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Ask the Experts: Mirjam Neelen

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

Mirjam Neelen is a learning expert with over 14 years of industry experience, working at major corporations such as Google, Accenture, and now Novartis. She currently leads their Global Learning Design and Learning Sciences. Mirjam architects instructional and informational solutions, including performance support, knowledge management, and competency management, taking a data-driven approach.

She is also a well-respected author, with her co-writer Paul A. Kirschner, and published a must-read for any learning designer called, “Evidence-Informed Learning Design”.

Mirjam was kind enough to field some questions about learning design, the state of the industry and where we should be headed:

1) People in learning design come from a wide array of skill sets and backgrounds. How did you come into the field?

The short answer is: I studied it. I have a Masters in Learning Sciences. The long answer is: I studied Psycholinguistics first – which about how the brain processes language and I was very fascinated by aphasiology (the study of language impairment as a result of brain damage). That’s why I – after my Masters in Psycholinguistics – studied Speech Therapy. I wanted to apply that ‘brain stuff’ in practice. I ended up working with children with neurological disorders and after 5 years or so, I decided I didn’t want to be a speech therapist for the rest of my life. That’s when I started my Masters in Learning Sciences, started working as an Instructional Designer and so my career in learning design developed over time.

2) What is the most common mistake you see learning designers make and how can it be avoided?

I am going to answer this question in the context of learning designers in the workplace. I think the most common mistake is that we don’t do proper task analysis. I have worked in many organisations and we don’t spend enough time to understand what people’s actual job reality and job tasks look like. This often results in learning solutions that don’t mirror the job context sufficiently, which then gets in the way of learning transfer.

3) What are the most crucial skills or areas that designers should be focusing on right now?

Performance consulting skills, task analysis, evidence-informed tools, techniques, and ingredients, and data-driven approaches to design.

4) In "Evidence-Informed Learning Design", you and Paul A. Kirschner debunk learning styles and call attention to misleading neuroscience and the business trend of ‘creative thinking’. What other current practices need to end or change?

What needs to end is creating one buzzword after another. 702010, microlearning, hybrid learning, growth mindset, skills-based learning and so the list goes on.

What needs to change is that we, instead of constantly changing our language and terminology, while we’re not fundamentally changing what we do, we need to first fix our foundation. I am stuck in the groove here, but we’re just not there yet. Foundational building blocks for me are 1) start with the performance problem, 2) determine if learning can help, 3) clarify what success looks like and how you can measure it, 4) determine learners’ needs, and last but not least, 5) translate the scientific evidence we have on how people learn most effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably to our practice.

5) What advice would you give a new learning designer trying to get into the field?

If you’re a new learning designer, I would like to encourage you to become aware of the history of instructional and learning design. That will give you a chance to stand on the shoulders of giants and it will open your eyes to the fact that we’re constantly putting old wine in new bottles. This will help you to stay focused on what matters. When you’re new, I would initially spend energy practising how to work effectively with stakeholders. If you manage to build that skill, have good conversations with them, and demonstrate real value to them and to the people that your stakeholders ask you to design for, you can build credibility and that will help you to be successful and design actual useful learning interventions. It will also help you to be proud of your profession.

6) What would you want as the main takeaway from your book?

I warned already that I’m stuck in the groove. I’d want people to realise how much evidence we actually have on how people learn, and how we should design learning interventions that are effective, efficient, and enjoyable, and then apply that knowledge. Yes, of course, nothing works always, so you would always need to test if it works in your particular context, but you can make way better-informed decisions if you start with the scientific evidence that’s out there.

7) Are there any other authors or books you’d recommend designers read?

Yes, many! Julie Dirksen, Cathy Moore, Will Thalheimer, Donald Clark, Jane Bozarth, Patti Shank, Connie Malamed, Ruth Clark, Richard Mayer, Dick Clark, and Guy Wallace are all fantastic. I also highly value Stanislas de Haene’s book on How We Learn and Itiel Dror’s work on expert decision-making. There are many more, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

8) What do you see as the most important factor in the future of learning design?

I hope we will focus more on designing for actual job tasks, or skills if you prefer and less on designing a lot of consumption-type content. I also hope we’ll start designing in an evidence-informed way – and I mean that broadly; translating scientific evidence to practice, yes, but also making data-driven decisions using systems data. I admire Lori Niles Hoffman for her work in that space. I have a lot to learn myself there!

Thank you, Mirjam for your amazing answers and insights!

Be sure to check out Mirjam's extremely useful and hands-on guide to learning design. There is a link to purchase on Amazon here.

(Note: I do not gain any financial benefit from this link, it is solely provided for your ease of access).

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