How to become a Learning Designer, assess your skills and get feedback on what you need to improve

I have been contacted recently by many people interested in becoming Learning Designers but needing to know if they have the right skills or where to go to learn more about the role. 

I am launching a scorecard to help people identify the best ways to get their first role by assessing what skills they need, even if they are nervous that they are not yet ready.

It is simple; you answer 15 yes or no questions and automatically receive customised recommendations. 

I have just set it up, so I would love some feedback. 

There is the link:

Fix what is broken before you start something new

New is shiny, new is exciting, and new is noteworthy, but if it is not the limiting factor, it will make things worse. Most success in life and work comes from doing what you know you should do but aren’t.

To quote The Phenix project, ‘Any improvement that is not at the constraint is an illusion.’ We tend to think that to grow or improve, we need to add something new, but if that new thing is not the constraint, it is unlikely to make a positive difference

The Theory of Constraints is a methodology for identifying the most important limiting factor (i.e., constraint) that stands in the way of achieving a goal and then systematically improving that constraint until it is no longer the limiting factor.

Imagine if the goal is to develop more online courses, but you are having trouble getting Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to commit to their projects and deliver the required inputs on time. You might need better onboarding, clearer guidance on time commitments, better project management processes, improved project selection, or more straightforward tools and advice for the SME. Externally, the expectation of improving output would be to add more Learning Designers and take on more projects when you first need to address why they are not committing.

Better, More, New

Alex Hormozi explains this theory using the leaky bucket analogy. Think of your project or business as a bucket and the water as your customer. To handle more water, you first have to fix the holes in your bucket, and then you can increase the flow of water and finally add new buckets. Better, more, new.

Try it

Alex suggests the following activity: list the 25 things you should be doing to improve your work, then complete these things before thinking of doing something new.

Let me know how it goes…

Theory in use; how to be a better learning designer

You have beliefs about what creates good learning, and what doesn’t. This is called your ‘theory in use’. It is your personal construct, and is almost certainly not exactly the same as that of the very best expert teachers – yet! Your ‘theory in use’ decides pretty much everything you do in the classroom, so it is worth improving!

Geoff Petty

During my teacher training, my tutors used Geoff Petting’s ‘Teaching Today‘ as a core text. It is a great book full of practical advice on how to be a great teacher. His other popular book, ‘Evidence-based teaching‘, based mainly on John Hattie’s meta-analysis on the effect sizes of different teaching methods, is even better. 

The book suggests that the way you teach or design learning is based on two things:

  1. Theory in use – your principles of learning and teaching
  2. Teaching strategies – processes and practices for delivering teaching

Petty argues that the closer your theory in use reflects reality, the better you are as a teacher. He says that both your theory in use and your teaching strategies can be improved by constant research, experimentation, and reflection. 

How well do you understand your theory in use and teaching strategies? Are they written down? How often do you add and adapt them based on student outcomes and feedback?

What is your theory in use?

Have a go at writing your theory in use down on a blank piece of paper with the Feynman technique to test yourself. Set a timer for around 20 minutes and start to write your underlying principles of learning and teaching as if you were explaining them to someone. Once you have everything out of your head, use books and the internet to fill in any gaps. 

Try to evaluate how well you have tested your principles and how closely you feel they reflect reality. Spend the next few days reading up on the principles of expert teachers you respect, is there anything you can add to your list?

If you are serious about being the best learning designer you can be and provide students with a great learning experience, you need to improve your theory of use and teaching strategies. First, make sure you know what both of these are, then spend some time adding to it from great teachers who share their knowledge and finally use a learning cycle to add to and adjust them as you gain experience. The world needs better teachers, and reflective practice is the first step to creating more of them.

Prototyping in higher education course design

Universities can learn a lot about how to develop courses from product design. In England, a student will spend over £27k on course fees and give up three years of work to take an undergraduate degree, and they put their trust in the course team to make this worthwhile. The combined student tuition fees and education contracts in the 2017-18 academic year were £18.7 billion. At this size, the development of new courses should be a finely tuned process; many institutions have begun to invest heavily in making sure courses this is the case by hiring teams of Learning Designers. Learning Designers adapt many good practices from software and product design to develop offerings that meet the students’ expectations and long-term needs. Prototyping is one such tool helping universities develop great courses.

Prototype: a first or preliminary version of a device or vehicle from which other forms are developed.

