A huge fiery debate rages in the learning field.
What do we call ourselves? Are we instructional designers, learning designers, learning experience designers, learning engineers, etc.? This is an important question, of course, because words matter. But it is also a big freakin’ waste of time, so today, I’m going to end the debate! From now on we will call ourselves by one name. We will never debate this again. We will spend our valuable time on more important matters. You will thank me later! Probably after I am dead.
How do I know the name I propose is the best name? I just know. And you will know it too when you hear the simple brilliance of it.
How do I know the name I propose is the best name? Because Jim Kirkpatrick and I are in almost complete agreement on this, and, well, we have a rocky history.
How do I know the name I propose is the best name? Because it’s NOT the new stylish name everybody’s now printing on their business cards and sharing on LinkedIn. That name is a disaster, as I will explain.
The Most Popular Contenders
I will now list each of the major contenders for what we should call ourselves and then thoroughly eviscerate each one.
This is the traditional moniker—used for decades. I have called myself an instructional designer and felt good about it. The term has the benefit of being widely known in our field but it has severe deficiencies. First, if you’re at a party and you tell people you’re an instructional designer, they’re likely to hear “structural designer” or “something-something designer” and think you’re an engineer or a new-age guru who has inhaled too much incense. Second, our job is NOT to create instruction, but to help people learn. Third, our job is NOT ONLY to create instruction to help people learn, but to also create, nurture, or enable contexts that help people learn. Instructional designer is traditional, but not precise. It sends the wrong message. We should discard it.
This is not bad. It’s my second choice. But it suffers from being too vanilla, too plain, too much lacking in energy. More problematic is that it conveys the notion that we can control learning. We cannot design learning! We can only create or influence situations and materials and messages that enable learning and mathemagenic processes—that is, cognitive processes that give rise to learning. We must discard this label too.
This seems reasonable at first glance. We might think our job is to engineer learning—to take the science and technology of learning and use it to blueprint learning interventions. But this is NOT our job. Again, we don’t control learning. We can’t control learning. We can just enable it. Yes! The same argument against “designing learning” can be used against “engineering learning.” We must also reject the learning engineering label because there are a bunch of crazed technology evangelists running around advocating for learning engineering who think that big data and artificial intelligence is going to solve all the problems of the learning profession. While it is true that data will help support learning efforts, we are more likely to make a mess of this by focusing on what is easy to measure and not on what is important and difficult to measure. We must reject this label too!
Learning Experience Designer
This new label is the HOT new label in our field, but it’s a disastrous turn backward! Is that who we are—designers of experiences? Look, I get it. It seems good on the surface. It overcomes the problem of control. If we design experiences, we rightly admit that we are not able to control learning but can only enable it through learning experiences. That’s good as far as it goes. But is that all there is? NO DAMMIT! It’s a freakin’ cop-out, probably generated and supported by learning-technology platform vendors to help sell their wares! What the hell are we thinking? Isn’t it our responsibility to do more than design experiences? We’re supposed to do everything we can to use learning as a tool to create benefits. We want to help people perform better! We want to help organizations get better results! We want to create benefits that ripple through our learners’ lives and through networks of humanity. Is it okay to just create experiences and be happy with that? If you think so, I wish to hell you’d get out of the learning profession and cast your lack of passion and your incompetence into a field that doesn’t matter as much as learning! Yes! This is that serious!
As learning professionals we need to create experiences, but we also need to influence or create the conditions where our learners are motivated and resourced and supported in applying their learning. We need to utilize learning factors that enable remembering. We need to create knowledge repositories and prompting mechanisms like job aids and performance support. We need to work to create organizational cultures and habits of work that enable learning. We need to support creative thinking so people have insights that they otherwise wouldn’t have. We also must create learning-evaluation systems that give us feedback so we can create cycles of continuous improvement. If we’re just creating experiences, we are in the darkest and most dangerous depths of denial. We must reject this label and immediately erase the term “Learning Experience Designer” from our email signatures, business cards, and LinkedIn profiles!
The Best Moniker for us as Learning Professionals
First, let me say that there are many roles for us learning professionals. I’ve been talking about the overarching design/development role, but there are also trainers, instructors, teachers, professors, lecturers, facilitators, graphic designers, elearning developers, evaluators, database managers, technologists, programmers, LMS technicians, supervisors, team leaders, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Acknowledged!!! Now let me continue. Thanks!
A month ago, Mirjam Neelen reached out to me because she is writing a book on how to use the science of learning in our role as learning professionals. She’s doing this with another brilliant research-to-practice advocate, the learning researcher Paul Kirschner, following from their blog, 3-Star Learning. Anyway, Mirjam asked me what recommendation I might have for what we call ourselves. It was a good question, and I gave her my answer.
I gave her THE answer. I’m not sure she agreed and she and Paul and their publisher probably have to negotiate a bit, but regardless, I came away from my discussions with Mirjam convinced that the learning god had spoken to me and asked me to share the good word with you. I will now end this debate. The label we should use instead of the others is Learning Architect. This is who we are! This is who we should be!
