A reader recently noted that the multi-billion dollar Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative had hired Dr. Bror Saxberg to lead their efforts “to improve and accelerate the use of learning science and ‘learning engineering.” Before joining the CZI in 2017, Saxberg was “Chief Learning Officer” at the for-profit Online Kaplan “University,” where he worked for eight years. Before that, he was “Chief Learning Officer” for nine years at Michael Milken’s for-profit virtual charter chain K12 Inc., which is notorious for high atttrition and poor results. He also co-authored a book with Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The announcement said that he is “widely known through education for his work on the science of learning,” but I confess I never heard of him until now.

What is a “learning engineer?” Let Bror Saxberg explain it. 

Read the article to understand. Here is a nugget.

“We need learning engineers. By this phrase (first used, as far as I am aware, in the 1960’s by Herbert Simon, the computer-scientist and Nobel-prize winning economist), we mean people who are deliberately trained and focused on designing and systematically improving learning environments at scale in measurable ways. They make use of the current and new science of how learning and motivation work, and they do collect careful measurements, but the focus is on improving success and impact at scale, within constraints (economic, regulatory, practical), not research per se.

“If we are designing a new chemical factory, we very likely don’t want chemists designing that plant: they’re neither experienced nor interested in regulatory, safety, or economic issues, nor do they possess the mix of mechanical and other skills needed to do the job. That’s why there’s a demand for a large group of chemical engineers: approximately 30 thousand of them currently (rounding to the nearest thousand or so) work in the US.

“There are approximately zero thousand true learning engineers working in the US, rounding to the nearest thousand, who are trained and following learning science, and also working at scale within real-world constraints to design, build, and measurably iterate based on outcomes. The lack of folks like this will hold back the entire enterprise of implementing more efficient, effective, higher-yield learning environments: we will miss targeting learning efforts on what experts actually decide and do (versus what they merely say they decide and do); we will continue to include inefficient methods for learning that cause many to fail unnecessarily; we will use technology in more arbitrary rather than targeted ways (which, in failing to produce intended outcomes while being “cool”, will cause investment to continue to cycle from boom to bust); we will not generate valid and reliable evidence that we could use to target interventions early and effectively (and, indeed, we may drown in bad data that we “should” be using).

“We can do better than this. We can begin to train more people on learning engineering fundamentals, to improve their own decision-making as teachers, teacher-trainers (teachers have minds too, so this is its own learning engineering challenge), purchasing decision-makers, publishers, edtech developers, venture and other funders, philanthropists, policymakers and more. We can begin laying out more clearly what learning environments would look like if they had been well-designed as learning engineered environments, and hold folks increasingly accountable to reach that standard. We can become more alert to the quality and use of learning and learning interventions data, so that we are aware of what evidence is “good enough” to make real decisions about learning environments, either at scale or for individual students.”

Well, you would not want chemists to design a new chemical factory, nor would you want teachers to design a school of the future.

Get ready for the Learning Engineers. They are coming to redesign your workplace and your life.

Can we ask for a practical demonstration of “Learning Engineering” before we unleash this new wave of innovation on our children, teachers, and schools? In one state, school district, in one school? Anywhere?