Nick Marotta

Jan 15, 2020

6 min read

My Designed Experience Learning Learner Experience Design

Nicholas Marotta


This post chronicles the progress of my experience in Stacie Rohrbach’s Learner Experience Design class. What follows will be a mix of reflections, process work, and documentation.

There are many reasons to be excited, diving into learner experience design. Right off the bat, one of the reasons the class should be of particular interest to me is the opportunity for extensive meta-analysis. That’s always fun. The fact that Stacie is knowingly designing for a self-referential learning experience makes me excited to be present, engaged, and reflective throughout class. I have been hoping to develop learning experiences for a few years now, since learning about progressive education. The philosophies and approaches I saw there were refreshingly inspiring, and I can’t wait to see how their influence will affect my approach to work in other contexts.


One of the topics I am most drawn to is food systems. Since August, I’ve been taking a closer look at my relationship with food. I realized that I have, without proper scrutiny, accepted a lot of practices and mental models that were given to me from a young age. I started to look at whether my food consumption reflected my values. One particular area that came into focus was animal products. After doing research for the first time on the processes that produce animal products, I realized I had to make some changes. Transitioning to a diet that omits animal products has made me incredibly more attentive to food and food systems.
Food systems, it seems, are connected to everything. They keep people alive, they bring people together in different ways, they fuel economies, they are informed by cultures and traditions, and they impact our planet. As humans begin to look at the complex systems we have weaved together with broader and broader considerations, many systems can benefit from some untangling and reworking. This is no easy task, nor will it happen quickly. It is not a job for a single designer, it is a job for generations of people contributing on many levels. This is where learning comes in. If people are learning about food systems, progress will multiply exponentially.


When clarifying WHO we will aim to educate about food systems, we took the scope of our class into account. Deciding on university students helps to limit the research portion of the process. If we chose children, we would be ill-prepared unless we spent months researching children to understand how they learn. Because we are university students ourselves, we have our own perspectives to work from. In identifying WHERE these learning experiences occur, we looked at touch points. These included shopping, purchase, packaging/labeling, and consumption. Specific to university students, places like food halls and dormitories are relevant.
We hashed out the WHAT with a wide range of topic areas on sticky notes. There are so many areas of food systems in need of educational focus, like issues of motivation, local food ecosystems and communities, food history, and lots more. We talked about how food systems don’t currently have proper myths and metaphors in our culture. People might imagine green grass, a red barn, and some happy cows, but there isn’t a representative image of the systems that currently bring food to us in the average mind. We’re very interested in connecting sustainability to food systems through education on “what can I do?” and reinforcement through communicated impact.
In talking about WHEN these learning experiences can and do occur, we talked about how people need certain motivations to care about this topic. Because we can’t assume curiosity or intrigue, we considered where people are already engaging in curiosity about food systems and thought about ways to inspire that mindset. The WHY taps into this line of thought well, in that feedback loops need to exist to reciprocate interest and action. If people see their impact, they will be more motivated to learn. Finally, HOW is the ultimate question. To begin, we looked at ways that people are already being educated about food systems. People learn from documentaries, formal school settings, social media, advertisements, parents and friends, evidence of change, museums, and articles. We’re now looking at what strategies are being utilized in those settings and brainstorming new ones.


In class, each student selected a learning experience to decode using the Who What Where When Why How framework. We each gave a short presentation on the topic to start building a diverse set of strategies to refer to and compare. Many were integrated into websites, and some were entire international systems. I talked about junk playgrounds, or adventure playgrounds, as they’re sometimes called to make the concept more palatable.

Junk playgrounds began in the 1940s, after a Danish architect (Carl Sørensen) noticed children playing in a construction lot, building structures with raw materials and discarded tools.
In junk playgrounds, children take risks and make mistakes. They learn about their bodies and their relationship with the materiality of our world. They practice being adults and act out their understanding of systems they observe. Junk playgrounds enable the freeform way of comprehension that children naturally gravitate to.

Junk playgrounds were invented by children, but learning through play has promise in every stage of development. I’m very interested to see what might happen if a similarly open-ended approach is utilized as an educational opportunity for adults.

One learning experience that was very interesting to me was decoded by Michelle Chou. It is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. The program reacts to issues surrounding overfishing and unsustainable seafood sourcing problems. It is a free resource that anyone consuming seafood can make use of to assess what they should be eating. If you intend to consume lobster, you can type that in to their website and it will help you understand the sustainability of different species. This resource very elegantly enables you to make more informed, beneficial choices. The thing that struck me most about this program is how it is integrated into key environments. Monterey Bay partners with some fish markets and grocery stores, asking them to display the sustainability rating of seafood being sold.


Stacie has asked us, “Who are your (learners/instructors/stakeholders? What are their hopes/aspirations; fears/concerns; needs?”
In the context of food systems, the learners are everyone, but we are narrowing in on university students. The stakeholders are consumers, retailers, transporters, farmers, environmentalists, fish, and the Earth, among many others.
The question of instructors is a big one. The instructor could be any one of the stakeholders listed, or some third party. Once we start to narrow in on a specific area of focus, context, and goal, I believe the ideal instructor(s) will become clear.

In class, we discussed Bernice McCarthy’s 4 Mat System of learning. Bernice explains that learning experiences ought to travel through four parts in a certain order; beginning with why we are learning, explaining exactly what we are learning, understanding how it works, and moving on to “what if” questions that extrapolate. Typically, everyone is comfortable with a certain area of that learning process. We took some self-assessment quizzes to establish where we fell. I found out that I gravitate towards the what (is it?) section. It sits within an abstract, reflective zone of learning. I was conflicted by this outcome at first, because I hold such a firm importance in establishing and staying true to the why of anything. However, I am very intent on clarifying content, distilling it down to what is important and communicating it effectively.