A conversation starter on Professional standards for Learning Designers

Rebecca Ng (University of Wollongong), Sharon Altena (QUT) and Meredith Hinze (University of Melbourne)

At the 2022 ASCILITE Conference, we ran a symposium “Reconnecting with ourselves: Developing standards and competencies for Learning Designers” (Hinze et al., 2022)(Hinze, Altena & Ng, 2022). The symposium began with a short presentation by our teammate, Meredith Hinze, who gave an overview of the literature around the topic and a summary of our preliminary research findings – which will be presented later in this blog. We then moved to a panel discussion with four panellists representing a diversity of experience and perspectives:

  • Sharon Altena, Senior Curriculum and Learning Designer, Queensland University of Technology (QUT)
  • Annabel Orchard, Senior Learning Designer, University of Melbourne (UniMelb)
  • Aves Parsemain, Educational Developer, University of New South Wales (UNSW)
  • Dr Rachel Fitzgerald, Deputy Associate Dean (Academic) and Director of Online Education, University of Queensland (UQ)

 

The facilitated panel discussion considered the benefits, caveats and challenges in establishing a set of Australian standards for Learning Designer roles and what their purpose may be.

The symposium was joined by approximately 150 participants in the room and another 52 people online, leading to a very lively discussion around the future of the role of learning designers within higher education and if there is a need to develop standards and competencies for such roles.

In this blog, we will introduce our research and summarise some of the key discussion points from the symposium. We invite all our readers to contribute to this post, reflecting on what is needed for the profession in the coming years. Are standards and competencies the answer? If you participated in the symposium, what are your thoughts six months on?

The team and our research on the professional identity of learning designers

Our team consists of Sharon Altena (QUT), Meredith Hinze (UniMelb) and myself, Rebecca Ng (UOW), who are all passionate learning designers though I must confess that I am currently in an academic role to pursue other interests. We met at the 2018 ASCILITE Spring into Excellence Research School and were brought together by two “frustrations” – lack of support to do research in our work as professional staff members and lack of career progression for learning designers. Hence, we set off on a journey to understand the professional identity and role of the learning designer within higher education. This research was further spurred on by the pandemic where learning/instructional designers were hailed as the “sherpas of online learning” (Decherney & Levander, 2020).

Supported by the D2L/ASCILITE Research Grant, we ran a survey in 2022 which garnered over 138 responses and interviewed 15 self-identified learning designers. One of the areas we were interested to explore further was the development of competencies and standards  in the Australasia context to support bringing some clarity to the role of a university learning designer and to aid with career progression of the role. The survey indicated that 66 percent of learning designers were supportive of developing minimum competency standards for learning designer roles while 25 percent were unsure and only 9 percent did not support such a development. Some reasons provided in support of the role from our research included the need for “a common language for our skills”, “a clear job description”, visibility of the profession and career progression. Hesitancies included worry around losing flexibility, the possibility of excluding some of our colleagues who already have a learning designer role and diversity of the role and in teams.

We wanted to know what the ASCILITE community would think of these sentiments and imagine what might be included in these standards. Hence, we ran the symposium and below are the results.

The symposium – Should we develop professional standards or competencies for learning designers?

Considerable ambiguity surrounds the role of learning designers as third space workers in Higher Education (Altena et al., 2019; Smith et al., 2021). The scope and focus of the profession are often misunderstood by the institutions hiring learning designers and to some degree, how learning designers understand themselves and their roles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Learning Designer role was recognised and highly valued as having the skillset required for helping institutions and academic staff ensure the continuity of student learning through the rapid pivot to remote learning (Bellaby et al., 2020). Yet, the role continues to be vaguely defined across Australasian institutions where specific knowledge or skills that are necessary for the role are poorly defined. As Colin Simpson (2023) succinctly argues, “[t]erminology being used inconsistently, role definitions and purposes varying from work unit to unit, and high degrees of overlap between roles all contribute to a haziness around who does what and why in the ed advisor space” (para 2).

Outside of the Australasia region, countries such as the US and Canada have long established competency frameworks for those third space workers in learning designer roles. The International Board of Standards for Training, Performance, and Instruction (IBSTPI), for example, is a not-for-profit that develops, validates, publishes, and disseminates standards, competencies, and performance statements for several areas including instructors, training managers, instructional designers, and evaluators (Koszalka et al., 2013). Other competencies or related professional standards from overseas include ACET for instructional designers (US), CMALT for learning technology professionals (UK) and the Advance HE Professional Standards Framework (PSF) for university academic and professional staff, which has also been adopted by many Australian universities.

