Are we investing enough in learning design?

I am now a freelancer (after 12 years employed by Hyper Island in Singapore) and this gives me the freedom to question everything anew.  Why did we do things this way? How was our business structured and funded? And how could we have scaled what we did without scaling people (which is always very difficult)?

Hyper Island is unusual in its approach to exploratory hands-on “constructivist” learning but fundamentally it makes money the same way that most training companies and educational institutions do; it designs courses, offers them in the market (at a price) and then delivers them to learners (willing to pay that price).  The cost structure is based on having staff and external collaborators who design products, run the business and its marketing, and deliver the products to classes of learners (online or offline).

Revenue = Learners x Fees – (Costs: design time + delivery time + marketing + running the business)

Like many “people businesses”, education and training companies invest most in marketing , delivery and running the business.  They see a clear relationship between bringing in learners and the income they receive, and the fixed costs of space, teachers, administrators and equipment have to be covered whether there are 12 people in the room or 25.  Doubling down on marketing increases the margins and that last push to fill a class is familiar to every university and training company alike. 

Learning design is seen as an important component of the business, of course, but it functions to create products that can go into the marketing and delivery machine.  The better the learning design the easier the marketing, and full classes will ensure good revenue. But as a percentage of the overall spend, real designing of experiences takes a very small share.

Digital has fundamentally changed most businesses and during Covid it transformed education; turning face-to-face experiences into Zoom.  At Hyper Island we reengineered all of our products and did a fantastic job of maintaining the learning by doing elements; with extensive use of break-out rooms, shared creative spaces such as Miro and resource rich exploration (thanks to tools such as Padlet). A big thanks also to Singapore and IBF for helping make that redesign possible; for helping us to invest in design.

Now, Covid is a lesser presence in our lives and the opportunity to move back to face-to-face becomes possible.  We are needing to redesign the other way; adapting a few recent online sessions to work in a more conventional workshop setting.  We’ve done this quickly with little thought of whether we are missing a bigger opportunity.

Could we not just do everything online?

We can see from online learning platforms and LMS that some other training companies are designing to scale from the start.  Instead of designing for 30, they design for 3000.  

This is not simply designing for 30 and then doing extra marketing; they are designing a different learning experience for thousands of students. And many of those experiences are horrible: solitary, asynchronous, self paced watch, read, test and progress.  They are designed for business but show little understanding of social learning or facilitated experiences.

These courses can appeal to the highly motivated, those who need to pass a compliance certificate and the time poor but they don’t contain the magic or create the impact that is possible with constructivist learning.  Chunking content and videoing it is not the solution. And while money has been invested in video production and software platforms, very little has gone into the learner experience. 

Let’s try and analyse where we might start to change the equations.

Income = (learners x network effects) x (fees) + IP licensing

Costs = design time (1 + IP) + delivery effort (1 – IP) + marketing (1 – network effects) + running the business

The main change that I would like to explore is the impact of investing more in learner experience.  

This generates potential additional revenue from licensing of the (properly packaged and published) intellectual property that is produced during the design. It also reduces delivery effort because less experienced facilitators can use well designed resources and support, to run more sessions. This means that it is easier to scale.

There are other benefits if we invest properly.  Imagine a setting in which every learner (or at least a significant minority) became so engaged in the experience that they felt compelled to recreate the experience for their friends and colleagues.  This could translate into much easier marketing for future cohorts or even more powerfully allow them to pass on their learning themselves.  This is harnessing the power of network effects.

This might sound idealistic, and I am, but we have seen it work with other media such as games (Cards Against Humanity) and social media.  This view of learning needs it to become a movement rather than a product.

So, what exactly would I invest in? 

I think the priority is to invest in the experience that teams of people (as well as individuals) go through.  This means building rich worlds (digital and analog) full of data and artefacts plus adventures and challenges for them to explore with clear things to make and experiments to try.

These need to be accompanied by facilitator guides that prepare teachers and mentors to support learners on these quests.

All these need to be packaged and published so that they can be accessed by companies and educators (and generate revenue).

If this sounds like conventional educational book publishing then I suppose I’m happy to start there but packaging experiences between covers feels like the lowest level of experience that we could create.  Let’s go further and create resource banks, games, databases, simulations, exploratory environments, software tools, apps and platforms that support great constructivist learning.

What do you think?  Want to help construct these together?  Get in touch.

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