Oxford Languages

Prototypes are used to test a solution before the institution invests heavily in the full development of a finished product or service. In higher education, prototyping allows Learning Designers and course teams to test the learning outcomes, course narrative and student journey with prospective students before committing resources to develop it. It enables these teams to create increasingly complete versions of a course over time as an iterative process, reacting to regular feedback and changing trends. Prototyping a course should reduce development time and the need for changes once the course is live. It allows faster identification of the optimal model and avoids the trap of investing heavily in course offerings with significant flaws. 

The idea for prototyping comes from evolutionary software development, where a first version is built from a rough specification and presented to users for feedback. Each prospective user experiments with the prototype and makes suggestions for improvements or refinements to the design. The development team then makes improvements based on this feedback and gives it back to users for further testing. The prototype and improvement process is iterative, repeated until the product is where it needs to be for launch. 

Iterative prototyping process:

  1. Paper prototype
  2. Proof of concept
  3. Functional prototype
  4. Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

A paper prototype such as a solution presentation or module map is used as a conversation with students and demonstrate the offering to test whether your offering fits their problem or need. Once the idea is proven to be worth investment, a proof of concept can be created; this is an internal technical test to see if the product can be built with available technology and tools. Once the product or service is approved in principle and proved to be practical to deliver, a working prototype that approximates the final product without being fully finished is created, and further user testing is carried out. 

Once the product passes the working model stage, a minimum viable product, the simplest possible customer-ready version, can be built and delivered and sold as a functional product. The product continues to go through developments based on feedback throughout its lifecycle, making sure it remains fit for purpose.

The prototyping process means users get to try the product early. It helps narrow down specifications, and users are more likely to accept the system if they have been involved in developing it. There are some downsides; the first versions a user sees might be of poor quality due to the speed of development, it is not always clear how many iterations the development team should carry out. Prototypes are often built without maintenance in mind making it harder to support long term.

There are two main ways to use prototyping. The first is evolutionary prototyping, where the prototype will become the final system once users satisfied. Significant maintenance work (refactoring) may be needed to keep these products running efficiently, so some people chose to start again once the final design is agreed upon. This second method is called throwaway prototyping, where the initial iterative development is used to determine requirements and then discarded. The product is then built from scratch with quality and maintenance in mind. Throw away prototyping can have a higher upfront cost and slow down the final product launch but should deliver higher quality and a cheaper to maintain end results.

Using prototyping in course design

In the course or module design process, the paper prototype as a module map can be created as the output of a design process such as the UCL’s ABC workshop. A proof of concept represents any technical testing needed to deliver the course vision, and a working prototype could be one hour or so of the course built in the VLE. A working prototype should be tested with at least five potential students in one to one interviews to pick up significant trends in how prospective students feel about the course’s viability. 

The Minimum Viable Product is the first run of the course with live students. It is generally accepted that a course needs at least three cohorts to reach maturity, with refinements after each run; Quality Matters (QM) even suggests that a course goes through three complete cycles before a QM review is carried out. Your Course design process should have reviews built-in after each of the iterations to make sure identified changes can be made.

Get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to chat about course development ideas.

How many hours does it take to transform a campus-based university module to online learning?

recent post on WONKHE, the higher education policy news site stated that it takes 80 hours to convert an existing module into an online or blended one. WONKHE gave no details for where this number came from other than academics had repeatedly mentioned it as the time required.

This comes as no surprise; speaking with hundreds of educators across the sector, we know that, on average, it will take 80 hours to transform a module from face to face delivery with lectures and seminars to high quality online or blended delivery.


I want to do a thought experiment for fun as to where these hours might go. I will make many assumptions, so comment at the bottom to correct me or suggest better hypotheses to use. 

My first assumption is that the 80 hours are on top of the existing workload allocation. The module team would use the standard hours for prep and delivery of live (synchronous) learning and facilitation of on-demand (asynchronous) learning.

Assuming the average university module is 20 credits, and one credit is equal to 10 hours of notional learning, students should spend 200 hours on average completing each module. 

The term ‘notional learning time’ is used to denote all time expected to be spent by a student in pursuit of a higher education qualification. This includes independent study and reading, preparation for contact hours, coursework, revision and summative assessment. This term is used because the actual time that learners need to achieve designated learning outcomes varies considerably. Notional study time of ten hours per credit is the agreed tariff that higher education providers use in designing their programmes and learning outcomes for higher education qualifications, with 360 credits making up an honours degree.

