Learning Design Must be Rooted in Empathy

By Michael Atkinson
November 02, 2020

When it comes to online courses, learning design must include empathy for both the teacher and the student in order to be effective. The pandemic has highlighted that if this foundational design philosophy is missing, engagement rates and true learning plummet.

When talking with others about the work we do at Construct as learning designers, I’m sometimes asked “Are you able to really push the envelope with clients, getting buy-in for really transformative learning?” With so much education moving online in 2020, the question seems more relevant than ever.

Finding a Balance in Learning Design

The answer is it depends. Many districts, colleges, and universities have a plan for learning that suits their needs. And as learning experts we’re aware of new types of learning that are a leap for those who don’t say the word “pedagogy” every day. There’s a world where AI, analytics, micro-credentials, mixed reality media, and more all mingle for the good of advancing learning. Sometimes, we succeed in encouraging clients to try some of these new things that we know can move the needle for their learners. However, it can be tricky getting there.

Often, success lies on a narrow path. It starts with the emotional intelligence to examine multiple points of view. For example, a campus distance learning administrator might seek input and feedback from teachers and students before mapping a virtual learning framework. Or a teacher who imagines what it’s like to be a student might struggle as they plan their online course. Caring enough to do the hard things and examining multiple viewpoints leads to amazing learning.

Additional, unsolicited value happens only as we grow trust over time. Beside the importance to their organization and its learners, the learning we design is often highly personal to the subject matter experts and faculty we work with. It represents them and their commitment and service to their learners, at times their life work. With this comes a high expectation to honor the work. But good design means reviewing all work through the eyes of the end user and making recommendations to ensure the good intentions of the course translate into engaging learning.

Putting Yourself in Learners’ Shoes

The best learning designers do their utmost to show, not tell, clients that taking another look at their work through the eyes of others will yield even better learning experiences. We try to show what our ideas will actually look like. We do what we promise. We must sincerely listen and get to know them, because the essence of learning design is empathy, the understanding of the material, subject matter expert’s learner, and the subject matter expert themself.

Outside of COVID-19, this is why an important approach is one that many in edtech have moved away from as they seek to scale. We often send embedded teams on location with clients. We smell the air, get a feel for their culture, quirks, and uniqueness. We spend time getting to know each other. When a pandemic shuts down the world, we work extra hard to do this remotely.

This caring for partners is a type of emotional labor, but it’s where success lies, though not simply all in the day-to-day minutia of the work. Discussions of learning goals and learning activities, collecting content, writing, and building media are certainly core elements to good learning design.Yet, there is something more.

Overcoming Obstacles

Inevitably, when scaling learning, challenges arise.  There’s an inconvenient request or a last-minute change that cascades and grows exponentially. It requires extra time, extra budget, and extra emotional energy. Frankly, it can be painful. This is the moment to lean into empathy, and it is what we do. We put our heads down and do those extra or painful things with others in mind. The time it takes in the process can lead to a greater ability to scale, a broader audience to reach. It feels good when we look at the project with others in mind.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The trust and goodwill from the steadiness of caring leads to better learning because we are completely trusted to do it. Sometimes, it leads to more business together. Value increases because we’ve set ego aside and listened to each other. These days, a genuine, outward focus on others is a huge differentiator that is crucial to growth.

Most importantly, keeping in mind that there is a learner at the other end of every engagement means we stay focused on making courses better. Often, the learning experience is one of the most memorable things in a student’s life, fueling  their hopes and dreams.  Good design starts with care. Caring for clients, teachers, and learners.

Without a doubt, 2021 will require even more compassion as we adjust to new routines, forever changed by the preceding year. This compassion will help drive the empathy we need to be successful in creating truly engaging elearning. Let’s roll our sleeves up, take care of each other, and get it done, together.

About the author: As Construct’s Chief Learning Officer in the Salt Lake City office, Michael connects with the Construct team across the globe in order to understand and develop strategies to drive learning to be more impactful. Using his expertise and personal passion for education, Michael ensures that learning Construct designs and builds benefits not only students, learners, and clients, but that it also supports everyone on the Construct team to progress in their own professional and lifelong learning endeavors.

Featured Image: Jeswin Thomas, Unsplash.