Given the growing demand for learning design skills in South Africa and worldwide, a clear view of how the typical South African learning designers are currently hired and trained is increasingly important. As a pair of independent learning designers with over a decade of global experience, we have a unique perspective on how learning designers across the world are trained, and how this training reflects in the quality and impact of their work. We have further conducted surveys and interviews to define the profile, training, and responsibilities of South African learning designers in different sectors. We then used this data to identify key gaps in our national learning design skillset and suggest interventions to address these gaps.
Our research shows that South African learning designers are typically not formally educated in learning design and often feel like they must master divergent skillsets if they wish to be marketable in their new professions. We further outline how learning designers’ profiles, responsibilities and skills differ across the secondary education, higher education, corporate and agency sectors. Finally, we discuss the impact of this on a South African learning designer’s ability to excel in their role and find stability in their employment.
We are two independent learning designers who run our own boutique agency and e-learning marketplace, Who's your ADDIE? For over 10 years, we have created learning experiences with several public and private institutions in the Global North and the Global South, offering curriculum design, content research, storyboarding, media production and edtech systems design and development services. We have managed over 100 learning designers in our careers to date, and we also design business models and educational content production systems for organisations new to the online education space. Yet, neither of us has a formal qualification in learning design. Stephanie studied digital media production and went on to earn a master's degree in interaction design, while Lizzy has a master's in film studies and a PhD in literature – an expert in human-computer interaction and an expert in storytelling both working in education. Consequently, we spend most of our time wondering whether the lack of formal qualifications in learning design has been a setback for us.
In some ways, this chapter represents our investigation into whether it would be a good idea for us to pursue formal certifications or whether the books we have read, the leaders from whom we have learned and the practical experience we have gained are enough to make us experts in learning design. We have been lucky to collaborate with learning designers who have varying degrees of formal education from all over the world. This has given us unique insight into how different learning designers are trained and educated, and how this reflects on the quality and impact of their work.
South Africa is widely acknowledged in the professional literature as having participated in online education in both local and international spaces through the provision of platforms and services and the provision of skilled professionals. In our experience, our competitiveness at an international level continues to be reflected in the number of South African learning designers hired in senior positions at prominent international EdTech companies, a trend that only accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic (FourthRev, 2021; Superside, 2021; SureSkills, 2021). However, the experience of learning designers regarding formal education and career stability is complex leading to variation in professional identities and career trajectories.
In this chapter, we explore what it means to be a competent learning designer in the South African context. How are South African learning designers educated and trained, and what is the possible impact of this on the nature and quality of their work? We will show that learning design is, in some sectors, considered to be a field in which any graduate can become competent with little to no training nor even access to a mentor to support their growth. We consider the gaps that this approach has created in our national learning design skillsets, and how learning designers, as a community of practice, can collaborate to close these gaps to maintain and grow the integrity of our profession.
The learning design field in South Africa
The rapid proliferation of e-learning practices and practitioners that started in “the year of the MOOC” in 2012 (Shah, 2020) has continued throughout the last decade and accelerated dramatically with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic (Decherney & Levander, 2021). This was evident in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, when as demonstrated in Figure 1 EdTech venture capital funding in which South African companies were active participants saw a spike. In 2021, a record $20B of venture capital was invested in EdTech start-up companies, a value 15.8 times higher than in 2011 (Napoleão, 2022).
At least three of the companies that have benefited from this funding boom have their operations based in South Africa; their focus on online education included an online high school, career acceleration and internship provider targeting tertiary education students and a coding bootcamp provider. While all three companies, as is the case for many start-ups, have scaled up their operations, perhaps the most dramatic are online high schools. For example, one high school saw 425% growth between April 2020 and April 2022 as indicated in their LinkedIn Insights data (Valenture Institute, 2022).
Given that the global investment in EdTech companies has increased almost 16-fold in the last 10 years, it should come as no surprise that the demand for EdTech talent including learning designers has increased globally too. South African learning design agencies and online programme management institutions participate in setting the global standard of learning design by continuing to attract several high-profile international clients. On the academic side, prestigious universities in the UK and the US (the likes of Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford and MIT) contract local South African EdTech companies as online learning service providers. Similarly, in our experience, large multinational corporate clients draw on South African-based expertise through local companies.
