Imagining a Different Way of Designing Learning: Inspired by The Imagineering Story on Disney+

Luis Alvarado, Assistant Director, Learning Design, Office of Digital Learning & Strategy, American University

Luis Alvarado, Assistant Director, Learning Design, Office of Digital Learning & Strategy, American University

Growing up in Orlando, as I did, gives you a unique perspective on the impact of Walt Disney World. Although some negative sentiments exist amongst my native Orlandonians, the truth is that Walt Disney's vision has helped shape the city of Orlando for now over 50 years. I myself had an opportunity to work for the Mouse during and after college, and that work experience still resonates with me today. Although the job itself was not glamorous, it is still one of the best jobs I've ever had in terms of feeling like you are part of a greater story. Storytelling is a major strength for the Disney brand, and the ability to tell stories also is one of the most ancient ways that we have passed down knowledge. In other words, our ability to tell stories was the foundation of how we learned about the world around us.

This particular train of thought inspired me to re-watch the Disney+ Documentary The Imagineering Story (Side Note: First time I ever re-watch a documentary), I had originally watched this series when it came out in 2019 but I wanted to see it again to see if it would help me re-think how I design for learning. Disney Imagineers are probably some of the most creative thinkers on our planet and are fairly consistent with their ability to innovate. Innovation is what every organization is striving for, but very few are willing to commit the funds and failures that it takes to create innovative solutions. In fact, one of the more interesting parts of the documentary is when it highlighted periods of underinvestment and downsizing for the Imagineering team that almost always created a vacuum that was difficult for the Disney organization to recover from.

If one thing has become clear during this ongoing pandemic, it is that we as a society need to continue to take time to learn and unlearn

It can be typical for traditional corporate mindsets to undervalue the power of creative thinking that oftentimes requires patience and the ability to restart. Viewing this difficulty through the lens of learning design, it can be similarly viewed that instructional designers provide a limited value to organizations and this can be a perspective that like the Imagineers could take organizations longer to recover from. If one thing has become clear during this ongoing pandemic, it is that we as a society need to continue to take time to learn and unlearn. We can no longer take for granted prior knowledge and expect it to carry us into the future. It is precisely for this reason that organizations cannot take for granted learning design and its ability to unlock human potential. Below are some steps Learning & Development professionals can take to fully embrace their imaginative spirits, each point is inspired by an episode of The Imagineering Story (Which if I haven't convinced you already, you should watch!):

1. The Happiest Place on Earth - There are very few moments more enjoyable than when the light bulb goes off in our minds. That eureka feeling that lets us know that everything is starting to make sense. One could argue that as learning professionals our goal is to make sure these moments happen often. That ideal learning space where you are providing just the right amount of information, practice, and, dare I say, enjoyment. Maybe we don't create learning that replicates the Happiest Place on Earth, but I think good learning design gets pretty close.

2. What Would Walt Do? - Instructional designers all know Gagne and Bloom, but should we also add Disney to that equation? Disney had a mind of perpetual child wonderment and all of us were children when we started school and began a formal learning program. So I don't think it would be too strange to think like a child when approaching how we design learning experiences. Why shouldn't our learners have fun? Inspiration and learning go hand in hand and I think we can use some of Walt's approaches to improve our learning experiences.

3. The Midas Touch - This particular episode in the documentary highlights the beginning of the Frank Wells and Michael Eisner era for Disney. This period marked a period of collaboration and doubling down on Imagineering that created exponential growth. Similarly, the success of learning design is based on collaboration and support either through subject matter experts or organizational investment. A great balance of perspectives can always help decypher the good ideas from the bad ones.

4. Hit or Miss - No matter how hard we try, and how much feedback we solicit for our proposed learning experiences sometimes it just doesn't work. Living in the social media age we are constantly flooded by people's successes and what is often kept hidden are the failures. This is a particularly frustrating aspect of our modern world because the truth about success is that it takes failure to achieve it. As learning designers, we have to be willing to fail in order to find the real solution. This is why we have an Evaluation component in our ADDIE model so that we can revisit and re-work what doesn't add value.

5. A Carousel of Progress - The pandemic made online learning have a moment. Every student almost all at once was exposed to some form of online learning. Of course, what needs to be pointed out is that it was not a good version of online learning, rather students were exposed to a rushed version that largely ignored longstanding research on effective practices. All of this still points to the reality that we made progress. By exposing more students to learning online the gate has been fully opened towards its possibilities. Many who were skeptical have now had a change of heart and are ready to embrace more online alternatives to learning. We still have a long way to go before we fully humanize the digital learning experience, but I believe we have taken those first steps towards progress.

6. To Infinity and Beyond - I recently had a discussion with my team regarding a particular EdTech tool that met some but not all of the needs that we have for course design. It was a creative moment of dissecting the tool while thinking of what improvements could be made. Many of us in L&D are still looking for that silver bullet solution and we almost always realize that it just does not exist. However, our belief that learning can and should be made better will drive us into the next frontier. Whether digital learning includes more mobile devices or even holograms, we need to be prepared for whatever innovation is over the horizon.

I don't believe I am alone in feeling inspired by other fields and using some of that inspiration to create better approaches to my own work. Granted I also don't think there are many of us who were not inspired in some regard big or small by the work of Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers. I'll end with my favourite Walt Disney quote: That is the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up.

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