Thursday, July 8, 2021

What learning designers should learn

Keith Heggart
Camille Dickson-Deane
Keith Heggart and Camille Dickson-Deane have published an important paper on the rationale behind the UTS Graduate Certificate in Learning Design (Heggart & Dickson-Deane, 2021). This is valuable, as the authors not only make the case for there being a need for a course in learning design, but also show they applied a rigorous, systematic process to design it. This is not one of those depressingly common examples of academics telling others to do something, these are practitioners actually doing what they say: an excellent example of dogfooding (Harrison, 2006).

The authors point out that while learning designers are in demand worldwide and in Australia, it would help to clarify what they actually do. Also they point out that COVID-19 has promoted universities to make their teaching more efficient. However, I question if this result in a demand for staff who have specific digital and learning design qualifications. While the vocational sector routinely requires formal educational qualifications of staff, Australian universities have not.

The authors discuss the differences between a learning designer and a teacher. It seems to me that teachers and learning designers are both educators. It is likely a typical learning designer will have some teaching experience and qualifications. It terms of design skills, I have found that learning design has much in common with the design of computer software. There is the same need to collect user requirements, undertake a systematic process, do tests and provide maintenance.

The authors claim there were no programs explicitly addressing learning design before theirs. That is perhaps overstating the situation, as there have been many graduate certificates and masters programs in education, which offered learning design as a component (I did one at ANU including content from USQ). 

The authors also suggest universities could not quickly train learning designers. However, while they may not have programs called "learning design", they could easily assemble one, if needed, from existing components. Australian universities could follow Athabasca University's example, and  re-badge their existing education qualifications. In 2017 I completed a MEd in Distance Education at AU. This year they decided to add "Open, Online and Distance Education" and I paid a few dollars for a new certificate. Australian universities could similarly add learning design, to their Grad Certs and MEds.

The authors have detailed an approach to designing a program for learning designers which I suggest could be a good model for other Australian qualifications. In particular an emphasis on "Flexibility in delivery and progression". Unfortunately Australian universities have offered program mostly on the assumption the typical student is studying full time, with no other commitments. Part time students are treated as a special case. As the authors suggest students "have a number of competing life commitments, (e.g., work and caring responsibilities).". Even with COVID-19 forcing learning online, and students to extend their studies, many academics and administrators appear to be longing to return to a simpler time, when they did not need to bother worrying about the messy details of student's lives.

Another point the authors make is the importance of "communication and collaboration skills". As a student of education I feared communication exercises and especially group work (my students also don't like it),  but these are necessary skills which you can only get through practice. 

The authors also have tacked the difficult issue of microcredentials. In this case a program has been assembled from components half the usual size, each badged as a microcredential of  60 to 75 hours  learning. This I suggest is a very workable strategy. It should be noted that this is not a case of saying that students can just do any random collection of micro-credentials and that makes up a program. The students have to choose from a specific set, designed to form a coherent whole.

One point I disagree with is the authors assertion that the reflective portfolio undertaken could be presented to employers. As a student I have had to undertake reflective portfolio exercises several times (using Lego, as well as portfolio software). But these portfolios have never been of use for employment. I still have a large physical folder with examples of my work, from a pre-computer portfolio exercise. I now teach students using portfolios and also assess portfolios for one of the international recognition schemes, but these portfolios are no of use for more than this assessment task. The one exception is the ANU Techlauncher program, where the student is explicitly instructed to choose a a real job advertisement and then write their portfolio in the form of an application for that job.


Harrison, W. (2006). Eating your own dog food. IEEE Software, 23(3), 5-7. Retrieved from

Heggart, K., Dickson-Deane, C. What should learning designers learn?J Comput High Educ (2021).

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