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iDesign | News | Learning Engineers Inch Toward the Spotlight

Learning Engineers Inch Toward the Spotlight

By - Mark Lieberman

What is a learning engineer, and how is it different from other roles?

Reginald Jackson had worked for three years as an academic technology analyst at the University of Chicago when administrators at Northwestern University came to him with an intriguing offer.

They had in mind for Jackson a new position that tapped into his experience collaborating with faculty members and program heads alike on creating innovative learning experiences.

“They were looking for a new role, and they didn’t want to call it an instructional designer,” Jackson said.

Thus began Jackson’s career as a learning engineer -- now one of three at the institution. Jackson is embedded in the Medill School of Journalism, aiming to provide “curriculum design and course development services for faculty-driven initiatives” for online students, from orientation to discussion forums in courses to evaluations. He reports to the institution’s central office of information technology, and to the head of the journalism department.

“There’s so much in this job that it brings together all that I’ve done already into one space,” said Jackson, who impressed his Northwestern colleagues with his experience in instructional design, faculty development and project management.

The “learning engineer” job title has started cropping up at several institutions, spurred in part by leadership from Carnegie Mellon University, which has a one-year master’s program in learning engineering and has hired five of its own. Other institutions are in the process of developing job descriptions for those positions.

But learning engineers and instructional designers alike worry that the distinction between them isn’t clear enough, if it exists at all. Some instructional designers who feel they’ve only just recently helped people understand their role now believe that their field is becoming unnecessarily complicated.

Supporters of learning engineering as a discipline, meanwhile, believe the role extends the instructional designer's mission of using all the available tools to enhance teaching and improve learning. Further complicating matters, Jackson says he also identifies as an instructional designer, in part to avoid confusion among colleagues. “As soon as you say [learning engineer], they say, ‘What is that?’” Jackson said.

Learning engineering has become a topic of increasingly vigorous discussion among digital learning thinkers, according to Bill Jerome, a senior product manager at Acrobatiq who previously worked at Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative for online courses. Jerome's 2013 E-Literate blog post summarizing the emerging narrative around learning engineers preceded much of the existing debate.

"It almost in a way felt a little bit clearer back then than it does now, but in a good way, because there are more people thinking and talking about it," Jerome said in an interview.

What Do Learning Engineers Do?

Perspectives vary widely on exactly how much overlap exists between instructional designers and learning engineers. Some distinguishing characteristics have started to emerge:

  • Learning engineers work more closely with administrators, while instructional designers collaborate directly with instructors.
  • Learning engineers develop research on learning and data science and make decisions based on quantitative analysis, while instructional designers make qualitative judgments based on individual needs and, in some cases, existing learning science research.
  • Learning engineers make changes and drive initiatives at the program level, while instructional designers help conceive and reshape individual courses.

Even these distinguishing features aren’t clear cut, though. A recent survey from Oregon State University Ecampus, for instance, indicates instructional designers want more opportunities to conduct research. Northwestern's learning engineers work on individual classes as well as broader initiatives.

Jackson’s job began with helping the institution transition from the Blackboard LMS to Canvas. Over time, Jackson has collaborated with faculty and staff members and students to enhance experiences with his department's online programs -- particularly the integrated marketing communications master's.

The university’s previous model for supporting online instructors didn’t lend itself to lasting change, according to Jackson.

“It’d be like, somebody would be assigned to a new class, they would work on it, they would disappear,” Jackson said. Now he surveys students about their experiences in classes where he contributed ideas and uses those results to inform additional efforts.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is among the institutions that has committed most aggressively to learning engineering as a profession. Several positions there involve learning engineering, including Digital Learning Lab scientists and fellows. While their work varies depending on department, according to Krishna Rajagopal, the institution's dean for digital learning, responsibilities typically include producing publishable research and helping numerous instructors "build new innovative digital tools that are helping catalyze improvements in how students are on campus, and also helping faculty to use those same tools to reach learners around the world." At MIT, those duties apply equally to face-to-face and online classes, Rajagopal said.

As institutions continue to wrestle with the best model for creating high-quality online courses, the learning engineer role evolves to keep up. At Loyola University Chicago, a four-person learning engineer team used to answer “how-to” questions, but it’s now shifted to helping define “how we can work,” according to Sarah Kentner, who’s been on the team since 2014.

