2020 – The Year of the Radical Instructional Designer

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Buckminster Fuller

In 2020, I’m going back to my roots. Scanning the events and media references about me over the last year, I’ve been described and introduced in many ways: president, professor, leader, writer, author, thinker, education policy analyst, futurist, scholar, researcher.

I certainly relate to and value the ways in which some of these words describe my work, but the word that gets at the root of how I look at and think about much of my professional life is not on that list.

I’m a designer.

From OED, a designer is, “a person who plans the form, look, or workings of something before its being made or built, typically by drawing it in detail.”

From the MW, a designer is, “one who creates and often executes plans for a project or structure.”

Notice that I didn’t state that I’m an instructional designer, although education is the primary setting for my design work. I’m slow to use the phrase “instructional design” because the majority of existing definitions are restricting and uninspired. Most of the working definitions for instructional design read as if the came off the factory floor, infused with a heavy dose of industrial-ese.

Fortunately there are a few exceptions. Here is one. From our friends at InstructionalDesignCentral.com, “What is instructional design? In short, instructional design is the process by which learning products and experiences are designed, developed, and delivered.”

What I appreciate about this definition is that it doesn’t prescribe the process. It simply acknowledges that there is one (or there are many). It also recognizes that instructional design doesn’t necessitate turning everything into a product. ID is also about learning experiences. Finally, the definition recognizes that, in practice, ID involves stages of planning, creation, and bringing that creation to the world. This definition fits much better with how I think about myself as a designer as well as the most hopeful future for the role of instructional design in general.

Even so, it is still too limiting for me and it is why I identify as a designer more than an instructional designer. There is just too much philosophical and ideological baggage associated with the phrase, even with the word “instructional.” I will hesitantly reference instructional design, but I much prefer to think more broadly. In that sense, I offer an alternative definition for the radical instructional designer as ”a person who builds upon deep beliefs and values while contributing to the creation of learning experiences, environments, solutions, possibilities, frameworks, models, tools, and systems.

This definition is beautifully broad, so much so that it can be applied to countless roles in education and beyond. It is broad, but it has power…power to change existing realities.

What do I mean by “beliefs and values”? I’m referring to beliefs about human worth, dignity, meaning, and purpose; beliefs about what is good, true, and beautiful. I’m describing values that go deeper than professional standards and clearly defined learning outcomes, values about justice, equity, liberty, agency, compassion, kindness, empathy, democracy, and so much more. You can design a learning experience that produces consistently amazing outcomes, but what if it dehumanizes and dishonors people along the way? The goal of radical instructional design is to get down to the roots, and to grow something beautiful from there.

Amid the growth of online learning over the past thirty years, we’ve seen the number of instructional design jobs increase, and some of those are factory floor jobs, thoughtfully and faithfully contributing to the systematic and rapid development of course after course, operating from some agreed upon set of standards for quality alone the way.

This is still a thing, even a needed thing. For most instructional designers in such roles, the exciting part is when they actually get to engage in creative work, not simply helping build another course widget, but contributing to a team that imagines and designs promising possibilities for a course, learning experience, program, or product. There might still be a factory, but at least they have some say about the standards and specifications of the widgets…maybe even the structure of the factory floor.

Let’s dig until we can see the roots. Behind every instructional widget is a set of beliefs and values. There is an underlying philosophy (or a set of competing philosophies). Even when it is not explicit, the widget is designed to fit within an existing academic or organizational reality, and that organization has fences that consist of beliefs, values, and traditions. These fences consist of existing practices about grading and assessment, standards, goals, beliefs about what constitutes good or relevant education, views of the proper role of a student and teacher, beliefs about what constitutes success and failure, and so much more. These are the roots.

This is where the work of the radical instructional designer begins. Getting to the roots, we are able to engage in conversation, planning, and co-creation that reflects what resonates with our most noble and deeply held beliefs and values. Even then, we test our creation to see if it lives up to our beliefs and values. This is in contrast to making due with the existing system and faithfully coloring within the often-unchallenged philosophical and ideological lines of the organization.

