Sunday, April 10, 2011

Desire Paths to Learning

Thanks to a tweet by Sahana (#sahana2802), I recently read a post on the concept of desire paths by Tony Baldasaro. The concept is from architecture and is not new. Infact, it was introduced by renaissance-man, Gaston Bachelard. He coined the term in his book,The Poetics of Space. He called these les chemins du d├ęsir: pathways of desire.
As per wikipedia "A desire path (also known as a desire line or social trail) is a path developed by erosion caused by animal or human footfall. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination."

I am sure all of us have seen these paths. If not, here is a series of photos from flickr that show various desire paths captured by people across the world. There are many anecdotes that talk about how architects and developers allow people to create their desire paths and then build actual pathways and walking areas based on these desire paths.

I am fascinated by this concept because it not only applies to the design of paths in parks and neighbourhoods, but it is perhaps closely related to the design of everything. I am not surprised to know that when walking across two points, people try to find the shortest distance between these points and create their own paths. In that sense, such paths are not designated but natural paths. These paths are not created by design but by instinct and experience.

Because I am a learning professional, my obvious way to look at things is from a learning perspective. From a learning design perspective, here’s how I’d like to apply the concept of desire paths to learning:

1) Stay closest to the way people naturally learn. We naturally learn from our mistakes, by actively doing things we haven’t done before, and by talking to people around us. Stick to these principles when designing learning interventions. Critically evaluate whether your learning design is indeed the most natural, effective and best way to learn or is there a better design aka desire path out there.

2) Involve learners in the design process. Just like people create their own desire paths in parks by walking across grass and gravel, we must involve our learners during the design phase when creating any learning product. Learners should be encouraged to share their version of the ‘desire path’ of learning - the path that offers the shortest distance between where they are and where they want to be. Listen carefully and attentively. Incorporate the inputs into the design. Build your learning intervention around the desire paths of learning.

3) Select a few learners to review the output before releasing it to the world. Use the concept of prototyping and conduct early reviews such as beta teach etc. to ensure that the learners’ desire paths match the learning path incorporated into the learning intervention. Don’t be afraid to make the corrections. Remember, if you won’t change your way, the learners will find a way to change it or find their own way!

4) Listen to your learners and use the inputs for subsequent designs. Once your learners start using the product, they will share feedback – both constructive and positive. Listen to the feedback and act on the comments. Check if the feedback can be incorporated into the next build or the next course. The best features of the world’s best software have come up because of user-feedback. Don’t ignore it. Use it to build a better product just like architects use desire paths to construct concrete pathways in parks.

5) Stay informed of the learning patterns. Pay attention to what learners prefer in terms of styles, forms, and technology. Make design choices in tune with these preferences. Design learning on the basis of what is currently used instead of forcing the use of a certain type of learning design. At the very basic level – these could be the changes in the interface – menu, buttons, and fonts. At a higher level, these could involve creating blended learning interventions that utilize social media and mobile learning technologies. Be sensitive to the needs of your learners.

As a learning designer, the concept of desire paths gives me an opportunity to reflect about the needs of my learners. It forces me to first observe and then create. The concept also allows me to trust my learners to know the most ‘desirable path’ to their own learning. I know that I can rely on my learners to contribute towards coming up with the most effective way to learn naturally.