In the late 90s, I had begun pitching interactive, story-based activities for the web to different higher education publishers. And, by 2000, a colleague and I had finally come up with what we were calling the “next great thing” in foreign language education: Zinemás

Zinemás was an online, role-playing “textbook” for first-year Spanish students, Focused on experiential learning, the Zinemás story premise for students was that the online magazine they were working for had been purchased by a Latin American media conglomerate. Under new management, their zine would be transitioning into a bi-lingual publication with a heavy emphasis on Hispanic culture. Employees who wanted to continue working for the company would need to achieve increasing levels of proficiency in Spanish over the coming year.

Zinemás allowed students to choose their character (from 50 bios) and, based on that selection, they were assigned to work for teams. The “chapters” of the course contextualized their language acquisition within the story structure and, every two chapters, student work would result in a new issue of the Zinemás zine.

From a technology perspective, we were looking to work with a combination of the publisher’s courseware platform, animation, audio, and other artwork.

It was definitely high-concept for the educational publisher that optioned the project in 2001. 

Looking back, I can say that, from a learning design perspective, Zinemás was also a terrible idea and I’m incredibly thankful that the publisher eventually decided to shutter the project.

What was so wrong with the product conception and design? Simply this. it ignored the fundamental constraints that should and generally do frame the development of learning projects.

My colleague and I had designed the project as an extension of some improvisation and role-playing activities we used in our classrooms. As technology geeks, we also saw exciting opportunities to innovate and introduce new ways of teaching into a generally staid industry. And, with the right budget and creative help, we were sure Zinemás could be a huge splash and real game-changer for language instruction.

Again, the problem with this thinking was that it was entirely focused on innovation and what might be possible (or fun to do) in an ideal world. As a result, our idea completely ignored the many things that were not actually possible since we did not, in fact, exist in an ideal world.

I would really like to say that Zinemás was the only educational or edtech product I’ve designed in my career that failed to address the core constraints of effective learning design. Unfortunately, that seemed to be my thinking pattern early on.

Thankfully, through collaboration and research, and by working on an incredibly diverse collection of projects over the twenty-odd years since conceiving of Zinemás, I have gained a deep appreciation for the core constraints that, in my opinion, define effective learning design. In developing this appreciation, I’ve also learned much about the value of design constraints. These constraints both nurture design creativity and provide a structuring framework for design and product architectures.

  1. Designer/Practitioner — Learning design, particularly in traditional education/training markets, is seldom a one-person exercise. We design learning experiences and products in collaboration with practitioners/instructors or at least with the intent that these practitioners will utilize our designs/products. Not surprisingly, these practitioners bring varying levels of domain, pedagogical, and technological experience. Effective learning design anticipates as broad a spectrum as possible related to the differences among practitioners while, at the same time, maintaining the core learning goals and outcomes of the project’s design. In short, a project has little ultimate value if no one can use it, but also loses its way if it makes so many compromises to satisfy practitioners that it fails to serve its purpose.


  2. Learning Environment (the product and how/where the product is used) — There are also constraints related to the design of the learning environment itself. With regard to developing digital products, such constraints might come in the form of available budgets the skillsets of the people working on the project, and the availability of subject matter experts with strong teaching backgrounds who can help translate pedagogy to the platform. We would also want to consider things such as the hardware available to our end users (computers and mobile devices) and  Internet access (high-bandwidth, low-bandwidth, no-bandwidth). In traditional education markets, both equity and equitable access must be factored into the learning environment design.


  3. Learner — Of course, at the center of our design constraints lies the actual learner. Who are they? How old? What is their level of educational attainment? What is their level of experience with digital learning products? What environmental constraints are they dealing with? What are their motives for learning? How do/will they define success? Each of these and other learner-specific questions must be recognized, prioritized, and addressed as part of the learning design process. While it is likely impossible to address all of the possible learner constraints across a diverse audience, the best products will demonstrate a strong awareness of as many constraints as possible and have a strong underlying product philosophy that explains the process for prioritization.


  4. Learner’s Environment — Our design work is also necessarily affected by the natural environment in which the learner lives, works, and/or studies. Our learning design and our learning environment models must mesh well with the learner’s environment and any limitations inherent within that environment. Making assumptions regarding this constraint is particularly hazardous. Understanding the learner’s environment generally requires extensive primary and secondary user research and User Experience (UX) testing in both the design and implementation phases of a project.


  5. External Constraints — Finally, we must also consider a variety of external constraints. These include broader market trends, in-market developments, similar products and market competition, market competition, and hardware/software innovations. External constraints also include government (local, state, and national) regulation, as well as current cultural positions and biases.

Of course, you never get it completely “right” the first time out of the gate. Great learning design is self-aware and requires an understanding that effective learning environments are developed iteratively over time.