Innovation  | 4 MIN. READ

Learning Design in Digital Times

Steve Mahaley, September 27, 2018

Why it’s time to let go of old pedagogies and make better use of digital learning platforms


Learning Design in Digital TimesOver the past several decades, advances in technology have transformed the way we are able to deliver training. MOOCs, virtual worlds, video games, video conferencing, virtual reality, augmented reality, and a host of other disruptive technologies make it possible for teachers and trainers to invent totally new ways to engage learners and transform the learner experience.

Unfortunately, the pedagogy behind technology-based learning has sometimes been slow to keep up. Last week, I had the opportunity to host a webinar on this topic for ExperiencePoint, called Designing Learning in the Age of Digital Evolution. In the session, we talked about the amazing opportunities digital tools and platforms bring to the learning community.

New technologies often provide unique pedagogical power to create a learning experience that could not otherwise happen (think immersion in dangerous or remote locations through virtual reality). Yet, when you look at the history of technology-based learning, our instinct, over and over again, has been to replicate exactly what we have always done regardless of the tools we are using. At our worst, we create hour-long lectures in video formats, or upload reams of text to websites, or create virtual “death by powerpoint.” Whether it’s hosting an hour-long lecture via videoconference, uploading text books and PowerPoint slides to a website, or asking students to complete online quizzes to prove their mastery, the only thing we’ve really learned is that learning designers are not challenging themselves to think beyond the known pedagogical approaches and assumptions.

We can do better, and indeed we should do better, for the benefit of our students and for the organizations that employ us.


More Engaging, Better Retention

Research consistently shows that when educators use games, simulations, and virtual worlds in the learning environment it results in improved learning outcome gains. One study cited in Training Journal found knowledge retention improves when students participate in virtual reality environments and other immersive digital learning experiences that allow them to make choices and experience the results of these decisions. Another study of online courses at two- and four-year universities, conducted by Arizona State University Action Lab and the Boston Consulting Group, found that digital learning environments consistently improved student outcomes as well as affordability, expanded access, and reduced operational costs for institutions.

However, these kinds of benefits can only be achieved when content creators and technology development teams work collaboratively to define and create learning environments that immerse students in real-world scenarios, and provide new opportunities to engage with instructors, students, and content in ways they couldn’t in a traditional classroom or auditorium. It can be a challenging transition for both IT and learning experts, who many not be accustomed to working together on learning development projects, but the outcomes of these collaborations will be worth the effort.

Here are a few examples of technology-based courses that have made a big impact by looking beyond traditional pedagogy.


  • This short course from Open University helps students learn how to help people in need. The platform uses of video stories to introduce the learner to the subject and allows them to deduce that person’s issues (rather than being told), then to see the outcomes of the choices they make throughout the course.

  • The World Bank created this Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on Financing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to teach public and private sector professionals how to find sources of financing. The course is taught by World Bank instructors, government officials and private sector experts, and features live events, crowdsourced discussions, peer-to-peer learning, and co-creation of knowledge by participants from all over the globe.

  • Northwell Health’s Center for Learning and Innovation provides training in simulated hospital rooms where teams of clinical staff work together to treat artificially intelligent dummies who simulate different conditions or injuries. Teaching staff monitor the groups via one-way glass, and after the simulation they all meet to debrief what happened and what they learned.

  • Duke Corporate Education developed a program in partnership with Deutsche Telekom that infused digital content, platforms and experiences into a learning journey focused on digital transformation. The LevelUP! program broke new ground in the creative use of technologies to engage senior-level leaders in understanding the possibilities, and in identifying opportunities for digital transformation.


While not every professor or corporate trainer has the budget (or need) to use virtual reality simulations or AI dummies to get their learning point across, these examples demonstrate the power of looking beyond current practice. Instructors who put the student at the center of their program design strategies, and brainstorm new ways of addressing their learning needs, can find powerful new ways to harness digital technologies for more productive learning experiences.


To learn more you can view the webinar on-demand here.


Steve Mahaley is a digital learning strategist and consultant from Red Fern Consulting and is a founding member of Duke Corporate Education, a global provider of leadership development, ranked in the top three providers globally for 15 years. Steve is an explorer of what lies at the intersection of learning design and technology. He consults with organizations globally on the use of technology in learning and has worked with leading companies including Boeing, Sun Life Financial, the Aditya Birla Group, Daimler, Microsoft, Saudi Telecom, MetLife, Cisco and The Coca-Cola Company. He is currently working with BCT Partners to create virtual reality immersions for diversity and inclusion.

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