Let’s think about what architects do—architects in the traditional sense. They study human nature and human needs, as well as the science and technology of construction, and use that knowledge/wisdom to create buildings that enable us human beings to live well. Architects blueprint the plans—practical plans—for how to build the building and then they support the people who actually construct the buildings to ensure that the building’s features will work as well as possible. After the building is finished, the people in the buildings lead their lives under the influence of the building’s design features. The best architects then assess the outcomes of those design features and suggest modifications and improvements to meet the goals and needs of the inhabitants.
We aspire to be like architects. We don’t control learning, but we’d like to influence it. We’d like to motivate our learners to engage in learning and to apply what they’ve learned. We’d like to support our learners in remembering. We’d like to help them overcome obstacles. We’d like to put structures in place to enable a culture of learning, to give learners support and resources, to keep learners focused on applying what they’ve learned. We’d like to support teams and supervisors in their roles of enabling learning. We’d like to measure learning to get feedback on learning so that we can improve learning and troubleshoot if our learners are having problems using what we’ve created or applying what they’ve learned.
We are learning architects so let’s start calling ourselves by that name!
But Isn’t “Architect” a Protected Name?
Christy Tucker (thanks Christy!) raised an important concern in the comments below, and her concern was echoed by Sean Rea and Brett Christensen. The term “architect” is a protected term, which you can read about on Wikipedia. Architects rightly want to protect their professional reputation and keep their fees high, protected from competition from people with less education, experience, and competence.
But, to my non-legal mind, this is completely irrelevant to our discussion. When we add an adjective, the name is a different name. It’s not legal to call yourself a doctor if you’re not a doctor, but it’s okay to call yourself the computer doctor, the window doctor, the cakemix doctor, the toilet doctor, or the LMS doctor.
While the term “architect” is protected, putting an adjective in front of the name changes everything. A search of LinkedIn for “data architects” lists 57,624 of them. A search of “software architect” finds 172,998. There are 3,110 “performance architects,” 24 “justice architects,” and 178 “sustainability architects.”
Already on LinkedIn, 2,396 people call themselves “learning architects.”
Searching DuckDuckGo, some of the top results were consultants calling themselves learning architects from the UK, New Zealand, Australia. LinkedIn says there are almost 10,000 learning architecture jobs in the United States.
This is a non-issue. First, adding the adjective changes the name legally. Second, even if it didn’t, there is no way that architect credentialing bodies are going to take legal action against the hundreds of thousands of people using the word “architect” with an adjective. I say this, of course, not as a lawyer—and you should not rely on my advice as legal advice.
But still, this has every appearance of being a non-issue and we learning professionals should not be so meek as to shy away from using the term learning architect.
I was listening to a podcast last week that interviewed Jim Kirkpatrick. I like to listen to what Jim and Wendy have to say because many people I speak with in my work doing learning evaluation are influenced by what they say and write. As you probably know, I think the Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model causes more harm then good, but I like to listen and learn things from the Kirkpatrick’s even though I never hear them sharing ideas that are critical of their models and teachings. Yes! I’m offering constructive criticism! Anyway, I was listening to the podcast and agreeing with most of what Jim was saying when he mentioned that what we ought to call ourselves is, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it: “Learning-and-Performance Architects!” Did I mention that I just love Jim Kirkpatrick! Jim and I are in complete agreement on this. I’ll quibble in that the name Learning-and-Performance Architect is too long, but I agree with the sentiment that we ought to see performance as part of our responsibility.
So I did some internet searching this week for the term “Learning Architect.” I found a job at IBM with that title, estimated by Glassdoor to pay between $104,000 and $146,000, and I think I’m going to apply for that job as this consulting thing is kind of difficult these days, especially having to write incisive witty profound historic blog posts for no money and no fame.
I also found a podcast by the eLearning Coach Connie Malamed on her excellent podcast where she reviews a book by the brilliant and provocative Clive Shepherd with the title, The New Learning Architect. It was published in 2011 and now has an updated 2016 edition. Interestingly, in a post from just this year in 2019, Clive is much less demonstrative about advocating for the term Learning Architect, and casually mentions that Learning Solutions Designer is a possibility before rejecting it because of the acronym LSD. I will reject it because designing solutions may give some the idea that we are designing things, when we need to design more than tangible objects.
In searching the internet, I also found three consultants or group of consultants calling themselves learning architects. I also searched LinkedIn and found that the amazing Tom Kuhlmann has been Vice President of Community at Articulate for 12 years but added the title of Chief Learning Architect four years and eight months ago. I know Tom’s great because of our personal conversations in London and because he’s always sharing news of my good works to the Articulate community (you are, right? Tom?), but most importantly because on Tom’s LinkedIn page one of the world’s top entrepreneurs offered a testimonial that Tom improved his visual presentations by 12.9472%. You can’t make this stuff up, not even if you’re a learning experience designer high on LSD!
Clearly, this Learning Architect idea is not a new thing! But I have it on good authority that now here today, May 24, 2019, we are all learning architects!
Here are two visual representations I sent to Mirjam to help convey the breadth and depth of what a Learning Architect should do:
I offer these to encourage reflection and discussion. They were admittedly a rather quick creation, so certainly, they must have blind spots.
Feel free to discuss below or elsewhere the ideas discussed in this article.
And go out and be the best learning architect you can be!
I have it on good authority that you will be…
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