What’s in a Name Part 2: Digital Learning Engineers

Following on from What’s in a Name Part 1: Learning Designers

This blog post is structured as Frequently Asked Questions and Responses, from the author’s perspective. These responses are informed by the authors’ 25+ years of experience as an academic in two countries, her PhD and research in education, her role as Director of central learning and teaching units across nearly twelve years and two universities, and being a mother to two current university students (at two different universities – one F2F, one online). 

1. If we could agree on a single job title across universities, for clarity, focus, occupational development and ease of communication, what would that title be? 

I propose – Digital Learning Engineers

Why not Learning Designers? First, there is confusion in this role, in that some universities using the term “learning” only for student-facing roles. Second, I do not believe that the term clearly conveys the importance of this role. In other words, the title does not immediately acknowledge the expertise (selection criteria) required by staff in these positions, nor the innovative role.  

In previous generations (and remaining in some countries), these roles were commonly known as Instructional Designers. In some ways, this title was more descriptive, in that it was immediately evident that the primary function was to plan and create educational materials and interfaces. However, the term instruction connotes a transmissive experience, where information is passed from the teacher to the student. This is inconsistent with the contemporary paradigm, whereby students are acknowledged as informed others, who co-construct knowledge. Teaching is loosely defined as activities which support students to learn (not limited to instruction). 

digital learning engineering

My rationale for Digital Learning Engineers? I will start with a metaphor. Digital Learning Engineers do the equivalent of ensuring that, as a society, we are not continuing to use dunnies (drop toilets) and candles, when flush toilets and electrical switches are readily available. Digital Learning Engineers have an expertise in contemporary learning and teaching approaches. They harness the power of digital media and technology enabled/enhanced approaches to learning and teaching. For example, they help move education beyond lecturing for three-hour blocks, video-recording those lectures, and posting them online, followed by multiple-choice exams. Digital Learning Engineers support teachers to chunk content into themed modules and intersperse with formative assessment and active learning exercises. Digital Learning Engineers pay attention to what students are doing throughout the designed learning experience, and bring-in Students as Partners, Co-curricular Learning Experiences and Work-Integrated Learning.  

Regardless of the type of engineering specialisation (e.g. mechanical, electrical, civil) engineers have a deep and expansive knowledge of, and skills associated with, relevant technologies. They apply this knowledge and these skills to assess challenges and solve problems. They design and project manage. 

Digital Learning Engineers observe, audit and review learning and teaching approaches. They consider the challenges and problems of particular student cohorts in specific disciplines. They apply their expertise to design solutions. They consult and project manage. They have positive impact on student and graduate transition, achievement, engagement and success.  

2. In the context of learning and teaching design, and the contributions of designers, what is the difference between outcomes and impact? 

Outcomes can be thought of as output. What designers did or made and how many. For example, how many courses (units or subjects) were redesigned? How many workshops were run and how many people attended each? What were the evaluation scores of those workshops? 

Impact is what changed and what problems were solved. Think about the matters that inspired the work to begin with. For example, are a large number of first year students in a particular discipline and/or cohort withdrawing and not continuing to second year? Are a large proportion of students failing? Is this more prevalent in particular student cohorts (e.g. first-in-family, low socio-economic status)? Is the university attracting, engaging and retaining students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities? What about international students? Are they thriving once they have arrived in Australia and commenced their studies? Are they successfully launching careers upon graduation? How is student engagement? What about teacher engagement? How is that measured?  

To determine impact, designers need to analyse the change in the data before (baseline) and after the design work. Were the problems solved? Has student/graduate retention, engagement, achievement and employment improved? 

3. How can designers (and universities overall) define and measure student engagement? 

Let’s play Freudian for a moment. When we say the word engaged, outside the education context, the first context that comes to mind is engaged to be married. This is an apt place to begin definition. What are the two people promising one another when they get engaged? They are promising one another, that they will spend time together, or in a single word, participation. They are promising commitment and loyalty. They will be true to one another.  

This operational definition of engagement smoothly translates to student engagement. Engagement within the educational context must be reciprocal. Engagement is a promise, and a series of actions, between students and the teacher. If teachers expect students to engage, then they must also engage.  

Student engagement means that students actively participate in the learning experience. They come on campus and/or go online regularly. They do the readings. They contribute to the conversations. Engaged students commit. They go beyond the minimum. They think, apply and process. They say Yes to opportunities. They are loyal to the learning experience, in that they make university studies a priority. They develop an identity as student and that identity is associated with their particular university.  