She urges instructors to think more deeply about how their actions affect students. If an instructor wants to increase student engagement by creating a discussion forum, Kentner asks questions like, “What’s the purpose of the forum? How will you engage the discussion? Would it have been better to have a synchronous online class discussion for 20 minutes?”

Kentner’s efforts span many departments at the university. Some of those departments also employ instructional designers, who work on crafting individual learning experiences. For departments without instructional designers, Kentner helps instructors choose between design templates, but she emphasizes that she lacks the essential “artistic eye.”

In some cases, Kentner said, instructional designers at her institution urge faculty members toward technology solutions because they “look really cool,” but Kentner prefers to emphasize tools that function well and that she can explain to others.

While she works primarily with instructors of online and hybrid courses, she’s willing to offer guidance to face-to-face instructors as well. Often, though, she finds online and hybrid instructors are more open to constructive feedback.

Kentner mostly offers advice to instructors who seek it out, often in the two or three weeks before a new semester begins. She also works on learning management system support and faculty development initiatives throughout the school year. Eventually she hopes her team can take initiative to contact instructors and help them improve.

"We can look at what they are doing, and we can use the data to prove where the success is already happening, as well as where there’s opportunities for growth, and how we can make that growth possible," Kentner said.

Where Does the Term Come From?

The “learning engineer” job might be still emerging, but the title dates back more than half a century. In a 1967 essay on advice for college presidents, Carnegie Mellon University scholar Herbert Simon urged institutions to “find a place on the campus for a team of individuals who are professionals in the design of learning environments -- learning engineers, if you will.” (The next sentence suggests paying for those new roles by increasing class sizes, suggesting some of Simon’s insights have aged more gracefully than others.)

Carnegie Mellon has invested heavily in Simon’s learning engineer concept, with its master's of educational technology and applied learning science (METALS) program heading into its sixth year. According to Norman Bier, executive director of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative for online courses, the university sees itself as a standard-bearer for the learning engineer profession.

“We really feel like we’ve got a specialized attachment to the concept and the term,” Bier said.

METALS has grown from just six students in the first cohort to more than 25 in the current ones, according to Ken Koedinger, the program's director.

During the summer, students tackle a real-life problem from an industry client -- a university or company. One group this summer worked with Western Governors University to streamline its course development process so that centralized expertise from instructional designers doesn’t conflict with discipline-specific guidance from fellow instructors. According to Koedinger, the students conducted interviews for qualitative analysis and requested student performance data from instructors and designers. The final product was a platform for instructors to share student assessment results so that instructors and designers don’t duplicate work.

Courses include elearning design principles; tools for online learning; interaction design overview; and educational goals, instruction and assessment. Koedinger wants students to emerge from the program ready to approach problems with an eye toward using data and evidence to support recommendations. Many of those techniques apply outside the higher ed context, he said.

“I think it’s totally nuts what we do now -- we design it, we develop it, we assume it’s great, we keep on doing it the same old way. At a university, of all places?” Koedinger said. “It’s hard sometimes to admit where things aren't working, where you’re failing, but that's the only way you get to the best.”

Graduates of METALS have moved on to jobs at companies like Pearson, Cengage, LinkedIn and Quora. Several others have become learning engineers and Ph.D. students at Carnegie Mellon, and one alum landed a learning experience designer position at Western Governors University.

Bier identifies a learning engineer as someone with “deep engagement with data and instrumentation,” as well as a commitment to monitoring that the ideas they implement and changes they suggest are successful.

Learning engineers benefit from experience in project management and educational data mining, as well as more technical skills than would be expected of an instructional designer, according to Bier.

He recognizes that the term has a clinical feel that might alienate some proponents of maintaining “humanity” in the learning experience.

“I think that in a world where we’re seeing such heavy promotion of the use of data and the use of analytics and AI and adaptive, this can leave a sense of, ‘We’re just looking to take human beings one step further from the process,’” Bier said. Part of his responsibility going forward, he said, is to improve messaging around the profession.

What Do Instructional Designers Think?

Instructional designers’ job responsibilities vary depending on the institution, and many believe their roles are evolving or will evolve into something closer to what learning engineers currently claim as unique to their profession.

After observing this job posting for a learning engineer role at Carnegie Mellon, Trey Martindale, an instructional design expert who heads the instructional systems and work-force development department at Mississippi State University, replied, “In my view that's an instructional designer with some experience in data analytics.”

