Learning Experience Design

I am a Professor. I am also a Fraud.

Not many people have the privilege of earning the title Professor, especially a full-time tenured one. I know that I am very fortunate to have it…but it is all a big lie.

When you hear the word professor what do you think?

Somebody who stands at a podium giving lectures to people in college or university. Somebody who professes their knowledge on a specific topic. Somebody who says things like welcome to the hallowed halls of academia. Somebody who wears a poorly fitted tweed blazer with elbow patches, pleated pants and ho-hum shoes?

None of that describes who I am.

That all sounds very one-way. It puts me on a pedestal above people. And that’s definitely not my sense of style.

The first rule of marketing is: it’s not about you. Marketing is fundamentally about these five (5) things:

  1. Knowing who you help
  2. Understanding what they need and want
  3. Delivering something of value to them
  4. Being present in moments when they want to connect with you
  5. Building relationships with those you help

The only thing I actually profess is that marketing is an essential literacy. My professional heart and mind is deeply committed to marketing, learning experience design and innovation.

Why? Partly because as an INTP personality it is who I am. And partly because I deeply believe in these words:

Business has only two functions: marketing and innovation.

Peter Drucker

My true role in education is not as a Professor. It is as a Learning Experience Designer and a Facilitator. It is to encourage people to throw themselves into the messiness of learning about marketing and digital media.

My learners and I come together as a single community of learners–in physical or virtual spaces–to interact with each other on different topics in my areas of specialization:

  • Brand management
  • Marketing strategy and planning
  • Marketing measurement and analytics
  • Content marketing
  • Social media marketing

I do my best to spark interest in the topic. To outline essential processes and practices to both apply and think critically about. To ask questions that spark divergent thinking and discussion. To encourage people to share their experiences, ideas and perspectives. To help them develop specific skills to apply in their marketing careers.

Together, we develop our marketing literacy in this learning environment.

Despite the prevailing attitude that marketing is changing in the 21st century; I firmly believe if you strip away the hype, the core principles and processes of marketing have not really changed. However, how marketing communication comes to life in market using different formats (words, visual, audio, video) and delivered across more media platforms and channels–both online and offline–has changed. The tactical execution is at a pace no one person can keep up with on their own.

This is why throwing dozens of brains on a marketing, marketing communication and/or digital media topic–each one of us coming at it with a unique perspective, experience and level of skill–is so much better than one brain.

Why is it important for me to maintain this perspective?

Because thinking like a marketer makes me a better teacher. And designing like a learner-centred teacher makes me a better marketer. It’s a virtuous cycle using complementary skills that is nicely explained in the article 7 Reasons to Hire a Former Teacher for a Content Marketing Job from the Content Marketing Institute:

  1. Teachers are explainers
  2. Teachers are planners
  3. Teachers know the proper ways to use research
  4. Teachers believe in measured progress
  5. Teachers are quick learners
  6. Teachers are used to the battle for attention
  7. Teachers are relationship builders

This means that the best professor is not a speaker; rather an engager. The true role of the professor is not as a lecturer; but as a facilitator of learning. The following passage from the article really resonates with me:

All of us can name significant teachers from our past. In some cases, the bond was forged on the quality of the information the teacher provided. In more cases, I suspect, it was because of the way the teacher made you feel. Often, it’s a combination of the two.

And, isn’t the goal of content marketing to build relationships? Not only does this require content marketers to learn how to share the right information, but also how to make our prospects feel empowered and optimistic after the transfer of information.

It nicely captures why I do what I do, and my beliefs in the power of marketing and learning experience design.

Oh yeah, if you really must call me professor, don’t expect that I will show up in class rocking I-just-spent-hours-in-my-office-hunched-over-books style. I have been told that I “look like a marketer” (whatever that means). And when I DO wear a tweed blazer it will be decidedly on point. 👌🏼

Learning Experience Design

That Time I Battled the Zombies in my College Classroom

Some of them had glazed over eyes. A few had gaping mouths in capable of uttering an answer. Those that were present might soon become part of the undead if the lights turned down. What was going on in this classroom? I couldn’t let this continue. I needed their brains. They needed their brains. No, not to eat. To learn mobile marketing.

