Where Are the Learning Engineers?

Do we need learning engineers? Most people would answer that they didn't even know there was such a job. Currently, I don't think anyone does have that job (though I could imagine it being on someone's business card anyway.)

Wikipedia defines engineering as "the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design, build, and maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. It may encompass using insights to conceive, model and scale an appropriate solution to a problem or objective. The discipline of engineering is extremely broad, and encompasses a range of more specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of technology and types of application.'

From that I could imagine many teachers, instructional designers and trainers feeling like they might be "learning engineers."

I have read a few articles that suggest that we consider using the title.

One of those articles is by Bror Saxberg who is chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc. On his blog, he wrote:

The creative educator or instructional designer can and should draw inspiration for tough challenges from everywhere and anywhere, if there isn't evidence already available to guide him or her. Unlike many challenges faced by an artist or author, however, instructional designers and educators also need to be grounded in how the real world actually works. (Even artists have to battle with the chemistry and material properties of the media they choose, it should be noted – you might want glass to be strong enough to support something in a certain way, but you may have to alter your artistic vision to match the reality.) Simply imagining how learning might work is not enough to build solutions that are effective for learners at scale – whether we like it or not, whether we get it right or not, how learning works in the world is going to affect the outcomes at scale.

A few years back, I heard the term "design thinking" used frequently in education circles. The graduate program I teach in at NJIT is still called Professional and Technical Communications, but "design" has become part of many of the courses.

That is enough of a trend that you can hear others asking if  design thinking is the new liberal arts. One example is the "d.school" at Stanford University (formally, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design)  which considers itself a training ground for problem-solving for graduate students. Rather than stress the typical design path of making products, they look at  design thinking as a way "to equip our students with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field."

Perhaps, "learning engineer" is more of a way of rethinking how teachers and academics design instruction. Maybe it is another way to look at engineering.

A few years ago, Bill Jerome wrote about the engineering side and said: "Imagine a more “traditional” engineer hired to design a bridge.  They don’t revisit first principles to design a new bridge.  They don’t investigate gravity, nor do they ignore the lessons learned from previous bridge-building efforts (both the successes and the failures).  They know about many designs and how they apply to the current bridge they’ve been asked to design.  They are drawing upon understandings of many disciplines in order to design the new bridge and, if needed, can identify where the current knowledge  doesn’t account for the problem at hand and know what particular deeper expertise is needed.  They can then inquire about this new problem and incorporate a solution."

I think that there is a place for design thinking in engineering and also an engineering approach to designing instruction.

Design thinking as an approach to problem solving is often described using some basic principles:

Show Don’t Tell

Focus on Human Values

Craft Clarity

Embrace Experimentation

Be Mindful of Process

Bias Toward Action

Radical Collaboration

Those could be viewed as five modes that fit easily into engineering and education: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

Saxberg gives the example of needing someone to design a new biotech brewing facility. Do you want a chemist or a chemical engineer? He says the engineer - someone who "deeply understands modern chemistry... but is also conversant with health regulations, safety regulations, costs of building, and thinks in an integrated way about designing things for scale."

Do we have "learning engineers" now that understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively? Are they teaching or are they doing research? Do all teachers need to be learning engineers?

I somewhat fear that if the title becomes used that it will end up leaning heavily towards educational technology. That's something I see happening to many "teaching and learning" and "teaching excellence" center at colleges.

Technology can help. I have spent the past fifteen years working with that. But there is no guarantee that instructors using technology will somehow be better instructors. We know a lot about how people learn, but most of that isn't being used by those who teach.

When I started at NJIT in 2000, I was hesitant about telling seasoned instructors "how to teach" (pedagogy). But I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, the people who came to me or to our workshops were open to learning not only about new technology but about pedagogy. I was also surprised by how many of them were willing to say that no one had ever taught them "how to teach" and that they were always a little unsure about running only on intuition and their personal experiences with learning. "I try to teach like the good teachers I had and avoid being like the bad ones," was a sentiment I heard fairly frequently.

Having come from teaching in a secondary school where everyone had a split educational background of subject matter expertise and educational pedagogy with continuing professional development in the latter, it took some transitioning for me to settle into the higher education setting.

Being that NJIT is very much an engineering (and design) institution, the idea of learning engineers might have been a good approach to take with that faculty.