Let us assume that a module might be delivered over half an academic year, over 15 weeks, with a one hour lecture and two one hour small group seminars per week as contact time. That would mean that the academic would have 45 hours of teaching time to convert from campus-based to entirely online or a blend of online and campus-based. The other 155 hours would be made up of independent study and working on assessments. This conversion is due to the pandemic, so the independent study and assessment would probably not change too much, even if the assessment is transformed from a three-hour exam to a 24-hour open book exam done remotely.

So, 80 hours to convert 45 hours of teaching to online learning.

Let us further assume that the seminars will stay live (synchronous) through Microsoft Teams or Zoom or, if they are lucky with rooming and social distancing, stay live on campus. That gives us 15 hours of online content and activities to create to replace lectures. 

So, 80 hours to convert 15 hours of teaching to online learning. Suppose the academic spends four hours redesigning their module through a workshop activity like ABC, and six hours of training and experimentation to use the software. In that case, this gives our fictional academic 70 hours to create 15 hours of online content and activities for our made-up module.

70 hours of development time to produce 15 hours of video content, text, activities, and self-mark questions mean 4 hours and 40 minutes of development time per hour of online learning. 

Let us say that each one hour lecture is 40 minutes of content and then 20 minutes of discussion and answering questions on an audience response tool like Mentimeter. If we allocate 40 minutes of development time to set up a discussion forum and convert the questions to the VLE quiz tool, that leaves four hours to develop four ten minute videos or one hour per ten-minute video.

To sum up, a Module Leader might spend 80 hours converting their existing module to online:

  • 6 hours of training
  • 4 hours of design using the ABC model
  • 70 hours creating content
    • 1 hour for each 10-minute video
    • 40 minutes for each 20 minute activity time

This is a tough ask for academics that may not have the digital skills or technology at the start of the pandemic to transform their modules in just 80 additional hours. It is important to note that these 80 hours will not have been given to academics within their usual workload but instead done on top of everything else.

Let me know what you think in the comments or via Twitter if you want some discussion.

Refactoring, Reuse, and Learning Design

The increase in digital technology in many fields has also brought software engineering language and practices into these areas. I studied Information systems and management at University, so I am more guilty than most for this trend. I have introduced rapid prototyping, the Capability Maturity Model, and daily stand-ups to my team’s work to name just a few.

Refactoring: The process of changing a software system in such a way that it does not alter the external behaviour of the code, yet improves its internal structure.

Martin Fowler

This week I have come across a company using ‘Refactoring’ as a term used in learning design. In software engineering, programmers use refactoring to describe going back to old code and cleaning it up. Refactoring is a continual process of improving code and reducing the number of lines while maintaining functionality. Code is usually written quickly to solve a functionality problem, so programmers revisit it, and rewriting it to run more efficiently. Reuse is a significant part of the refactoring process where a programmer copies some code from another programme to replicate the functionality and simplicity somewhere else quickly.

The company that I will not name used refactoring to describe unbundling a course and then restack it into different offerings. It is splitting a degree or Masters into its separate modules and then offering these individually or in groups of modules to other potential students. This might be offering the first 180 credits of a degree or a combination of modules from all three years into a certificate. It might also be offering working professionals the option of studying a single module that they need for work. The idea they tried to get across was that universities already have these bundles of modules that can be rearranged into courses that attract a wider audience, but I do not think the term quite works.

Reuse: An Engineering strategy where the development process is geared to reusing existing software

Ian Sommerville

After the session, I revisited my university notes to see if ‘refactoring’ was a marketing effort and taking liberties. I came across a line that I am not sure is mine or a direct quote from a book but refactoring ‘allows us to think about reuse of previous components or looking at alternative ways of doing things.’ Reuse is borrowing code from existing software to reduce the amount of code required to produce when developing a new system. I can’t help but feel that ‘reuse’ is a better technical term for what was implied, but it is not flashy. 

Let me know on Twitter if I am wrong or want to share other terms taken from software engineering misused (think Agile). We can have a group eye roll.

n.b. The rest of the presentation was excellent, and they had great ideas.

Sixteen hours per week of deliberate practice

I have been reading and watching a lot of the late Charles Poliquin this week. In a video this morning, he talked about the amount of learning you need to do to be world-class at what you do:

Eight hours per week is the minimum you need to learn… The people that make the most money in their profession learn sixteen hours a week… The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.

Charles Poliquin

Charles Poliquin was well-read and based all his recommendations on expert knowledge, so I spent some time looking for this recommendation’s origin. I returned to the ‘Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance‘ paper by K. Anders Ericsson to see how these recommendations for developing masters compare. The article presents research from multiple sources that it takes ten years or more of necessary experience to develop the skills to produce outstanding work at a world-class level. This practice should be time-limited at 2-4 hours per day, every day, for many years. This recommendation was present in research on experts from chess, musical composition, mathematics, tennis, swimming, long-distance running, scientists, authors, and poets.

