Scaling impact with Learning Experience Design




As someone who uses design thinking and agile methodologies on a daily basis, I see every project as an opportunity for intentional experimentation and accelerated learning. Working in education, I especially enjoy discovering new ways of engaging the people who are part of the learning journeys I create.


That is why the 2019 edition of the upGen Bootcamp was an incredible sandbox over the last couple of months — it gave me the opportunity to rework the event experience we created back in 2016, and to design an event that scaled in size and in the impact it had on our participants.


In this post, I will be talking about how learning experience (LX) design allowed my team at UpstartED to scale one of out flagship events, and I will share the process we follow whenever we design learning experiences.


A brief history: how we got started


Seeing as this is a story of iteration, let me tell you about the first edition of the upGen Bootcamp, known at the time as MTL UpStarts. Hosted in November of 2016, MTL UpStarts welcomed students from across Montreal’s high schools to tackle the theme of “The Smart School” in a weekend-long entrepreneurial challenge.


The MTL UpStarts event was designed to bring together the best elements of a hackathon, a case competition and a summer camp over 2.5 days. We had 36 students from 17 schools in attendance; 10 delegates approached us at the end of the event saying they wanted to participate in any other learning opportunities that we had to offer. That’s when we knew we were on to something.


Was MTL UpStarts a perfect experience? Certainly not. Nonetheless, what was intended as a one-time community event served as the launch pad for our social enterprise, UpstartED. Two years later, after rolling out an array of programs that have impacted 2,500+ teachers and students, we decided to bring back the entrepreneurship bootcamp that set everything in motion.


Bootcamp 2.0: a bigger and better experience


Rebranded as the upGen Bootcamp, the second edition of the event (hosted in January, 2019) was an ambitious project from day one. From a logistical standpoint, we aimed to have three times as many participants and greater diversity in age and academic backgrounds.


In terms of the experience itself, we wanted to bring more depth and complexity to the knowledge that participants walked away with, and to provide them with even more experiential learning opportunities. I am proud to say we were successful in accomplishing this vision and more. This brings us to the question: how did we do it?


Our secret sauce = making learning experience design central to the process


When organizing an event whose main objective is to educate participants on a particular topic (i.e. training, bootcamp, hackathon, case competition or conference), you absolutely need to work with a LX designer…or to think like one!


By combining instructional design with User Experience, LX designers make it their priority to align the event experience with the desired learning outcomes that you have for your participants. To better understand LX design (including how it differs from instructional design or event experience design), I strongly recommend following the work of Niels Floor.


When it comes to putting events together, organizing committees will typically be made up of the following roles: sponsorships and/or partnerships, marketing, communications, and logistics. When teams eventually start thinking about the event experience, they will typically create an agenda to frame the event, made up of workshops and/or talks that align with the event’s theme. If this sounds familiar, then you’ve just committed two mistakes.


First, you’re missing a key position on your team: who owns the participants’ learning experience?


While you can — and should — get input from different stakeholders in the design process, having someone accountable for the experience is key. The way I like to think of it is that sponsorships, logistics and the other roles ensure you get people to your event. Learning experience design is what keeps people coming back to your events in the future.


The second mistake I see teams make is that they allow an agenda to dictate the participant experience — this is like putting the cart before the horse.

The learning experience design should inform the list of speakers and/or workshops that you ultimately book. If you create an agenda that brings together a collection of impressive speakers and workshops, then you’ll definitely impress your participants on paper. These same participants won’t, however, be as impressed if you don’t offer them a cohesive learning experience on the day(s) of the event itself.


Committing to delivering a certain learning experience could mean that there’s no longer a fit with that fancy speaker or workshop that your team had in mind — and that’s alright. Remember: people become your champions because of how you make them feel during the event and thanks to the learnings they walked away with, not because of a logo or name that you post on your event page.


This is why I invite you to wear a learning experience design hat from day one. Have someone own the learning experience, and ask yourself — and your team — what you want your participants to take away from the event. You can then work backwards to identify the sessions that align with the event’s learning outcomes.


