Jenae Cohn is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley. Along with Michael Greer, Jenae recently published Design for Learning, a book about how to teach better using technology, and what online teachers and instructors can learn from UX designers.

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Disclosure: Rosenfeld Media provided a copy of Jenae’s book for review.

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Jorge: Jenae, welcome to the show.

Jenae: Thank you, Jorge. It’s a delight to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Jorge: I’m excited to have you here. I recently read your new book, Design for Learning, and will say right off the bat that it’s a book that would have saved me a lot of time and grief if I had read it earlier in my career. And I want to talk with you about the book. But before we get into it, would you mind telling us a bit about yourself? How did you come to this subject?

About Jenae

Jenae: Yeah, I’d be glad to. So, I am an academic and an educator by training. I’m a trained writing instructor, actually. Most of my teaching is in a college composition, college writing. And a lot of college writing instruction is informed by technology in a lot of meaningful ways: we read and write almost entirely in digitized or online environments. And so, as a scholar — as a teacher — I was really interested in how digital composing practices were impacting both what my students were doing, but also what I was doing and working on.

And as my career evolved… I’m not a professor. I currently work at UC Berkeley and I am the Executive Director of our Center for Teaching and Learning. So, I’m really helping other people now think about their own teaching and what that looks like. As my career has evolved more in the service of supporting other educators, I’ve kept thinking really critically about what are the factors that shape the environments that we’re learning in and what factors shape how we’re encountering information, regardless of whether we’re learning, reading or writing, or something else.

And so, in that time, I’ve worked a lot in educational technology. My prior positions have focused almost exclusively on learning technologies and online learning especially. I’ve taught online, I’ve designed online learning experiences, and throughout that process to my co-author for this book, Michael Greer, and I connected. We were part of a professional organization together, and in our conversations, it struck us that we, as designers for online courses, both found the principles and theories behind user experience research to be tremendously helpful in our orientation to designing online courses.

We felt like it was a natural extension of some of the training we’d received that when you think about how you teach people, you need to think about how they’re approaching their experience. In education, we’d call this student-centered instruction. And it dawned on us that’s the same exact thing as user-informed design - as user experience research. And as the two of us started to read more in the UX space, we both felt like, gosh, why are the fields of instructional learning design not talking that much to the field of user experience research? That when you’re creating a product, you’re creating an experience, where you have to be thinking about how someone navigates through a space that you need to build from scratch.

Physical spaces as a metaphor

Jenae: The metaphor I also like to use for this is when you teach in a classroom — in an embodied space — the space is really already designed for you. You might have chairs bolted to the ground; you’re going to have tables. There’s very clear expectations based on the design of the space for where students go — for where the teacher goes — that creates certain kinds of limitations and confinements for how you teach. When you’re online, there are no tables, there are no chairs. You get to build those yourselves and online learning designers are in a position quite like user experience designers to really be thinking about, what are the roles you need people to play when they’re interacting with each other? What kinds of design decisions need to inform the ideal types of interactions you want people to have?

And I think that’s especially provocative when it comes to learnings. I think online you have this really tremendous opportunity to rethink those roles. To reset the expectations around who a learner is, who a teacher is, what their relationship is like to each other, and potentially create something more collaborative, more collegial, more social, than what can happen, I think, sometimes in an in person classroom.

It’s different. And again, sometimes it’s helpful to rely upon metaphors like tables and chairs and desks because they orient us to interactions and meaningful ways. But thinking about all these pieces of how you build a space that makes learning possible — again, through the lens of user experience research — was something that Michael and I were keen to explore in greater depth. And initially we thought maybe we just write an article or two articles, and then we started drafting and then we realized, oh, maybe it’s actually a book that we’re writing. And we have the book you’ve read today.

Jorge: This idea that there are parallels between instruction design — and I’m going to use the phrase “instruction design” and correct me if that’s the wrong phrase — but the idea that there are parallels between instruction design and user experience research and design, that comes across very clearly in the book. What I’m hearing you say here, which is very interesting, and I want to pinch and zoom on, is that in the “before times” — and I’m going to use the phrase, “before times,” to refer to the world before 2020, right?

Jenae: Yes.

Jorge: And it might be worth unpacking that. I’ve been teaching at the California College of the Arts for a long time, since the before times. And when the pandemic happened, we had to switch to teaching online. So, I’ve had this experience of teaching in a physical classroom with chairs and tables and all the sorts of accoutrements that you called out.

Jenae: Yes.

Jorge: And then having to switch to this online environment. And what I heard you say there, and I just want to reflect it back to you because I think it’s worth unpacking, is that in teaching in a physical space, you have this context that is already there for you that does not necessarily exist online. And part of the online learning experience entails designing the context where the learning will happen. Is that fair?

