Breaking the mould:
Why traditional learning design fails to scale
To be clear, when I refer to scale, I don’t mean designing a course or learning experience for a lot of learners. A quick google search suggests the answer to that challenge is either a MOOC or a large well-ventilated lecture hall. For the absence of doubt, I’m not suggesting learning design for a large cohort doesn’t require careful thought and very intentional design. It’s often done well, but more often done once, rinsed, and repeated in terms of the learning design process. The challenge I’m referring to here arises when course A for example, includes excellent content on, let’s say, probability. A subsequent client requests a different program, but it should also include content on probability. We’ll just reuse the existing topic, right? How hard can it be? The answer would seem to be - hard enough, hence the lack of a contemporary and scalable approach to the learning design process.
Why is scale important?
In the fast-paced world of learning and development, providing relevant and effective employee upskill/reskill opportunities is a perpetual challenge. As organisations grapple with how to adapt to a rapidly evolving future of work and supporting large numbers of employees to develop new skillsets, the need for scalable learning solutions has never been more important. However, despite the best intentions, many organisations find that their current learning development processes simply don't scale. In this blog, I'll explore the reasons behind this common dilemma and how to address it.
So what’s the problem? If you’ve ever got to the last stages of completing a jigsaw only to find that the remaining pieces are from a different puzzle, you’ll recognise the frustration of trying to reuse learning content that has not been architected for scale. Putting together content blocks with inconsistent use of tone, approach, length, graphics and instructional signposting invariably ends with a substandard user experience and comes at a significant organisational cost to remediate. Some specific challenges include the following:
1. Lack of standardisation One significant challenge in scaling learning development is the absence of standardised processes. Many organisations still rely on ad-hoc methods for creating learning content. This inconsistency leads to inefficiencies, as learning designers reinvent the wheel with each new project. Without standardised templates, guidelines, and best practices in both input and output, scaling is an uphill battle.
2. Resource intensiveness Traditional learning design and development often demands extensive resources, including subject matter experts, instructional designers, graphic artists, and technical writers. Securing these resources for each new learning initiative becomes increasingly challenging and expensive. The resource-intensive nature of repeating this process unnecessarily hinders scalability.
3. Lengthy development cycles Learning design often involves long development cycles. These extended timelines can't keep up with the rapid pace of change in the modern business world. By the time a course is ready, its content may be outdated, or the need passed, making it a poor investment of resources.
4. Inflexible content Traditional online learning development often results in rigid, non-adaptive content, unable to be reused in any context outside its original scope. This one-size-fits-all approach doesn't account for the diverse needs, preferences, and learning paces of today's workforce. As organisations grow and diversify, this inflexibility becomes a significant roadblock to effective learning. The ability to design at scale while still meeting unique organisational needs is a key challenge for scaling learning design.
5. Resource intensive assessment Many traditional learning development methods focus on traditional assessment strategies that require significant resources to provide timely and meaningful feedback. Careful design is needed to maintain the necessary academic rigour to assess learning outcomes balanced with the resources necessary to enable this to happen at scale. Assessment design at scale may not be feasible using outdated processes.
6. Maintenance challenges Once a learning program is developed, it requires ongoing maintenance and updates to remain relevant. Traditional processes often make this maintenance a complex and time-consuming task, with multiple locations and no single source of truth. As the volume of learning content increases, keeping everything up to date becomes an overwhelming burden.
7. Poor integration with technology or over reliance on specific technology
In today's digital age, technology plays a crucial role in learning and development. Legacy learning development processes may not effectively integrate with modern technology platforms, such as Learning Management Systems (LMS) or online learning tools. Conversely, some learning design processes are inextricably linked to authoring tools that are attractive to learning designers because of their WYSIWYG and graphic design functionality, but they limit reuse and the ability to deliver in a technology agnostic way. This seriously limits the scalability of learning initiatives.
8. Limited analytics and feedback loops To scale effectively, organisations need data-driven insights into the impact of their learning programs. Traditional learning design processes often lack the mechanisms for collecting and analysing data on learner performance and program effectiveness in a systematic and scalable way. This absence of manageable feedback loops inhibits the ability to iterate and improve over time.
9. Misalignment between team expectations and organisational needs
A noticeable misalignment exists between the roles and responsibilities of ‘traditional’ learning designers who are accustomed to involvement in an end-to-end approach compared to the pressing need for more agile and contemporary processes that prioritise scale. As the world of work and learning evolves, there is a growing urgency for learning designers to adapt, embrace modern tools and technologies, and transition to agile processes that facilitate scaling while maintaining quality learning experiences and continuing to meet client needs. This misalignment underscores the imperative for a paradigm shift in the field of learning design, where scalability, flexibility, consistency of approach and responsiveness to change are central, to keep pace with the dynamic needs of contemporary organisations and learners.
Addressing the scaling challenge
To overcome the limitations of current learning development processes, organisations must embrace a new paradigm of scalable learning design. This approach involves:
Standardisation Establish standardised templates, guidelines, and best practices to streamline the development process.
Leveraging technology Invest in or build modern learning technologies that facilitate content creation, management, analytics and delivery at scale that is agnostic to specific platforms or tools
Agile development and assembly line approach Adopt agile methodologies to shorten development cycles and increase responsiveness to changing need. Create demarcation between learning design and production responsibilities to streamline development timelines and establish production lines for tracking, development and QA
Assessment Create assessment tasks that leverage technology to provide fast and scalable learner feedback
Content storage and tagging Create tagging and storage processes that facilitate easy identification of existing resources
Content maintenance Implement systems for ongoing content maintenance and updates.
Analytics and feedback Leverage data and feedback mechanisms to continuously evaluate and improve learning programs.
Training and development Scaling the learning design process successfully requires a capable team. Invest in training and development for your instructional designers and content creators to ensure they are aligned on your approach and are up to date with the latest learning design trends and tools.
One of my first projects as a newly minted learning designer was a large university wide Modularisation Project. It promised the holy grail - reusable learning resources. In an effort to speed up delivery and reduce resources spent on redeveloping content to be redeployed to successive cohorts and clients, every online course was to be redesigned into a consistent format of same sized content ‘chunks’ and tagged for ease of reuse. The theory was embraced far more wholeheartedly than the reality and the holy grail remains elusive. Several decades later and countless versions of “Communication for Business” and “How to Use APA Referencing” courses later, the proverbial nut of a scalable learning design process remains uncracked.
Scaling the learning design process is a strategic imperative for organisations looking to remain agile and competitive in today's evolving landscape however, the current processes used for learning developers often fall short when it comes to scalability. To meet the demands of a rapidly evolving business environment and a diverse workforce, organisations must rethink their approach to learning design. By addressing the shortcomings of traditional processes and embracing a more agile, technology-driven, and learner-centric model, organisations can successfully scale their learning initiatives and drive meaningful, long-term impact.
Remember, scaling is a journey, not a destination, and the key is to stay flexible, adaptive, and responsive to the ever-changing needs of your organisation and learners.