Learning experience design was a game changer for us at UpstartED. It allowed us to scale our bootcamp threefold while still delivering a transformational experience to our participants.


Breaking down our approach to learning experience design


At this point you’re probably wondering about UpstartED’s process for designing learning experiences. In iterating upon the existing experience from the 2016 bootcamp, we were inspired by the LX Canvas and by Kaos Pilot’s suite of tools from their course on The Art and Craft of Designing & Facilitating Learning Spaces. We tweaked these approaches based on our team’s experience with LX design and came up with a process that we used for the upGen Bootcamp, and that we’ve been using since.


Step 1 — Identify why there is a need for this learning experience — and believe in it.


Here is the question you need to ask yourself before jumping into the LX design process: why are you creating this learning experience? What core belief drives your team in bringing this learning experience to your desired audience?


Think of the “why” as your team’s guiding star throughout the event planning process. Everything you do, starting with the learning experience design and ending with the marketing, needs to align to the intention behind the event.


Step 2 — Decide for whom this experience is intended.


Just as you need to understand your end users when designing a product or service, you need to know who exactly will benefit from your learning experience. At UpstartED, we create a learner profile by asking the following questions:

  1. What are groups are attending?

  2. What is their current level of understanding of the content that you will be delivering to them?

  3. How do they learn best?

  4. What challenges are they experiencing that your learning experience can help solve?

This user-based approach is key to making sure you are designing a relevant and valuable learning experience.


Step 3 — What are the skills, knowledge and attitudes (SKA) that participants will walk away with from your event?


When identifying the SKA, I personally like starting with the attitudes that we want our participants to walk away with from the event because it allows our team to align with the “why” from the start of the design process. Once you’ve identified desired attitudes, you can think about the knowledge and skills that you want your participants to learn.


I recommend doing the first iteration of this exercise with your core event team (this gets buy-in from your key stakeholders), and then refining it with other people involved in the learning experience design process. The refinement process gives you the opportunity to prioritize the items in your SKA, and to narrow in on the core skills, knowledge and attitudes you wish to convey through your learning experience.


Step 4 — Identify the learning outcomes of your event.


Learning outcomes allow us to measure the extent to which the learning experience equipped participants with the intended skills, knowledge and attitudes. Our team uses Bloom’s Taxonomy as the framework for creating our learning outcomes.

Depending on the size of the event, the outcomes can range between 2 to 4 (max 5) per day. These overarching outcomes will then guide the outcomes for the sessions and talks taking place during the days of the event.


Step 5 — Map the learning outcomes to the time available.


This step is something that we do at UpstartED to start visualizing the shape of the experience. We look at the time available, and break it down into chunks depending on how many learning outcomes we have. Hence, what you’ll see is that our morning, between 9 am — noon, is all about helping participants develop the creative mindset required for the activities in the afternoon.


If you follow these steps, you will arrive at a skeleton of what will become the agenda for your event. What’s important to note is that you arrived at this structure by starting with the intended experience that you wish to deliver to your participants. The learning structure is in place, you will be able to think about the sessions and talks that allow you to arrive at the desired learning outcomes.


Where do we go from here?


You may have heard the saying, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” That is why a LX designer’s job does not stop once the experience is ready to be deployed. Remember the learning outcomes that you set in during the design process? The two weeks after an event ends are critical in assessing how effective your learning experience was in meeting them.


At UpstartED, we lead post-mortems with all the stakeholders involved: team members, speakers, coaches, workshop leads, and — most importantly — participants. These post-mortems have been key in helping us deepen our institutional knowledge, in iterating upon our current design process, and in planning for future events. While the 2019 edition of upGen Bootcamp was bigger and better than the one in 2016, it will pale in comparison to the 2020 edition!


If you want to learn more about our learning experience design process of if you have any feedback on our current approach, you can give me a shout at diana@upstarted.org.


If you are interested in introducing these concepts in your classroom, school or company, you can learn more about the work we do at UpstartED at www.upstarted.org.

© 2019 Diana Baranga

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