This is the type of instructional design work that we need today. Yes, there will be plenty of spots on the instructional design factory floor (and that can indeed be good and admirable work), but I contend that 2020 is the year of the radical instructional designer, the one who is willing to go deeper, deep enough to join in changing the existing reality by helping to create experiences, models, frameworks, and environments that are so resonant…so compelling…so relevant that they begin to make existing realities obsolete. Or, in the presence of such compelling alternatives, the present realities are forced to listen, learn, change, and respond to the needs and voices of the learners and other relevant stakeholders.

It is the radical instructional designer who can join the cause of helping to co-create a better, more hopeful, more inspiring, and more humane education ecosystem. This is where we are going to see some of the most promising and exciting potential futures for education.

We can exhaust ourselves trying to make tweaks to the existing realities along with their deeply embedded industrial beliefs and values. Or, we can create time and space to join in creating something better, something that is less tethered to the systems that manage to turn some of our best designs into domesticated pets, never giving voice to their true, wild, reverberating roars.

Here is to 2020 as a year of the radical instructional designer.

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3 Ways to Politely Challenge the Possible “Myth” of Learning Styles

In, “Are ‘Learning Styles’ A Symptom of Education’s Ills?”, Anna North joins a long list of journalists, academics and researchers who are trying to dispel the myth that teaching according to student “learning styles” is a worthwhile effort. I’m referring to the concepts that originated in the 1970s, suggesting that each student has preferred “styles” of learning. One of the more popularized descriptions of learning styles is the VARK model: visual, auditory, reading-writing, and kinesthetic. This theory suggests that learners have a preference for one of these and that, designing lessons that accommodate such preferences, is more likely to improve each student’s learning.

This and similar approaches have been taught in teacher education programs and in-service teacher professional development for decades. In some schools, it is hard to find a P-12 teacher who doesn’t refer to the importance of learning styles. That is surprising given the limited research to support such claims, and the growing body of literature to suggest that designing lessons according to student learning styles or preferences does anything significant to improve student learning. Yet, the beliefs and practices persist. In fact, when I challenge the idea of using learning styles as a way of designing instruction, it is common to get passionate opposition, quickly turning to a flurry of anecdotal proofs from one’s classroom experience. I offer three responses to such opposition.

1. A Plea to Healthy Skepticism 

“Yes, please don’t believes this because I am saying it. I have not provided a single robust and empirical study to support my claim. Why not test my claims by reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on the subject? There is ample research to explore. Check it out directly and see what you think.”

The challenge is that using peer-reviewed research is uncommon among many in education, and methods of teaching classes in University education programs are often taken from textbooks and “how-to” resources. Look at a typical undergraduate education program, you will often find students reading secondary works about education far more than they are reviewing the scholarly research.

2. A Plea to Common Sense

Suppose I want to teach you how to play basketball. Is one student going to learn basketball better by watching slide shows for hours, while a different student will learn it better by playing basketball and getting coaching? Or, should I divide up my physical education class into four groups: having the reading-writing people just read books about basketball and writing essays, the visual learners just look through instructive photos about playing basketball, and the auditory learners send to another areas to listen to recorded audio lectures on playing basketball?

I realize that this argument has weaknesses. After all, ample research challenges our common sense or experiences. That is part of the fun of delving into the research. Regardless, I’ve found that this example often helps people become a bit more open to considering different claims about the effectiveness or lack thereof for using learning styles as a guide for designing instruction.

3. How Should we Prioritize?

A third response is that I step away from too strong of an attack against learning styles. Instead, I suggest that we simply prioritize the degree of importance we assign to many considerations for designing learning experiences. For example, I mention cognitive load theory, a body of research showing how we can minimize the chance of students experiencing overload when trying to grasp a new concept. I reference the value of taking into account prior student experiences and learning when designing learning experiences. I reference the importance of students having adequate attention to or focus upon that which is being learned. I talk about the research in support of deliberate practice. Or, I might also discuss the research on feedback loops and their impact on student learning. In other words, given all the research we have on what helps students learn, where should we prioritize the learning style claims?

There may well be research in the future to support more of the claims around learning styles as a guide for designing effective learning experiences, but I’ve yet to see a solid body of such literature. As such, it only makes sense to me that we focus our attention on those areas that are far more consistently supported.

