Learning Design: Thinking Your Way To A Better Learning Experience

  28. February, 2023     Mira Perämäki


Allowing learning to regress is one of the surest ways of putting the cart before the horse. Learning design is a learner-centred way of ensuring positive learning experiences and creating the conditions for continuous competence development. 

Let's look at what Learning Design actually is and how it drives learning through training content, tools, approaches and the overall culture of learning.


What is Learning Design?

Learning design (or instructional design) is a learner-centred approach to the design and implementation of educational content, learning tools, practices and environments that support continuous learning and competence development.

  • Learning design is the process of creating training materials and programmes for use in different learning environments.
  • Learning design is both a science and an art: it implements the science of teaching and learning and gives it a creative way of presenting information and tasks.
  • When done correctly, learning design helps solve problems and is a tool for delivering effective e-learning.

Learning design is the application of a pedagogical model to a specific learning objective, target group and context. Learning design defines the teaching and learning process and the conditions and environment in which learning takes place. It aims to achieve the learning objectives and to close the knowledge gap.

The key idea behind learning design is to create the conditions for an organisation where learning is much more than just completing the required courses and training. The end result is a good individual learning experience and greater competitiveness in the future when learning is designed in the context of strategy, objectives and individual skill needs. 

Today, the focus of learning design is on the design and delivery of e-learning, but it should also be applied to other training and competence management. Learning design is relevant whenever the aim is to implement meaningful learning solutions.

What is design thinking? 🤔 Design thinking is (1) a way of understanding what people want and need, (2) a culture of collaborative problem solving, experimentation and curiosity, and (3) an ideology in which innovation is the result of user-centred problem solving.


Learning design in the production of educational content

While learning design is about taking a broad view, its most visible manifestation, the design of courses and training, plays an important role in the whole. When courses are designed using learning design methods, everything starts with knowledge objectives and needs. This results in materials that enable learners to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. So ask:

  • Who is education for and what do they need to learn? Why?
  • What problem or gap is education solving?
  • What kind of change do you want to see through education?

Creating an online course is a project that requires elements of design thinking, knowledge of the course design process and learning models, and an understanding of e-learning pedagogy. All of this together is learning design.

At the heart of design is cyclic iteration, the repetition of steps in the design process until the desired end result is achieved. In this case, it means continuously observing and gathering feedback, which results in updating the structure and content of training sessions to make them just a little bit better. In the world of e-learning, optimizing training is easy because learning analytics provides visibility into performance data and can automate the collection of feedback.

Teachers and trainers are used to creating their own courses. Even the smartest experts tend to fall back on established solutions, and the result is a course that tends to divide the material. When course design is based on the needs of the learner (design thinking), exploring the problem from many different angles ensures quality training. Content, visualization, activities, tools, collaboration, assessment, support, and outcomes respond to identified learning needs.

Learning design and learning tools

Learning tools, technologies and other solutions that support the development of competencies are another key area for learning design. As with all design, solutions must respond to the real problems, needs and aspirations of the target audience (learners and other users of the tools).

Background work, i.e. in practice delving into the ideas of learners and other future users of learning tools, is a necessary and very enlightening step. In the field of e-learning, learning design touches on these issues:

  • Choice of technology for digital learning solutions
  • Defining the interface and layout of the learning platform
  • Integration of the learning platform with other systems
  • Use of learning analytics and data

Learning design and learning culture

At its best, learning design guides more than the production of training content and the selection of learning tools. Learning happens all the time and everywhere in an organization - learning design can be used to create the practices and structures that make this learning and capability development possible. 

One way to build a learning culture is to start with practices for documenting and sharing learning. The responsibility for creating a learning environment therefore does not lie solely with HR or trainers, although they are key players in creating the necessary processes.

By permeating the entire organization, learning design deepens the link between learning and employees' job roles and career development. Relevance creates motivation for continuous learning, and by strengthening the learning culture, workplaces become more like learning places.

Learning design methods for online course design

So how can learning design be promoted? Here are some of the most commonly used models that are particularly appropriate for designing online courses and training.

The ADDIE model

The ADDIE model is named after its steps: Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate. By following the steps of the model, the instructional designer will be able to address the issues relevant to the training. Here is a brief overview of each step:

1️⃣ Analyze
The main objective of the Analyze phase is to identify the skills gap and its causes. At the end of this stage, you should have an idea of what you can do to close the skills gap. This task will be made easier if you know how the learner feels about learning something new, whether there is anything to learn, whether the environment is optimal for learning, and whether the learner knows what competencies are being sought.

2️⃣ Design
The design phase defines the learning objectives and the learning plan. The resulting course prototype includes a description of the learners (target group), the learning objectives, a list of activities and resources, a description of the technology required, an estimate of the time needed to complete the course and (if necessary) an evaluation plan. After the design phase, you can create the training content needed to fill the skills gap.

3️⃣ Develop
The main objective of the development phase is to organize the collected content and its technical solutions into a package that meets the learning objectives. At the end of this phase you will have a set of materials, tasks and media elements that will enable you to develop your skills.

4️⃣ Implement
In the implementation phase the (online) course is finalized and published. The role of the trainer at the end of this phase is to provide support and feedback to the learners.

5️⃣ Evaluate
The evaluation phase examines the effectiveness of the training based on learner feedback and decides on any necessary corrections and updates. In the spirit of continuous improvement, evaluation should continue to take place at regular intervals.


SAM Model

SAM (Successive Approximation Model) is designed for agile e-learning development. It was developed to address the need to create high quality course content without spending too much time and money on the design and development process. The methodology consists of three main steps:

1️⃣ Preparation
The process begins with a preparation phase called the Smart Start. During this phase, all information and background data relevant to the course production process is identified.

2️⃣ Iterative Design
The second phase is Iterative Design, where the initial prototype is designed by revising, redesigning, and re-prototyping. The focus is on an iterative approach with the goal of designing the right course content.

3️⃣ Development
In the final stage, iterative development, the course design is carried out through development, implementation and evaluation. After the iterative development phase, an alpha version is released, which evolves into a beta version before the final product, the gold version of the course, is launched.


Where to start?

Learning design challenges us to take a learner-centered approach to learning and training. The first step to more relevant and effective learning is to immerse oneself in the needs, aspirations and potential skill gaps of the learner.

By designing training content and learning solutions from the right perspective, the learning experience will inevitably be enhanced and motivation to learn will be nurtured - creating a virtuous cycle of skills development.

Are your online courses falling flat? Have you identified a training need but not sure where to start? Then it's time to put Learning Design to work!

Contact us today to schedule a consultation with our team and learn how we can help you design effective, engaging courses that meet your learners' needs.