Try a Learnathon: Crowdsourced UX

Disrupting traditional models of learning design By Elliott Masie

Elliott Masie is CEO of The Masie Center, an international think tank focused on learning and workplace productivity, and chairman and CLO of The Masie Center’s Learning Consortium.
He can be reached at


hile there is widespread interest, dialogue and experimentation in new forms of learning technologies (chatbots, smart speakers, wearables, immersive reality) and new formats of learning content (curated segments, agile module lengths, shoulder-to-shoulder on the job), where are the innovations in new models of learning design?

We can’t create a radically new learning ecosystem if we are simply going to rely on a dusted-off version of ADDIE (analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation), a more video-rich webinar construction or a more compressed use of a subject matter expert distilled by an instructional designer.

I advocate that our colleagues experiment with a learnathon, a crowdsourced way to create a different approach to teaching, training and supporting skills, competencies or compliance in a workforce setting.

The learnathon combines two impactful forces in the world of invention, innovation and product development: user experience (UX) and the hackathon.

UX radically aligns a new design to how a learner actually experiences an activity — and how rapidly or deeply they get to a state of readiness. UX is not about testing whether a module “works”; rather, it forces us as designers to intensively map each action to a behavior that a learner will want to do/can do successfully and leads to a measurable, positive learning moment.

The hackathon is a safe place where ideas can soar, stretch, break or be transformed. Imagine a room filled with workers who have mastered a desired skill and are fully experienced with the context of the targeted learning goal. Lock them up together for a day, or even a few days, and have them build — from scratch, with no barriers, assumptions or rituals — several totally different ways in which a worker could learn this skill.

The hackathon model helped create innovations like Yelp, Uber and Airbnb. It has been used by medical corporations to imagine and create totally new approaches to solving health challenges. The White House even hosted a Game Jam hackathon several years ago to develop new learning games for high school students.

Learnathons play off the successful hackathon model. Our learnathon requires some courage, pizza for a crew of five to 20 colleagues, and a willingness to take a totally fresh look at learning design and format rituals that are not easy to break.

The learnathon model will fail if you let your instructional design protectiveness sabotage the process.

You might start with a large challenge (e.g., a new-hire orientation) or a more focused task (e.g., the procurement process for purchasing materials). A facilitator who truly is open to the idea of “hacking” or even failing their way to success would ask the learnathon participants to explore using encouragement like this:

  • Our goal is to come up with two, four or even 10 new ways in which one of our employees could go about learning the target skill, competency or information set.
  • You are going to blow up our traditional model as you explore new approaches. You can change the style, intensity, media structure, branding or testing elements.
  • Think about yourself or a new learner: What do you/they want, need or desire? It might not be the 24-slide PowerPoint deck. Create an alternative!
  • Build multiple and different possible solutions without evaluating their probable success. Later, we will have fun with a UX lab process to see whether elements of each solution will work with actual learners.

The learnathon model will fail if you let your instructional design protectiveness sabotage the process. Remember, each and every design model starts with assessing and aligning the needs of the organization and learner. But we often jump into highly traditional models as we flow into the design and rarely test against a diverse set of learner expectations.

Before you reject this model, talk with a few of your work colleagues and ask, “How did you learn to do this task?” Be prepared that few, if any, will refer to the great classroom offering, the well-developed e-learning module or the pretty job aid hanging on the wall.

Design is art and science. The learnathon will creatively optimize your workers’ pathways to learning in the age of now.