At the symposium, panellist Rachel Fitzgerald, advocated for the leadership of learning designers rather than a focus on competencies. Other themes in the panel discussion included the value and affordances of teaching experience in the role; leadership and shared vision as a profession; career pathways; the diversity in what learning designers do; and how the space is constantly changing.

Following the panel discussion, we polled our audience, who come from diverse backgrounds with varied job roles, to find out if they were for or against competencies or standards as a strategy for moving the profession forward. Overwhelmingly, 76 percent of the audience supported the need for a set of professional standards for learning designers to move the profession forward – a contrast with the 66 percent we found from our survey. In a separate poll ran by Meredith with the University of Melbourne Learning Designer community this year, 83 percent supported the development of professional standards which perhaps indicate an increasing urgency in the need to define the role of the learning designer better.

 

After the vote, we asked members of the audience to discuss key domains or core competencies that should be included if such a standard were to be established. Below is the Padlet Wall we used to consolidate their ideas:

 

Made with Padlet

 

 

Some of the key points included:

  • Learning, assessment, curriculum and inclusive design principles
  • Learning theories
  • Project and relationship stakeholder management
  • Research trends and policies
  • Technical literacy
  • Adaptability
  • User experience, Universal Design for Learning and Accessibility
  • Empathy and emotional intelligence
  • Ability to influence
  • Problem solving skills
  • Clarity of role and career progression
  • Minimum education qualification
  • And many more.

The conversation around the need for professional standards is complex yet necessary. We saw through our survey and interviews that learning designers were both keen and hesitant about having professional standards as the community recognised its affordances (e.g. better career progression, more visibility and understanding of the role), and challenges (e.g. flexibility and diversity). Perhaps then, the question should not be about whether a set of standards or competencies are needed but rather, how can we as a community come up with a something that is reflective of our sustainable practice, without limiting the profession?

What do you think? We invite participants to add anonymously to the Padlet wall or provide this community with your insights through the comments section below.

Acknowledgement:

We would like to acknowledge the support of D2L/ASCILITE who provided us with a small research grant to assist us as professional staff to be able to undertake important research into the work of learning designers.

References:

Altena, S., Ng, R., Hinze, M., Poulsen, S., & Parrish, D. (2019, 2-5 December). “Many hats one heart”: A scoping review on the professional identity of learning designers. 36th International Conference of Innovation, Practice and Research in the Use of Educational Technologies in Tertiary Education, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.14742/apubs.2019.284

Bellaby, A., Sankey, M., & Albert, L. (2020). Rising to the occasion: Exploring the changing emphasis on educational design during COVID-19. ASCILITE’s First Virtual Conference, Armidale. https://doi.org/10.14742/ascilite2020.0137

Decherney, P., & Levander, C. (2020, 24 July). The hottest job in higher education: Instructional designer.  https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/education-time-corona/hottest-job-higher-education-instructional-designer

Hinze, M., Altena, S., & Ng, R. (2022, 4 – 7 December). Reconnecting with ourselves? Developing standards and competencies for Learning Designers. 39th International Conference on Innovation, Practice and Research in the Use of Educational Technologies in Tertiary Education, Sydney, NSW, Australia. https://doi.org/10.14742/apubs.2022.211

Koszalka, T. A., Russ-Eft, D. F., & Reiser, R. (2013). Instructional designer competencies: The standards. IAP.

Simpson, C. (2023, 19 May, 2023). Education and Learning: A helpful distinction. Third Space Perspectives – Exploring Integrated Practice. https://www.thirdspaceperspectives.com/blog/educationandlearningahelpfuldistinction

Smith, C., Holden, M., Yu, E., & Hanlon, P. (2021). ‘So what do you do?’: Third space professionals navigating a Canadian university context. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 43(5), 505-519.

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Tom Worthington
9 months ago

Are Learning Designers a category of educator? IO think of myself as a computer professional first, an educator second, and a learning designer third.

Dan Laurence
Dan Laurence
9 months ago

Some interesting reflections there – this is more a note that your padlet hasn’t embedded properly. If you edit the html to replace the emailed ‘mimecast’ urls with the actual text that should sort things out (sorry, but if you have an audience of ed-designers).