerges from this stage of the work is a strong lesson plan. You will also develop the key messages or behavioral learning objectives, the core concepts and their definitions, and the activities, stories, and media that will help make the ideas real and relevant.
There is a substantial amount to write here to move from raw materials to content that can be shaped! What works best in this stage is a writeshop. Focused collaborative time to get clear on the specific content and key messages, develop activities, worksheets, and other tools, write stories and come to shared learner-facing definitions of core ideas. The expertise needed here is broad and the group should include subject matter experts, program staff, people with deep experience of the context (ideally frontline workers), trainers with experience with the learners in the specific settings where the program will be delivered can help reality-check and might bring creative facilitation ideas. You will need a strong facilitator and group process holder.
Some of this work can be done asynchronously, using shared documents, interviewing contextual experts to explore metaphors, elicit stories, case studies and examples, and activities or facilitation ideas that work well.
It is helpful in this stage to refer back to the source materials, particularly if there were other similar program materials such as facilitation guides or learner handbooks. There is usually an abundance of material to draw from that can inspire not only the content and concepts but also the structure, activities, and contextualization. It can also be helpful to have a small library of more general participatory facilitation guides handy as you think of creative ways to teach different ideas. Some of our favorites are included below.
The primary expertise needed here is writing, but not just any writing! We can’t stress enough how the kind of writing that is needed must match not only the teachers but the learners. This means finding a writer who knows the context of the audience, OR, writing together! Using simple, clear language is best in nearly all situations. A wide range of experiences, a rich imagination (stories!), facilitation, or teaching experience also really help bring ideas to life.
Concepts that are simple for the technical expert (frameworks in particular!) are not usually straightforward for learners.
Making it Stick (learner’s needs)
Your learning materials have some shape, you know what you are going to teach. you’ve defined what success looks like, you have key ideas mapped out across the whole in a learner-friendly pace and structure, and you might even have core content written. Now you need to begin shaping the instruction — how are you going to teach it?
This space is about clarity at the individual workshop or session level, rather than across a whole curriculum or learning program. In this space of the work, you might define a structure for sessions with repeated rituals such as opening and closing that remains similar, or you might establish a structure to the sessions so that they have a comfortable and known rhythm to them, while the specific activities and content changes.
As you design how you are going to teach, you will need to know a lot about the context for delivery and your learner. If you haven’t already defined these critical aspects, it is time to get creative with a brief! A creative brief will help you keep your focus, even as you invent new activities or develop stories, worksheets, or other tools for teaching.
It is helpful to have a very clear picture of your learner. You’ll need access to either the learners directly or strong formative research about them, or a proximate leader who can give you first-hand insights about their experience is needed. You’ll need to know what will the learner need to take in ideas, interact with them, practice new skills, and begin to apply their new knowledge? What kind of reference material, practice or structure does the learner need to move beyond working memory, reinforce learning and minimize the effects of the forgetting curve?
As you think about what kinds of materials or activities you’ll design, you’ll want to consider how they interact with written materials and what modes of learning, knowing, and sharing information do they use most? Are they professionals adding on to rich subject matter expertise or will the information be new to them? What existing knowledge or skills are you building on? The more you know about your learners, the better you can tune the learning experience to their needs, life experiences, and reference points.
As you look at what you’d like to teach and consider the learner, what activities, worksheets, media, stories, illustrations, or metaphors will bring the content to life for them? What skills will they need to practice and how will you facilitate that through the instructional design or the materials?
This space is all about asking, “what will help this learner take in this information, engage with new skills through practice, and apply this knowledge in their life?”
Think beyond the instruction to structures that might help, will you deliver it in groups, or will you use a buddy or accountability partner? How much open discussion will you have versus more “quiet” structures that are inclusive of all voices? Will you have a reference or practice materials for the learners to take home? Will you have worksheets or canvasses for structured thinking during or after the session?
What you need to know about the learner at this stage is how their brain works and what you are building on. A good grasp of neurocognition, adult learning principles, and a wealth of participatory or interactive design experience are needed here. The ability to translate technical content into contexts and right-size it for specific learners is fundamental. We find that subject matter expertise sometimes gets in the way during this phase and suggest that the focus is on design.
Be sure to budget for graphic design. This is where the meat of it is. A focus on utility means putting time and resources into visuals and layout. Good graphic design increases use.
Supporting strong facilitation
Often this step is done concurrently with instruction design. This space is about supporting great facilitation. What does your instructor/facilitator/coach/guide need to be able to learn the content and lead the sessions with fidelity to the core ideas and intention?
If you thought the writing and shaping were all done at the content stage you are missing out on how much you can do in this space to transform the ideas into teachable content and strong facilitation! There is still a lot of writing and shaping to be done to support facilitators.
Where knowing the learner is critical to designing the instruction and activities, knowing who your facilitator is, is critical to designing the guidance. Do your facilitators need to learn the core concepts in detail or are they already content area experts? Will you need reference materials, a glossary, an approach or frameworks? How will you provide tips and hints for good facilitation? Can you get away from fully scripting the guide so they are not reading but are supported in really leading engaging learning experiences?
Here you write step-by-step instructions, succinct definitions, debrief, and a discussion guide.
A well-designed overview section can help a seasoned facilitator get just what they need, quick-look references such as key concepts and definitions that are easy to find within the guide or are on a separate page can help a facilitator answer questions with the framing and definitions you’ve shaped. Visual cues can clue the facilitator to what is next, helping them move easily from one activity to the next. Overviews or lesson plans provide at-a-glance guidance, step-by-step or semi-scripted instructions can help a new facilitator understand how to bring out the core concepts through activities, stories, and dialogue.
