Learning Design

Attack of the Learning Engineers

A term I’ve seen on the increase is that of “Learning Engineer”. Job descriptions using it seem to be pretty similar to a learning technologist, so maybe it’s just this year’s label. Saxberg asks “where are the learning engineers? The sad truth is, we don’t have an equivalent corps of professionals who are applying learning science at our colleges, schools, and other institutions of learning.” I get his point, what is the point of doing all this research into education if we just shrug our shoulders and go “it’s complicated.”

However, like others I have discomfort about the term. I was part of the ‘learning design’ field in the 00s, and I felt that ‘design’ captured some of the complexity around learning. Design is both a precise, technical approach but also a creative, artistic endeavour. This reflects the messiness of education, through which an educator is trying to devise an effective path for a learner.

Learning engineer has different connotations. It is in some respects an attractive term – who wouldn’t want to perfectly construct learning like a bridge from ignorance to knowledge as you reliably engineer a bridge across a river? This is not just about semantics however, but surfaces fundamental beliefs about education. For some it is a precise science, where education can be reliably and repeatedly constructed in the same manner for everyone. For others it is complex field where different approaches have desirable outcomes for some learners but not others and one that is continually negotiated. This dichotomy represents the manner in which education will be shaped in an AI/Data/Networked world. If the engineer perspective dominates (whether it is true or not is not that relevant, it’s whether the narrative becomes dominant), then education is something that can be reliably captured in algorithms. If the design perspective dominates then technology works in service to the human educator who seeks to adapt and modify educational experiences.

So, not to be overly dramatic (but yes, I am going to be overly dramatic), learning engineer vs learning designer represents the battleground for the soul of education. Choose wisely.


  • Scott Leslie

    This looks like one of the origins https://standards.ieee.org/industry-connections/industry-consortium-learning-engineering.html

    Some of the same people who brought forth the term “software engineering.” Sic the *actual* engineers on them. Both of these johnny-come-lately fields should be pilloried for using the term. I’m the son of a civil engineer. In Canada they wear a ring made of metal from a collapsed bridge to remind themselves of the seriousness of the job (and its anchor in the physical world). The idea that either computer or learning “engineers” have anywhere near the same relationship to their subject matter as electrical, civil or chemical engineers is laughable. Yes I understand the implication, but happy to live with it – hard sciences (and the applications thereof) are “hard” for a reason.

    “Design” definitely feels more appropriate here, and the creep is that of seeking to legitimize through association that which otherwise is necessarily hazy. That’s not saying “there’s no such thing as successful learning design that works for large numbers of people” but simply to resist its reduction.

  • Lynne

    ‘Learning engineer’ evokes the horror of Learning Objects, standardised metadata, structured blogging & the like, which used to get me so riled back in about 2006. Its also an unwelcome reminder of Noble’s 1998/2001 dismissal of e-learning institutions as ‘Digital Diploma Mills’.

    I know my references are out of date, but that’s partly the point: the metaphor of learning as an engineering process does seem to hark back to old arguments about the risk of online learning wiping out all the rich organic messiness of ‘proper’ learning. In that respect I find it an alienating metaphor.

  • RebeccaF

    I think you’re right that we don’t need a new term and that whatever term we use needs to take into account the technical, creative, and artistic skills needed in education.
    On the other hand, I don’t think I share your reservations about the term ‘engineer’. One of the educators I often work with began life as an engineer. She brings that perspective to her teaching, she’s highly creative, and she can see the way to solutions when I’m stuck.
    Is there any reason to assume that engineers aren’t creative? Isn’t creativity an essential aspect of engineering (along with, as Scott points out, the clear understanding that getting things wrong can ruin lives)? Engineers come up with new ideas, work out how to put them into practice, prototype them, implement them, evaluate them, refine them. You could argue that they go several steps further than designers, who don’t necessarily deal with the later stages of that process.

    • mweller

      I agree that engineers are creative, and in some ways similar to designers. I guess it was more about the intentions behind the adoption of such a phrase rather than the subtle interpretations of what’s involved in engineering

  • Rick West

    Spot on Martin. Learning Engineering sounds too impersonal. I hope we continue to emphasize that education is about designing experiences for people … opportunities and environments where they can flourish! I love that metaphor much more.

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