Jenae: Yes. I do think that’s fair. And I think I will say, calling this “instructional design” I think is right, although I want to acknowledge that there are bodies of thought that propose the use of the phrase, “learning experience design” instead, or will even differentiate those roles. Some will argue that instructional design really refers to the practice of just like creating the instructional materials within an existing space, whereas learning experience design might be more of this process of creating some new expectations for the space from scratch, if you will. I don’t know that distinction is particularly important to me as a thinker on this topic, because I think most people who are designing courses realistically are kind of having to do everything.

I think there are very few people who teach or design teaching experiences whose roles are like quite that differentiated. Because a lot of institutions, whether that’s a university or college or a company, frankly aren’t putting in the human resources to have these roles be so divided. But some places do have the luxury of differentiating them, so I do think it’s a bit of a technical note, but I want to make it anyway, since you asked if that was the right terminology. I think it continues to evolve, too, is the online learning and e-learning industry continues to change and the software and course management systems people use also continue to evolve.

Teaching before and after the pandemic

Jenae: Jorge, I’d be interested in kind of hearing, when you compare your experiences in the so called “before times” and then kind of the after times, whatever moment this aftermath is. You know, there’s been a lot of reflections and experiences, I think, from educators about being forced to move online by necessity. Lots of lessons learned from that. Of course, I’m always curious to hear how folks experience that shift differently and how the moment we’re in now, which I think is sort of a bizarre transitional moment, and like where and how we imagine interactions and experiences happen, how that experience changes how you orient the work of being an educator yourself.

Jorge: Yeah, that’s a great question and It’s worth unpacking. I’ll just say I like the phrase “learning experience design” and I’ll use it just because it feels to me like it’s more holistic; it does encompass the broader context. I will say this: even though we are talking about this distinction about teaching in the before times and then the after times, as though teaching in the before times meant exclusively physical play space. The reality is that even in the before times, there were important digital components to the learning experience.

Jenae: Oh, totally.

Jorge: You know We were using learning management systems. We were using various tools that allowed that transition to be less painful than it would have been otherwise. If the pandemic had happened and all of a sudden we had to go from fully physical to fully online, I think it would have been much harder. But the fact that it was already a hybrid to begin with made it somewhat easier.

Jenae: Yes, that’s right. I think it’s also worth acknowledging that the evolution of distance education it has a relatively long history. There have been people teaching in correspondence courses, right? And in distance contexts for… gosh! I need to do the advanced math. This kind of took off really as early as the 1950s, 1960s. I’d say the 1980s is usually the point that I will identify as the start of like online learning as we know it, since that’s kind of when personal computing and personal computers became more available at a mass consumer level. So you’re certainly right that students of all kinds — both, college-age students, but also professional learners — have been needing to interface with online design infrastructure as part of their experience for decades.

I think what the sort of mass remote learning experience — the pandemic — perhaps exposed to folks was the need to actually create more navigable infrastructure for kind of connecting all the pieces around digital courseware. I think when most folks think of online learning, they will think of one of two things. One, they’ll think of some really boring set of like videos they have to watch and click through. This is like “the playlist” model of learning, like they’ve got to watch a million videos and then take a quiz after each video, and like that’s their quote unquote course. And you do it as quickly as possible because it’s really boring and it’s a compliance oriented exercise.

Or I think what happened in the pandemic was a lot of “Zoom teaching.” And I’m putting it in air quotes because I don’t even know if you can call a lot of what happens over Zoom, teaching. Maybe Zoom lecturing would be the better way to describe it, this kind of one way… the person leading the class just talks a lot over Zoom, and feels this like tremendous sense of alienation and lack of presence because they’re speaking to a bunch of black boxes on the screen with no interaction, no mindfulness, and no connectedness to the other context where students are accessing information from readings to assignments to activities: composing, problem solving… whatever practices are happening to actually learn are like completely disconnected from the experience of sharing space and time.

It’s like the products and spaces for learning that a lot of people use when they design online are so disconnected from a user experience perspective. It’s like all these isolated spaces, whereas in an in person classroom, there’s this feeling that everything’s more cohesive from user experience because you are showing up to one place all the time, and there’s a sort of built incentive infrastructure for doing the work of learning within that space.