Opportunities for formal study in learning design in South Africa are limited. Postgraduate courses in learning design (beyond a certificate or module-length engagement) became increasingly popular around 2012 when the University of Cape Town, the University of Johannesburg and the University of Witwatersrand began their Master of Education degree programmes. In addition, as these are postgraduate qualifications, only a select few can access these opportunities. Unsurprisingly, and as our research will shows, many South African learning designers, including those in senior positions that maintain our reputation on the international stage, largely forged their own path with little to no formal training or credentials. What is more, new learning designers continue to do the same.
In the South African context, the relationships that exist between corporate learning design agencies and companies and between basic and higher education institutions are complex and produce a challenging landscape for learning designers to navigate, especially as they seek to move between roles in the public and private sectors. The remainder of this chapter sketches how we explored this context and what we now understand about the field of learning design.
We conducted our investigation over the course of six months in 2021 and 2022 through an online survey and structured interviews with a select group of participants. We recruited 60 study participants using two social networking platforms:
- LinkedIn from a network of 1700 followers of which about 600 followers work in e-learning
- The South African EdTech Collective Slack Group with a membership of 163 at the time, all of whom work as learning designers or in related positions.
Most of our participants self-selected by responding to our forum-wide request for South African learning designers to complete the survey, but we also reached out to a few of our professional acquaintances to directly recruit them. Fifty-four of the participants completed our survey and we recorded structured interviews with 17 of them. Of the participants we interviewed, 10 are hiring managers who had been hiring learning designers to serve the South African market. We obtained consent from our participants to share quotes from these interviews verbatim with the agreement that we would not identify them or the institution for which they work, except where participants have given us their written consent to do so. In reporting on the data, when we use a first name only, we are using a pseudonym as the participant has requested. However, in some cases, participants requested the use of their real names. Our secondary research was conducted using popular media, peer-reviewed scholarship and popular industry databases such as HolonIQ, LinkedIn Premium Insights, and Dealroom.
Our participants worked in the following contexts:
- Higher education (17 participants), including learning designers that work in any institution that offers or develops content for accredited degree programmes.
- Secondary education (12 participants) including learning designers that work for online high schools or further education and training colleges.
- Corporate (13 participants), including learning designers that work in the learning and development department of a single company.
- Non-profit (1 participant) which included learning designers that work for non-profit organisations.
- Agency or online programme management (16 participants) which included learning designers that deliver services for clients in various sectors. Online programme management (OPM) agencies that design and develop course content and manage course delivery and maintenance. They are responsible for the recruitment and management of facilitation staff, student support and the certification process.
We thematically analysed the data we collected from our participants to find the general trends in their responses to our questioning.
Who designs e-learning in South Africa?
In our experiences as learning design professionals in various contexts (higher education, secondary education and agency), we had noticed that many of our colleagues were arts or humanities graduates. Thus, we were not surprised to see this reflected in our data. Of the learning designers that we surveyed, 93% had at least one degree, of which 62% indicated an arts or humanities specialisation. This differs from the trend in the US where one study showed that 88% of Instructional Designers have a graduate degree and 49% of respondents stated that “their respective degrees came from either an instructional design or educational technology program” (Arnold et al., 2018, p. 6). When we asked local hiring managers why they prefer candidates with degrees, they expressed that degrees give them confidence that the candidate would have basic critical thinking and analytical capabilities and acceptable English proficiency and communication skills. Kira, founder of Elevate Learning and head of digital learning at Momentum Metropolitan prefers candidates with a background in arts or humanities:
the emphasis is on “Can I think critically, and can I express myself in a way that is coherent and succinct?”.
All the hiring manager participants agreed that although they require that applicants have an undergraduate degree, they would accept candidates without degrees if the candidate could somehow prove they had the desired skills in another way. This need could be addressed by providing a reputable specialist competency assessment service for learning designers that would remove the burden of assessing incumbent learning designers’ skills from the employer.
