Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

10 September 2014

Learning Engineering

Clark @ 8:37 am

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural meeting of the Global Learning Council.  While not really global in either sense (little representation from overseas nor from segments other than higher ed), it was a chance to refresh myself in some rigor around learning sciences. And one thing that struck me was folks talking about learning engineering.

If we take the analogy from regular science and engineering, we are talking about taking the research from the learning sciences, and applying it to the design of solutions.  And this sounds like a good thing, with some caveats.  When talking about the Serious eLearning Manifesto, for example, we’re talking about principles that should be embedded in your learning design approach.

While the intention was not to provide coverage of learning science, several points emerged at one point or another as research-based outcomes to be desired. For one, the value of models in learning.  Another was, of course, the value of spacing practice. The list goes on.  The focus of the engineering, however, is different.

While it wasn’t an explicit topic of the talk, it emerged in several side conversations, but the focus is on design processes and tools that increase the likelihood of creating effective learning practices.  This includes doing a suitable job of creating aligned outcomes through processes of working with SMEs, identifying misconceptions to be addressed, ensuring activities are designed that have learners appropriately processing and applying information, appropriate spread of examples, and more.

Of course, developing an accurate course for any topic is a thorough exercise.  Which is desirable, but not always pragmatic.  While the full rigor of science would go as far as adaptive intelligent tutoring systems, the amount of work to do so can be prohibitive under pragmatic constraints.  It takes a high importance and large potential audience to do this for other than research purposes.

In other cases, we use heuristics.  Sometimes we go too far; so just dumping information and adding a quiz is often seen, though that’s got little likelihood of having any impact.  Even if we do create an appropriate practice, we might only have learners practice until they get it right, not until they can’t get it wrong.

Finding the balance point is an ongoing effort. I reckon that the elements of good design is a starting point, but you need processes that are manageable, repeatable, and scalable.  You need structures to help, including representations that have support for identifying key elements and make it difficult to ignore the important elements.  You ideally have aligned tools that make it easy to do the right things.

And if this is what Learning Engineering can be, systematically applying learning science to design, I reckon there’s also a study of learning science engineering, aligning not just the learning, but the design process, with how we think, work, and learn.  And maybe then there’s a learning architecture as well – where just as an architect designs the basic look and feel of the halls & rooms and the engineers build them – that designs the curriculum approach and the pedagogy, but the learning engineers follow through on those principles for developing courses.

Is learning engineering an alternative to instructional design?  I’m wondering if the focus on engineering rather than design (applied science, rather than art) and learning rather than instruction (outcomes, not process), is a better characterization.  What do you think?

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