And so, this is a long way of saying that I think part of what Michael and I want to talk about in our book is how you create more cohesion across the different infrastructures you may be using for your course: how you signal that more explicitly in your design so you don’t feel like you’re just moving from the disparate spaces of a video call to a learning management system to, I don’t know, a word processor, if you’re using that to compose. Or whatever kind of set of tools and software you’re using, but to really think intentionally about, like, what is your sort of your hub? What is your home space for connecting your learners to the variety of spaces and help them understand why they might be convening in real time? Why they’re going to have to do certain kinds of assignments. Why they’re moving from one activity to the next. All that intentionality can be built.

And it sounds complicated, but I mean, I’m biased, I don’t think it is. If you’re planning really far in advance, what do people get out of this space — like a real-time talking space — that’s different than watching a video. That’s different than reading something. That’s different than writing something. What is the point of all these interactions? Then it’s way easier to design how you create those sort of throughfares and connections to create that more cohesive sense of experience.

The learning experience design process

Jorge: I said at the beginning that reading your book earlier would have saved me a lot of pain, and it would have also saved my students a lot of pain because when you were describing those common online teaching experiences, I was thinking, “man, I’m guilty of both of those”: creating boring pre-recorded videos and also Zoom lecturing, basically. And it’s really clarifying to hear that the ultimate goal of the experience is to create a degree of cohesiveness that approximates what you get in a physical classroom, if I heard that right. The question would be, how do you do it? Are there concrete steps that someone listening to this might take to avoid delivering boring Zoom lectures or creating these boring videos? Like, how do you do that? How do you drive this cohesiveness?

Jenae: Yes, there’s a multi-step process. And I will say that in the book, Michael and I created what we call a learning experience design process model that informs the structure of our book. I’m going to describe that at a high level, but I will say if someone is in a position listening to this where they’re a practitioner who really wants to apply this, I think it does take like a little bit more intensive time for us to really study and think about it a little bit more, and that model should be a useful heuristic for doing that.

But I’d say the first step to avoid the boring playlist model or the boring zoom lecture model is actually to start by just imagining who your learners or who your students are in the first place. And that sounds counterintuitive, I think, initially, because I think when most folks plan a class, they’re thinking about, “well, what do I want people to know?” But I think the better question is: why do the people in this room need to know this information? And how will they orient to that knowledge and use it in meaningful ways?

It’s impossible to know, of course, exactly who’s going to be in your room, unless you have the privilege of knowing who your class is or who your group of students is from some prior context. Most people don’t. So it’s a little bit of an exercise, and we do talk about this in the book as well, as kind of imagining some user personas, trying to conceive, who’s going to benefit from understanding this content? And then from there, once you’ve started to imagine, generally speaking, who’s going to need this knowledge, what will they do with it?

Then — and we talk about this in the book — the next exercise that we suggest is identifying the problems these learners might have. As in what problem are they trying to solve by taking this course? And in some contexts, you could start with something really basic, like compliance. They have to do this in order to earn X degree. Or they have to complete this training because you’re in HR and you told them to. So you got to think past that and say, “okay, well, beyond the basic logistics of a potential requirement, why do they need this knowledge?” What problem might this solve in their workplace? What problem might this solve in their studies? What are the pitfalls that might prevent them from understanding the ideas that you need them to learn in the content or topic that you’re doing?

And then from there, you can start to map out your goals or objectives for the course. What should your learners be able to do to solve those problems by the time they finish their class? Before you start to make a single video, before you start a single lecture, you should be able to name… I’m going to throw out a number, but at least three things that someone should be able to do by the time they finish the class. What skills should they have? Or what new knowledge should they have acquired? What should they be able to apply? Again, to improve their lives, to improve their thinking, to improve their skills beyond this class.

Then you can move back to your design. Then you can move back to your course and say, “Okay, what are the things then that someone would need to do in order to be able to achieve this outcome?” And that can then help you say, “Okay, when I’m…” Let’s say you’re having to work with a particular learning management system. I imagine most folks listening to this podcast will know what that is, but just in case you don’t, a learning management system is basically a website that’s designed with a kind of WYSIWYG template to help you build a course in some way. And it will typically include infrastructure for uploading files, infrastructure for receiving files, infrastructure for organizing, plain text content pages or uploading video — those are usually the kinds of constraints you’re working with.

And even if you’re building a website from scratch for say, the course you’re designing, these are the kinds of activities one would typically design for or around. So then, again, when you start to move back into the infrastructure you’re using, when you have those outcomes in front of you, you can start to think about the flow of the course and the structure. What kinds of activities need to be sequenced in particular ways in alignment with those outcomes?

In the book, Michael and I actually have several graphic organizers that we hope people will actually use to do essentially some curriculum mapping work where you can start to sort of name, “Okay, what’s my outcome? What are 2 or 3 possible activities I could have people do to help achieve that outcome?” And then you start to think about assessment: how do we know that they’ve understood the knowledge they need in order to achieve the outcome I’ve defined?