This space also includes the visual design of the facilitator guide. Some of the things that are important to facilitators include space to write their own notes (good margins), easy visual way-finding and information hierarchy, use of tip boxes, a clear delineation of the different types of content (scripted text, step-by-step instructions, probes or debrief guides, stories, activities, definitions, etc.). This phase also includes developing any guidance specifically for the facilitator’s development.
This space is often overlooked and under-resourced. According to research conducted both by instructional design expert Karl Kapp and the Chapman Alliance, this phase of moving from content to instruction that supports learners takes a minimum of 22 hours per one hour of intended instruction, but more typically for the contexts and type of learning experience that adults need to support and motivate change, more like 185 hours of effort to shape the experience! — and that’s after the content is fully developed! Together with supporting the learner, these spaces take the longest time, particularly when aiming for engaging, interactive, or participatory learning experiences.
Expertise in this space includes an understanding of the facilitator’s context is critical, also necessary is instructional design, writing, facilitation, and creative direction for any media or materials that need to be created. Note, as with Making it Stick, subject matter expertise sometimes gets in the way during this space.
Facilitators also need to take in information in small, digestible bits. Facilitators need time and support to prepare to deliver both the content and interpersonal communication within a well designed curriculum.
Fine tuning and harmonizing
After a first full pass at drafting a full package, when we have time to harmonize and link across the whole project, the experience benefits.
This work is hands-on and best done in a small team. Printed drafts, pens for marking up, a person to scribe and manage a detailed change log, and a big space to organize piles are useful. This is an opportunity to connect the dots from one lesson to another, to make structures, definitions, wording, voice, and formatting consistent across the whole. It is also an opportunity to see linkages between sessions or sections and bring those forward, to check that the metaphors work and that the experience is paced well.
In this space, we ensure that the guide for the facilitator has strong “glue” — the introductory and overall guiding text that attends to the administrative and logistical questions, has overall facilitation tips and guidance, and answers questions like how many copies of the worksheets are needed for which sessions, what the session timing is and often also includes a note about why to use this curriculum or toolkit, it’s purpose and content.
In short, in this space, we are looking for bugs, gaps, and glitches — asking the question, “If I were facilitating, what do I need to make this a smooth experience, so that I can disappear and center the learner?”
Be sure to give this space enough time! A common pitfall is to rush through this as you speed toward piloting or testing. That can be OK when you have skilled facilitators and have a plan in place to refine or version before scaling up the implementation.
The expertise needed for this work is proofreading, editing, consistency, and quality. This work should not be done alone! A small team not only makes the work more fun but is also considerably more effective at catching errors, finding inconsistencies, and seeing where to connect the dots.
Don’t forget …the “glue!” The wrap-around text holds everything together. This introductory and guiding text outlines the purpose and content of the curriculum, has overall facilitation tips and guidance, and attends to the administrative and detailed logistical questions like how many copies of the worksheets are needed for which sessions, the session timing, etc.
Designing learning, then learning more
This space is one of the most important, and it is never ending. We are never really done with a learning project! Subject matter keeps evolving, and it takes a conscious (and planned!) effort to keep the materials relevant and up to date. As the materials are used, feedback helps us understand what is working and what needs to be changed. And, different contexts bring new challenges, adaptations, and learning. There is always an opportunity to respond and revise.
What is helpful when developing learning materials or a learning experience is to hold two seemingly conflicting principles at once: 1) there will always be something to improve, and 2) we can take imperfect action and hold the current version with some levity and grace. It is true that there is always something we can fix, change, adapt, revise, refine or update.
Learning projects, particularly the longer and more complex ones, are ever evolving and are a practice of seeking excellence while holding on to imperfection. You could catch typos and inconsistencies, adjust illustrations and graphics, and even update core concepts on a nearly continual basis, but that doesn’t serve anyone well. Creating a versioning schedule, developing a change log, and prioritizing changes at each stage (while holding on to a complete list of desired revisions) will not only lead to a stronger product, but to a healthier, more productive team.
Revisions are expensive, especially when they are done on a continual or rolling basis. In your work planning set up specific opportunities for taking in feedback on content, facilitation (instruction), layout, and fine tuning. Use training and piloting as opportunities to smooth out the snags.
Once you have a smooth product, consider how you will version it, how often you’ll make changes, who will be part of that process, and where all of the files will be maintained. Create a structure for capturing learning from training, piloting, and implementing asking what works, doesn’t work as expected, and what should change.
This space is about defining the lifecycle of the learning materials. In this space, you might also consider ways to keep the files available beyond the project funding. Where will the materials be hosted? Who will maintain them? How will they be updated? How will new versions — such as a new contextualization or new language — be added?
It is helpful here to talk to funders, and look for repositories and compendiums of materials. Be sure that materials will remain available by having them on more than one site or platform.
Create a structure to share and gather feedback from implementers over time.
A few favorite resources
We draw on a wide range of resources and ideas around crafting learning experiences. From the world of UX (user experience), adult experiential education, learner- and learning-centered approaches, facilitation and group process work, and doing creative work together (co-creation, participatory design), we draw on promising practices and engaging design and meaning-making processes. We are always looking at the margins and across silos for new-to-us ideas and perspectives and for transdisciplinary tools. Here are a few of our favorites.
Picture Impact is a women-owned company working at the crossroads of evaluation, strategy, and design. Our approach is complexity-aware, people-centered, and utilization-focused. Our work is wide-ranging in subject matter and spans a range of contexts, subjects, and purposes, most often in service of change at the individual and community level.
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