When is a learning designer a project manager?

In The LX Role by Editorial TeamLeave a Comment

When is a learning designer a project manager? It is a question I have considered my entire career (well the part of it spent working in e-learning), and I am revisiting it now as I’m looking for opportunities in e-learning project management. Very timely, I came across a recent publication by Intentional Futures (2016), a group funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. The report entitled “Instructional Design in Higher Education”, reported on the experience of instructional designers. At the same time a report by MIT, MIT online learning report also notes the importance of instructional designers.

Although the link between project management and instructional designer has often been a topic of online e-learning magazines such as E-Learning Industry and Learning Solutions magazines, reports on the role of an instructional designer in HE are somewhat rare. Finding consensus on the title of someone who designs learning activities for a digital  environment is even rarer. Instructional designers, educational technologists, e-learning specialists, learning designers and more recently learner experience designers are all titles that have been used. Personally I prefer the term learner experience designer (LX) , a melding of User Experience (UX) and  learning design, because it brings it in line with similar roles in the corporate sector. One title that is not often used for the role is ‘project manager’ and it was good to see the Intentional Futures report identify this link so clearly. It adds credence to the need for LX designer to be recognised for their skills in project management and for this in term to be included in their job descriptions.

Personally I prefer the term learner experience designer (LX) , a melding of User Experience (UX) and  learning design, because it brings it in line with similar roles in the corporate sector.

Interestingly, the report used personas to aggregate the roles, skills and demographics of individuals involved in Instructional Design. It was intriguing to see that in the”A day in the life” of one of their personas, project management featured so prominently. In addition those interviewed for the study identified “project management” as the second most important skill behind “Learning new technologies”. By contrast the study also found that instructional designers have considerable influence in selecting communications tools and learning management systems but very little influence in deciding on project management tools.

It is good to see a report from our industry that features project management so prominently. It corroborates what I’ve been thinking and talking about with with colleagues recently. And we see it appearing in journal articles more too. Williams van Roolj (2010) found that instructional designers often had to fulfil the role of designer as well as project manager. Pan (2012) identified that instructional design and project management should be “regarded as two of the core skills of instructional technology” (para. 30).

In addition to designing courses, supporting and teaching faculty/teaching staff, I’ve always felt that project management is a key aspect of the LX designer role.  Any course or programme development project will obviously involve working with a subject specialist or Subject Matter Expert (SME). However typically it also involves working with a project team. This team may include for example someone charged with creating specialised videos for the courses, a project sponsor – either a Group Leader, Department Head, Academic Dean or Academic Director, librarians, information technology services teams and external stakeholders either government accreditation bodies or industry liaison representatives. Without it being explicit, the project and communication management tasks on such a project often end up with the LX designer. No one else is in a position to do it. The SME is often working on their first blended or online learning project. Everyone else is only responsible for smaller aspects of the projects, a fact that puts the LX designer firmly in the project manager driving seat.

One last observation about the evolution of an instructional designer into a learner experience designer is that learner experience design shares many of the values and methods of user experience (UX). In some cases UX uses traditional project management, but as the instructional designer role changes so might the style of project management. UX designers use different approaches based on the teams they work with. Moves to Lean UX and in some cases Agile UX may see a similar change in LX project management. Further evidence of the need for a LX designer to fully understand project management and therefore to have the role included in the job description.

Hopefully this new study will generate some further debate and the recognition that an instructional designer (learner experience designer) is also a project manager.  This should give learner experience designers some ammunition for their next job assessment.


Intentional Futures. (2016). Instructional design in Higher Education: A report on the role, workflow, and experience of instructional designers. Seattle, WA: Author Retrieved from http://intentionalfutures.com/reports/instructional_design/files/Instructional%20Design%20in%20Higher%20Education%20Report.pdf

Pan, C. (2012). A Symbiosis between Instructional Systems Design and Project Management. Canadian Journal Of Learning And Technology, 38(1).

Williams van Rooij, S. (2011). Instructional design and project management: complementary or divergent?. Educational Technology Research & Development, 59(1), 139-158. doi:10.1007/s11423-010-9176-z

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