Another clear pattern that emerged is that 75% of our respondents identified as white or Caucasian. The South African Black African population is in the majority (49.1 million) and constitutes approximately 80.1% of the total population (Statistics South Africa, 2022), which raises questions about the diversity of the profession. As we noted in the previous section, many South African learning designers do not necessarily serve South African learners. Increasingly, they serve an international market comprising large institutions that design for a global audience. For example, in our own careers, we have designed learning experiences for global EdTech firms such as Coursera, which serves over 100 million learners from all over the world (Coursera, 2022), as well as multinational corporations with manufacturing plants and distribution centres on every continent. Therefore, while South Africa may have an unusually diverse learner base as far as home language, culture, race and ethnicity are concerned, the development of global learner audiences has made considerations for learner diversity the norm in best practice approaches to learning design. This is to be welcomed.
The shift to designing learning that is applicable to diverse audiences is a positive change as the field has a history of assuming too much homogeneity in learner groups. Regardless of how large or small your target audience is, our learners are all staggeringly different right down to how their brains process language. Ethnicity and sociocultural context are the most prominent examples of what Susie L. Gronseth, Esther Michela and Lydia Oluchi Ugwu in Designing for Diverse Learners refer to as “commonalities among learners” (2020, para 1). Although these commonalities are important to consider in the South African context, we can’t homogenise our learner groups based on common factors like race, age, language or class. A learning designer is not necessarily better able to empathise with and design for a particular learner because they share their ethnicity; there are also many other factors that may impact on their capacity to design with empathy. For example, a learning designer fluent in South African sign language might be a more appropriate candidate to design a programme for a deaf learner regardless of racial background. Tanya, an experienced learning designer and hiring manager who has served a range of South African learners, notes that she often sees challenges of empathy arising from a range of different variables:
I don’t know what it’s like to be a miner; I have to ask them!
Although we maintain that we do need to compose our teams to reflect the demographic diversity of their contexts, we can’t rely exclusively on the diversity of our teams to bolster our ability to design for diverse learner groups.
Given that it's not possible for a learning design team to represent all the learners for whom they are designing material, it is still crucial that all learning designers are able to empathise with their diverse learner audience effectively. As Gronseth et al. argue: “Being able to plan for diverse learners begins with developing empathetic understandings of the characteristics in which learners will vary” (2020, para 1). Caroline, who has designed experiences for a wide range of learner audiences both within South Africa and internationally, reflects:
Learners will all experience the content differently; you can’t get around the role of empathy, and estimating and imagining what the issues might be.
Robyn, who works at a higher education institution that focuses on marketable creative skills, experiences similar challenges:
There’s a stark difference between people who are studying on company time and people who can afford R16,000 for a 10-week course, versus people who are studying on a bursary and have to do it on their phone.
To design better for more diverse learner groups, learning designers need to improve their ability to empathise which can be “deepened over time through experience and effort” (Gronseth et al., 2020, para 7) as well as research (Fila & Hess, 2015). Learning designers should ensure that their learners are given enough variation in the means of engagement, representation and expression throughout the learning experience which will allow for the experience to be more universally relevant and applicable (CAST, 2018).
Who is hiring South African learning designers and LD companies?
There are large numbers of learning designers entering the market every year and yet demand for learning designers in the South African market remains high. The head of talent at a prominent EdTech institution noted that in her experience, “the market demands for learning design talent is definitely on the rise” and that not enough is being done to educate suitable graduates on learning design career opportunities. Lara, who has been involved in the recruitment of learning designers at both international and local e-learning providers commented that “there is definitely a shortage of South African learning designers serving the local market" and that competent South African learning design candidates appear to find the best financial reward in being directly employed by global companies. The next best thing is to be employed by a South African company that serves the international market. As these agencies have their revenue boosted by the exchange rate, they can afford higher salaries for their learning designers and are undertaking less and less local work since South African clients cannot afford their rates. Lara mentioned:
I can imagine if you are a university or a company serving the local market and you need to employ a learning designer, that’s where it’s getting particularly difficult.
As a result, positions in companies that serve the local market often remain vacant or they risk being filled with inexperienced, under-qualified candidates.
What are learning designers called?