The average age of the first published works was 25.2 for scientists, and 24.2 for authors and poets and the average age at which they published their most remarkable work was 35.4 for scientists and 34.3 for authors and poets. There was an average of more than ten years between the scientist and authors first work and their best without considering the time it took learning and writing to get to the first publication. The highest performance levels were not attained just by years of experience but by deliberate efforts to improve slowly over a very long time.

Deliberate practice is a set of activities that are most effective in improving performance. It requires the motivation to do the task and effort to improve performance. These activities are repeated consistently with slight variation and should provide immediate informative feedback. The idea of deliberate practice in developing scientists and artists is very similar to athletes and musicians’ development. This development involves years of intensive preparation under an expert teacher, total emersion in the field, and most importantly, identifying the most likely activities to result in the desired achievements.

When looking at scientists, the highest performing are also those who produce a larger number of publications than others in their field. This would suggest that writing to develop arguments would be the deliberate practice that helps them develop a new published theory or idea. Writing is a demanding activity; most world-class scientists stick to a rigid daily schedule that involves writing as the first significant activity of each morning and is time blocked to 1-2 hours, leaving the rest of the day to other work.

In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity – practice, thinking, or writing- requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period of time during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration limited to 2-4 hours a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.

K. Anders Ericsson

Two to four hours per working day would be equal to ten to twenty hours per week. To hit Charles Poliquin’s sixteen hours of learning per week target, we would require just over three hours of learning or around 40% of a typical eight-hour working day. The question then is, what is a Learning Designer’s deliberate practice that will allow them to become world-class, and how do I provide an environment to help Learning Designers do this deliberate practice to gain mastery?

The length of time between each iteration of a course makes the day to day work of a Learning Designer unsuitable as deliberate practice, so I need to find something more immediate. My wife is launching a company and becoming active on social media to market the brand. The kinds of skills she is learning are very similar to those that make an excellent Learning Designer—developing Learning Designers as Youtubers might be an effective strategy. Youtubers produce regular video content that is published, continually work to improve all aspects of quality, operate on social media and interacting with viewers to drive traffic to their youtube site, and using the analytics tools to track activity and inform future content. This might be a crazy idea, but it might just work.

Using Abbing’s brand model to develop a service offer

University leadership teams are currently planning what delivery will look like next academic year. A form of blended learning will likely be maintained even if social distancing rules are relaxed. Educational technology and academic development teams will need to restructure their services to provide academic departments with the support they need to transition from this year’s delivery model to a more sustainable and quality-driven model for the future. But what does that service offer look like and how can it be designed to provide freedom for academic teams to explore what this new future looks like?

Author/Copyright holder: erik roscam abbing. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Erik Roscam Abbing’s brand model could be used as a starting point for Edtech teams to create their new service blueprint. The starting point is to map out the team’s own identity, vision, mission, and behaviours. An understanding of the Capability Maturity Model can also input into the team’s desired brand. I have added below my current thoughts on the first phase for my team. If you have any questions or want to collaborate on ideas, get in contact with me on Twitter @samueljtanner

Team Identity

We have moved towards a Learning Design skill set in the team rather than the more traditional Learning Technologist. Each member of the group would consider themselves as a ‘techie’ and has an expertise that sits somewhere in the nexus of three core technical skills; Learning and teaching, multimedia and technology development, and design. Learning Designers operate as project managers, follow design thinking methodologies using personas and prototypes, and adopt a scholarly approach to quality assurance and continuous improvement practices.


We believe in the transformational nature of technology, and that learning and teaching can be made better when technology is used to design student centred experiences. Teachnology allowed learning and teaching to be:

  • Flexible: accessible to anyone that wants to learn, at whatever stage of life they are at, and whatever their context.
  • Personalised: designed to meet students individual goals and provide choice as these change.
  • Active and collaborative: engaging learning experiences that prepare students with the skills they need for the workplace, including problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and resilience. 
  • Redefined: using technology to create student experiences previously impossible with physical constraints.


By 2025, all students will have a flexible, personalised, and active and collaborative learning experience that uses technology to provide better learning outcomes.


