What is Learning Design? [+ Career Path Options]

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Women teaching learning design to group of young adults

A Guide to Learning Design: Definitions, Benefits & Career Paths

The way we learn — both in academic and non-academic settings — has changed drastically in the last year. When you combine an increased dependence on technology with widespread accessibility and a tidal wave of sources, it is clear that learning is in a period of revolution. This has sparked interest in how lessons are crafted to ensure positive outcomes and improved learning.

What many may not know, however, is that this discipline has a name, and there exists an entire career field and passionate area of study dedicated to the pursuit of effective learning. It is known as learning design.

The 9 Reasons You Should Consider a Career in Instructional Design (Plus Salary Info) — Get The Guide >>

What is Learning Design?

Online learning platform Smart Sparrow defines learning design as “the deliberate choices about what, when, where and how to teach. Decisions need to be made about the content, structure, timing, pedagogical strategies, sequence of learning activities, and the type and frequency of assessment in the course, as well as the nature of technology used to support learning.”

In layman’s terms, learning design is the concept that learners should be the top priority when crafting an instructional exercise. It emphasizes the need to purposefully create lessons to ensure positive learning outcomes, rather than just deliver content. Most importantly, learning design is built on established theories and the science of how people learn.

Learning Design vs Instructional Design

Learning design and instructional design are often used interchangeably, and while they incorporate many of the same concepts and practices, there are a few fundamental differences that are critical to understand.

Instructional Design

Digital online learning authority Hurix Digital defines instructional design as “the practice of designing courses in a way that enhances positive outcomes in learners, i.e. skills acquisition, knowledge retention, course completion rates, and more.” Instructional design focuses on behavioral, cognitive and constructivist psychological principles when creating instructional exercises.


The easiest way to understand the difference between instructional design and learning design is to look at their titles. Instructional design focuses on the teaching activity, i.e. the instruction. Instructional design practices aim to create teaching exercises that ensure the best possible outcomes for learners.

Learning design, however, focuses more on the recipient of the lesson, i.e. the learner. It uses the learner and their learning styles as the guide, while also utilizing some instructional design theories. Learning design combines instructional design and design thinking to promote a more human-centered and creative thinking approach to designing learning solutions.

Benefits of Learning Design

Because educational technologies and other factors can create a chaotic environment for learners, learning design has never been more important. While there are many benefits of learning design that will largely depend on the audience, there are a few widely applicable upsides to using learning design principles.

  1. Learning design leverages the experience and knowledge of the learners wherever possible to create more customized lessons. 
  2. Learning design uses real-life scenarios to facilitate learning, by linking the educational material to concepts learners already know and understand.  
  3. It creates an immersive learning experience to give lessons immediate applicability. 
  4. Learning design practices help ensure that the learner’s time is well spent on effective and enjoyable learning experiences.
  5. It creates relevant, engaging and memorable educational experiences.

Examples of Learning Design

The five most common and widely used instructional design models are:

  1. Bloom’s Taxonomy: Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework used to categorize learning in a hierarchy that includes six levels of cognitive processes: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create.
  2. ADDIE Model: ADDIE stands for analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation, and is a process used to design effective training.
  3. Design Thinking: Design thinking is both a process and a mindset that takes a human-centered approach to problem-solving. The five phases of the process are: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.
  4. SAM Model: SAM is short for Successive Approximation Model, and is an agile design model that moves at a faster pace than ADDIE and has a heavy emphasis building, testing and revision. 
  5. Learning Circle Framework: The Learning Circle Framework is an instructional design model that works in three phases: target, create and launch.

Careers in Learning Design

While some learning design concepts can be applied by educators in the classroom or instructors in other professional settings, there exists an entire career path dedicated to learning design. Because learning opportunities exist both in the classroom and outside of it, professional learning design experts are in high demand across a variety of industries. This high demand means high compensation, too — a recent search of online job postings found that the average salary for a Learning Designer is $88,107.

Here are just a handful of common and in-demand careers in learning design:

  • Learning Designer
  • Learner Experience Designer
  • Learning Strategist
  • Instructional Designer
  • Educational Consultant
  • Curriculum Developer
  • eLearning Designer
  • Learning Strategies Director

The 9 Reasons You Should Consider a Career in Instructional Design (Plus Salary Info) — Get The Guide >>

Formal Education Options in Learning Design

To be a learning designer or work in the field of learning design, there is a certain level of required education depending on what your career aspirations look like. 

  1. Bachelor’s degree: Almost all jobs in the field of learning design will require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. Depending on whether or not you hope to work in an academic setting, you will likely need a bachelor’s degree in an education-related discipline or a specific academic subject.
  2. Master’s degree: Most learning design careers beyond entry level jobs will require an advanced degree, preferably in instructional or learning design. In fact, 88% of instructional designers reported having a graduate degree, according to a study by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association – UPCEA.
  3. Certificates/Licensure: Specific learning design careers may accept a certificate from an accredited professional organization or academic institution in place of a master’s degree, but that is not common. Also, if you desire to work in an academic setting, you will likely also need to hold a current teaching license. 

Because learning and instructional design are becoming increasingly popular and in-demand, there is also a growing number of master’s degree programs designed for this blossoming academic profession. At the University of San Diego, we have launched our online Master of Science in Learning Design and Technology degree program that is designed to help current and aspiring learning designers develop a comprehensive understanding of the science of how people learn. Through an innovative curriculum, learners will gain proficiency in the leading technology tools currently used in instructional/learning design and how to best utilize them to benefit learners.

See overview: University of San Diego – Master of Science in Learning Design and Technology

Learning Design FAQs

Q: What is learning design?

A: Learning design is “the deliberate choices about what, when, where and how to teach. Decisions need to be made about the content, structure, timing, pedagogical strategies, sequence of learning activities, and the type and frequency of assessment in the course, as well as the nature of technology used to support learning.”

Q: What does a learning designer do?

A: A learning designer develops instructional activities based on a learner’s preferred style and background knowledge. Day-to-day responsibilities may include creating eLearning experiences and course content that improves learning outcomes and retention, identifying students’ areas in need of improvement, researching learning design concepts and tools, and documenting the results of individual learning design projects.

Q: How are the job prospects for a learning designer?

A: Job prospects for learning designers are very good — Inside Higher Ed named Learning Designer “The Hottest Job in Higher Education.”

Q: How can I become a learning designer?

A: Often those pursuing a career in learning design have a bachelor’s degree in education. However, those with degrees in  social science, business, media arts, and research-related fields typically have a skill set and experience compatible with various aspects of learning design.


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