During our research, we encountered a challenge in establishing who should and should not participate in a study about learning designers in South Africa. Although we have some strong opinions on what it means to be a learning designer, we decided that it would be more illuminating to take a descriptive approach. Therefore, we included in our research the responses from anyone who self-selected as a South African learning designer. From this audience, we collected 15 different job titles as represented in Figure 2.
We ignored differences accounted for by seniority or specialty. For example, “senior learning designer” and “financial learning designer” (a learning designer who specialises in financial topics) were both counted as a learning designer. Our results indicated that the most popular job titles were learning designer and learning experience designer. As demonstrated in Figure 3, more than 60% of our respondents had one of these two titles.
In interviews, our participants used “instructional design”, “learning design” and “learning experience design” interchangeably except when we asked them to define the differences between these terms. It is interesting to note that “instructional designer” is not as popular a job title amongst our participants even though it is still a widely used term globally, as reported by Google in web search volume data represented in Figure 4 below.
Although the hiring managers we interviewed felt that job titles are treated flippantly in the field of learning design, they could all rationalise their own choice of job title coherently. A common sentiment was that the term “instructional designer” implies a manner of thinking that is too rigid or instructor-centric. Cathy, a hiring manager at an e-learning agency, notes that moving away from the instructional design title allows for:
A shift from focusing on the needs of the instructor and the way the information is disseminated, to more of a focus on the learners and how [people] learn.
Tanya, a hiring manager at a different e-learning agency, explains that the change from instructional designer to learning experience designer was also an important symbolic shift for her team from “I’m teaching you” to “You are learning”.
The inconsistent approach to job titles could be a symptom of the varying maturity of South African learning design teams in different sectors and contexts. For example, Mari, who was the first learning designer at her university and has occupied this role for ten years, recalls onboarding learning designers with varying titles from across the university whose managers simply sent them to Mari to have their jobs explained to them. Given the diversity of job titles for learning designers, it also comes as no surprise that even if two learning designers have the same job title but work in slightly different contexts, their responsibilities and competencies differ widely as we will discuss next.
Are South African learning designers “competent”?
Over the past few decades, there have been several attempts to define the skillset that a competent learning designer is expected to maintain. As most of these were defined in relation to instructional design, we must make use of these texts with the understanding that the terms are typically used interchangeably in the field. In Standards and Competencies for Instructional Design and Technology Professionals, Martin and Ritzhaupt (2020) compiled a list of professional organisations who publish instructional design standards:
Many of these standards were compiled with reference to research conducted over the last two decades through literature reviews, surveys, job announcement analyses and interviews in the US contexts (Martin & Ritzhaupt, 2021). In The Competencies and Goals of Instructional Designers, Arnold et al. (2018, p. 4) compiled a meta-analysis of the literature and found that the competencies required of learning designers are (in order of importance as determined through the frequency with which it was cited):
- Theoretical knowledge
- Course design and development
- Project management
- Research and analysis
- Technical/technology expertise
- Ongoing learning and adaptation
- Relationship management
- Identifying and resolving ethical and legal implications of design
- Faculty development
- Editing and proofreading
In practice, however, analyses of job descriptions for instructional designers show that different sectors and organisations design these roles differently (Arnold et al., 2018, p. 11) which can make it difficult for learning designers to move jobs and still feel competent. In addition, most of these competency frameworks are developed in the Global North and their relevance in the South African context remains in question.
We asked our South African hiring managers and learning designers what they consider to be the “soft” skills that learning designers should have. Our participants offered the following:
- Problem-solving skills
- Critical and creative thinking
- Strong communication
- Navigating ambiguity
Caroline, who has had a colourful range of experiences in her first five years as a learning designer, summarised how these skills serve the typical learning designer in practice:
The e-learning industry – whether it’s for an agency, a corporation, or a school – it’s not like writing a book or creating a piece of art; it’s functional. There are always constraints, and therefore there are always compromises. Being able to negotiate those, and being able to prioritise what is the thing we can compromise on, what is the core of this programme we absolutely can’t compromise on, that is a crucial skill.
