As a learning designer, I ask a lot of questions. But the many “whats” and “whys” of my day-to-day work helping nonprofits deliver digital learning experiences all come back to two central questions:
- Who are your learners?
- What do they need to do?
For Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR), these two questions were the driving force behind developing not just a learning platform with Extension Engine but a true online workspace.
Mission meets strategy
APPR seeks to achieve fair, just, and effective pretrial practices by providing support, assistance, and training to justice system professionals across the country. This nonprofit partnered with Extension Engine to scale its proven in-person model through a digital transformation that would allow them to support even more jurisdictions working to improve pretrial justice in the United States.
Beyond simply creating and implementing digital resources, Extension Engine helped APPR ensure that the learning platform provided their audience what they needed, when they needed it, in order to do their work. To get to this point, my colleagues from the Learning Experience and Platform Design teams and I conducted interviews and research with APPR’s leadership and practitioners in the field. We learned that with a lot of energy but few hours in the day, anything our justice system professionals learned had to be possible to implement straight away. This learn-by-doing approach led to a vision of the learning platform as an “online workspace.”
Learning design and the digital learning framework
Learning experience design applies user experience considerations, insights from cognitive science and educational psychology, multimedia principles, and elements from several other disciplines to understand specific learners in order to help them achieve their learning goals. Learning design is one of three components of Extension Engine’s Digital Learning Framework, a strategic model we’ve developed and adapted over the course of half a million work hours.
Extension Engine has partnered with nonprofits, universities, and learning businesses as well as private companies and other organizations from a range of sectors. They approach us with different objectives and challenges, from helping an association evaluate and implement technology for their learning platform, to reimagining an entire program (and putting the technology in place) to support students digitally during a pandemic. No matter the project size or intended outcomes, Extension Engine takes each partner through a Design & Planning phase. We assess user needs, organizational goals, staffing, and design considerations through the three elements of our digital learning framework: program design, learning design, and platform/technology design.
For example, at APPR, the outcome-oriented learning design reflected a program design that addressed the learner’s need to accomplish tasks that made a difference in their jurisdiction. APPR’s community could not take time out of their day just to read materials on a website or gain theoretical knowledge for discussion and interpretation. Their work with the APPR project online had to align with their professional roles, and the digital tools had to be an extension of their daily responsibilities — not an additional task or extraneous piece of technology.
APPR's learning experience
These learning and program design considerations informed Extension Engine’s design and creation of an “online workspace” that offered learners a single virtual environment for their work. It enables project participants to understand their roles and responsibilities and hear from other teams across the country. Platform design in turn reflects this action-oriented focus with a visual design outlining next steps, upcoming meetings, and approaching deadlines. By listing increments (rather than presenting an 18-month project), learners can work on deliverables, facilitate meetings, monitor their progress, and recognize their project’s impact without being overwhelmed.
Learners can also utilize an expanding library of resources, including interview videos with practitioners in the field that guide and motivate learners throughout the process. These videos, produced by Extension Engine’s Media Team, allow members of the APPR community to share their own lessons about implementing pretrial reform and overcoming challenges. Learners then apply these lessons to their situations. Templates and slide decks also foster collaboration in creating key program deliverables. Design considerations around accessibility and new instructional models also enable APPR to reach an even wider range of learners.
These materials can also be shared with colleagues outside of the program. Those new audiences will see and hear the actual benefits of the program from individuals in the field, creating organic growth to support scaling while driving performance.
APPR’s online workspace now provides more justice system professionals a way to engage with issues, learn from subject-matter experts, connect with fellow colleagues across the country, and work toward solutions. This workspace reflects both stakeholders’ needs and this nonprofit’s commitment to reform through best practices. When learners shape the online experience, scale does not need to sacrifice quality.
Read the APPR case study to learn more about their digital learning experience and online community.