What does the future look like for learning designers, and Learning Design as a field? The profession has certainly been changing and growing in status, hastened by the impact of COVID worldwide. At the same time, there is significant potential for technological and employment-based disruption within the field, in higher education, and across the wider world of work.

This post explores some of these themes, and is based on a recent Learning Design Meet Up, where FASS Lecturer Keith Heggart shared his thoughts about the future of Learning Design. 

Tensions between hybridisation… 

One key trend developing within higher education is increasing interest in hybrid roles which span academic and professional responsibilities. A brief examination of job advertisements in the higher education sector shows both increased demands for learning design skills in academics, as well as increased opportunities for learning designers more generally. 

This needs to be considered within a broader context, firstly of the move towards more education-focussed roles in higher education (such as the education-focused academic) and also the widespread use of casual and sessional academics to undertake the bulk of teaching within many universities.  

However some universities, including UTS, are now considering ‘hybrid’ roles that span professional and academic settings. Perhaps not surprisingly, learning designers are often cited as an example of these hybrid roles. So what might this hybrid learning designer look like?

Ideally, they would have the appropriate blend of subject matter expertise alongside their learning design ‘chops’ – and high quality teaching skills, too. That sounds a lot like a unicorn, and the reality is much more likely to be teaching and learning teams, made up of facilitators, learning designers, subject matter experts and other roles, with people working across two or even three of these roles.  

…and professionalisation 

While it appears that hybridisation is on the cards for higher education, I’m not convinced that this is the case in other sectors. In fact, there is some evidence of increasing professionalisation and specialisation within the corporate sector, and more efforts to define the role of the learning designer more precisely.

Of course, such debates about the nature of learning and instructional design are not new, and have been under discussion for at least 30 years. However, COVID appears to have made the corporate sector realise how important the work of learning designers is, and learning designers in corporate sectors are beginning to capitalise on that with increased recognition and specialisation.  

This is sometimes described as ‘the t-shaped learning designer’, where learning designers have the requisite skills in learning design, but also a specialisation such as web developer, graphic designer, virtual reality, project management or even learning analytics.  For the profession, this means that ongoing professional learning and upskilling will be a constant requirement for Learning Designers. 

Another dimension to this increased specialisation relates to industry context; learning designers will begin to be more targeted in terms of the industry in which they work, whether corporate, not-for-profit and so on. This will have implications, especially for freelance learning designers. Part of this shift is happening because employers are increasingly demanding bespoke approaches to learning design. It is no longer (if it ever was) about universally applying a learning design model. Instead, it’s about co-designing a new model – each and every time.  

An increased focus on experiential learning  

One aspect of these bespoke approaches requested by organisations is an increased focus on experiential learning. This is an area that is very ‘hot’ in terms of learning design research, with significant grants and projects being announced, stimulated by the idea of extended reality as a solution to some of the expense and access issues with real-world simulation training.

 Virtual reality in particular seems to be moving from an expensive and pedagogically-questionable idea into the affordable mainstream, which is becoming apparent in the way that scenarios are changing from clunky and awkward safety training games, for example, into more fully fledged, skills-based applications. One proposed advantage of this is greater transference of skills via increased fidelity between training environments and the workplace. Some of the best examples in this setting are from the areas of nursing education, with clinical simulations making increasing use of virtual reality to provide high fidelity learning experiences.  

…and a final thought. 

Of course, the above examples all assume that Learning Design has a future – even if it is one that is going to be different from the present. It is possible, though perhaps not likely, that learning design could become increasingly automated, and thus taken out of the hands of professionals. One example of this kind of automation is GitHub’s Copilot, which assists developers in writing programs, drawing on the vast repository of programs stored in GitHub. No such repository exists for learning design yet, but that’s not to say that it won’t in the future. In that scenario, what need is there for learning designers? 

This article covered some ideas about the future of learning design, including possible existential threats. Of course, it only covers a few possibilities. What other possibilities do you envisage? 

To add your thoughts and experiences and see when the next Learning Design Meetup is happening, join the conversation with others in the UTS Learning Design Meetup on Teams.

Image by Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash

  • Great piece Keith and really enjoyed the session! In the higher ed context, I can also see the remit of learning designers beginning to expand across different areas of the student lifecycle. Previously learning design was very much about what happened in the LMS or the classroom, but it now seems increasingly connected up with the digital transformation of the learner experience as a whole – orientation, student support, ‘belonging’ etc.

Join the discussion