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The Need For Learning Engineers (and Learning Engineering)


Posted on April 14, 2013 by Bill Jerome

By Bill Jerome
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Editors Note: I am pleased to announce that Bill has agreed to continue contributing blog posts
from time to time. Therefore, he is now officially a Featured Blogger rather than a Guest
Blogger.
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at a workshop on online graduate education. At that workshop, Carnegie
Mellon University Provost and Executive Vice President Dr. Mark Kamlet used the words Learning Engineering
in his keynote which I built upon in my talk. In my previous post I referenced the need of semantic data and
algorithms to support learning engineers to create and iteratively improve courses and courseware (among
other things). I felt it was worth taking a little time to describe just what I believe that means.
For over 10 years, the Open Learning Initiative has been bringing together teams to develop online course
materials. Carnegie Mellon is an ideal place to cultivate this work due to its multi-disciplinary programs and
culture aside from its expertise in the related fields. During that time weve built a team of experts that are
critical to the building of learning environments informed by research and capable of recording data for iterative
improvement as well as creating dynamic reports for stakeholders.

Discovering Learning Engineering


At OLI, we have followed a path that was outlined by CMU professor Herb Simon, Noble Laurate:
Improvement in post secondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a
community based research activity.
If youve seen someone from OLI speak more than once, youve seen this quote and might be tempted to gloss
right over it. But its worth considering closely, particularly in this context. We have found that the best way to
build effective learning environments is to regularly convene faculty, software engineers, usability specialists,
learning scientists, and others.
What does it take then to be someone who can sit at the center of this kind of diverse group and produce an online
learning environment that has a successful outcomes? Weve admittedly struggled with this question as weve
grown as a project. It turns out that part of what we were missing was trying to shoehorn people with existing
skill sets into a role that is really what weve come to call the learning engineer.

Engineering Learning? You Bet.


Starting with the source of all knowledge, I look to how Wikipedia defines engineering:
Engineering is the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to

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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.
I cant think of a better way to describe what it is we ask our learning engineers to do. But I work with them every
day. So let me draw a rudimentary comparison: Imagine a more traditional engineer hired to design a bridge.
They dont revisit first principles to design a new bridge. They dont 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 theyve 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 doesnt 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.
In this way, a learning engineer applies learning science and what is known about other relevant disciplines (user
experience, for example) and pedagogy to problems developing learning environments. When designing for
platforms that collect semantic data they understand the requirements of the materials they are creating and can
ensure that the data collection that will be done will provide actionable results. This does not mean a learning
engineer has to understand the intricacies of the algorithms that operate on data, but they need to have a
sufficient understanding of the needs of that data collection.
In one way, this type of engineering is more rapid and responsive that traditional engineering. We can learn
from the delivery of the built bridge just what parts are effective and what parts need improvement. (This
requires semantic data in order to discern). In the comparison Ive made, one doesnt usually go back and make a
bridge better unless something terribly wrong comes to light. Here we can monitor and continually improve our
previous work as well as apply those lessons forward to new developments.
That addresses lessons learned in the field (practice informing sciences). In the other direction (sciences
informing practice), the comparison is harder to make. If some critical flaw is discovered one might go back and
patch a bridge. For a learning engineer, revisiting work is not a rare occurrence but an expected iterative
improvement process. Thus, a learning engineer must be aware of ongoing research in related fields and stay
current with our understanding of how to teach effectively. Weve only begun to understand teaching and
learning in scientific ways and cannot rest on what we know so far. Learning engineering then, as a field, is really
about developing processes and methodologies to support this work.
One good point made to me by a workshop attendee after my talk: if a bridge falls down, you know about it. In
the world of online education where rich evaluation is rare, we dont even know if our bridges are falling down.

Something Weve Needed All Along?


