Jane Knight was our guest in the Community during May 2004 and discussed the role of Learning Engineering with members. This article contains Jane's introduction and an attached summary of discussions that were held during the event.
It has been clear to me for some time there is far too much emphasis on learning solutions and the technology to create those solutions and not enough on the learning problem and the environment (both organisational and technical) in which it is to be used. For example, people automatically seem to assume than an “online multimedia course” is the answer to every learning problem.
This, to me, is akin to someone saying that they want a suspension bridge to cross a stretch of water. It may well be that a bridge is the best way of getting from one side of the water to the other, but there are many different types of bridges - arch, beam, cable-stayed, girder, truss and so on - as well as suspension bridges, but what is more to the point, there are other ways to cross the water as well - in a rowing boat, on a ferry or liner, or even in a plane.
What first needs to be done, is to identify the most appropriate type of solution to the “water crossing” problem, and to do that we need to know more about the problem. For example, how wide the stretch of water in question is, how many people or vehicles need to cross it, how regularly they need to cross it, and how much money there is available for the solution? If the stretch of water is a stream 3 foot wide, and one or two people need to cross it, by foot, very occasionally, and have very little money to pay for a structure, something as basic as a plank of wood would be quite appropriate and would do the job cheaply and effectively. If the stretch of water is a river 5,000 feet wide and a large number of vehicles need to cross it on a daily basis, and there is a large sum of money available to pay for a solution, then a bridge of some type would quite probably be the most appropriate answer. But if the stretch of water turns out to be the Atlantic, a bridge would be quite inappropriate, and the solution might be to travel on an ocean liner, a jet aircraft or even a supersonic aircraft like Concorde cross it.
But let us assume that we are talking about a stretch of water a couple of thousand feet wide, and that a bridge is the most appropriate solution, the bridge then has to be designed. In order to determine the most appropriate type of bridge, civil engineers would need to know more about the local physical environment, e.g. the geology that the bridge would need to be erected on, as well as the type of weather conditions the bridge would have to endure. They would want to be sure that their bridge wasn’t going to disappear into quicksand once it was built, or that strong side winds would keep it shut for more days than it was open. In essence, the civil engineers will want to guarantee that sound engineering principles underpin innovation and creativity to produce an aesthetic, usable and cost effective solution.
Similarly, it is far too easy to jump to the conclusion that a “course” is the solution to every learning problem. It may, of course, turn out that an online multimedia course is the most appropriate solution, but as in our water crossing example above, just as there is more than one way to cross a stretch of water – from using a plank of wood to building a bridge or even flying by Concorde – there are many solutions to learning problems.
And so, as Learning Engineers - just as with civil engineers addressing the water crossing problem - we first need to understand the nature of the learning problem: the specific learning/training needs; how quickly a solution is required; the number, type and location of the learners, and the budget available. For example, if we only have a handful of learners, all based in one office, who need to be trained very rapidly on a new computer application, and there is little money to fund the solution, then a simple solution like a couple of web pages, a presentation or a short training session would be more appropriate than an all-singing, all-dancing online, multimedia course that might take months to produce. This is the equivalent of the difference between a plank of wood and a suspension bridge to solve our water crossing problem. But don’t let the “plank of wood” analogy put you off! I’ve only used it to show that a solution that is quick, easy and cheap can, for some problems, be the most effective solution. The key point is fitness for purpose. In this example, the Concorde option would be something like a 3 year degree course in Computing Science at Oxford University, and just like using Concorde to fly across a 3 foot stream of water would be absurd, so would enrolling each learner on such a degree course to learn how to use a simple computer application!
Once Learning Engineers have made a decision about the type of solution for a problem, the solution itself needs to be designed. And just like our water crossing problem, Learning Engineers are going to want to know a lot more about the environment in which the structure is to be sited. In particular they will need to understand the organisational culture and the technical environment, so that a learning solution can be designed that
(a) is not such a cultural mismatch that it doesn’t fit in with the learners’ ways of working and learning, or that middle managers do not approve of it and therefore do not encourage or promote its use, and
(b) that, technically, it requires a higher level computing specification than is in place, which means it does not run properly on learners’ computers, or requires a more sophisticated understanding and comfortability with computers than is the case.
Problems like these are the reasons why learning solutions are not used, and are the equivalent of bridges collapsing or being closed. Innovation and creativity in learning engineering are just as desirable as in other forms of engineering to build aesthetically pleasing solutions but they need to be underpinned by sound pedagogical principles to create effective learning solutions.
In conclusion, then a technology-driven, ad hoc approach to developing and building learning solutions is not the way forward. There needs to be some order and discipline in this area of work. In fact it is time to recognise that there is a need for a new breed of professionals called Learning Engineers who have a clear set of knowledge and skills.
In our discussions over the next two weeks, I would like to focus on the following points
Week 1: What do the different learning “structures” or “solutions” look like? What are the pedagogies and processes of learning engineering/design to create those structures or solutions?
Week 2:What are the professional competencies required to become a Learning Engineer? What are the professional development needs for individuals to become Learning Engineers?
See the attachment for a transcript of the discussion that took place
Jane Knight, the Founder of the e-Learning Centre in the United Kingdom has for 14 years worked in Further and Higher Education as a Senior Lecturer in IT as well as a Learning Technology adviser. Jane is also the Editor of the e-Learning Centre's resource collection which contains thousands of links to selected and reviewed e-learning articles, reports, examples of e-learning best practice as well as e-learning products, services and events.