The Learning Design Profession: A Passionate Plea to Help It Survive and Improve[1]

Mirjam Neelen

I’ll admit it right away: This is not an evidence-informed blog as usual. It’s a passionate plea for the Learning Design profession, which I both care about and am deeply passionate about. There has been an ongoing conversation / debate on why corporate learning and development (L&D) departments need to change and how they should do it. I feel the need to share my vision and frustration, simply because I hope I can contribute something to help L&D in organisations survive and improve.

I’ll share my personal story as it helps me to make my point. When I started studying in the Learning Sciences back in 2004, I learned about the science of learning but also to systematically approach the design process. For example, I learned how to do needs analysis and how to use models such as the 4C/ID model from Van Merriënboer and colleagues (see for example Ten Steps to Complex Learning by Van Merriënboer and Kirschner) or Dick and Carey’s instructional design model. The focus was always on performance objectives, on the learning journey, on an integrated learning solution to a learning or performance problem. Along the way, I learned how to use different technologies, such as electronic authoring tools (Articulate, Captivate), virtual learning environments (VLEs), and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) as well. During my internships, after completing my Master Thesis on Communities of Practice, and when I started working, reality kicked in.

First off: There was no needs analysis (at least, no one was able to articulate the need to me). A department, such as sales, marketing or whatever would request a training for so and so and it would need to be delivered within timeframe so and so. Things like “We have an upcoming product update! Here’s a 40 slide PowerPoint® deck. Can you deliver an eLearning within 2 weeks?” were quite common. When I asked what the employees needed to be able to do after the training; in other words, what the learning need was, the answer would be something along the lines of “They just need to know it.” And then I had to use my powers of persuasion to convince them that “just needing to know” doesn’t require a learning solution (as it just requires some performance support such as a short information leaflet or something). Or, another example “If we only have them read, they won’t complete the course, thus, we want to make them listen”. And then I had to explain that if learners do that, it might be because they don’t need the content and that they have better things to do, such as taking a bath or something.

There was also no thought around an integrated learning solution or learning journey. What I had to deliver was all very scattered and I was hardly ever involved in the bigger picture. Considering transfer to make sure that employees would really be able to apply what they learned on the job? Nope; nobody home!

I can give a million more examples, but the point is: the focus of what I was supposed to do was on simply structuring and delivering content and not on helping employees improve their job skills. This is one of the challenges within corporate L&D; it has generally not been able to push back on this “mismatch” and show organisations that that’s what they’re there for, to support employees in improving their performance. L&D has been unable to show what their value is. Or what it could be. And I think that’s because of various reasons.

First, it’s about professionalism. It seems that learning design has never really taken itself seriously as a profession. Strangely enough, it’s fairly unclear within organisations, even among Learning Designers themselves, what a Learning Designer does. Some do needs analysis, some collaborate closely with SMEs, some create storyboards, some build eLearning, some write instructional materials (I stole this list from Patti Shank’s Learning Technologies 2015 slides). And some do it all. This makes clear that it’s unclear what it means to be a Learning Designer. We need proper titles for all these different ‘roles’. I think that a good Learning Designer should be able to do “all of the above”. But then, what’s the difference with an eLearning Developer, Technical Writer or Content Developer? Are these people or are these roles, or parts of what a Learning Designer does? I’m just not sure.

Also, I’ve used Learning Designer in this post and not Instructional Designer on purpose. I think “Instructional” implies “designing for instruction”, as in learning or training through instruction (e.g. formal learning). And that doesn’t cover what a Learning Designer does (or should do I should say) in a corporate context. They don’t only design for instruction or, they shouldn’t. They should and can (if they’re competent Learning Designers) design to support all kinds of learning and performance objectives. Because I agree with Patti Shank that we can’t design learning either. We can only design learning strategies, flows, and content in the way that it supports learning in the best possible way. Another good title could be Learning and Performance Expert. In other words, we need a title that focuses on the objective (learning and performance) and not on a possible approach (e.g. instruction). Thanks to Paul A. Kirschner for making this distinction clearer to me.