What do you think? Have you been a learning styles champion in the past? To what extent are you open to challenging some of those assumptions and practices, or possibly lowering them on our list of strategies for designing high-impact learning experiences? Or, are you already one of the minority who never embraced learning styles or who has set them aside for more fertile teaching and learning ground?

Educational Publishers & Content Providers: The Future is About Analytics, Feedback & Assessment

What is the future of educational publishers and content providers? As more content becomes freely distributed online and there are more creative (and sometimes free) products and services that help aggregate, curate, chunk, edit and beautify this content; there are questions about the role of educational publishers and content providers. While there is something to be said for a one-stop-shop for content, that might not be enough to secure a solid spot in the marketplace of the future, especially given that content is not the only thing for which people are shopping.

Some fear or simply predict the demise of such groups, but I expect a long and vibrant future. In fact, over the past decade or two, we’ve already witnessed publishing companies rebrand themselves as education companies with a broader portfolio of offerings than ever before. They’ve done so by adding experts in everything from educational psychology and brain research to instructional design, software development to game design, educational assessment to statistics, analytics, and testing. These are exactly the types of moves that will help them establish, maintain, and extend their role in the field of education. This is a shift from a time when many educational publishers and content providers would suggest that it is best to leave the “teaching” up to the professional educators. Now, more realize that there is not (nor has there really ever been) a clear distinction between the design of educational products and services and the use of them for teaching. Each influences the other, and understanding of educational research is critical for those who design and develop the products and services that inform what and how educators teach students.

According to this article, the preK-12 testing and assessment market is almost a 2.5 billion dollar market, “making them the single largest category of education sales” in 2012-2013! A good amount of this is the result of efforts to nationalize and standardize curriculum across geographic regions (like with the Common Core), allowing education companies to design a single product that aligns with the needs of a larger client base. However, even apart from such moves for standardization, more people are becoming aware of the possibilities and impact of using feedback loops and rich data to inform educational decisions.

This is just the beginning. If you are in educational publishing or a startup in the education sector, this is not only a trend to watch, but one to embrace. Start thinking about the next version of your products and services and how learning analytics and feedback loops fit with them. If you look at the K-12 Horizon Report’s 5-year predictions, you see learning analytics, the Internet of everything, and wearable technology. What do all three of these have in common? They are an extension of the Internet’s revolution of increased access to information, but this time it is increasing a new type of information and making it possible to analyze and make important decisions based on the data. Now we have a full circle. Data is experienced by learners. The actions and changes of the learner become new data points, which give feedback directly to the learner, to a teacher, or the product that provided the initial data. There is a new action taken by the learner, teacher and/or interactive product and the cycle continues (see the following image for three sample scenarios).

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 2.36.14 PM

Some (although an increasingly small number) still think of the Internet and digital revolution in terms of widespread access to rich content. Those are people who think that digitizing content is adequate. Since the 2000s, we’ve experience the social web, one that is read and write. Now we live in a time where those two are merged, and each action individually and collectively becomes a new data point that can be mined and analyzed for important insights.

While there are hundreds of analytics, data warehousing and mining, adaptive learning, and analytic dashboard providers; there is a powerful opportunity for educational content providers who find ways to animate their content with feedback, reporting features, assessment tools, dashboards, early alert features, and adaptive learning pathways. Education’s future is largely one of blended learning, and a growing number of education providers (from K-12 schools to corporate trainers) are learning to design experiences that are constantly adjusting and adapting.

The concept that we are just making products for the true experts, teachers, is noble and respectable, but the 21st century teacher will be looking for new content and learning experiences that interact with them (and their students), tools that give them rich and important data (often real-time or nearly-now) about what is working, what is not, who is learning, who is not, and why. They will be looking for ways to track and monitor learning progress. If a content provider does not do such things, it will be in jeopardy, with the exception of extremely scarce or high-demand content that can’t be easily accessed elsewhere.

As such, content still matters. It always will. However, the thriving educational content providers and publishers of the 21st century understand that the most high-demand features will involve analytics, feedback (to the learner, teacher, or back to the content for real-time or nearly now adjustments), assessment, and tracking.

