Learning Engineers


A boat elevator connecting two waterways in Falkirk, Scotland

All around us we see the benefits of a well-developed engineering profession translating the discoveries of modern science into all sorts of useful systems. Learning science is constrained by the fact that we do not have a well-developed equivalent of engineering to compliment and exploit the science. It may be part of the reason why despite producing decades of research in learning,  many classrooms are little different from previous centuries in both the design and the activities that take place in them. (see previous post).

I have heard others make this claim and my answer was always that we have, in the profession of instructional design, the equivalent of the learning engineer (see previous post). The USA is unique in having developed a discipline of instructional design, and many colleges of education produce graduates in this field that are in high demand. However, I have begun to believe that this is not enough. We need a new kind of professional that has skills that traditional colleges of education are not able to provide.

Instructional design was initially inspired by many of the early developments in software engineering. It has not developed as extensively as software engineering; it has been bounded by not being truly cross-disciplinary (Douglas, 2006). It needs to embrace a stronger technological component and have a connection to the emerging field of design science. It needs people skilled in the design of sociotechnical systems, not just the design of individual pieces of educational technology. This involves transforming traditional instructional design by integrating ideas from outside educational colleges such as software engineering, human systems engineering and design schools.

Design thinking has moved away from process heavy models focused on the systems, to models focused on the user experience (see previous post) with systems and the context in which they are used. It was the development of a design-oriented culture focused on user experience that helped to differentiate Apple in the technology sector. There is scope for innovative universities to create new educational programs in the field of learning engineering, a field focused on the conversion of learning research into successful large scale practice. A field that does not just integrate new technologies into existing models of education, but that seeks to transform the whole system. A field that can bridge engineering, education and design into a transdisciplinary expertise that will finally bring learning into the 21st century.


I. Douglas (2006). Issues in software engineering of relevance to instructional design. TechTrends, 50(5): 28–35.