Learning Design and the Biathlon

A biathlon is an amazing endurance event competed in winter climates. Originating from the real necessity of skiing in incredibly rugged terrain for long distances in order to hunt, the activity demands the athlete to be incredibly fit and strong, having to push the body through great strain and physical punishment, and to be able to ignore the screaming pain that floods the brain that wants it all to stop. Whilst under such duress, the athlete is then required to slow the heart rate sufficiently that they can compose their hand eye coordination and fire at a target from some distance. It’s certainly no easy feat.

Target shooting after skiing is like sprinting up 10 flights of stairs, then trying to thread a needle

In the old days, before it was a sport, one simply couldn’t separate the two activities. It was a necessity if you wanted to eat, and not let down your growing family, hungry and expectant. But modern times afford more luxurious lifestyles, where the two activities can and are separated, the need to hunt most definitely outsourced, and skiing branching into a multitude of specific disciplines. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of modern higher education (HE). Once upon a time*, the learning experience was characterised by having faith that the lecturer in front of you was not only expert in their respective field, but also in a second field, in education, and could expertly slow their ambition to convey their superior knowledge to the eager and willing student. The lecturer was a biathlete.

But now, the lecturer is probably there first and foremost for their research prowess; they are experts in their fields, and the better the university, the stronger and more prominent the expertise, and the more pressure placed on them to continue to publish research, at prolific rates. In such a climate, the focus on teaching takes a large back step, sliding off the radars of those researchers who simply struggle to find the time to fit in the demands of both disciplines. Indeed, some researchers see their position as only that, with teaching an annoying intrusion and fine printed obligation of their contract. But for the majority, pragmatism rules, and a choice has to be made. The academic must direct a significant amount of time on getting better at skiing, and skiing only.


This is where the learning designer adds invaluable value. The learning designer takes up the slack, provides the pedagogical expertise the academic lacks, and the time to help design the communication of content, both in the face to face setting and its online supplemental component, or in the exclusively online modern course. The learning designer has to help guide and train the skier to add another skill set to their bow, to develop the expertise required to provide for the hungry dependents. After all, without the food, the next generation cannot exist, let alone thrive.

Over a series of blogs, I will outline my plan as a manager of a learning design team in one of the Group of 8 universities in Australia to negotiate this context and provide many many resources and ideas that will inform learning designers as to how to affect better practice in their respective academic colleagues. All insights will be based on the pedagogical implications provoked by the latest cognitive science research, research that has begun to provide substantial evidence of how the brain encodes and retrieves information. It is my hope that despite the difficult mission we face, that by continuously providing expertise in pedagogy, that we are able to inspire academics to fall in love with education in the way we have. It is after all, one of the most rewarding professions there is.

*of course, you may say that this was actually never the case, with most lecturers getting away with not being expert in pedagogy simply because their students were advantaged in either academic ability, high levels of motivation, or simply cultural currency, but let’s not let reality get in the way of a good analogy.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more learning design resources, and general education advice and discussions.


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