We are: 

  • partnering with academic teams to co-design modules and courses
  • defining what quality looks like and how to get there sustainably 
  • sharing ideas of what is possible and what works
  • building an easy to use and seamlessly integrated technology ecosystem that provides the tools needed 

My ideas will be different from yours

The ideas here are just a brain dump around the direction I am taking my team, but I suggest using the same framework for your institution. Phase two will look at the identity, vision, mission, and behaviour of those teaching at university. My team is a service for academic departments to help them teach students, and so our customers are the lecturers. It is a time of disruption for the role of academics, and the answers to the questions in phase two will be very different now than six years ago when I moved from further education to the university sector. I have some research to do, but I imagine that brand promise will be something along the lines of… 

Brand promise: Your Learning Designer will help you design, develop, and deliver a flexible module quicker, easier, and provide a better student experience than if you had done it independently.

CMM and online learning development process design

Universities need to significantly increase their capacity to develop high quality online and blended delivery through the recruitment and training of Learning Designers. Institutional scale requires a shift from focusing on individual Learning Designers’ capabilities to concentrating on the organisation’s capabilities for designing learning. First, universities must consider how Learning Design projects are managed and implement sound project management principles. Next, they need to implement a structured development approach through research, evaluation, and peer review, the creation of rigorous quality standards, a formalised development pipeline, a strong community of practice, and progressive professional development.

Good project management of course design and development projects keeps them delivered on time, on budget, and within scope, and ensure a high standard for the student experience. Most learning development models are in their infancy, with few standards defined. If institutions want to produce novel and innovative online courses, they need to borrow design and development techniques from other fields, including software engineering.

The Capability Maturity Model (CMM), developed at the Carnegie Mellon University for large software projects, evaluates a product development processes level of maturity. It is focused on standardising the process of design and development and so counter to many agile methods but will work well with established teams in large organisations. CMM accepts that design and development processes are idealistic and do not represent most projects’ messy and improvised nature, but that tightly controlled and fully documented processes are better. The messiness level varies from project to project, and CMM aims to categories these into five levels of maturity.

Learning Design teams can use CCM’s five levels to improve their operations and assess how individual Learning Designers perform. Teams work through the levels in sequence to standardise their process to produce consistently high-quality online courses no matter the team working on it. The highest level would be represented by a clearly defined process that can be taught and learned, with clear quality metrics that lead to near-zero adverse outcomes. It includes mechanisms for capturing innovative practice and incrementally improving with each course iteration.  

The five stages of maturity

All stages above level two subsume the standards of the previous level.

Level 1: Initial – an ad hoc process which can be chaotic. Each Learning Designer follows their version of a basic process. This is the starting point for using a new or undocumented repeat process. 

Level 2: Repeatable – each project includes cost scheduling and basic project management practices. Some processes are repeatable, with some consistent results. 

Level 3: Defined – the process for managing and developing courses is standardised and documented.

Level 4: Managed – measurement is made of the process and course quality. These measures are used to control and improve practices. Effective achievement of the process objectives can be evidenced using metrics.

Level 5: Optimising – processes are continually improved through quantitative measures and testing innovative ideas and new technologies. (Few developers are considered to be at this level). 

The next three to five years will see massive growth in online learning, and universities core delivery will keep much of the changes they have implemented over the last ten months. Departments responsible for supporting online and blended learning should be spending time now on process improvement to optimise their design and development model to prepare for this rapid growth.

Get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to discuss the process of design and development of online learning.

If you build courses for a living, you should be taking courses for it too

I believe anyone working in online learning should be a serial student of online courses to master their craft. Obsessively taking classes gives a learning designer two powers; the first it allows them to understand how excellent and poor courses are put together, the second is they get empathy for the students that will take the courses they build. 

Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.

Bruce Lee

Knowing the learning theory, research, and technology is essential. Applying design principles will maximise the return of these three skillsets. Still, nothing will give you the sensitivity like being an online student.  

There are lots of great online courses that you can find for free that are doing some exciting things such as, the Youtube creators academy, and the free sample modules of Quantic.eduUdemy has some great courses that can be reasonably cheap if you catch them in the sale, and the Interaction design foundation courses are essentials for any aspiring learning designer.

Nothing is quite like a cohort-based course though, so budget to do at least one per year or get your work to pay for it. Learning in a cohort can be much more attractive as an experience than self-paced courses and more rewarding, and building an online community is an art form that takes time to learn. An MIT course on the Get Smarter platform was the last one I took. The short course can be bundled together with other MIT online courses to get a Postgraduate certificate from the world-class University. 

Get in touch on Twitter to let me know any good courses you have taken and what they have taught you about learning design.