It’s a bit of a roundabout answer to your question of how do you do this, because I think that like the nuts and bolts of, “Okay, how do you move from one system to another, or one process to another?” It’s going to be pretty technology specific in some ways. But you can, I think, mitigate the problem of the video library or the Zoom lecture by at least trying to name up front, what are the kinds of things people need to do?

I think most folks, when they do that exercise, will pretty quickly see, “Oh! Just listening to a bunch of information non stop, in a row, is not necessarily going to be the way to achieve every single outcome I need people to achieve.” If you really do want someone to be able to apply knowledge, simply listening to something and then taking a true or false quiz is going to be a pretty narrow and restrictive way for them to understand the information.

How to scale the process

Jenae: I’m going to add one more little asterisk here, before we move from this, which is that I would say the biggest piece of pushback that I think I’ve heard in response to this book — and I imagine Michael has heard as well — is: “How does this scale? How do you do this with hundreds of people?” Or, “How do you do this in an automated way because this sounds very boutique and very custom based on your individual student needs?” And, “This isn’t going to work if you have a really big group of people.”

And my response to that is twofold. Which is, one — and we actually talk about this in the book, too — there are a lot of ways to automate interactions that aren’t just videos: you can automate written responses and anticipate pretty good written answers. And this, to me, is actually a really good application of AI. And I will say, I have a lot of skepticism about some AI, especially ones that sort of generate text, I think can be good starting places, but not good ending places. But AI is really good at detecting other people’s writing patterns and picking out the movement of text. So, you could generate auto responses to text in pretty meaningful ways that would meet people where they are.

Similarly, there’s a lot you can do with automating anticipated answers to certain kinds of, and different kinds of, quiz assessments. So, multiple-choice is the way I see most people do assessments, but you could use annotation on maps and assess those in automated ways. You could have matching exercises or fill in the blanks. There’s a lot of quiz types that may be better aligned with your needs once you start to take that step back that can feel personal and meaningful.

And finally, even at scale, you can encourage people to talk to each other and work together by engineering groups, automating pairs. And these are all, I think, certain solutions with the caveat that I do think that a lot of learning experiences do benefit from smaller communities. Like, it might not scale beautifully because learning is social. And if you totally remove the human element for the learning, it probably won’t be as effective. Just my opinion, at least in terms of building relationships and having that knowledge stick. But again, it’s not impossible to get at the outcomes you want to achieve at scale; it’s just going to be a little bit different. And I think as a designer, you just have to weigh your options, acknowledge what’s happening, and try to be as people-centric as you possibly can.

Jorge: One thing that sticks out to me in hearing you talk about it like that is that a lot of learning happens by conversing somehow.

Jenae: Mm

Jorge: You know, establishing these feedback loops between you and the learner and between learners, peers in the class. And interestingly, I think that a lot of the “before times”-type learning environments are set up to be one way conversations where like…

Jenae: Mm

Jorge: …the teacher is up in the front of the classroom, you know, gesticulating, and you’re supposed to sit there taking notes or whatever. But again, to reflect what I’m hearing there, if I were to summarize what I heard you say there when I asked the question, “how do you bring this level of cohesiveness?” the big picture answer I heard there is: you don’t wing it.

Jenae: Yeah.

Jorge: You have to think about it up front; you have to analyze who you’re doing it for and then you have to structure it. And the structure, as I heard it, takes a form of this kind of two dimensional matrix where in one dimension you have the content that you’re going to be teaching, but in the other dimension you have the means of getting that content across. Because it’s not just videos; you talk about text, you talk about webinars in the book, you talk about… There’s all these different means of getting the message across, right?

Jenae: Yes, yes.

Architecting the learning experience

Jorge: In reading the book and now in talking with you about it, I was reminded of one of Richard Saul Wurman’s definitions for what an information architect is: he said that it’s a person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge.

Jenae: Mm.

Jorge: And it strikes me that what you’re arguing for here is a form of information architecture where you’re architecting the learning experience somehow.

Jenae: Mm hmm, yes, absolutely. And what I love about that particular definition too, is it also emphasizes agency: finding your own pathway through it. I think that’s a big mistake that educators make, too, is they want to… and I’ve done this, right? So I’ll use the first person here to own it: educators just want to really rigidly control how people are going to engage. I have a vision of like, I want someone taking this course to do this activity, then this one, then this one, and I want them to have these thoughts, and I want them to come to this conclusion.