Although the work to advance online education has been the spark that has made obvious the need for
collaborative efforts and individuals who can work in those highly interdisciplinary teams, I refer back to the
quote at the opening. Simon wasnt saying online education required the conversion of how we teach. It just so
happens that it is now obvious. If were truly honest with ourselves, not all experts make the best teachers. This is
not to say that top-tier institutions with high-caliber faculty arent offering a great opportunity to students by
providing access to leading researchers. (Minds rubbing against minds as it were). But those leading
researchers are not guaranteed to be the best teachers, especially when theyre often handed a course to teach as a
secondary requirement to their role that they may not be interested in.
Some shared experiences of undergraduates everywhere:

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I thought I understood the lecture, but I dont know where to start on this homework!
That midterm came out of nowhere I didnt understand it.
I read the chapter as told but then the lecture made no sense to me.
These are the result of poor alignment in objectives, practice and assessment, which is already known to be
important. This is the kind of insight and experience that the most brilliant minds can benefit from when it comes
to teaching the novice. (See also the expert blind spot).
A learning engineer works with content experts and guides their work and brings in other points of view as needed
in order to best develop learning experiences it just so happens that now we really need them even more for the
online experience.

How to Find a Learning Engineer


The reality is that right now individuals with such skill sets are hard to find in the wild and it will be some time
before that changes dramatically. What is required is to find talented people interested in the work who already
have some of the skills needed. It could be someone with a strong learning science background who is interested
in seeing immediate practical application of their work, or someone with a strong instructional design background
interested in learning how to apply learning science and data analytics to what they do, and moving those groups
together. That model does provide a way to find candidates and acknowledges the fact that some effort has to be
made to develop the skill sets of a learning engineer upon hiring.
I do not believe this is a case of looking for what in the software world youd refer to as a unicorn. It really is vital
to all of us in education to develop a workforce of people who understand how the creation of learning material
happens as well how to apply developments happening in the understanding of how to effectively develop and test
those materials.

Arent Learning Engineering and Instructional Design the Same?


This reminds me of when I started my career as a programmer. When I started programming, I was a software
developer and not a software engineer. I knew how to write code, but I wasnt ready to architect it or account for
other disciplines in my work. A similar comparison applies here. The role of a learning engineer is not a support
role, but a full contributor and participant in the process of developing an online learning environment. I asked
one of our learning engineers how she viewed her role, to which she said We want to learn about learning what
makes rich, deep, meaningful and lasting impact. She builds environments that report data so her work can be
evaluated, not to ask if she did a good job, but to learn how we might improve upon what we know to better the
environment.
A learning engineer is a part of the process that improves or expands the technologies they work with. An
instructional designer is often handed a suite of available technologies and content and told to make something of
it. A learning engineer works both pedagogically and technologically to improve, create and make a whole
experience and then evaluate the effectiveness of it with data.

An Essential Field
Learning engineering is part of what drives the success at OLI and is going to drive the development of
well-informed online environments going forward anywhere such work is being done in the future We believe this
is an important area to define and then expand.
With that in mind, I leave you with a work in progress statement attempting to capture the key aspects of this
field. (I already know its not easy to read, especially out loud in a talk without stopping to get your breath!) But
Im interested in hearing what others think of the content of this sentence. It doesnt get into some of the practical

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implications I outline above but hopefully it captures the essence of the idea.
Learning Engineering: The development, evaluation and improvement of the processes,
methodologies, and educational technologies that lead to predictable, repeatable development and
improvement of learning environments which leverage learning science and the affordances of
technology to address instructional challenges and create conditions that enable robust learning
and effective instruction.

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About Bill Jerome


My background is in computer science and user experience though my career had me applying those skills particularly in the
area of online teaching and learning. I've been with the Open Learning Initiative for just over 10 years now and as such things go
on a small project, have worn too many hats to list!
View all posts by Bill Jerome

This entry was posted in Tools, Toys, and Technology (Oh my!) and tagged Carnegie Mellon University, Instructional design, learning engineer. Bookmark the permalink.

