Content, curation and connection: The changing role of the learning designer

How do next generation learning trends – where technologically-driven informal, social, mobile, campaign-based learning strategies replace top down training and traditional ‘click next’ e-learning courses – affect the role of the learning designer? What purpose does a learning designer have in a world where developments like the Experience API and Open badges initiative mean learners are increasingly becoming self-directed, and where there are so many learning resources available for free?

My purpose with this article is to argue that, even within today’s changing learning landscape, some of the old skills need to be brought to bear in a new context. And, just as in any profession worth the name, we might need to develop some new ones.

Broad techno-cultural changes are not of course confined to the world of learning, but are currently being mirrored in almost every other profession you care to explore. By looking at examples from other fields, we can uncover useful insights into how the learning designer’s role also might evolve.


The conventional role of museum curator has always been that of an archivist, selecting and bringing together noteworthy objects under a particular theme or from a specific era. Traditionally, a certain amount of time needs to pass between the objects discovery and its curation: an accepted understanding of an object’s value needs to have developed before it is filtered into a particular collection.

I recently attended a talk on ‘Rapid Response Curating’ (RRC) by Corinna Gardner, curator of contemporary product design at the Victoria and Albert museum. Offering a snapshot of our contemporary present rather than our historical past, RRC challenges the classic model of museum curation. Objects are selected from today’s world, not for their aesthetic value, but because they help us understand our contemporary situation. The collection captures the ongoing flow of history through the material evidence of social and political change.

An example from the collection is Lego Academics – Lego’s first ever set of female figures in a professional, rather than domestic setting. It was suggested by Swedish geochemist Ellen Kooijman through Lego’s ideas platform, where fans can propose their dream Lego landscapes. Lego can choose to green-light submissions that get 10,000 votes to produce as limited-edition items. The set of three scientists released in July 2014 sold out straight away and even have their own fan account on Twitter (@LegoAcademics) with over 43,000 followers.

This set therefore contains a number of current stories that makes it emblematic of our time: it’s about crowdsourcing design, the impact of social media and, sadly, the ridiculous gender stereotyping of both science and the toy industry. (The first time Lego had created female figures in professional settings? 2014… yes really).

In the V&A’s RRC strand, anyone can suggest objects for curation via the V&A website, but the final decisions are made by the professional curators. The objects are exhibited with simple factual notes about their origins and the visitors are allowed to draw their own conclusions. ‘The museum is a place to come and learn’ says Gardener ‘not a place to be told’ – a great philosophy for learning anywhere.

What can we learn from this example? RRCs need to understand their audience in order to reflect stories back to them that are relevant to the moment. They also need to be able to explain context, and establish provenance and authenticity: each of the V&A’s RRC objects has its own file documenting every step in the stage of its acquisition, and often this paper trail is core to the ‘story’ of the object.

Perhaps the major lesson though is one of agility and speed – not the first words that normally come to mind when you think of museums. RRC is a ‘constantly adaptive, evolving space’ in which the curator negotiates and discriminates as part of ‘a continually adaptive dialogue into the real-world impact’ of designed objects.


Digital media and the rise of user-generated content (UGC) are also changing the role of the journalist, as content is created and distributed on the individual level far beyond our ideas of ‘citizen journalism’ of just a few years ago. Within this context, much has been written about content curation – selecting and validating appropriate resources, picking up on conversations from the audience or seeding new ones – and how this requires a different skillset for the professional journalist/curator:

“The stories of our world are already being told in countless public, archivable, searchable and discoverable ways. What’s missing now is not someone to hunt stories down, but rather to weave them into a narrative. .. the expertise to connect the dots and cut through the noise to find the meaningful and the important.”

Although this quote – from Echo’s Chris Saad way back in 2010 – is about journalism, it could easily apply to enterprise/employee generated learning content. Like the professional journalist, managing a conversation with an audience who themselves contribute to the story, the total learning designer today works as a curator. User generated content is a wide net, and filtering valuable insights from it requires its own unique skillset.