Martindale does admit that many instructional designers don’t focus on research. He doesn’t outright reject the possibility that learning engineers play a different role than instructional designers do. But he’s wary of attaching the “engineer” label, which sounds to him like a superficial effort to sound more sophisticated.

“If you are an instructional designer, but you’re trying to avoid the word ‘instruction,’ because instruction somehow has become pejorative, [some have] started to call themselves learning designers. There’s a small leap from learning designer to learning architect to what might be learning engineer,” Martindale said. “You can call yourself whatever you want, but if the job description is the same as instructional designer, then you’re the same.”

Instructional designers worry that introducing a new term for a similar job will only further confuse higher ed colleagues about what they do, according to Penny Ralston-Berg, an instructional designer for Penn State World Campus. She pointed "Inside Digital Learning" to instructional design standards published by the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction. Upon close inspection, items like "apply data collection and analysis skills in instructional design projects" indicate overlap with the learning engineer role.

The confusion around the term strikes Paxton Riter, CEO of the instructional design company iDesign, as evidence that online learning is maturing. His colleague Whitney Kilgore, the company’s co-founder and chief academic officer, sympathizes with instructional designers who reject the possibility of a new term complicating their field.

“Having been in the instructional design field for 17 years, my personal identity is tied to that term,” Kilgore said. “Am I a learning engineer now because there’s a new term for it?”

Alyssa Dyar, a learning engineer in Northwestern’s law school, said she’s had an easier time explaining the learning engineering concept to people who ask because, in most cases, they don’t have any preconceived notions about the term. She admits instructional designers do most of what she does, but she thinks “learning engineer” more clearly summarizes her role.

"I found that a little bit when my title had ‘technologist’ in it, professors would assume it’s tech support," Dyar said. "Having this different title has given me an opportunity to sell myself and what I do to people I’m working with."

What’s the Future of Learning Engineering?

Most institutions haven’t yet reached the point of investing significantly in learning engineering. Virginia Tech collaborated with Carnegie Mellon on a project called the Data Informed Learning and Teaching Initiative, which was designed to introduce some of Carnegie Mellon's technology-enhanced learning solutions to improve Virginia Tech courses, both face-to-face and online.

Several Virginia Tech staffers attended a Carnegie Mellon summer symposium on learning engineering. But graduates from Carnegie Mellon’s master’s degree program appeared on first glance more qualified for corporate environments than for higher ed, according to Dale Pike, executive director and associate provost for technology-enhanced learning and online strategies at Virginia Tech.

“We specifically sought to recruit learning engineers as part of this project we were working on, and we were not successful,” Pike said. “As a result of that, we took a longer view.” The university also had changes in leadership around the same time that made hiring for a new position more cumbersome, according to Pike.

Technical skills alone aren’t enough for a qualified candidate to make an impact at the university, he said. Though Pike hasn’t yet found qualified learning engineers who make sense for his institution, the process did help him tweak the expectations for new instructional designers to include more expertise around data.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Electronic and Electric Engineers has tasked a working group with sorting out the parameters of the learning engineer role. Ellen Wagner, a visiting professor at George Mason University with joint appointments in the Virginia Serious Games Institute and the university's Division of Learning Technologies, has since 2017 chaired the Learning Engineering as a Profession special interest group within the institute’s Industry Consortium of Learning Engineers (ICICLE).

Wagner’s group has consulted with organizations like Educause and the E-Learning Guild and attended conferences around the world. Efforts will culminate next year in a conference on learning engineering.

“The cool thing in our world is figuring out what we need to make technology really reach its potential with people who are not just hacking their way into what they think should work for learning,” Wagner said.

Other fields like defense and military training, as well as the corporate business sector, have moved more quickly to incorporate principles of engineering. Wagner believes her group’s efforts to create standards around engineers in education marks one step on a long road to improving institutions’ ability to navigate the technology landscape. “I want institutions to feel like they have more agency in the conversations that they can have” with technology vendors, Wagner said.

Consensus might be elusive, but Jerome thinks all parties want the same thing.

"Fundamentally a learning engineer ought to be fulfilling the creation of courseware that’s better serving students," Jerome said. "That’s hard to argue it’s not a good thing."

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