This post first appeared at ronkowitz.com

Teaching Large To Massive Online Classes

large class

The terms MOOC, Massive Open Online Course, and LOOC, Large Open Online Course, may be relatively new, but large online courses have been around since the earliest days of online education.

The move to online is sometimes pedagogical, but probably too often it is is because of increased pressure on classroom spaces, and the desire to add more students and programs without expanding facilities on campus.

The Chronicle's ProfHacker column often writes about teaching online and sometimes about the perils of online teaching. Anastasia Salter posted this summer about her preparations to teach her first larger undergrad online course - one capped at 150 with no scheduled meeting time and no teaching or grading assistants.

She is starting with a) rethinking timetables and assignments. b) evaluating learning outcomes and substitutions for physical activities c) adopting strategies from MOOCs and other large-scale courses.

You can follow her progress as she works to convert her older syllabus from a smaller instance of the course, address particular assignment types, scheduling, learning outcomes etc.


Lessons Learned: MOOC Edition


Justin Reich on Education Weekly has been blogging about what the last two years of MOOC research seems to tell us about how to improve the design of courses. Here is my bulleted list version:

1. MOOC students are diverse, but trend towards auto-didacts

2. MOOC students value flexibility, but benefit when they engage frequently

3. The best predictor of persistence and completion is intention, though every activity predicts every other activity

4. MOOC students (tell us they) leave because they get busy with other things, but we may be able to help them stay on track

5. Students learn more from doing than watching

6. Lots of student learning activities are happening beyond our observation: including note-taking, socializing, and using other references

Improving student learning outcomes will require measuring learning, experimenting with different approaches, and baking research into courses from the beginning

REich is doing a separate post for each with data and commentary that is worth reading. For example, in his fifth post, Students learn more from doing than watching he writes that if we have a choice to take two different approaches to building a method to produce MOOCs, which path seems to produce better results?

A. Make a big investment in video production (editors, videographers etc.) and use basic assessment and discussion features available through the MOOC platform.

B. Focus on developing interactive activities with instructors doing simple screencasts or lectures.

You'd have to agree with Reich that if you have limited resources (money and people) "B' is the way to go. But even if you have the resources, there is evidence that you should go with "B."

A group from Carnegie Mellon University published a paper "Learning is not a Spectator Sport: Doing is Better than Watching for Learning in a MOOC" in which they compared students who did activities in a MOOC with students who watched videos. They found that students who did activities outperformed those who did not, even those who watched lots of videos. Despite the heavy investment and emphasis on video in many MOOCs, students need to do things in order to learn.

Do you have a big, "Duh. We knew that" reaction to that conclusion? Maybe, but plenty of MOOCs and just plain old online courses are enamored with bigtime video productions for online learning.


Group Work and Holacracy


My wife told me recently that in her next life we wants to come back as the person in the group who does none of the work and gets the same grade as the people who did all the work. She was in a bad move that day. But she is not alone is not liking group work. I had that same attitude when it came to being a student in a group. 

Still, we keep seeing reports that employers value collaboration along with the ability to apply learning in real-world settings. Employers like critical thinkers and the emphasis on applied learning experiences. 

A survey of employers done by aacu.org found that 88% think that it is important for colleges and universities to ensure that all students are prepared with the skills and knowledge needed to complete an applied learning project. Large majorities say they are more likely to consider a job candidate who has participated in an internship, a senior project, a collaborative research project, a field-based project in a diverse community setting with people from different backgrounds, or a community-based project.

Group work. And most instructors see benefits to group work, such as exposing them to multiple perspectives that mirror "real-world" jobs. 

But not all the research is positive. I was reading recently that some recent research shows that if groups and assignments are structured hastily, they can be counterproductive.

One interesting finding was that "students in underrepresented groups, like women in engineering, might experience marginalization when working in teams."

The feeling that my wife had the other day and that I had as a student is described as the "lone-wolf phenomenon." It is when a student goes off and does the group’s assignment alone, while the other students learn little. I have seen groups with several lone wolves. It is because many of us like to work on our own and want to be responsible for our own grades.

If the job market demands you be a good team member, how do we train students for that demand?

Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement indicates that most students worked with others on assigned projects in the past academic year, but that the amount varies by discipline. Engineering students were at the top.