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10 Quotes, Comments & Questions about Learning Experience Design

I love quotes. There is something about reflecting on a single sentence, comparing it to past experiences, conducting thought experiments about possible applications, and simply letting it help me look at familiar topics from a different perspective. In fact, over the years, I’ve challenged myself to take new ideas or lessons learned and turn each one into a single sentence, a sort of bumper sticker summary of the idea. It is a way to help me quickly remember a larger train of thought, but it is also a guide to help me further reflect upon or apply the concept. With that in mind, I offer these ten quotes about designing learning experiences. As you will see, a few of the quotes come from other people, but the others are examples of my attempt to summarize personal discoveries. Some are simple and straightforward. Of course, you’ll soon see these things for yourself. Enjoy!

  1. Could it be that pure face-to-face instruction will one day be considered educational malpractice? – paraphrase of Chris Dede at the 2007 Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning
  2. Distance education is a huge lecture hall with hundreds of students and minimal interaction. It is time for us to start measuring the quality of learning by more than labels like face-to-face, hybrid, or e-learning – paraphrase from a 2008 webinar with Darcy Hardy
  3. “In order to create an engaging learning experience, the role of instructor is optional, but the role of learner is essential.” – Bernard Bull
  4. “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” – Harold Wilson
  5. “…how many educators are able to keep the undivided attention of 5th graders for multiple hours straight without even a bathroom break? And yet video games manage to do it. As educators, we would be fools to ignore this phenomenon.” – Bernard Bull
  6. “All effective and engaging learning experiences provide frequent and meaningful feedback. Without feedback on whether one is getting closer to a goal, progress is unlikely.” – Bernard Bull
  7. “Give a person a six hundred page book on how to get out of a room with no doors and you’ll put them to sleep. Put a person in a room with no doors, have the walls gradually close in on them, give them the same book, and you have an engaging learning experience.” – Bernard Bull
  8. “Why do people fall asleep in class? It has nothing to do with how much sleep they got the night before, whether or not they are sick, or if they are hung over. The answer can be summed up in two words. Perceived meaninglessness. This is a key to designing engaging learning experiences.” – Bernard Bull (based upon a conversation with a student doing research on students falling asleep)
  9. “A key to the design of effective learning experiences comes from discovering the many answers to the following question. Why do students sometimes learn a ton from terrible instructors?” – Bernard Bull
  10. “When it comes to the design of effective learning experiences, one provocative question is worth a hundred proclamations.” – Bernard Bull
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Overcoming Role Rut in Online Course Design: The Alternate Roles Approach

Despite the growing influence of web 2.0 technologies and social media in online learning, there is still a persistent challenge for the educator who is charged with designing online learning. The challenge is to avoid simply replicating what one does in the face-to-face classroom. When one runs into trouble making the transfer, it is sadly too common for the online course to lose out, easily turning into reading texts and writing papers with few other elements. From an instructional design perspective, I see another challenge in both face-to-face and online courses. This challenge is what I call the “role rut.” The role of student and teacher becomes so embedded in our thinking that we often fail to consider a variety of potentially powerful and engaging designs.

With these two challenges in mind, I now turn to the nature of digital culture. In the digital world, roles and identities are constantly shifting as we move from site to personal blog to news blog to video sharing site to search engines. In a single day in the digital world, I may be a student, teacher, researcher, blogger, consumer, mentor, lurker, video producer, team member, and friend. Of course, this same thing is true in the face-to-face world, but these roles are even more fluid online. One can quickly try on a myriad of roles. With this dynamic in mind, I see promising possibilities with an alternate roles approach to designing learning experiences. It is not new or profound, but it does offer a strategy for escaping the ordinary, a way of getting out of those role ruts that are commonplace in online and face-to-face education. The alternate roles approach is a simple thought experiment or challenge: try to design a course, unit or learning activity without using or thinking about the traditional roles: teacher, instructor, learner, student, facilitator, or participant. Instead, design the learning environment with two or more alternate roles. Consider the following possibilities: mentor, boss, coach, guide, expert, consultant, travel guide, assistant, supporter, advocate, leader, mayor, employer, director, manager, owner, administrator, advisor, editor, assessor, professional, team member, player, novice, explorer, tourist, supporter, advocate, member, citizen, investigator, research assistant, researcher, consultant, employee, actor, director, manager, steward, owner, designer, creator, patient, client, offender, defender, author, apprentice, activist, or member.