The lesson for the learning designer here is to be aware of the value you add as a curator, providing a narrative around the disorganised mass of available content, selecting meaningful learning resources, verifying and aligning them with organisational cultures, values and goals and finally understanding and respecting your audience – creating a space within which conversations can occur.


The world of marketing has had its own digital disruption. The effectively limitless availability of content has crowded out traditional modes of delivering commercial messages to customers and clients. Today there are too many competing signals for the ‘interruption’ model of advertising, where you catch a potential customer in between the ‘real’ content of the TV programme or magazine article. Online immersion has triggered a switch to engagement-based marketing: involving your customer with a series of stories that keep your brand and product at the forefront of their attention. These stories can come from inside the company itself, or be curated from elsewhere. Curated stories, aligned to your own objectives, can serve to embed your message in the mind of your consumers.

Marketing expert and content strategist Rohit Bhargava identifies five different models of curation that are useful for more than the professional marketer:

  • Aggregation: gathering and sharing relevant content, effectively providing a selection process for your followers, customers or learners.
  • Filtering: A further layer of quality control or validation on top of the aggregation process.
  • Elevation: A form of pattern recognition – surveying curated content for emerging trends or key takeaways.
  • Mashups: Splicing different chunks of content (usually visual or audio) to provide a new experience.
  • Timelines: Organizing content in chronological order to illustrate the development of an idea.

Content-based strategy achieves business goals by maximizing the impact of promotional content. There are obvious parallels here with a learning designer, whose role is to achieve business goals by maximising the impact of training content and this taxonomy of curation types illustrates the different ways of adding value through focussed curation.

What do I take away from the three industries I’ve looked at?

The explosion of social media has produced citizen creators and curators in every field. It radically disrupts old hierarchical models for the creation and distribution of knowledge and culture, but it also creates new opportunities for those whose professional role has always been to filter through the noise and provide context, clarity and insight.

RRC shows us that even the most traditional of institutions, such as museums, recognise the value of agility and speed in remaining relevant with an audience, whilst they still need to deliver their classic value proposition – paying strict attention to context, authenticity and story.

Journalists are realising that their future is a dialogic one. They are not just creators of stories, but also curators of conversations, creating pathways of understanding through the chaotic voices of the contemporary news space. Like the museums, a large part of their value is the trust that we place on their perspective as reliable expert witnesses, enhancing our understanding of events and histories.

Marketing professionals realise that they cannot just rely on imposing their messages on a passively consuming audience. They need to insinuate themselves into existing conversations and bring something new to them. They are organising and leverage the benefits of already existing content to better deliver their messages and change behaviour.

Within workplace learning, this social revolution has held out the dream of instant access to the collective knowledge and expertise within a networked learning environment, at minimal cost to the organisation – a self-sustaining learning economy. Of course, reality is more complicated than the dream.

The traditional skillset of a learning designer in researching the business case, understanding audience and content, then structuring and curating information still adds great value. Innovations like the xAPI turn informal learning into quantifiable data that can be brought into the organisation, so the learning designer – someone who can turn a multitude of informal resources into meaningful pathways that meet an organisation’s learning strategy – is perhaps more important than ever.

In addition to creating individual formal courses, the designer’s role of the future will include aggregating and filtering content, seeding conversations, defining and mapping pathways and helping to maintain a community of learners.

But to deliver effective next generation total learning, we don’t just need learning designers, with identical skills to other professional content curators. We also need better tools, such as learning environments that use technology to facilitate social learning and the delivery of resources alongside the formal course and provide the big data necessary to continuously improve and develop learning strategy. Like the ‘constantly adaptive, evolving space’ of rapid response curation, such an environment will draw in the best of user-generated, peer to peer knowledge and combine it with resources created within the enterprise, from simple performance support checklists to traditional formal courses. Will the traditional LMS evolve to meet this challenge so that we can deliver the kind of rapid-response learning our learners want?


Rapid Response collecting at the V&A – talk by Corinne Gardner.

Essay: Real-time Storytelling by Chris Saad

The 5 Models of Content Curation by Rohit Bhargava

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