Designing for Agile Learning

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Agile Learning Design:

Ban Clippy

The third concept of PODSI (Plan, Orientate, Design, Select, & Iterate) is Learning Design to facilitate interactions between humans and content in order to increase performance. It accomplishes "interactions" through the use of "awareness" that not only allows the content to sense and respond to the learners, such as feedback and guiding them to their next learning need; but also allowing the learners to sense and respond to the content; and as was noted during a Twitter conversation (with @usable learning and @Kathysierra), "the awareness should be more like Amazon's Lists rather than Clippy." Note that the definition is based somewhat on Safer's (2007) definition of interaction design.

The Texture of Wine

Agile Design captures the texture & nuance of learning

Almost anyone can produce content but it takes a good Learning Designer to add awareness. It is also contextual in that it facilitates specific performance problems under a specific set of circumstances — my solution may not work for a similar problem. The end goal is to produce adaptive, agile thinkers, competent to perform within a dynamic working environment (Mark ley, 2006). While Learning Design is mostly art, it does has best practices.

Learning Design does not align itself with any one medium or technology, rather it is only concerned with the correct technology that aids in the learning/performance solution. Thus, it might be compared to distributed Learning (dL) that relies primarily on indirect communication between learners and instructors that allows the learners to learn at different times, at their own pace, as well as in different places. The old way of spelling the acronym was "DL", however this emphasized delivery method and learning equally, thus the correct acronym is now "dL", which emphasizes Learning without focus on delivery (Markley, 2006). That is, it uses face-to-face instruction when it makes sense.

Techniques to Learning Design

While there are specific methodologies for creating learning or instructional design, such as ISD, ADDIE, and van Merriënboer's 4C/ID Model; there are four design lenses or techniques that provide a means for viewing the overall structure of a specific learning design:

1. Performance-Centered Design

Focuses on the tasks that are composed of actions and decisions that the learners need to perform. A Learning Designer uses an Exemplary Performer as a model and then they build the instructional content and add awareness to it.

2. Guru Design

Focuses on the skills and knowledge of experts (SMEs), in which the designer may or may not be the guru. A Learning Designer uses one or more SMEs as knowledge sources and then they build the instructional content and add awareness to it.

3. Learner-Centered Design

Focuses on the needs and goals of the learners who guide the design; while the Learning Designer aids with the content and awareness. This is somewhat similar to user-centered design that is based on the concept that the people who use a product or service know what their needs, preferences, and goals are, thus they and the Learning Designer collaborate throughout every stage of the Agile Design process to build the content and awareness. It should be noted that the vast majority of so called "Learner-Centered Designs" out there are based on the other three design techniques because they are focused on what others thought the needs and goals of the learners should be, not what the learners thought they should be.

4. System Design

System Design focuses on the system's inputs, outputs, processes, feedback loops, goals, etc. to guide the design.

Specialty Designs (subset)

This includes ISD or ADDIE, which is basically a combination of Performance, Guru, and System Design, but normally little or no Learner-Centered Design (not because the model won't let you, but because the designers fail to). It also includes the micro-instructional designs, such a van Merriënboer's 4C/ID Model that focuses on task specific skills.

"The answer is, there's an infinite number of answers." - Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls

Almost no Learning Design project is accomplished through just one of the four approaches or subsets, but is normally a mixture of them, with one of them being the primary approach to design. For example, a Learner-Centered Design might perform System Design and call on experts or gurus to help with the design; while a Performance Design might include some System Design, in addition to using Merriënboer's 4C/ID for some specialty tasks.

Plug and Play with ISD

So just as you can "plug and play" different tools or methods into ISD, you also plug these tools into an Agile Learning Design so that rather than working with a tool box that only contains a hammer, you work with a full set of tools that compliments the learning platform in order to fast-track and retain learning.

Learning Design Approaches & Orientation

The source of where you get the content (Exemplary Performers, Expert Performers, SMEs, and/or Learners/Performers) as discussed in the last post clues you to the level of complexity of the design environment, which in turn tells you the primary design approach:

  • Exemplary Performers → Simple Environment → Performance-Centered Design
  • Expert Performers → Complicated Environment → Guru Design
  • SMEs & Learners/Performers → Complex Environment → Learner-Centered Design
  • Learners/Performers & managers → Chaotic Environment → System Design

Or which could be pictured as:

Complexity and Design

Click to enlarge

Being able to locate the correct level of complexity of the environment tells you the main design approach to take:

Simple Design Environment - SCR

Sense by using a collaborative process to create shared awareness and understanding of each team member's perspectives in order to create a mental model of the learning problem so that the correct decision-making can be performed.