This is more than role-playing. Role-playing tends to be a single activity in an otherwise traditional teacher/student environment. Instead, this is an exercise in simulation learning, still starting with learning objectives (What do I want them to learn?) but then quickly bracketing the teacher/student roles in lieu of alternate roles. Experimenting with this exercise has been a delightful experience, affording me a fresh and exciting way to think about instructional design in the digital world.

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6 Design Experiments in a Mildly Massive Open Online Course

A little over a year ago, I led my first MOOC, Understanding Cheating in Online Courses. It got a fair amount of media attention, likely because it made for provocative article titles…things like, “MOOC Teaches How to Cheat in Online Courses With an Eye Toward Prevention.” There were also articles in the BBC News, Venture Beat and the New York Times. Those articles tell a bit about the what and why of the MOOC, but they don’t really get into the design side of things, giving you a glimpse into the design decisions that shaped this experiment. I shared a few of these thoughts at conference earlier this year, but I thought I others might be interested, so here you go.

First I should explain the goals of the MOOC. There were six of them.

  1. 1.Increase attention to academic honesty issues and have a great conversation with people about a topic that is important to me. Yes, I created a MOOC to build a community around this topic, so that I could learn more about the subject.
  2. 2.Equip people to mitigate against academic cheating, but in a way that was not all about policing and punishing.
  3. 3.Add depth to the current discussion by looking at it from an interdisciplinary perspective (the philosophy of cheating, psychology of cheating, from the perspective of the cheater, etc.).
  4. 4.Challenge existing beliefs and myths. Many talk about cheating as a simple moral issue. I tried to broaden the conversation to think of it also as a design issue.
  5. 5.Promote a design approach to academic honesty.
  6. 6.Experiment and play with the affordances of open learning.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.37.46 PMAfter meeting a number of times with my design team (a few instructional designers, a digital media specialist, and our director of online technology), we decided upon six features: collective knowledge generation, a mix of public and private spaces, live events, a design that welcomed and encouraged self-blending, pre-established but emerging schedule, and whimsical but meaningful digital badges. Each of these were selected to build community, foster a highly personalized experience and self-directed, and to honor the unique affordances of a MOOC…doing things that can’t be done with other courses as easily (like collective knowledge generation).

Collective Knowledge Generation – This is one of the affordances of a MOOC. If you have hundreds or thousands of people gathered together around a topic of shared interest, you can actually leverage that group to generate meaningful content that benefits the entire community and beyond. That is what we did. For example, we started the course with an online discussion, where participants shared cheating stories that they’ve experienced. In a matter of a week, we had probably one of the largest collections of informal cheating case studies in existence. And we learned about how students are cheating through those stories. There is no way that I or any other single instructor could have created a better and more varied collection of examples.

Then we followed that activity by making it even more personal. We had a “cheating confessional.” People had a chance to anonymously share a time when they cheated, why they, and how they cheated. It personalized the topic, reminding us that the proclivity for cheating is closer than we like to think. It didn’t condone cheating, but it did make it a bit more personal. This activity added even more cheating case studies from which to learn.

Throughout the class, we also created a cheating lexicon in Google Docs. At any point in the class, participants could add a new term that they learned in the course, also adding a definition and source. The group edited one another’s work and we developed an ever-growing lexicon of terms.

Then at the end of the class, students had the option of doing a “final project” where they came up with a proposed project or plan for mitigating against cheating in their learning organization. Those got posted to the class so we could learn from the wonderful ideas and how plans varied from one context to another.

A Blended of Private and Public

This was an open course in that anyone was welcome to join. However, it was not entirely open. First, we capped enrollment at 1000, so not everyone who wanted to attend was able. This was mostly just a limit put in place by the provider that I used. Beyond that we also elected to host some course discussions in the password-protected learning management system, where only other registered participants could read them. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, this was done to give people the freedom to share and be a bit more candid than they might want to be on the public web.

