The challenge of creating great learning experiences

Over a decade ago in the heady and distant days of web 1.0, Justin and I were lucky enough to work together at the BBC commissioning a series of online games to help people – usually but not always children – make music.

DrumstepsWe covered some ground, making (among others) a songwriting game with rudimentary artificial intelligence to provide computer assisted learning for a Radio 2 audience, an object-oriented composition game for kids (pictured) that naturally produced the weirdest, most intricate, polyrhythms, and a midi sequencer that could be used to create your own polyphonic ringtones that we managed to get featured on everywhere from Blue Peter to the Asian Network.

But our goal wasn’t only to create an online experience. It was clear to us that the combination of online learning and physical events created a huge opportunity for the learner. Our hope was try to reach learners at home, in school and in public venues. So for some of our online creations we created lesson plans, others we took on the road and hosted group tutorials where we used them to teach the basics of composition to kids (often under the banner of Unthinkable associate Roland Taylor’s Radio Three series Making Tracks, and once with the help of another of current associate, Lorna Palmer, who those days was running BBC Learning’s 21st Century Classroom). Sometimes we went even further, getting the results of children’s efforts orchestrated and performed by the BBC orchestras as part of the Making Tracks concert series.

Dial forward ten years or so, and while that early generation of technology has been blown away with the dust (remember Shockwave, anyone?) it seems as though Justin and I and our Unthinkable friends have hardly stopped learning about learning, and in particular the extraordinary new kinds of learning experience afforded by the Internet.

Midi composition fun with polyphonic ringtones Midi composition fun with polyphonic ringtones

As technologies and platforms mature, it’s tempting to look at these phenomena through the lenses of products and business. Fascinating and essential as those angles are, our focus in Unthinkable has always been the user – or in this case – the learner, and their experience. So we’re immensely proud that the work that we’ve done for some of our longest-running clients has been recognised for the quality of its learning experience. The learning platform that we helped to conceive, FutureLearn, has won several awards for user experience, including the overall grand prize for Best User Experience at last year’s UKUX awards. And the guide that we created as part of the SoundLab project for Heart n Soul won Best SEND Resource award at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence 2016. Along the way, we have also had the immense privilege of helping higher education institutions such as GCU or NMITE develop innovative models for mobilising those inside and outside academia to work together in new kinds of learning experiences.

FutureLearn pencils FutureLearn pencils

But enough of beating our own drum – proud as we are to be working in this field. We’re really writing this post to introduce our focus on the learning experience, and how it has been changed and enhanced by online technologies. We’re particularly fascinated by the ways in which digital learning experiences form part of a holistic picture with physical, face to face interactions.

Over the past few years working in higher education, we’ve been able to bring to bear our own expertise in user experience, but we have also been learning a huge amount. We’ve learned from colleagues in the Open University, experts in learning in other institutions (as in this FutureLearn course from Diana Laurillard and Neil Morris that I very much enjoyed taking part in) and innovative thinkers such as Michael Stevenson or Charles Leadbeater. Over the coming weeks we intend to set out some of the principles of what we’ve learned, explain why they might matter to you, bring some fresh perspectives of our own and invite some of our friends and associates to reflect with us. We hope you’ll join us for the ride by signing up to our newsletter, following us on Twitter, or simply coming back to our website to see what’s new.

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