There were two other softer skills that were emphasised by all our corporate and agency-based interviewees but were not mentioned by our higher education participants: time management and client management. Although being efficient and managing expectations are important skills for any professional, in an agency context, these skills – not learner or student outcomes – define success. Thus, the commercial aspects of a project are more transparently discussed in an agency: it’s usually what matters most. In an agency, every learning designer shares in the accountability for ensuring that projects are executed as efficiently as possible, while also ensuring that clients are so delighted with the output that they are more likely to return with more work. As Rachel notes:
Return on investment is about time; you have to get this thing out in a certain amount of time, and that doesn’t give you space to question other people’s decisions, much less your own.
In higher and secondary education contexts, and, to an extent, in some corporate contexts, profit and loss are much dirtier words with long latencies for their calculation, and even then, these calculations are not widely shared or discussed. As two interviewees noted, in corporate contexts, success is tied tightly to output and completion. In higher education, learning gain, pass rates and enrolments are the numbers that are examined most carefully, and to a lesser extent this is also the case in secondary education contexts. What it means for a learning project to succeed in each context is at the core of the differences in what it means to excel as a learning designer in different contexts. Learning designers should be intentional about the sector in which they choose to work as it will likely have a significant impact on their job satisfaction.
As far as the “harder” or more easily measured skills such as writing and technical skills are concerned, this is where our interviewees diverge most noticeably. Mari, who works in higher education, opined that it’s most important that learning or instructional designers are familiar enough with educational technologies to:
Be able to determine what tools will best serve [their] context, and [are] able to use those very well.
Robyn, from her vantage point in a different higher education context, emphasised the importance of strong writing and editing skills. Andre moved from higher education to an agency and he had to learn many additional skills to excel in his new position. Whereas in higher education, he worked with SMEs and executed their ideas in an authoring tool, at the agency he had to learn how to work with clients from different backgrounds, conceptualise graphics, code and apply various learning theories. These diverse skillsets also emerged in our survey results where we asked participants how they would rate their expertise in different skillsets that we collected from learning design job descriptions summarised in Figures 5, 6, 7 and 8 below:
There is no one clear area in which our learning designers feel they are excelling. In all sectors, learning designers appear to feel most confident about being good developers of content and assessments, but it is concerning that less than half of our participants consider themselves to be experts in these areas and about 26% of them feel that they are average or below average when it comes to developing assessments. Designing assessments that effectively test the identified learning objectives is core to the learning design practice, yet it is a skill that is neglected in the face of all the other tasks that learning designers need to learn how to perform. Interestingly, the higher education chart suggests that these learning designers do not have access to media or learning technology teams with which they can collaborate. Agency and corporate learning designers are rarely required to produce their own media as is the case with the secondary education learning designers that were surveyed. Higher education learning designers therefore find themselves having to further split their focus. Overall, the agency-based learning designers appear to have the most confidence in their expertise in a range of skills with graphic design being the only field where no respondents considered themselves an expert; this is unsurprising given their access to dedicated media production teams. The profile of a corporate learning designer most closely matches that of an agency-based learning designer. This is not surprising given that corporate learning and development teams frequently work closely with agency teams in South Africa, whereas higher and secondary education learning designers rarely collaborate with corporate or agency learning design teams.
Our research shows that learning designers feel like they have to excel at varied and often even divergent skillsets if they wish to be marketable in their industry which limits their ability to focus their energy on an appropriate direction for growth. Ceri, who currently works in a corporate position, had one of the widest sets of responsibilities we encountered:
I maintain the e-learning system, do all of the uploading of the materials, liaise with subject-matter experts, get the material, rewrite it for use on the e-learning system, deal with queries and all those types of things.
Cathy also feels pressured to be:
A jack of all trades: sometimes instructional design, sometimes web design, sometimes UX, sometimes teaching; it becomes overwhelming because you can lose focus quite easily. It’s bits of knowledge of everything but no full understanding of anything.
This trend ultimately affects all learning designers as they rarely remain within one sector: 37 of our participants have worked in more than one sector in their careers. Imraan, who is in his third e-learning position, feels that specialising reduces employment prospects. While 18 of our participants only worked in a single sector, they were all currently in their first-ever learning design role.