Ok. So the class wasn’t exactly like that.

This past term I had one course that felt like I was fighting to get consistent engagement with my learners each week. At times they were like zombies. Nice zombies, mind you, but their brains often seemed elsewhere.

In our professional development as adult educators at George Brown College, we’re heavily trained in two main learning theories: outcomes-based education design and learner-centred teaching. Both of which I’m personally deeply committed to mastering because I assume that learning content and delivery have the most direct impact on student success. If nothing else, I have the most control over these factors as a learning designer and facilitator. (This is how I prefer to describe myself as opposed to my official title, Professor of Marketing and Digital Media, which makes me feel like a fraud.)

This not-quite zombie apocalypse was a point of friction. When I discover a friction point it usually sparks my creative problem solving instincts. I get curious. I start asking questions.

Did context unknowingly encourage this zombie state?

Despite our best efforts, how much do contextual factors influence the learning experience? This includes individual course scheduling and the physical or virtual space in which it takes place. As well as how each course fits into the overall program. I assume that not all courses should be considered equal.

Determined not to let the zombies win, I started to explore our current context a bit further.

Mobile marketing was an in-person class on Thursday afternoon from 12-3pm. My learners already had another in-person class from 8-11am; which often ended early leaving a gap of “wasted time” (the words used by a few of them to me) between them. Ours was the last class of their full-on week of learning. Both classes were in the same dreadful classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of beautiful learning spaces at George Brown College. This, however, wasn’t one of them. The desks were lined up in long rows and difficult to move. A desktop computer with a square flat screen monitor connected to a podium off to the side of the room. There was an overhead projector and a single retractable screen. A wall with a handful of windows was off to one side. And the air circulation was handled by two units along the exterior wall.

But we can’t consider this purely in isolation. I have a sense of what to expect from these learners. I had this same group in a previous term for social media marketing. That was an in-person class on Tuesday morning from 8-11am. It was one of their first classes of the week, and it was at the start of the day.

The classroom was one of the newer ones at George Brown College. Despite it being an an interior class with no outside windows there were two sides of floor to ceiling glass, which made it quite bright. The podium was front and centre, flanked by two large flat screen LED displays. Two remaining walls, including the length of the front of the class, were floor to ceiling whiteboards. The desks were similar in both situations.

With the same group of learners, the context between our social media marketing and mobile marketing courses was quite different.

Now I have more questions than answers.

I self-reflected week-to-week as I went through the term. I talked to my learners in this course about it. I discussed this challenge with my peers in professional development workshops at George Brown College. I did a bit of light online searching. I listened to a Freakonomics podcast that talked about the importance of identifying the root cause of a problem.

Hmm…I feel like I’m on to something here?

I wonder how much we truly consider, and I daresay understand, the strategic importance of context as influencing the program learning outcomes. 

In my experience with adult learning and college education most of the conversations I’ve been involved in have focused more tactically on individual course design, assessment and delivery. Yes, I’ve been in this industry for two years, and thus haven’t been exposed to program-level course planning or existing research on this topic.

Some of my assumptions are that not all courses in a program should be considered equal. Some factors to consider:

  • Core concept/topic courses vs. Rounding out knowledge courses
  • Need hands-on, more immersive learning vs. Good for self-directed learning
  • Better delivered in-class vs. Better delivered online

I’ve got assumptions about scheduling that some courses are better early in the week in the morning with nothing after them; while others can be done later in the week, possibly as the second one in a day, if they’re less intense and more self-directed.

Additionally, how does the physical space or online learning management system contribute to context? This is a factor that we as program administration or faculty currently have less control over.

Do we need to intentionally design the program context?

When looking at how a program flows from start-to-finish, should we apply the same design thinking principles to its context–especially scheduling. My hypothesis is that the schedule is an important part of outcomes-based learning design and learner-centred lesson delivery. It’s more than simply filling in spots on a calendar each term.

How do we prototype and test this? Perhaps we take the existing program in one semester and look at scheduling each course with empathy for the learners. What do we measure to validate it? Maybe its comparing student satisfaction feedback, student retention, or average grades. I’m not sure. I’m not there yet.