You know you are in a simple learning design environment when you have Exemplary Performers who role model the required performance while you observe and categorize into tasks, skills, knowledge, and performance steps.

You respond by applying best practices such as creating learning objectives through a series of If/Then statements:

If we want to increase sales of our new service, then the sales representatives need to be able to perform an effective sales presentation. If we want them to perform the presentation, then they need to learn these skills __________, __________, and __________ (skills are categorized by observing the Exemplary Performers role modeling). If they need to perform these skills, then they will require this knowledge __________, __________, and __________ (knowledge is categorized by interviewing the Exemplary Performers role modeling).

This series of If/Then statements can also be visualized by using Performance or Action mapping as Catchy Moore shows in this slide presentation:

Complicated Design Environment - SAR

Sense by using a collaborative process to create shared awareness and understanding of each team member's perspectives in order to create a mental model of the learning problem so that the correct decision-making can be made.

A complicated learning design environment is similar to a simple learning design environment except rather than having Exemplary Performers who you observe, you have SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), who you interview and ask questions in order to analyze their responses.

You then respond by discovering patterns in their responses and transforming the information into good practices. And normally the only way to determine if it is indeed a "good practice" is through a series of iterations. Thus while a simple environment will only require a few iterations, a complicated environment will require several more.

Complex Design Environment - PSR

Since there are no Exemplary Performers to observe or SMEs to interview, the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, thus the approach is to probe through deep collaboration among the learners, managers, and designers, such as telling stories about what they are experiencing (narratives). It is often helpful to look at the system and processes by starting with the output and working backwards through them in order see what to discuss (collaborate) and if it will help with the solution. Thus the primary design approach is Learner-Centered with the learners fulfilling the roles of SMEs, with perhaps some System Design added in. In addition, you can use a processes similar to the method Joe Deegan describes in his blog post, Project Based Learning in 3 Steps.

This probing effect should start to paint a picture or pattern that allows you to sense an "emergent practice" that can be responded to by designing and then implementing a solution based on the observed pattern. Since this will be a new practice, it will more than likely have to go though several rounds of iterations to arrive at the "emergent" practice.

Chaotic Design Environment - ASR

Since there is no relationship between cause and effect that the team (learners, managers, and designers) can agree upon, you will need to look at the system and processes by starting with the output and working backwards in order see what you can act upon. This might seem similar to a Complex Environment, but with a Chaotic Environment you are basically taking guesses of what to do (perhaps educated ones), while with a Complex Environment you are seeing patterns and getting an "Aha! moment" — this will work.

Once the change has been implemented, sense the environment again and see if the team can now agree upon the correct level of complexity. If not repeat the process with a new "act" until an agreement can be made.

By forcing changes into the chaotic environment you eventually push it into one of the other three domains. At this point a pattern should emerge that will allow the team to correctly identify the environment (more than likely a Complex Environment), thus you can now respond with one of the above three approaches.

The Complexity of Design Approaches

Knowing which design environment you are in helps with the planning by, 1) informing you of the number of design approaches that will be involved, and 2) estimating the number of iterations that will be needed.

1. As the level of complexity increases, the number of design approaches to solve the problem correspondly increases; however, there will normally be one major design approach. This will give you an idea of the scope of the design solution that you will be working in:

Complexity and Design Approaches

2. As the level of complexity increases, the number of iterations to reach a "good-enough" level correspondly increases. This will give you an idea of the number of iterations that will be needed:

Complexity and Interations

Up Next

The design concept creates the basic plan for carrying out the Selection and development of learning objects for a dL platform, which will be covered in the next post. And while selection might seem rather mundane at first, it's more or less the heart of Agile Design.


Markley, J., 2006. The Army Distributed Learning Program. Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC): presentation given at the U.S. Army Courseware Conference March, 14, 2006. Retrieved No, 2, 2009: http://wow.tradoc.army.mil/tadlp/presentations/dlcwconf06.pp3

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