The Learning Guild released their Thirty Under 30 in Learning selection for 2020, containing some of the top minds in the industry. These people are changemakers, and to celebrate that we took some time to interview these talented individuals to hear, in their own words, what it takes to be a leader in learning.

Michael Wildman is the Associate Manager of Learning Experience Design at Olive Tree Arts Network, a Chicago youth arts nonprofit dedicated to bringing young people from diverse backgrounds together through creative expression. Passionate about social justice and learning experience design, it was exciting to learn about the strength and potential of the learning industry from Michael.

Tell us about your company and your role within it?

I work at Olive Tree Arts Network, a youth arts nonprofit in Chicago that uses creative expression to promote understanding, cooperation, and peace in our multi-faith and multicultural society. We develop and run in-person and online programs and workshops. Our flagship program focuses on students from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish backgrounds and uses poetry to help foster inclusivity, empathy, and leadership skills.

I’m at the intersection of several responsibilities. I design virtual programming, train the administrative team, and do customer enablement that teaches our partners at the school level. No one week looks the same! I also work with our senior leadership team on strategic goal setting and execution.

Tell me about some of the things you’re doing to stay current in the world of learning? Any people or companies you’re watching in the industry?

LinkedIn has been amazing for resources for staying current—connecting with people across industries, talking to them and sharing experiences, and following industry-relevant posts.

I’m also completing my last year in the Instructional Design and Learning Technology master’s program at UW-Whitewater so I’ve been really immersed in all things instructional design. Right now, I’m focusing on a course about leadership where we’re doing an in-depth exploration of the pieces needed to successfully lead a learning team. 

The program has given me a great peak into the world of instructional design in higher education through real work experience. I recently developed a virtual workshop for faculty that focused on increasing interactivity and community-building in online classes. I’m also assisting with curriculum design work and connecting students in the program with experiential learning opportunities.

In terms of people in the industry who I like to keep up with, Cath Ellis and Devlin Peck are great; they put out a lot of incredible content both on LinkedIn and in their blogs that cover a wide range of topics. I try to read content and catch webinars featuring Cathy Moore or Bob Mosher, who always have a lot of insight and practical wisdom to provide. For xAPI resources, I’ve found Megan Torrance’s xAPI Learning Cohort to be helpful.

I also keep up with professors in my program. Especially Dr. Nicole Weber, particularly her innovative work at the university level and with the Online Learning Consortium. And, of course, the Thirty Under 30 group. We have a Slack channel that’s very active, GIFs and all.

What do you find most rewarding about working in the learning industry?

I love giving people “aha” moments. I like doing the detective work of getting to the root of problems and collaborating with people to figure out how I can make a difference. I’m extremely fortunate in that I get to see those “aha” moments not just from employees, but also from our student participants who are learning to be empathetic, open minded, and compassionate leaders in their schools and communities.

What makes a good learning experience? How do you evaluate a good learning experience?

I think it’s a mark of success when the goals set at the beginning of the experience have been met and learners are able to successfully apply what’s been learned to their jobs. For evaluating learning experiences, I often use a combination of levels in the Kirkpatrick Model with a focus on determining whether the learning experience has produced measurable behavioral changes and what effect those changes have had on the organization as a whole.

What’s the last thing you Googled about learning?

VMOSA—Vision, Mission, Objective, Strategies, and Action Plans. It’s a planning process used to help organizations define their vision and develop strategies to enact practical, purposeful change.

What KPIs/metrics matter when it comes to good learning? What are the metrics you track or wish you could? How do you know that you’ve met those characteristics/qualities in your own work?

I think KPIs will depend on the project and company’s goals, but whatever the metrics, it’s important that the learning initiatives are aligned with the company’s strategy. I try to look at things holistically at my organization, so there are a broad range of metrics that matter. These include employee satisfaction, the satisfaction of our stakeholders and student participants, student-reported and teacher-reported differences in student behavior as they relate to our program aims, and whether our organization is continuing to operate and expand in a way that aligns with our mission and values. 

We use a number of methods to help track this including: surveys, focus groups, and one-on-ones with employees and stakeholders. We try to gather a good mix of qualitative and quantitative data.

One of our goals moving forward is to track our student participants’ online learning journeys using more robust analytics programs. Having insights, for example, about which specific choke-points are holding students back and where they exist can help us continue making data-informed decisions about refinements to our programming.

Tell me about your favorite learning projects? What were the most successful parts of them? Why?

My favorite project with my team was implementing virtual programming during the pandemic, where we moved the entire curriculum online. It was made up of nine sessions that were both asynchronous and synchronous. Our program relies on student-to-student interaction, so we were nervous, but it’s received great responses so far!

On a scale of 1-10, how important are the visual design and overall aesthetics of learning content (10 is high)? Why?

First and foremost, I think that learning should be instructionally sound. If a learning project is visually stunning but doesn’t lead to meaningful learning and performance gains, then the visual design didn’t really serve a greater purpose. On the flip side, all the pedagogical foresight in the world won’t matter if a project’s visual design detracts learners from doing the learning.

When I think of visual design and break out two specific aspects—usability and accessibility—I’d rate it as a 10. I always try to consider Universal Design for Learning principles, which goes beyond just visual design, and think about who might be left out of the learning experience due to a poorly considered design choice. I’ve also found following UX best practices to be immensely helpful. Anytime I’m at the helm of visual design for a project, the C.R.A.P. principles of web design—Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity—are great to keep in mind. My appreciation goes out to the originator of that acronym.

Where do you see the learning industry going in a post-covid world?

I see there being much less of a focus on big training and seminars and more on small chunks of training while people are working. Employees don’t have to pause their day-to-day responsibilities to go to a conference to learn a new skill, and then wait until they’re back in the office to apply it. It’s just-in-time, on-demand learning and performance support that’s going to make more of a difference going forward. 

Looking at the workforce right now, Millennials are jumping jobs every 2–3 years because they’re wanting more support from their workplace in terms of training—especially new skills. I hope to see companies focusing more on the importance of upskilling to retain talent.

What excites you about the future of learning? What’s missing in the learning industry today?

Organizations across the board, including corporations, nonprofits, and universities, can’t go back to the way things were before the pandemic. There’s been a paradigm shift around how individuals can work and learn. Many people won’t want to go back to the office or classroom full-time, and some won’t want to go back—period. I’m excited for learning leaders to be innovative in this space and lead the charge in creating agile, innovative learning environments that meet the new needs of students and the workforce. 

What’s missing is equity and accessibility. It’s always been important, but with the rapid move to virtual environments this importance has taken on new dimensions and urgency.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to companies when it comes to learning?

Give learning and development departments a bigger platform. The job of learning professionals shouldn’t be about handling topical projects that don’t address any real problems. Learning professionals should be invited to help diagnose the problems and get to the root of the issues. They should be able to conduct a thorough needs analysis and build relationships with stakeholders to get a fuller picture of the challenges being faced and understand what solutions might work best. At the end of the day, companies have to give their learning professionals the power to make decisions and be changemakers. When you make the learners successful, you make your business successful.


We hope you found this interview as inspirational as we did! Want to keep in touch with Michael Wildman? Find him on LinkedIn or Olive Tree Arts Network. For more Thirty Under 30 inspiration, check out our interview with Dalia Abbas.

Stay tuned for more insights from learning leaders

More interviews with Thirty Under 30 members coming soon! In the meantime, read more of our learning insights.

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