Learning designers’ experiences: preliminary findings around adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic

Students working on laptops

The COVID-19 pandemic and consequent restrictions have forced higher education providers to make an emergency shift to online teaching and learning. It is already documented that in adapting to online learning certain stakeholders, including educators and students, have experienced increased workload and associated stress and challenges (Cutri, Mena, & Whiting, 2020; del Arco, Silva, & Flores, 2021; Marek, Chew, & Wu, 2021). The missing segment is how learning designers and their work have been impacted by the pandemic. The emerging research shows that learning design practitioners had to adapt innovative ways of approaching learning design tasks (see, for instance, Fujita, 2020). To understand what was involved in their adaptation to the pandemic working environment, we interviewed seven learning designers working at different educational levels and in various geographical zones. We asked them about their work during the pandemic, the challenges they had faced, and the valuable lessons they had learned.

This article reports preliminary results of the ESRC-funded project conducted as a part of the ESRC Accelerating Business Collaboration 2020 initiative. The full findings will be reported by a primary investigator (Olga Rotar) and a co-investigator (Carin Peller-Semmens) in subsequent publications. The project has been reviewed and approved by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Lancaster Management School Research Ethics Committee.

The discussions indicated that although learning designers were ready to innovate and problem solve, the transition has not been smooth. Instead, tight timelines and an accelerated pace of work meant that learning designers had to take on new, significantly expanded responsibilities and adopt new ways of thinking about the design process. As a result of the adaptation to the emergency design process, the salient concerns expressed by the learning designers coalesced around the development of quality learning experiences for a new target audience of students, the need to re-think online assessment, and barriers to communication with educators. In addition, our participants emphasised the weakness of the partnership between learning designers and educators alongside a surprising lack of understanding of the specificity of online pedagogy amongst educators.

Learning designers highlighted elements of online teaching and learning design that have been positively received by educators and students and that are likely to stay after the pandemic. An example here is using rapid prototyping techniques and templates to provide a more comprehensive and flexible approach to designing online and blended programmes. In short, the approach to designing learning experiences needs to be highly adaptable to different formats such as the inclusion of various asynchronous elements in all educational programmes or courses in the future. Another potential development emphasised by one of our study participants is the design of human-computer interactions for educational purposes that will rely on behavioural data, shifting learning designers’ roles towards engineering.

Despite the increasing presence of technology in education, there is a need to think beyond technological solutions. One suggested way forward was to create learning platforms that ensure human presence and tell students a story. To the surprise of the learning designers, both pre-recorded videos and small group discussions have been well-received by students. These elements allowed more time for preparation and resulted in less transactional interactions in the classroom. This combination of video lectures and meaningful interpersonal communication reinforces the importance of the human component in blended and especially fully online programmes.

Lastly, the role of learning designers transformed from being a behind the scenes actor to an agent of change, with more responsibility and a need to be involved in the decision-making process at higher levels. Learning designers in this study understand that uncharted territory offered unlimited opportunities for innovation and experimentation with learning technologies and pedagogies. However, being a single warrior is not easy. Integration of learning designers’ expertise into an educational design process from the onset is a formula for a successful partnership with educators. Furthermore, a clear need emerged for a professional networking body that hosts events and conferences for ongoing communications, development, knowledge, and experience exchange among learning designers and other stakeholders. Although well-established for educators, this is not established for the professional community of learning designers.

This study showed that learning designers as individuals embedded behind the educational provision can tell us a lot about potential technological, pedagogical, and communicative barriers standing in the way of the design process. From them, we can learn alternative and innovative ways to approach learning design agendas.

Olga Rotar

About the author

Olga Rotar is a Research Consultant for the FASS, Lancaster University, and an affiliated consultant with insendi, where she co-leads an ESRC-funded project that aims to examine the experiences of being a learning designer during the pandemic, in addition to the longer term impacts of the acceleration of online learning holds for learning designers.

Olga completed a research degree programme in National Economy at the Saint-Petersburg State University of Civil Aviation, Russia, and holds a Masters in Finance from the Saint-Petersburg State University of Economics. Olga’s PhD, conducted at Lancaster University, focused on experiences of learning and conceptualisations of success among the adult student population in online postgraduate programmes. Her additional research interests include online learning in higher education and economics of education.