Successful learning design relies on effective leadership. Without this, design teams and initiatives can lack cohesion, with unclear briefs, confused processes, and design outcomes that don’t meet the needs of their intended audiences.

Learning designers who aspire to advance their careers may feel themselves lacking the necessary resources and guidance to develop skills for leading. Whilst there is no shortage of research and literature on leadership, relatively limited attention has been given to leading in learning design. Practitioners and scholars typically focus on the application of learning design techniques and the skills of learning designers more broadly.

As a learning designer who recently moved to an acting manager role in learning design, I’m continuing to develop my understanding of the competencies that are important to learning designers. In preparation for an upcoming Learning Design Meetup on leadership pathways, I took a look at some current thinking and literature in this space.

Recognising formal and informal leading practices

Leadership in learning design encompasses not only traditional positions of authority within educational institutions but also informal and temporary leadership roles. Formal leadership positions may include roles such as senior learning designers, learning design managers and learning and teaching managers in faculties. 

Informal leadership may be less obvious, and can emerge from activities such as subject enhancement projects and faculty liaison roles. Learning designers who take on these roles are often contributing to ongoing innovation practices, as well as developing leadership skills as they build stakeholder relationships and manage small teams.

One interesting aspect here is the historical focus on the ‘heroic leader’, which privileges the individual and the behavioural traits suited to (formal) leadership roles. Some research perspectives are starting to shift the focus and ‘de-centre’ the leader, offering a lens to consider leading in learning as a connected web of practices rather than the attributes of an individual leader.

3 perspectives: What can ‘leading’ mean in learning design?

Regardless of the role’s formality, effective leadership in learning design involves a profound understanding of pedagogy, technology, and the evolving landscape of education, coupled with the ability to inspire and drive positive change in higher educational institutions. 

If you’ve never thought about this in detail, here are 3 perspectives to start your thinking.

7Ps of leadership for instructional design

Ashbaugh and Piña (2014) outline 7Ps of leadership for instructional design (7PL4ID) from the perspective of the learning designers, which include: 

  • Prescience – envision the future and promote that vision
  • Preventive/proactive thinking – carefully anticipate the future, both its opportunities and problems
  • Provision for the unexpected – have backup plans and reserves
  • Personality – work well with and show care to others
  • Productivity – be productive and expect hard work from others
  • Psychological toughness – make and implement difficult decisions based on sound judgment
  • Personal convictions – exhibit moral character consistently.

8 categories of leadership competencies

A 2018 survey of instructional design managers and leaders identifies 8 major categories, some of which are mapped to Ashbaugh & Piña’s 7Ps. The authors suggest that higher educational institutions may benefit from considering these when hiring learning design leaders and managers:

  • Communication (7Ps – Personality)
  • Project management (7Ps – Productivity)
  • Visioning and strategic alignment (7Ps – Prescience)
  • Organisational politics and relationships (7Ps – Personality)
  • Environmental and organisational awareness (7Ps – Preventive/ Proactive)
  • Inspiring, motivating, and empowering others (7Ps – Productivity)
  • Interpersonal people skills (7Ps – Personality)
  • Teaching, learning, design, and technology expertise (not mapped)

The leadership role of the instructional designer: 4 elements

In this video [4m 52s], instructional designer Dr Christopher Bergeron focusses on four important competences any leader (formal and informal) should possess.

The skills of technical competence, emotional intelligence, tact, and being trusted are not only valuable for learning designers but also transferable to leadership roles in instructional design and educational technology.

Learning Designers as change agents?

The ways we [learning designers] engage in our work – constant partnership, leadership or support relationship with stakeholders across the institution – lends us significant affordances around catalysing change.

Sarah Thorneycroft (University of New England)

Leading doesn’t always have to be about climbing the ladder to the next most senior job. With the many hats we wear, Altena and others (2019) concluded that learning designers are ‘transformative change agents to student learning’. Sarah Thorneycroft picks up this theme, suggesting learning designers could pursue new roles in ‘organisational learning design‘, roles that are a natural evolution of our capabilities, and a new pathway into the domains of organisational culture and learning.

So what do universities actually need from us to lead change at a time where disruption is not the exception, but the norm? Anecdotally, many people I know in learning design roles feel stuck in second gear, unsure where to go next, or what capabilities to focus on. Should we pursue formal roles and stick to the ‘highway’, or explore ‘side streets’ where less obvious roles are waiting to be discovered? Is there a smart GPS to help us find the shortest path to a fulfilling career, learning from other leaders in learning design? Could we try different routes, or must we commit to a single, focussed pathway?

Navigate the wilds of learning design with us!

If you’re keen to learn more about leadership in learning design come and join us at the next Learning Design Meetup, Finding leadership pathways in the wilds of learning design, an event run in collaboration with the ASCILITE TELedvisors SIG. We’ll explore these questions and more, together with panel guests Tam Nguyen (UNSW), Amanda Lizier (UTS) and Kelly Pattison (Circular Learning).

Further reading and resources

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