Learning Experience Design vs. User Experience: Moving From “User” to “Learner”

We read and write a lot about blended learning, online learning, and digital learning. The element that these models share that makes them powerful and successful is the learner’s experience while moving through curricula. If you think back to the age-old programs used in computer labs 20 years ago with big grey bulky Macintosh machines and compare those to the experiences being created for students in K-12 and higher-ed, a LOT has changed for the betterment of learning.

Experts at Six Red Marbles are finding and defining the shift from User Experience to Learner Experience to ensure academic programs are providing students with learning opportunities that take into account the experiences, history, and expectations of today’s learners. Here’s more from their team.

Margaret Weigel

Smashing Magazine’s 2010 overview of User Experience Design (UX) succinctly captures the spirit of the early web: “We built [user] interaction based on what we thought worked . . . with little to no thought of how the people who would use the website would feel about it.” Times have changed, thankfully, and many modern websites provide users with delightful experiences that exceed their expectations.

Today, UX is critical for companies serious about successfully competing online. And my colleagues and I at Six Red Marbles feel that Learning Experience Design—a synthesis of instructional design, educational pedagogy, neuroscience, social sciences and UI/UX, among other disciplines—proves similarly critical for any organization looking to succeed in the growing online higher education market.

Learning Experience Design shares some important attributes with UX, particularly with respect to processes. But it also differs significantly in one key respect—the user, or as we prefer to say, the learner. The unique characteristics of the higher education learner dictate what that experience entails and how to best design for that specific experience.

Similar Processes

Learning Experience Design practices freely borrow from the user experience design thinking toolbox—and why not? Both Learning Experience Design and UX focus on creating enhanced experiences. Today these experiences often occur in digital spaces, from freestanding games to nimble websites and apps for mobile devices. Here are some common similarities between Learning Experience Design and UX:

Starting Small: When building a digital media asset, both Learning Experience Design and UX best practices recommend an iterative practice that starts with broad strokes and gets refined with each successive version.

Thinking Big: In the initial stages of digital media asset production, Learning Experience Design and UX processes travel the same path: a discovery or research phase that identifies core goals, followed by a brainstorming phase that both challenges those goals and pushes concepting into uncharted territory.

Knowing Thy User: At the heart of both Learning Experience Design and UX rests the idea that users drive product design—the “empathy” element of design thinking. Both disciplines typically employ a research phase that uncovers what defines the user:  their likes and dislikes, their previous experiences, their habits of mind and their goals, to name a few.

Testing and More Testing: To ensure that outcomes align with user needs, Learning Experience Design and UX designers frequently test their early ideas—everything from low-fidelity prototypes to paper-based scribbles—to gauge learner reactions.

Different Conditions

With respect to processes, Learning Experience Design and UX share a lot in common. The two diverge, however, around the terrain of the user—or as we prefer to say, the learner. Learning Experience Design, rooted in the learning sciences, pedagogy theory and practice plus the neuroscience of cognition, can provide an engaging and relevant experience that helps facilitate many types of learning.

Thriving in Different Conditions: Recent neuroscience research has confirmed what Six Red Marbles has always known: learning is a collaborative enterprise fueled by peers and the environment. The best learning happens when a student feels supported by fellow students and educators and when informal learning outside of the classroom—with friends, family and the world beyond—is integrated into instruction. Digital media is poised to capture and synthesize these disparate elements of learning. In order to succeed, UX users, conversely, are less dependent on broad-based external supports.

Facing Different Challenges: A learner by definition is tasked with mastering and retaining new—and often challenging—information. This task can trigger a range of emotions, from frustration and rage to pride and elation. Good Learning Experience Design can mitigate negative emotional responses and encourage positive ones. Conversely, much of UX design does not require mastery, only successful usage and the presentation of a relatively frictionless, pleasant and enjoyable experience.

Addressing Different Goals: Higher education learners come in all shapes and sizes, with a wide range of personal and professional goals. There is typically more at stake for learners than for users, who can more easily turn their attention toward another website or another mobile app. A single higher education course can cost hundreds of dollars and can require that countless hours be devoted to class and coursework—a significant investment of both time and money.

Assessing Learner Mastery: A learner enrolled in a course must contend with assessments, the successful completion of which are necessary in order to prove competency and advance. Most UX engagements do not assess the user’s mastery of material in order to advance. The more personalized, menu-based approach to learning, such as competency-based education, depends on a demonstration of content mastery.

Learning Experience Design’s holistic, interdisciplinary approach lands somewhere between instructional design’s focus on content and UX’s focus on user experience. This new and rapidly expanding discipline is poised to revolutionize how learning happens, with the goal of capitalizing upon the affordances of digital media—and to transform users into learners.

This blog is part two of a three-part collection on Learning Experience Design. For more, see:

Margaret Weigel is Director of Curriculum and Learning Experience Design at Six Red Marbles. Follow her blog and her on Twitter with @Bambinimedia.

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