What’s in a name you might say? Why do I think this is an important discussion? Because for me it’s, again, about professionalism. A true Learning Designer is a professional and we should see and sell ourselves as such. And now we’re getting to the elephant in the room. Cause I believe that the main challenge is that the vast majority of people in L&D roles don’t know much about learning. They’re not learning experts. And that’s a problem. If we keep putting people who are NOT actual learning specialists in roles that do require learning expertise, then nothing will ever change.

Second, it’s about realism. The labour market changes and therefore jobs change. One example is that much of today’s work is about non-routine / non-recurrent skills (Van Merrienboer & Kirschner, 2012), which are skills that are done differently, depending on, for example the context. In order to support employees in their learning and performance we need to offer something like a learning and performance ecosystem that offers a wide array of learning options. We need informal learning, we need social learning, and we need performance support, all depending on the audience, their specific needs, and good old context of course.

This also shows that the whole distinction between learning and performance is quite silly. The fact that the 70-20-10 framework gets so much attention clearly demonstrates the sad level of expertise within the learning profession. It proves that many people don’t have a clue what Learning Design is. The fact that many L&D professionals obviously think it’s about training (the so-called “10”) is slightly depressing. A good Learning Designer will always think about learning transfer and in a corporate context that automatically means performance. The 4C/ID model clearly shows that as well (yes people, an Instructional Design model incorporates performance, isn’t that amazing?). The model basically starts with performance assessment. Another example is the just-in-time (JIT) performance support tools. A skill is something you acquire through learning and performance is something you reach through learning. It’s simple to understand that connection if you understand what we, as learning and performance specialists are supposed to do. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that doing what we’re doing is simple (the same goes for intrinsic cognitive load, a simple task is not the same an easy task and a complex task is not the same as a difficult task).

Last but not least, I think a Learning Designer needs to understand the value of learning technology, especially because there’s so much hype around it. I’m going to take a risk that people will think I’m nuts and say it out loud: Learning technology has NOT changed how we learn. Our brains still work the same and research has shown that learning is media agnostic. Although they might be challenged by the overload of information we have to deal with and by the distractions that technology seems to make us prone to (also see Paul Kirschner and my blog on the Information Jungle). A recent study also showed that college students spend 8 hours and 48 minutes on their smartphones daily and their attention span is about 8.25 seconds, which is shorter than a gold fish’ attention span (Roberts, Pullig, & Manolis, 2015). I’m not saying that our attention span has shortened, cause that’s not true either. It’s more that we’re not able to manage all the information around us in an effective manner. We try to multitask and we fail. This is worrisome as the potential consequence is a lack of ability to deeply process information and to really learn. Paul Kirschner wrote a blog on The Disturbing Facts about Digital Natives which also confirms that information processing of so-called digital natives is very shallow. Another study showed that although so-called digital natives were well competent to use devices, they were not “naturally effective learners using technology” (MacFarlane, 2014).

Having knowledge of (the consequences of) technology is critical and a Learning Designer should look beyond the hype and understand how to use technology for learning in an effective manner.

To sum it up… Fellow learning professionals, I’m calling to you. I’m asking you to please push harder to prove our value, take ourselves seriously as a profession, use our titles critically and knowledgably, move beyond trends and hypes (in- or excluding technology), and focus on evidence-informed information on effective learning and performance design. And please spread the word that learning and performance are not two separate things and explain to those who don’t understand how they are intertwined. This was my plea and I hope it’ll be heard. 🙂


Dick, W., & Carey, L. (2004). The Systematic Design of Instruction. 6th ed. New Jersey: Pearson

MacFarlane, A., (2014). The idea that young people are digital natives is a myth. Retrieved from

Roberts, J.A., Pullig, C., & Manolis, C., (2015). I need my smartphone: A hierarchical model of personality and cell-phone addiction. Personality and Individual Differences, 79, 13-19

Van Merrienboer, J.J.G., & Kirschner, P.A., (2012). Ten Steps to Complex Learning. Oxford: Routledge

[1] This blog is inspired by a talk that I gave at a Learning Tech Labs’ Meet Up in Dublin on Aug 10, 2016.