Are education and learning engineering problems?

Audrey Watter’s begins her latest post with this insight: “Much of what I wrote about with regards to education applies to this sector [health and wellness] as well, in no small part because everything for Silicon Valley (1) is an engineering problem: a matter of optimization, individualization, and gadgeteering (that’s B. F. Skinner’s word, not mine).”

In a similar fashion, in his 2023 chapter The future of the Field is not Design Jason McDonald notes that in pursuing the mission of transforming learning and teaching, the field of Learning and Instructional Design Technology has ” become too fixated on being designers and applying the methods of design thinking. As valuable as design has been for our field, it’s ultimately too narrow an approach to help us have the impact we desire because it overemphasizes the importance of the products and services we create. To be more influential, we need approaches that focus our efforts on nurturing people’s “intrinsic talents and capacities” that are ultimately outside of our ability to manage and control.”

I am nodding along with this, and I am also reminded that both silicon valley edtech efforts as well as LIDT efforts overwhelmingly focus on the individual student and the individual teacher,  and much less on the environments, systems, policies, and structural issues that surround our efforts (or in Berliner’s 2002 work, the contexts that surround us).


Southern New Hampshire University’s efforts with generative AI


Postdigital Research: Transforming Borders into Connections [interview]


  1. George, I find this statement to be a little contradictory – “To be more influential, we need approaches that focus our efforts on [things] that are ultimately outside of our ability to manage and control.” In what sense would focusing our efforts on things we can’t manage or control increase our influence?

    • Thanks for this comment, David. I can see what you mean. Without speaking for Jason, the way that I interpret it is as follows: The design of instruction (or of learning opportunities and experiences, depending on one’s point of view) can only go so far. If I understand it correctly, Jason views design as “managing, controlling, creating, or making.” Using the example of online learner success, I think of the kinds of things that we might do in an online environment as design (e.g., a structured environment, prompt feedback, clear instructions, motivational messages, alignment between objectives and assessment, etc, etc). Other approaches that we might employ to improve opportunities for online learner success might be things like policymaking (e.g., reducing obstacles for course credit/transfer, providing greater flexibility for participation) and broader student supports (e.g., on-demand student support unrelated to the course/content, such as program advising or coaching to work well in teams, or even basic needs support like in this example where higher education relief funds were quickly distributed to students to meet basic needs: I think the point here is that we tend to frame challenges as instructional/learning problems, and in doing so focus our attention on teaching and learning, potentially missing the broader environment surrounding the problem. We saw some of this in our covid-19 misinformation research. In that work we developed interventions to help people mitigate the spread of misinformation. We found some success in that, but what we also found was that some of the reasons that misinformation was such a difficult problem was that it included aspects that could not be addressed by expanding people’s skills and abilities to identify it, such as digital platforms that made it effortless to rapidly share information without checking its authenticity/accuracy. Thanks for the comment again. I can see that this might still be seen as falling under the umbrella of “things that we control” but does it clarify the distinction between things we can control that fall under instruction/learning and things that we can influence that fall outside of that but nonetheless impact learning?

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