Students tend to work on what they’re already good at, but teachers should create teams and assign roles to challenge students to expand their skills and strengthen weaker areas.

This doesn't mean that all students (and perhaps more so in math or the humanities) shouldn't be required to do solitary tasks like research and writing and solo problem-solving.

book coverGenerally, I am annoyed by business models that move into educational pedagogy, but this past week, while I was thinking about group work, I came upon the term "holacracy." It is defined as "a new way of running an organization that removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously, without a micromanaging boss."

Holacracy has rules and processes for how a team breaks up its work, and defines its roles with clear responsibilities and expectations. 

Of course, holacracy is also a book: Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World

Holacracy distributes authority and decision-making throughout an organization, and defines people not by hierarchy and titles, but by roles.

Two of the champions of  holacracy are Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com and Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium. 

The Return of the Autodidacts

"Autodidact" has its roots in the Ancient Greek words autós, or "self" and didaktikos, meaning "teaching."  Dacticism defines an artistic philosophy of education and autodidacticism (also autodidactism) is used to mean self-education.

Learning that is self-directed about a subject in which you have little to no formal education is hardly a new trend. Before we had any formal educational systems, everyone learned on their own. From the primitive person knocking rocks together to create a tool, to a much more privileged autodidact like Leonardo da Vinci, to the home-schooled and largely self-taught inventors like Thomas Edison, we learned on our own and through the informal teaching and example of others.

Before schooling, there were less-formal ways of being taught through craft guilds, apprenticeships, tutors and mentors. The Industrial Revolution and the accompanying creation of schools changed that.

My title,"The Return of the Autodidacts," may not be completely accurate since they never left. Schooling has made learning less self-directed, but everyone has always learned on their own to some degree. It does seem that in this young 21st century, there has been a noticeable increase in learning outside of schools. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Maker movements, free and open online courses (MOOC) and even schools based on Self-Directed Learning (SDL), all indicate a desire to learn that is disconnected from organized classrooms and credits, certifications and degrees.

I have been writing about School 2.0 (AKA Education or University 2.0) for about six years and a lot of that touches on the idea of the individual taking the initiative and the responsibility for the learning that occurs. I heard a lot about "student-centered learning" at the end of the last century. Much of that came from the rise of online learning where the instructor has less ability to be the center of the learning.

Allowing a "student" to select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, on their own schedule opens up learning - and creates problems, especially if you are in the business of traditional education.

Lately, I hear the term "Self Directed Learning" (SDL) used more often and I see it attached to traditional schools. Some of the methods used by autodidacts have been co-opted by schools. Although it is still more likely that you would find a makerspace in a community setting or within a library, you are also seeing them as part of a school from grades K through college.

Self-directed learning also plays a role in movements such as home-schooling, experiential education, open schooling and life-long learning.

Proponents will note that the benefits extend beyond learning knowledge and skills and into a learning mindfulness for setting personal goals, planning and taking action to meet those goals with evidence of having learned. Self-improvement, personal and character development are central themes of SDL discussions. SDL involves initiating personal challenge activities and developing the personal qualities to pursue them successfully.


Do-It-Yourself (DIY) is the method of building, modifying, or repairing something without the aid of experts or professionals.

The motivations to go DIY are many. You might not have the money or the traditional tools and resources to buy or even make something. Perhaps the item just isn't available to you, or even to anyone. You may be disappointed in the quality of existing products. You may want a personally customized version of something. Maybe it is a sense of pride in creating something on your own, whether it is for your own use or for display or sale.

The term "do-it-yourself" has been associated with consumers since at least the early 20th century when it was usually connected to home improvement and maintenance (such as an automobile) activities. By the mid-century, it was in more common usage due to the emergence of a trend of people undertaking home improvement and various other small craft and construction projects as both a creative-recreational and cost-saving activity.

The maker movement grew from the DIY movement and led to communal spaces (makerspaces) that allowed access to workspace, tools and materials that many individuals could not afford. At one time that may have meant power tools, but today it includes laser cutters, 3D printers and computer-aided design tools. These spaces also can offer informal training and mentoring from other members. It brings the old models of craft guilds, apprenticeships, tutoring and mentoring back. Perhaps, it truly is a time of the return of the autodidact.