Alongside that, we had plenty of openness. There was a Twitter stream (#cheatmooc), public weekly content and live events that anyone could access…whether they were registered or not. We also made some of the collective knowledge resources public to the world (like the Cheating Lexicon).

Live Events – As a way to build rapport and to collect great lectures on the topic, we offered weekly lectures on the topic for the week, open to the world. We recorded all these and made them public to the world.  Most of these were done using Google OnAir along with a Q & A through a simple chat tool. We encouraged the presenters to be personal…even a bit informal in the live events. They were rich with amazing content, but we tried to run them a bit more live a great living room conversation.

Now here is an amazing part of the live events. I initially planned on presenting all these myself. Then, with the great media attention, a number of amazing scholars reached out and offered to help. So, we had leading thinkers and companies in the field giving these talks (James Lang presenting on what was at the time his forthcoming book called Cheating Lesson; Tricia Bertram Galant, Teddy Fishman, Proctor U, Software Secure, TurnitIn, etc. It was a wonderful and impressive collection of people who gave us a rich and diverse look at the topic.

Plan for Self-Blending

A core affordance of a MOOC is that students don’t need to do what the instructor tells them. They are in charge of their learning. They choose what is valuable and what is now, whether to persist, when to pay attention and when to take a break, which resources to read or watch, which activities seem valuable, and when to go find or create a new resource. We designed the MOOC to honor all this, treating it as a distinct affordance of a MOOC.

As such, we took a lesson from Howard Rheingold and used co-learner language. I described myself as a co-learner and tour guide, not an instructor who calls all the shots. Resources were offered, not required. It was a buffet instead of a prepared meal. They choose what goes on their plate and what does not.

To help provide structure, each week had a provocative driving question, content that explored that question, and suggested activities/experiments that helped participants grapple with and explore that question. Amid this, we added enough resources and activity options that there were many paths to answering and exploring the driving question. The learner got to choose how to explore the question, how deep to go, etc. We also included learner contributions to these resources. So, if a learner went out and found a great resource, we edited the course to include those treasures.

A Pre-Established but Emerging Schedule

This course was a learning community, not an instructor-led dictatorship. So, we wanted the shape of the course to be informed by the interests and needs of the participants. We had pre-developed weekly learning objectives and driving questions. We had pre-developed weekly readings and resources. We had pre-developed weekly suggested learning missions and events. Yet, we revised, added, and removed based upon what students wanted. For example, two of the live events were not even planned beforehand. Students requested a topic, so I went out and found the best people I could to speak to it. Fortunately, they were willing to help us out. I also adjusted many resources and added new suggested activities by watching and listening to the learners. In a sense, this was an adaptive design.

Digital Badges

This course was my first time implementing a digital badge system. With the wonderful help of Credly.com, it was pretty easy to do. We did a ton of reading and research on the concept of digital badges and then we just gave it a try. Our badges were not competency-based. They were meant to recognize contribution to the community and conversation around a given weekly driving question. We assigned points to each suggested activity. If a learner earned 100 or more activity points in a week, they got the badge for the week. Each badge represented a “role” for the week, as students were invited to approach each week by trying on roles like philosopher, psychologist, instructional designer or cheater. We had badges like the research assistant, the cheating psychologist, the cheating philosopher, the cheating investigator, the teacher, the instructional designer, and the cheater (which had a sub-title…”this badge was not earned honestly). We tried to be whimsical but substantive in this design, and a number of people were able to use them as evidence of professional development for their employers.

As another experiment, we had an “exemplary contribution” badge that was distributed to 1-3 people each week, as surprise recognition for their wonderful addition to the community for that week.

Note that the entire badge design was about recognizing and encouraging contribution to he community. They were less about recognizing learning and more about celebrating an individual’s commitment to building knowledge from which others could benefit.

This was a wonderfully rewarding experiment in creative instructional design, digital age communities of practice, and how to leverage the affordances of open learning to give voice to important issues in society. It was far from perfect, but I consider the items above to be largely a success. It was a joy to see the great media attention to this important topic, countless blog posts written about it by participants, and dozens of academic integrity projects implemented in k-12 schools and Universities based on participant work in the MOOC.