Learning designers need to be marketable across sectors to feel secure and feel immense pressure to add more skills to their repertoire so that they can easily move between sectors. This prevents learning designers from upskilling in learning science which would empower them with the core principles from education research, neuroscience and psychology that would underpin a rigorous, evidence-based approach to their craft. A more standardised treatment of the learning design job specification would not only benefit our learning designers but also those who hire them, as they will know what to expect of an experienced candidate’s competencies.
So, who currently has the largest influence over how learning design jobs are defined in South Africa? One view is that those institutions that employ and train most of our learning designers are highly influential. Three of our interviewees noted that the larger e-learning companies that have been most visible in the media in the last ten years have heavily influenced how learning or instructional design is understood. Kevin explained that:
An organisation like GetSmarter is viewed as the trainer of so many Instructional or learning designers in South Africa and people look at that and they think that’s where it all started, but computer-mediated education in South Africa goes back to the early nineties.
This resonates with us. As we are often the only South Africans on the call in a meeting with international EdTech organisations. One of the first questions we are sometimes asked in those meetings is: “Do you know Rob Paddock?” (Rob Paddock is a founder of GetSmarter).
The trend of visible companies that produce the most learning designers exerts influence over what it means to be a learning designer in South Africa and thus impacts what new hiring managers expect of their learning designers and how they craft their roles. Mari, who was the first learning designer at her university and has occupied this role for ten years, joked that hiring managers from various departments at her institution seem to imagine that learning designers “do what GetSmarter does” and could “make [their] modules get smarter” when, in reality, learning designers at such companies work closely with (comparatively) high budget media production and learning technology teams. When we mentioned the fact that learning designers, graphic designers and learning technologists are separate roles at private companies, many of our higher education interviewees were surprised as they were expected to absorb those responsibilities into their roles as learning designers. This shows that some of the attempts to replicate commercial e-learning services are misguided, ill-informed and may lead to unfair conclusions being drawn about e-learning agencies and online programme managers more broadly.
One hiring manager in the higher education space described agencies and online programme managers as partially responsible for shaping the learning design role as a primarily contract or freelance position:
It's not really a career that you pursue; it’s just something that you try for a couple of years, and then you move on to the next thing.
This understanding may be linked to the fact that in local companies and even some higher education institutions, learning design positions are commonly fixed-term contracts. This could, in part, be the cause of many learning designers feeling that they are not as competent or valued as they hope to be. Due to short-term employment contracts, companies are hesitant to invest in training learning designers, a trend that we will examine shortly.
How are learning designers trained?
When we asked participants how they trained to become a learning designer, 67% of our survey respondents stated that they had never even done so much as a short course but learned only on the job. This is where the organisational definition of success becomes important. In some organisations, a successful project is one that appears well-crafted, with lots of interactivity and well-branded media, while still having been produced with little evidence-based theory applied. It is, therefore, not surprising that the most common approach to upskilling learning designers is a one or two-week induction programme in which learning designers are typically informed at a surface level of the theories that underlie the company’s practices (even if this is an agency that serves various contexts and needs). After this, the focus is primarily on creating different types of educational assets effectively within a given set of narrow parameters, rather than on selecting and applying an appropriate set of theories to inform the course design and content development approach. Ayesha noted that before she happened to be exposed to broader learning theories through a course she developed about learning science, she didn’t really understand the scope of what she didn’t know:
I knew ADDIE and Bloom’s, but I didn’t really know the motivation behind a lot of those things.
Learning designers are required to start creating content immediately or as soon as possible. Thus, training privileges content development skills over the application of learning theory. This is cemented in the templates, guides, and process documents that three of our agency-based participants, as well as one corporate participant, mentioned as common practice. Learning designers are given these materials along with examples of existing courses to inform their initial course development exercises, and then receive feedback from a senior colleague. As Ayesha notes:
I was often put on projects where there was one person I could ask questions to, or be given templates and examples of storyboards and scripts or a course that’s been implemented, and then basically I would mimic what’s there.
Imraan echoes this as his primary approach to upskilling as well:
A lot of my skill and knowledge as a learning designer was developed through actually creating courses, and seeing where things went wrong, then iterating from there and making adjustments and taking on whatever feedback I got.