To kill a zombie you need to destroy its brain.

It’s kind of ironic, actually. Now I’m not suggesting we go around cutting off peoples heads. Lets just say that we need to get rid of the dead zombie brain and replace it with an active human brain. One that’s always engaged in the learning experiences we work hard to design and facilitate. That’s how we’ll kill the zombies in the classroom.

In the end, we got through the mobile marketing course together. I made some adjustments to the weekly plan along the way, which ended up improving learner engagement. In my opinion, it ended up being fine. But “fine” isn’t good enough. This was a point of friction in the learning environment that I hadn’t experienced before.

And in friction there’s opportunity for innovation. There’s opportunity for us to kill the zombies of learning.


Learning Experience Design

Uncomfortable Learning

It was an early spring day in Toronto. We were lingering over a coffee in the cool afternoon sun. My friend Kunal and I met while working in marketing at General Mills. Since then we’ve both made a few career pivots to get where we are today. He’s doing really cool strategy consulting work at Brainsights, a neuroscience-driven market research startup. I’ve got the privilege of designing learning experiences for aspiring digital marketers at George Brown College. We were pretty happily sharing stories of our respective new day-to-day worlds.

As I was reflecting on the early days of being a learning designer (or professor, if you must) he interjected; “It sounds like uncomfortable learning”. The statement was so simple, yet profound. It resonated deeply with me. “That’s it”, I blurted out. “That’s theme of my first reflection article. It’s perfect!”

Learning about how to design and deliver learning (and the desire to be exceptional at it) has both excited me to the core and caused significant stress. I put a lot into what I do. I always have. When it comes to digital marketing, innovation…and now learning design, I always will.

But so far it’s been uncomfortable learning.

Here’s what the voices say. This is the uncomfortable part.

You can’t just teach the slides you’ve been given…do they even make sense. You need to break down the jargon and get them interested in it. You’re falling behind everything that’s happening in social media because you’re not as actively in it as you need to be. You must have inspiring examples to share. You can’t compromise your standards. You won’t create a crappy presentation. You have to engage and excite your learners. You want them to love marketing, don’t you? You want them think you’re a great facilitator. You must grind through it. You’re only as successful as they are.

And sometimes the voices say this. It’s the learning part.

You’re in the first full term of doing this…it’s a big change, right? You can’t actually achieve perfection. You need to iterate. You need to take a deep breath. You ARE the product…which if you realize is really amazing. You’re having fun. You’re doing something you love. You’ve heard that you’re kind of good at it. You’ve got to be patient. You will get better.

Then on a bike ride home after a class one day as my mind unwound a bit the “ah ha!” voice finally called out.

You must plan your weeks more effectively. You need to take control of your calendar. You get to manage your time now. You need to do it differently than you ever have before. Don’t worry Blair, you’ve got this.

Hmm. I might be on to something here.

This term I’ve been planning lessons and activities a couple of days before each class. In some cases it gets finished at the 11th hour. Outwardly it all comes together well. Internally is another story. I’ve used this metaphor to describe the feeling.

It’s like being the captain of an airplane flying through turbulence. You’re maintaining your calm for your passengers while trying to keep control of the airplane. You know you can land it safely, but it’s going to be a wild ride and you can’t be sure until the wheels hit the runway. (Yes, in another life if I had the applied science aptitude I might have become a pilot.)

Some of the professional development I’ve completed in outcomes-based education and designing online learning have helped me get to this realization. I’m learning how the complex process of course design to weekly planning to execution of each lesson and set of activities fits together.

When I think about it a bit more, it’s really like designing an integrated marketing campaign. I’ve done this for years. There are objectives, an audience, key message, communication tools and channels, metrics and a launch date.

So yeah, I’ve got this. It starts with being better at breaking down the steps and giving myself deadlines to work to. The launch date will be earlier than the day of the lesson.

I can get comfortable with it. Hopefully from now on it will be mainly about the learning.

Thanks for the spark of insight, Kunal. The next coffee is on me.