Increase the Number of “Winners” in Your Classroom Using Learner Profiles

Who are your learners? Audience analysis is the foundation of good instructional design just as knowing your audience is the foundation of great speeches. It is about getting to know your audience well enough that you can design learning experiences that are a good fit for the learners. Of course, many historic approaches to an audience analysis are more about getting to know a representative group of learners and not getting to know the actual individual learners in a given class or learning context. To do that, we need to start talking and thinking about the learner profiles.

Who_is_itPeople define “learner profile” differently. Some use it to describe the distinct learning styles of each learner. Others use it to mean a collection of student scores on pre-assessments, intended to identify the knowledge and skill of each learner as it relates to one or more content areas. However, I like to think of a learner profile as a rich description of each learner that allows students to better understand themselves and for teachers to better understand how to teach, nurture, coach, and mentor students. In other words, I define a “learner profile” by what it helps us do.

Without learner profiles, it is easy to design lessons and learning experiences that meet the needs of some students but not others. If we want to embrace the possibility of things like differentiated instruction and personalized learning, learner profiles are a great place to start. They give us the background knowledge necessary to personalize and differentiate in meaningful and effective ways.

What should go into a learner profile? I suggest that a helpful way to answer that question is to write out a list of things that would be helpful to know about learners.

  • How do they think they learn best?
  • How do they actually learn best?
  • Does the best way to learn for them vary from one content area to another?
  • What is their level of motivation and interest in the different subjects?
  • What is their background knowledge and skill regarding the pertinent content areas?
  • If they struggle with or dislike a content area, why? Is the struggle tied to lack of confidence, fear of failure?
  • Do they have any gaps in one or a few skills in the content area that is holding them back with the rest?
  • What are their hobbies, interests, and passions?
  • What are they really get at doing?
  • What sort of support to they have beyond school?
  • What level of readiness do they have for self-directed learning?
  • What sort of study skills do they have or lack?
  • What is their reading level and reading interest level?
  • What is their level of confidence and competence in “academic discourse”, the norms of a school culture?
  • What sort of joys, fears, and anxieties impact their learning (things like test anxiety)?
  • What goals or aspirations do they have in life?
  • What types of intelligences seem to be the strongest for them?

There are plenty of other questions that you might want to add to the list. The next step is to figure out the best way to get this information. For that, there are plenty of options.

  • Create simple questionnaires and surveys. See several simple examples at the end of this document.
  • Conduct small group and individual interviews.
  •  Use existing inventories (reading, signature strengths, personality, multiple intelligence, study skills, self-directed learning readiness, etc.).
  • Gather data from existing records (report cards, standardized tests, notes on file, etc.)
  • Interview parents, previous teachers, and others who have worked with the student.
  • Create short exercises where you can observe students at work. Debrief them and take careful notes.
  • Use adaptive learning software and related resources that collect ongoing formative data about student strengths, challenges, and progress.
  • Use research that indicates common traits of learners from a given age demographic as well, but test it with the rest of the profile.
  • Other?

This is not a short or simple task, but the benefits of having this rich description of each learner are countless. They help teachers develop a more personalized approach to teaching and learning while also being more data driven…driven by both qualitative and quantitative about each student.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you believe that it is more important for leaners to adjust to your style, preferences, believes and convictions; or for your class to adjust to the style, preferences, beliefs and convictions of each learner?
  • Who are the winners in your class right now…the ones who tend to do really well?
  • Who are the losers in your class right now…the ones who tend to not do well?
  • What can you do to increase the number of winners in your classes? How might a learner profile help with this?
  • What do you know (not just suspect or believe, but know) about yourself as a learner? Use the list of questions above as a guide and consider picking a specific domain or discipline to focus upon as you answer this question.
  • Review the list of learner profile questions above. How much do you currently know about your past or present learners? How did you learn what you did about them?
  • Are there some students that you know better than others? Why?
  • If you were given a complete learner profile that answers the questions above, how would you use it to adjust your teaching?