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5 Responses to The Need For Learning Engineers (and Learning Engineering)


Peter says:
April 14, 2013 at 8:06 PM

The way I think about it, engineers go to work after the relevant research is done. The engineer has at her disposal manuals
containing the data tables and formulas she needs to do her work. The Wikipedia definition Dr. Jerome quotes from seems
consistent with this. The work of science allows wide latitude for error; engineering allows for precious little. If this
understanding is correct, we can, to be sure, do some of what Dr. Jerome calls learning engineering, but only with lower level
cognitive functions. To talk about engineering a college curriculum seems like its a bridge too far.
I am all for continuing research along the lines of what Dr. Jerome is discussing, but it will be misleading to cast it as
engineering until we can document proven and replicable results.

Doug Holton says:


April 16, 2013 at 9:24 PM

Actually, Peter, theres a lot of evidence (from history & philosophy of technology) that it is more common for the engineering
and technology to lead the science and not vice versa (but of course engineering builds off of older science and theories, its a
reciprocal relationship). And this is definitely the case in education we cant wait for psychological theories to tell us how to
design learning environments. We have to take the good parts of several frameworks and theories and research findings and
go beyond them to make other inferences and design decisions, some of which may be wrong. I liken theories and
technologies to tools in my (learning design) toolbox.
Anyway, I would say that what Jerome describes learning engineers is what the Learning Sciences and learning scientists
are supposed to be its what we strove for. Look in learning sciences journal articles and the like mentioning design-based
research, Pasteurs quadrant, and all the innovative educational technologies those (few) with funding develop (and
disappear as soon as funding runs out because they werent open sourced). Were supposed to be bridging the gap between
research and practice. And some definitely are doing so, such as the folks at OLI. But there are several reasons many are
falling short and our efforts are inadequate. I wont go into all of them, but one thing is that in learning sciences training, no
one ever learns basic computational literacy or the skills to develop technological solutions (we never learn the D in R&D). I
think at Vanderbilt I was just about the only one in the whole college of education who knew how to program. I guess at Penn
State it was rare, too, because someone wrote an article about his student who had computational fluency:
http://www.personal.psu.edu/bks12/papers/dc178707.pdf
On the flip side, the technological/development side, one thing that is holding me back now is the high cost of hosting very
interactive and scalable web applications (cloud PAAS platforms get expensive quick). I could get funding, but what about
when it runs out. And unfortunately the last two universities Ive been at have been hostile to hosting servers and supporting
custom software development (I was very spoiled at Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt I now realize). Im hopeful for more
developments in the type of web applications that run entirely in the browser and only connect to a server occasionally for
persistence and synchronization, through tools such as html5, pouchdb, unhosted apps, node.js, etc.

Peter says:
April 17, 2013 at 8:16 AM

My response is that a hallmark of educational technology, since Edison at least, has been to consistently over-promise. I
started an OLI course about a year ago. Very slick. Taking the assessments gave me the exhilarating sense of forward motion.
But when I paused to do a self-assessment, I discovered that I had retained very little. More recently, I had the same
experience with Udacity. This is evidence that is anecdotal in the extreme, I know, (N=1) but it was very persuasive to the
subject. I still believe that if people in the field went out of their way to acknowledge that they are still working on first
principles of complex learning, they would approach the task with more intellectual honesty, and make more progress as a
result, and they would address the public with far less hype. We live in a time when there is someone who will sell you a
remedy for every ailment. I dont want to be in that crowd.

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Shradha says:
July 4, 2013 at 7:01 AM

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Educational Technology is indeed transforming learning processes. The article on Learning Engineering which was very
interesting. We offer a Course titled, Principles and Practices of Learning Engineering at our University, since 2009, (NIIT
University, India). Our endeavour is to strengthen learners thru identification of their learning abilities, strengths and
expertise and then work on innovative pedagogical models of learning. Once, the learners establish confidence in learning,
the outcomes are fantastic.
Since, Educational Technology encompasses all disciplines, Learning engineers contribute more holistically and their
insights are metacognitive in nature, thus adding tremendous value to different disciplines.
regards,
Dr. Shradha Kanwar

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