How can student engagement be measured? One way is by tracking completions of interactive learning activities. Remember, in order for students to participate in these learning activities, the teacher (often with the support of a designer) has had to engage to create them, and participation is higher when the teacher is also in the space with the students. Student engagement can also be measured by the percentage of students who completed formative assessment. Again, the formative assessment has to exist for students to complete it. Teachers also need to engage to close-the-loop and use the results of the formative assessment outcomes to shape the curricular response and responsive teaching activities. Student engagement can also be measured by the student completion of student evaluation of teaching surveys (and what the scores and comments indicate about student satisfaction). Student survey completion is a proxy of overall student engagement. Students (as do human beings in any role) engage when they expect positive outcomes/consequences of that engagement. How will doing this benefit the individual? Specifically, if students are going to complete evaluation surveys, they have to believe that improvements are going to be made on the basis of their feedback. 

Student engagement is highest among universities where students are actively invited and authentically partnered-with, in the learning experience. Students should be invited to be a major voice in the educational experience. Students are also far more likely to engage when engagement is reciprocal, and in other words, the staff are engaged. Designers play a key role in heightening engagement as process and outcomes/impact.

4. Which questions about the Learning Management System (LMS) should go to designers and which to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) staff? 

This is a common structural dilemma within universities. Who is the business owner of the LMS? Should it be the central Learning and Teaching Unit (LTU) or ICT? Where should help-desk personnel be located?  

Education/pedagogy by stealth serves as a strong rationale for being generous to the side of routing LMS questions to designers.  

Teachers are sometimes reluctant to turn to designers. Teachers already have full plates and are reluctant to sign-on for more work. Perhaps they do not see the value of applying constructive alignment (for example) and feel that such education concepts/constructs are too theoretic. Teachers may feel nervous and insecure about what they do not know, and do not want to admit knowledge gaps about teaching. Some teachers feel that lecturing, presentation, reading from the textbook, multiple choice exams and essays were good enough for them when they were university students, and so should be good enough for their students (i.e. low esteem for contemporary approaches to teaching). 

However, there is less hesitation in asking technical questions about the LMS. Herein lies the hook. If these LMS questions are asked to designers, these learning and teaching staff can take the opportunity to leverage educational design. 

For example, if a teacher calls in asking how to set-up an LMS quiz, the designer can take the opportunity to bridge the conversation to when to use quizzes and how often, as well as how to intersperse these quizzes with chunked lecture content. 

If a teacher calls in to trouble-shoot LMS glitches, the designer can advocate clean, plain interface design with minimal layers, and can keep a design-eye on pedagogy. 

5. One of the guidelines that unifies the work of designers is the premise that university students spend far too much of their time listening and that educational design has to involve them in doing more. What are some of the active learning activities that designers can encourage? 

To reinforce this point, research confirms that students need to do to learn. Learning activities need to extend beyond listening and note-taking. Here are some ideas that can be designed for on-campus and online educational environments. 

  • Structured, formal debates (first speaker affirmative, first speaker negative, rebuttal …) 
  • Physically/Virtually regrouping students according to affiliations and perspectives
  • Pairing and sharing 
  • Polling and quizzes (especially using own devices) 
  • Structuring some lectures as Q&A (as demonstrated here) 
  • Fishbowls 
  • Games and Gameshows (e.g. The Chase, Family Feud) 

6. How far should designers go with creating/writing content for teachers? 

The key here is co-creation. The designers definitely should not be writing FOR teachers, but can actively write alongside, or in other words, WITH.  

This is the equivalent of not supplying the caught-fish, but teaching how to fish.  

Designers who co-write assessment rubrics with teachers are modelling and actively teaching how. This one serves as an exemplar for future documents. Designers can also create how-to guides or tip-sheets that serve as practical help. 

7. What if teachers don’t show-up, engage, partner or follow-through with designers? 

The concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is helpful here. Basically, what this concept means is that when positive change is made to benefit someone with a particular need, chances are that many more people will benefit. This also means that design is flexible and accommodating.  

UDL is a contextual application of a concept that started in Architecture (UD). The classic example is of hydraulic benchtops that can easily be raised or lowered. This design is essential for wheelchair users, but also benefits tall people and those with bad backs. 

The metaphor that is usually used to explain UDL is electronic curb-cuts (North American lingo). Curb-cuts is the American term for the portion of the foot-path that slopes to the bitumen. These structures are often seen at the shops. While they were designed for wheelchair users, they actively benefit people pushing prams and trollies and cyclists. 

