An Interview with Kristen Ford, Director of Learning Design at Cengage Learning

Have you ever wondered what it takes to design and build a student-centric, integrated set of online resources and learning activities that can generate measureable improvement in student outcomes? Well, it certainly requires a lot of collaboration on the part of the design and development teams responsible for building the framework and the discipline-specific resources, but it also requires many hours of discussions with – and observations of — the instructors and students who will actually use the products.

I had an opportunity to speak with Kristen Ford, Director of Learning Design at Cengage Learning, to ask her how she and her team approach this design challenge. Kristen (pictured above) joined the publishing industry immediately after finishing college, and describes herself as being passionate about improving the educational experience for both instructors and learners.

Jeanne Heston (JH) : Kristen, I understand that your team is responsible for designing learning paths for the new MindTap product line that are based on sound pedagogy and are flexible enough to work with content across a wide variety of disciplines so that the paths for each course area can be customized. Where do you begin?

Kristen Ford (KF): Well, our primary source is always our customers – instructors and students. We set up meetings – in person or on the phone – with students and instructors from each discipline to understand their goals, challenges, and workflows. We want to understand their ideal so we can help them reach it.

JH: Let’s talk about your team. What sort of skills and backgrounds do they need in order to conduct research and design these learning paths?

KF: I am fortunate to work with a group of talented and experienced instructional designers and former educators who think about pedagogy 24×7.

JH: What does a typical instructor meeting look like?

KF: Each meeting typically lasts about 90 minutes and can be conducted in person or via web conference. We start by asking instructors about their top challenges, how much time they expect students to spend on homework per week, and how much content they typically cover during a class session. We then present them with a set of activities that they might assign to students – each on its own index card. We ask them to free-associate as they choose the activities they’d want to assign and to put them into the order in which they’d assign them. Once they have sorted the cards, we ask a lot of questions about the reasons for the order, discussing each card, in turn. For students, we often like to create a working prototype and observe them as they engage with the material. This research informs our own team discussions, after we have had a chance to aggregate and organize the information from all of our instructor and student conversations.

JH: How do you handle the card-sorting exercise when the meeting is web-based?

KF: That’s a great question! We have created a PowerPoint version of the exercise. We pass control of the web meeting software to the instructor and enable him or her to pick up and re-order the squares that represent the cards.

JH: What are the next steps? What happens after all of the interviews have been conducted and the results have been organized?

KF: We then pull the team together to discuss the results – by discipline and across disciplines, to agree on 3 basic goals for each product, and to brainstorm the best possible out-of-the-box learning path for each course area. We incorporate best-practice principles related to learning design, including both content and learning path models.  Of course, our platform enables instructors to customize the learning paths – to add, delete, and re-order content – but we want to save them time by providing them with a great starting point that they can simply use, without modifications.

JH: So, you’ve agreed on the default learning paths for each course area. Where do you go from there?

KF: Our team uses an iterative design process, creating rough prototypes, reviewing them, refining them, and finally testing each prototype with potential users. Each learning path includes engagement activities, assessment, and practice. Above all, the end result needs to be both engaging and relevant, and it needs to solve real problems for instructors and students. Otherwise, no one will use it!

Do you have any tips to share in the area of instructional design or qualitative research? Use the comments box below to post your response.