Learning Engineers and Architects

How time flies! A couple of weeks ago I tweeted about an article I read describing the need/shortage of learning architects and engineers. I find the concept of engineers and architects within the learning realm fascinating. In response to my tweet, George V. tweeted, “to consider in relation to Reiser’s reading: what r the differences between learning architect, engineer, designer? What does each value?

Herewith is my reply to those questions:

The Architecture of Learning

The article that piqued my interest was recently published on the Learning Solutions Magazine website, entitled L&D Executives Seek Learning Architects. In the article, the author describes the role of a learning architect as follows:

“Like a traditional architect, a learning architect possesses the requisite design know-how, but is also a strategic partner dedicated to helping the L&D leader develop and execute a sound, cost-effective plan. The learning architect is a problem solver, with strong consulting and project management skills. He or she is a skilled communicator with a flexible and agile approach. Finally, he or she has a solid understanding of analytics and can interpret data that will ultimately form the foundation for future projects” (Jacobs, 2017).

In the article, the learning architect is seen as a strategic member of a company or organization’s senior management team. The article describes key areas of expertise required, including instructional design, a solid understanding of analytics and data interpretation, and above all, an understanding of learning theory and its associated psychology.

Bersin (2014) views a learning architect as a chief officer in an organization, at par with others such as the Chief IT Officer, Chief HR Officer, and so on. He equates a Chief Learning Architect’s role to that of a Chief IT Officer’s role in terms of ownership of the architecture, and describes their job as building a structure that combines content, tools, mobile access, analytics, and platforms to produce content that is easy to use, scalable, and valuable to the user.

I don’t want to be a learning architect, as I have no interest in a corporate job. On the other hand, I do find the concept of a learning engineer intriguing.

Engineering Learning

How does engineering apply to learning? According to Wikipedia, engineering is “the application of mathematics, science, economics, and social and practical knowledge to invent, innovate, design, build, maintain, research, and improve…” That’s a lot of activities, and they all hold a place in learning engineering. Saxburg (2015) describes a learning engineer as a professional who applies learning science, and identifies several issues facing decision makers in higher education that arise when learning science isn’t applied to learning technology, which include the following:

  • Learning assumptions don’t match the demonstrated learning science facts
  • Stakeholders are reluctant to question educational suppliers
  • Controlled trials are the exception rather than the norm
  • Student learning isn’t reliably measured correctly.

Saxburg (2015) explores several questions best addressed by applying learning engineering methods, which attach learning science to a variety of decisions, including student activity, professional development, data comparisons between an existing product and a new product, conducting pilot programs to judge a product’s efficacy, and applying data to the learner and staff experience.

According to the MIT report, Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms, “[a]s they continuously work to translate the research literature into effective practice in local contexts, these learning engineers will by necessity integrate findings from different fields in their designs” (Wilcox, Sarma, & Lipple, 2016, p. x). One of the four recommendations of the study is to support the expanding profession of the “learning engineer”, although their definition of a learning engineer is more akin to what I know as an instructional designer or developer except to scale, as they view learning engineers as examining and modeling MOOC-type content on an internet-wide scale. The study explains the role of a learning engineer in comparison to other scientists and engineers, stating that, “Just as scientists and engineers are adept at experiments and statistics, learning engineers must be experts at assessment. Continuous improvement based on assessment must be a natural instinct…” (Wilcox, et al. p. 26).

Instructional Design/Technology

Reiser (2001) offers a description of an instructional designer or developer as a person who applies an analysis of learning or performance issues to the design, development, implementation, evaluation and management of content in order to improve learning or performance. The description is familiar, and useful when approaching the realm of designing content. He describes instructional designers or technologists applying design procedures and various types of media to accomplish their content development goals.


Regardless of the role—whether a learning architect, engineer, or designer—all share the common goal of contributing to the learning needs of a population. The roles are differentiated by their respective foci, and the degree to which they contribute to user-facing content. The designer primarily focuses on producing content, the engineer on assessment of content and applying research to content development, and the architect on the strategic value of learning content on the organization’s overall goals and growth.


Bersin, J. (2014, February 21). Why Companies Need a Chief Learning Architect [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blog.bersin.com/why-companies-need-a-chief-learning-architect/

Jacobs, S. (2017, September 11). L&D Executives Seek Learning Architects [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/2443/?utm_campaign=lsmag&utm_medium=email&utm_source=elg-insider&utm_content=link

Reiser, R. A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part II: A history of instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(2), 57-67

Saxberg, B. (2015, April 20). Why we need learning engineers [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Need-Learning-Engineers/229391

Willcox, K., Sarma, S., & Lippel, P. (2016). Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms (Online Education Policy Initiative Final Report). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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