Within education, closed-captioning is essential for deaf students. However, seeing the text on the screen also actively benefits international students from non-English speaking backgrounds and students with learning disabilities.  

There are three main UDL propositions. 

  • Multiple means of representation 
  • Multiple means of expression 
  • Multiple means of engagement 

The first (representation) means that there is planned redundancy in educational design. Content is intentionally designed in reinforcing modes. Students can read the text, see illustrations, actively hands-on engage, etc. 

The second (expression) means that students have the option to create the assessment in whatever format best represents their achieved learning outcomes (as long as the criteria are met). For example, some will choose to write an essay, others create a video and others design a website. 

The third (engagement) brings us to a direct response to the respective question. This proposition is that people are motivated to engage for different reasons, and that we have to design-in these various factors. 

Recognise that teachers are going to be motivated to engage with designers for different reasons and that sometimes these motivations change over time, even for the same person. 

Here are some examples of different motivations for teachers to engage with designers. Designers can design-in these approaches to heighten participation. 

  • Creativity – some teachers love design work and will be intrigued by innovation and possibility, as well as the designer’s expertise 
  • Collegiality – some teachers crave the conversation and relationship development with high-minded colleagues (i.e. designers) 
  • Coffee – sometimes all it takes is for the designer to offer to shout the teacher a coffee 
  • Academic Promotions and/or Annual Review – some teachers are motivated by the designer offering to furnish evidence that the teacher engaged in design work, which they can use for personal career promotion 
  • Managing-Up – sometimes the only way to compel a teacher to redesign a course (unit or subject) that desperately needs improvement, is by involving a supervisor (e.g. Head of School) who has the authority to compel this work 

8. How has digital disruption changed the roles and responsibilities of designers? 

There are three main intersecting domains of designer knowledge, skills, attributes, experience and identity. 

One is pedagogy – what works for learning. 

Another is academic development – what works to support teachers with their continuing professional development. 

Finally, there is digital innovation / education technology. What works to support immersion, interaction, communication and network development.  

The escalation of digital technologies has increased the possibilities and opportunities of design, interactively changing pedagogical application, and creating new means of facilitating academic development. 

9. What is key career advice for designers? 

Here are three key pieces of career advice for designers.  

  • Spend time reflecting on, articulating and embracing your distinctive identity as a designer. What is your unique value proposition, your personal brand and your profile? 
  • Stay informed, up-to-date and skilled, including in the realm of digital innovation. Follow the contemporary approaches to university learning and teaching and incorporate them into your design tool-belt. 
  •  Say YES to positive opportunities. For example, engage and take advantage of learning and teaching opportunities such as grants, research, publications and networks. 

10. What are the career progression and promotion pathways that are accessible to designers? Or are there any? 

If designers are in academic positions, then it is incumbent upon universities to provide bona fide alternatives to traditional academic promotions criteria. There need to be transparent and well-articulated equivalent criteria. For example, if designers are not teaching traditional student-facing timetabled courses (units or subjects), then the workshops they are facilitating for teachers need to be given the same credit/evidence value. 

Designers might consider pursuing promotion to management positions. This can include supervisory and leadership responsibilities. Universities need to support designers to achieve this promotion through mentoring and providing opportunities to develop experience and document evidence. 

Another route of promotion for designers is to change-up the structural scope or remit. For example, some designers have been promoted by moving from faculty-based to university-wide portfolios. Others have put their hand-up to engage with new innovation initiatives, such as micro-credentialing, and on that basis, been promoted. 

This blog was intended to explicitly identify and articulate the important university dimension of learning and teaching design. It is hoped that engaging with frequently asked questions, and posing perspective as responses will provoke and compel conversation, debate and further questions. Design is an emerging career and an exciting area, with many more iterations, developments and social change to come. University learning and teaching designers are essential change agents and deserve to be recognised, acknowledged and supported. 

Professor Shelley Kinash is the Director, Advancement of Learning & Teaching, and frequently, Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Southern Queensland. Previously, she was the Director of Learning & Teaching at Bond University. She completed her PhD in Canada and has been an academic for over 25 years. She is the international Convenor of The STARS Employability Network. She led national research on – Graduate EmployabilityPostgraduate Student Experience and Student Evaluation of Teaching. Her 394 published works have been downloaded 51,000+ times from 177 countries. Her work is showcased in the national Government report on educational research impact https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-423919664/view

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