We are long time fans of Academic Innovation Center at the University of Michigan. Founding Executive Director of CAI, Associate Vice-Rector for Academic Innovation James DeVaneyis a good friend and frequent collaborator.
So we were grateful for the opportunity to ask a few questions to one of CAI’s recent hires, Learning Experience Designer Jacob Aguinaga. Jacob graciously agreed to answer our questions about his role, professional background, and advice to others considering entering higher education as a non-teaching teacher.
Q: Your title is Learning Experience Designer. How does learning experience design differ from more common designations such as instructional design or learning design?
A: This is certainly a question that has sparked heated conversations lately within the broader instructional design community, including within our learning experience design team at CAI. My perspective is largely informed by my past work experiences and my training in a Learning Experience Design certificate program during my Masters courses.
For me, learning experience design is unique in that it focuses on learner needs as the driver of design decisions. Considering the entire educational landscape, there has historically been a tendency to focus on the essential content that learners need to know, from K-12 through higher education institutions. This approach can sometimes focus on learners’ needs, but more often it is about the content that learners need to master a subject. This approach is problematic because it assumes that content may be objectively important, when in reality all learners have different needs, wants, and goals, making the importance of content a subjective matter. I view the design perspective of the learning experience as a means of refining the subjectivity of the importance of content and delivery of instruction with the goal of developing a meaningful and applicable learning experience.
In my team’s work, we strive to better understand what our learners are looking to gain from a potential online course, what their knowledge base might be, how they might engage in a course, and what barriers learners might have to overcome. Designing for a learning experience then takes this portrait of our potential learners and uses it to inform decisions about what instructional content is most relevant, what types of learning sequences will be most ideal, and what types scaffolding from which learners will benefit the most. Armed with this understanding, we then leverage the capabilities of our given learning management system and other instructional tools to develop a learning experience that allows learners to meaningfully engage with the course content and to use what they learn.
Q: Prior to your role as a Learning Experience Designer, you were a college science teacher. What was your career path at CAI?
A: I started my career as a full professor. I attended the University of Michigan for my undergraduate studies and graduated with a secondary education degree from the university’s school of education in 2013. I completed my teaching certificate in the part of my coursework, certifying myself to teach history and earth/space science, and after graduation, I accepted a teaching position as a high school science teacher in the ‘Indiana. After two years, I made the decision to move back to Michigan. My wife had started her medical school at Central Michigan University, so I took advantage of this opportunity to take courses that allowed me to obtain a teaching certificate in the social sciences. After a few moves for my wife’s various training rotations, I accepted a teaching position as a middle school professor, again teaching a variety of science classes.
After holding my post in college for two years, I decided to return to school with the intention of studying curriculum development. I was accepted back into the University of Michigan School of Education, and while visiting the school to learn more about their graduate programs, I heard of a new learning experience design certificate program. The program combined my desire to learn more about curriculum development with my interest in learning technologies and innovative ways of delivering content. I decided to apply for the certificate program and work on it alongside my courses in Design of Instructional Studies and Technologies for Learning Across Culture and Concentration of Contexts.
The certificate program required completing 180 hours of internship at the Center for Academic Innovation working alongside and learning from the learning experience design team. Through this valuable and enriching experience, I saw how the pedagogical theories and principles I studied in my graduate program, combined with the knowledge acquired through teaching, could be used to develop thoughtful learning experiences for global audiences online. I enjoyed the work I was able to participate in so much that when the Center for Academic Innovation posted a job posting for a full-time learning experience designer, I decided to apply. I was lucky enough to receive the job offer and after graduating with my masters degree in May 2020, I started working at CAI as a full-time learning experience designer, and I’m here since.
Q: Do you have any advice for those who might be interested in a career as a non-teaching educator? What do you see as opportunities for those who are interested in teaching and learning but do not wish to pursue a traditional academic education?
A: I encourage people to recognize that faculty positions are not the only way to contribute to the learning facilitated by colleges and universities. Ever since my first day on campus at the University of Michigan, I had dreamed of one day working for the university, but I had no idea how I was going to get there because faculty positions are so prestigious. and rare compared to the number of scholars there.
As my career path took shape, I realized that I was knowledgeable and had developed skills that could help subject matter experts develop learning experiences that could change. learners’ lives. Anyone interested in becoming a teacher, whether a faculty member or not, should take the time to strengthen their understanding of learning theory and teaching practices, as they are extremely valuable and will not only enable you to create meaningful learning experiences, but also adapting those experiences to empower learners to put them to practical use.
Also, my team is excited to start working on a new series of MOOCs called An Introduction to Learning Design. It was recently approved through the Center for Academic Innovation’s Fall 2021 Call for Proposals and will be designed and launched in 2022. This new series will provide learners with a foundational understanding of the field, including design approaches , learning theories and the core competencies expected of designers of professional learning experiences. While you may not be interested in learning experience design as a profession, I still encourage you to take a look at the series. The theories and approaches from which we work can be applied to many contexts!