In the absence of formal training, the quality of mentorship is a strong determinant of whether a learning designer will gain expertise with experience, or whether they will continue to gain experience without developing their skills. Marida has had a long career and she remembers that in her early days, she was most grateful to have:
Worked with amazing people. There’s always someone who will help you.
Michael explained that he felt a marked difference when he moved from a company where he was one of the first two learning designers, who were expected to train themselves, to a company where he had adequate mentorship from an experienced team:
I’d submit a storyboard and I’d get a lot of feedback from people with like 20 or 30 years of experience. That was incredibly beneficial for me.
He realised that he had reached a ceiling in the previous context due to the pool of expertise being too narrow, with the most senior persons being no more trained than himself. To learn more, he had to move to a different team.
This points to an interesting problem: in many contexts, the hiring managers that develop and mentor learning design teams are self-taught, primarily through trial and error, online resources and, in some cases, books. A “senior” learning designer could also have as little as one year of experience. We noted this in five contexts across higher education, agencies and corporate alike. Caroline, who is now a hiring manager, recalls her own training period as a new learning designer:
I soon realised that my peers that I thought were super experienced and seemed to know what they were doing were kind of making things up as they go along [...]. No one had that over-encompassing ‘It’s been twenty years that I’ve been doing this, this is a proven model!’ kind of experience. I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants for my whole career.
The benefit of the senior learning designer as a useful mentor is therefore limited as their protege’s level of skill will match their own within a few months. Cathy, another hiring manager, remembers her early days as one of the first learning designers in her department:
You’re telling me I’m an Instructional Designer now, so this is what an Instructional Designer does: whatever you’re telling me to do. So that’s what initially defined my understanding of it, and at that point it was essentially just storyboarding and scriptwriting. Only later we started focusing more on best practice and researching all these instructional design theories and processes.
Cathy feels the burden of this risk and responsibility in her own position as she never had formal training:
I constantly question ‘is this the model or framework I’m meant to be using?’, and if it’s not, there’s no-one who’s going to tell me because I’m meant to be the expert here.
Cathy has now enrolled in a master’s degree in education (ICT) primarily to do an audit of her expertise and ensure she has the adequate grounding for her position.
Unfortunately, the option of completing a master’s degree is not available to many learning designers, especially new ones. New learning designers are still entering their roles as the company’s first learning designers where they are expected to train themselves. One interviewee, who is in her first learning design position as the only learning designer at her organisation, noted that she learns primarily through “trying things” and attended a workshop on sketchnoting and completed a short course on Moodle. While it is encouraging that she is taking the initiative to train herself, it’s clear that without the necessary guidance, it’s very difficult for a new learning designer without strong mentorship to understand what it is they need to learn to be effective in their position. This issue of knowing what to learn also emerged in the variety of responses we received from our participants when we asked them what they would like to learn to be able to grow as learning designers. Michael feels that he “should know more about pedagogical theory”, but that he “doesn’t know where to start”. Caroline experiences this pressure as well, even after several years in senior positions:
There is so much learning theory out there, there are so many methodologies out there as well. I’m sure there are things that I miss because I miss that professional background.
The impact on many candidates is a sense of not trusting their own judgement; only 14% of our survey respondents considered themselves experts in learning design. Cathy, Imraan and Caroline consider themselves to have (or have had) a form of imposter syndrome (commonly understood to be a persistent lack of confidence in one’s abilities despite objective competence), but they also imply that their lack of confidence is justified, because they would have been better at their job if they did have a more substantial background in learning theory. Imraan explains:
Since the beginning of my learning design career, I’ve felt constant imposter syndrome. [...] I want to understand learning design theory and pedagogy in more detail. That’s the one thing that’s holding me back and if I can develop that side of the role, it’s going to improve me as a learning designer, improve the work that I do and improve my prospects in the field.
Andre, on the other hand, feels that those who lack formal training may struggle with confidence and explaining their perspective to clients, but does not refer to the impact on quality of work. Our discussions with Tanya and Marida certainly suggested that more formal training – whether it’s a workshop offered by an external body or a postgraduate degree – does help with a learning designer’s confidence. But other learning designers feel that more extensive formal training is best-placed mid-career rather than upfront as learning too much theory too soon could have hamstrung them in the beginning.
