Often, I hear uncertainty about the future framed as a debate around how people learn. There is ongoing speculation — by training and development experts within organizations as a conversation among leadership, HR, and learning and development teams — as to whether technology, remote work, and current conditions have changed the way people learn and process information. Training and development initiatives are influenced by this conversation in an attempt to make the learner experience more effective and engaging.
In the learning and development community, I often hear musings that the debate is between the use of classical instructional design or learning experience design to meet the needs of a changing learning audience.
How Learning Pedagogy Hasn’t Changed
During my experience as the CEO of a training and development organization for global and Fortune 500 companies, I have been immersed in both the theory and day-to-day of this debate. Based on my ongoing experiences with learning design and development, I can tell you that the differences between instructional design and learning experience design can be summed up in a single word: semantics. Or at least, the differences between the two can be understood to come from more of an evolution of instructional design.
That isn’t a dismissal of the very real concerns behind the question. It’s valuable to revisit and reexamine our practices because it inspires those of us committed to effective learning, training, and development to recommit to human-centered design, which, for many of us, was our core motivation for getting into this profession. This discussion is also useful for business leaders as they strive to make good decisions for their workforce, provide the best in talent development, and foster a culture of learning and upskilling in their organizations.
So, let’s discuss the differences, and let’s begin our discussion by defining our terms.
The definition of instructional design does a lot of heavy lifting. It’s the high-level, big-picture term used to mean all of the theories, processes, and best practices that go into creating instructional materials to educate adult learners in training and development programs. I could dive deeply into the historical context of the conditions that created the discipline of instructional design in the mid-20th century, but suffice it to say, it evolved quickly from an engineered approach to system design toward a methodology entrenched in cognitive change theory.
Learning experience design is commonly defined as “the process of creating learning experiences that enable the learner to achieve the desired learning outcome in a human-centered and goal-oriented way.” As the name implies, it puts the learner’s needs, experiences, and goals at the center of the process.
It would be fair to say that both approaches are concerned with creating optimal, effective conditions for training and development. In both methodologies, the learner is the ultimate arbiter of success and remains the main focus of the designer.
Most training and development experts believe that good instructional design and courseware development scaffolds the learner with experiences rooted in the content and context they need for the tasks they must face. This is important for organizations, as well. Beyond the debate on these two terms, good learning is experiential and relevant to the learner. Therefore, the debate between instructional design vs. learning experience design is moot to an extent. A comparison of the two modes largely becomes a discussion of the importance of human-centered, experience-based learning and how we deliver those experiences.
What Matters in Training and Development
I would suggest that the change in how we educate is more rooted in the flexibility we have with technology and changes in lifestyle to impact the following:
- WHERE we learn: In classrooms? Online? From peers? On the job?
- WHEN we learn: At our own pace? On a schedule determined by formal instruction?
- WHY: Are we motivated intrinsically or extrinsically?
- HOW: Are we passive or active in how we engage with content? How much are we practicing or gaining mastery through repetition or reinforcement?
If seeking a new approach or framework for discussion, we must address the change in lifestyle and technology that impacts our lives. The “when, where, and how” of this generation of learners is vastly different than those of any of the previous generations we have had to train. When seen through these lenses, both experiential and instructional design can equally accommodate these changes.
However, while we enjoy a larger toolbox, much has stayed the same in terms of the “why.” Although learners have more resources than ever at their disposal for learning, the basics haven’t changed. Cognitive processes and motivations aren’t changing. Humans are social learners, context is important and learning must be practicable to be engaging and effective.
Accordingly, while we seek new definitions of “how” we learn, we must accept that the needs of learners have not changed fundamentally. The principles of training and development that guide the design of learning instruction have remained consistent.
What Does This Mean for Organizations?
Knowing that delivery methods are changing, but understanding the basics of human learning are constant, I suggest the following to ensure successful learning design within client organizations:
- Design with equity in mind, as on its own, this is a great way to address the motivation of your learners.
- Offer more digital training options that hit a broader audience in your learner population.
- Use easily accessible resources, job aids, and guides to allow learners to view content while working to raise the situational relevance, meeting the learner at the right place and the right time.
- Add social and interactive elements to your training, but don’t overload the attention span of your audience.
Lastly, remember that refreshing your content creates a chance to innovate. Whether done internally or with an outside vendor, a redesign for a fresh perspective on your learning solution is always desirable to meet the new needs of the workplace.
By Ron Zamir