But designing in that way is… I’m going to venture to say, it’s not respectful of the person on the other end. Someone else’s brain is not going to process the information the same way mine does; they’re not going to find meaning in the same ways that I find meaning from the content. This is something I’ve had to learn the hard way over and over again is that people I teach and educate are really different than who I am.

And so, I think if you can build within your course… I’ll use the phrase you’re using — the information architecture — that allows for even just one extra choice, that even gives someone a little extra wiggle room to think about something in a slightly different way, it’s a more respectful design for their needs.

There are simple examples of this. It sounds complicated, but again, I don’t think it is. It could be as simple as an accessibility measure of, “Hey, if you do want someone to get some content through a video, also give them a transcript that they can download and annotate,” so they have at least two different ways to engage with and access that knowledge. Or even if you’re having them let’s just say — a written assignment of some kind, give them maybe two different question options for the prompt and see which one they pick and how they run with it.

And when you’re designing online in particular, it’s foolish to think that you can completely control how people are going to navigate through the information because you can’t control people’s independent actions on their screen. So, I do think at a certain level there needs to be a little bit of latitude built in. When you create a course that gives at least one other option for engaging with the information, not only does it indicate greater respect for different ways of thinking about or orienting to course content, but it also reduces the assumption that you do have any control online with how people learn and think, which is when you are interacting with material on your keyboard or on your mobile phone.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of students are actually engaging with coursework on mobile. You really can’t control what other websites they’re going to, or what music they have playing in the background, or, you know, what environment they’re accessing the information in. That’s just part of the convenience of being able to engage. And part of what makes online learning so uniquely exciting and challenging is that the environments in which people are orienting to or engaging with this information are going to be so diverse and so unpredictable.

So the more that you can think about, “Okay, how do I make sure this information is accessible on multiple kinds of devices?” How do I make sure that there are levels of content too, so that when I give someone an assignment or a prompt, they have multiple options for submitting it? Maybe rather than just having a piece of writing, they could also submit an audio memo, or voice memo, to respond.

And so, I want to acknowledge that sometimes you do need to have a really rigid way of asking someone to engage especially if your outcome is they have to learn how to… I don’t know, create an infographic, for example. Like, that exists as one thing. But, you know, you can have an infographic that is interactive. You could have one that involves color. You could have one that’s black and white, right? There’s still, I think, even a little room for latitude within any given assignment.

But to your point from earlier, you can’t wing it. You have to think through those options. And I will say too, that when I mention this point, the pushbacks that I get is, “Oh my gosh, how can you possibly plan for all those contingencies and all that optionality without totally overworking yourself?” And the answer I think is, teach less content. It’s worth it to have more interaction.

The more interaction options you can give people to really focus on the most critical parts of what you want people to do to achieve the outcome, right? Get that alignment, that cohesion through alignment with your outcomes. It’s going to be a stronger experience. Less is more. And I think when people are experts in their fields and they become teachers or they lead a training, it’s so hard to decide what to get rid of or what not to do. But again, it’s worth it to make the options for the interaction in your design possible.

Jorge: That feels like a great summary of it and a really, really great reminder. It’s something that, again, I’ve suffered from this idea of like teaching less content to focus more on the interactions. And again, one way to think about that is giving space for these conversations, for this kind of back and forth that happens in the teaching process; it’s a great reminder. Thank you so much, Jenae. Where can folks follow up with you?


Jenae: So, there’s a few places they can find me. I’m quite active on LinkedIn. That’s probably the place where I would be the most immediately responsive. I do offer workshops for folks who do want to have one off workshop experiences. I’ve got a couple webinars lined up for folks already about this topic of creating more engaging online experiences. So a message on LinkedIn or a connection on Linkedin is probably the best way to learn more about these offerings. I do have a website that’s woefully out of date, but it is a way to learn more about me and my background. That is my name, We can put that link in the show notes. I’m also still technically on Twitter or X, but I don’t know where that’s going. So again, that’s another way to reach me and learn more about my work or to connect. I will respond there too.

Jorge: Well, and of course, I encourage folks to check out the book. Like I said, I could have used it several years ago but now it’s more relevant than ever, right?

Jenae: I hope so. I hope that in this moment, beyond the kind of immediate reaction of having to do everything remotely in the pandemic, we do have time to be more intentional in our design choices and I really hope that this moment doesn’t mean just impulsively pushing back to everything needs to be done in person because it’s quote unquote better. But we can say, “No, flexibility, equity of access, is just as important as immediacy of embodied experience.” And how do we design things that really do meet people where they are and give them access to information they might not otherwise have?

Jorge: That’s great. Thank you for sharing it with us and thank you for being on the show.

Jenae: Thank you for having me. I appreciate the conversation.