One of the hiring managers we interviewed, a person especially passionate about training learning designers, is Kevin from the higher education space. He trains all his recruits, regardless of experience, to ensure that the team has a robust and consistent understanding of different learning design methodologies:
We’ve had a lot of learning designers who come from a corporate background, but they’ve been trained in very specific methodologies. Bloom’s and ADDIE, that’s all they know and we use neither of those.
In addition to training them himself – primarily through coaching – he also encourages and sponsors their attendance of a university-based short course that their team has identified as suitably comprehensive. This short course, offered by the University of Pretoria, is “bridging a lot of the gaps in [learning designers’] misunderstandings around learning theories”, and helps them to apply theory more effectively. Another important element of Kevin’s approach is how he perceives his own role in the development of his learning designers. Although he takes responsibility for ensuring the learning designers are sufficiently trained, he considers himself the custodian of their context within higher education, rather than the relevant authority on learning design in general:
My emphasis is more on what are the different educational paradigms that we are working in, what are the learning theories that inform us as an institution, and our approach to teaching and learning, because our course design needs to match those learning theories and a multitude of different other methodologies. Three in particular: humanising pedagogies, Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework and Gráinne Conole’s Seven Cs of learning design.
Kevin directs the educational strategy for the department. He also directs his learning designers toward the work of established theorists that he has selected to be most effective in their context. He also ensures that he nurtures their curiosity for further learning by routinely sending them articles and other resources to read and giving them space and permission to play with new ideas and approaches. The rest of the industry has much to learn from Kevin and others like him.
How local learning designers are trained has a lasting impact on how the role evolves in South Africa. Learning design could continue to be perceived as something any graduate can learn to do in a few weeks by copying a company’s existing model (painting by numbers), or we can grow learning design as a legitimate profession that is valued as such.
Our blind spots
South African learning designers are creative problem-solvers that have managed to train themselves very well under the circumstances, but to learn, they have had to make many mistakes, and it’s their learners’ education that pays the price for this approach. This is a trend that, to us, is most worrying in the primary and secondary education spaces. In addition, the learning designers we surveyed suggest that many learning designers have gaps in their theoretical grounding, and often don’t have access to experienced mentors to help them identify and address these gaps. In this environment, learning designers are struggling to develop both the expertise and the confidence they need to lead the thinking on learning design projects. Rigorous and relevant training for learning designers has only become available in South Africa in the last few years, and what few accredited options are available remain locked behind a hefty fee. Our interviewees who have sought formal training later in their careers also expressed that they often enter these programmes to find that they are not learning much: many are surface-level introductions to leveraging educational technology, rather than the solid theoretical grounding that practising learning designers desire. It is our recommendation that the higher education sector, with their infrastructure and expertise in creating and running rigorously researched curricula, take the lead in creating learning design undergraduate programmes. In time, these programmes will gain influence over what it means to be a South African learning designer and steer the field in a direction that will benefit not only future learning designers, but also the South African economy, in that we will be better placed to participate meaningfully in the burgeoning global EdTech economy.
As for what we as authors can do to help from outside of the higher education system: rather than attempting to shape the learning designers of the future, we are better placed to address the challenges of the current cohort of learning designers. First, we have created an interactive resource in which our research participants recall mistakes they made in different stages of their careers, along with questions that will help the learning designers reflect on whether they are prone to making these mistakes too. This resource allows learning designers from different sectors to benefit from each other’s experiences. Second, we have collated a selection of useful learning design resources recommended by our research participants, including books, communities, short courses and well-researched blogs. Our third solution is to initiate a learning design mentorship programme. Marida, who is nearing retirement, feels that “a lot of people would be willing to do mentoring if they were just asked”. We want to give Marida and others like her the opportunity to participate in a programme where they continue to shape and improve the learning design profession in South Africa by sharing the fruits of their experiences with emerging talent. With these resources, we hope to address the blind spots in learning design skillsets that we have observed in our research participants so that our existing learning design cohort can serve as strong mentorship for the Gen Z learning designers that are now entering the workforce. This way, we hope to do our part in transforming the learning design profession in South Africa from something people “try” to something in which they grow expertise and develop a strong, stable career.
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