In a world of digital bystanders the challenge is for all of us to design engaging online education


We are increasingly becoming digital bystanders, continually monitoring our different palm-and-TV-sized screens. From dawn to dusk and even in moments of insomnia we turn to digitally communicated news and social media. In the world of education, from primary school to university and beyond, we have realised digital learning is not only an option for learning, but is fast becoming the main option.

Consider this vignette: during the COVID-19 pandemic a family are living in a big city where access to stable digital streams and affordable data bundles is not a problem. Confined to long periods of school learning now moved online, one of the parents asked their daughter about her experience. She says:

It is boring and I learn almost nothing. Teachers give a lot of instructions with little explanation.

She had became a digital bystander. The teacher struggled to engage with all students, and few experienced rich interactions with the teacher.

In the digital world it is not simply about learning the skills (digital self-help manuals and videos are plentiful). Many teachers and professors still argue that a face-to-face experience is more authentic than digitally mediated learning.

The growth of MOOCs (massive online open courses) in recent years has challenged this view. These have gained traction as both free educational offerings and significant business opportunities based on short courses.

Time for a change of mindset

So how do we accommodate this changing digital world? Historically, when railway travel arrived, looking at the world through a window as it sped by was an unnerving experience. So, too, was the fear of being part of or witnessing a railway accident. It took people time to catch up and change their mindsets.

The same is true of digitally driven change in education. We cannot take time out from change. What is required is “reflection in action”, as Donald Schon put it, to work out how to adjust to changes.

When we consider our vignette, how can we win the hearts and minds of students and teachers to ensure they both perceive and experience learning online as meaningful and transformative? Is this a question of challenging the traditional mindset described above?

By exploring the ways in which face-to-face learning is translated into online learning, we can start to identify a series of approaches on a spectrum from simple technological substitution to more radical redefinitions of teaching. In this model of substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition, we tend to find many educators remain firmly rooted in using technology to replace what they already do in the classroom. As a result, the human essence of the teaching experience is lost when mediated via a digital interface.

An example here might be the distribution of electronic classnotes to replace the course textbook. The result is a learning setting that’s clunky compared to the day-to-day user experience of the internet. The mismatch exemplified here in the transition from the physical classroom to online is often not well managed.

A learner’s experiences of the digital education space can be dramatically different to the seamless and frictionless user experiences of a social internet. Within a paradigm of replacement versus reinvention, we have a natural gap between the experiences of teachers and students.

A need for inclusive design for online

Neither better access to technology nor more training to use digital systems will bridge this gap. This is a design gap. In recognising this, the solution becomes more straightforward – there is an absolute need to “design for online”, as Cathy Stone persuasively argues.

But this design cannot be the sole responsibility of the teacher. We need to bring together multiple perspectives and skills, including those of teachers, students and technologists, to co-design learning experiences.

No longer is the teacher the sole voice of authority. All contribute: the teacher skilled in curriculum, the student understanding what it means to be supported and motivated to learn, and the technologist sharing modes of digital delivery.

There are then no digital bystanders – all have agency as designers. As Herbert A. Simon once said, anyone who is engaged in “changing existing situations into preferred ones” is a designer.

There is no global template for designing for online learning. Each time we come together – the teacher, student, technologist – we form a new community with a shared discourse. This is a reflective and democratic space that allows us to act with consideration and respect for the skills and knowledge of others.

With historical hindsight, we will do well to reconsider what the railway journey offered: the ability to visually reflect upon and design a personal world without leaving the carriage. With the digital production of teaching and learning, we too are now called upon to reflect upon and design a world of learning without leaving our seat in front of a digital screen.

Author Bios: Steven Warburton is Pro Vice-Chancellor Academic Innovation (Acting) at the University of New England, Muhammad Zuhdi is Head of Quality Assurance Institute of UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and Stephen Dobson is Professor and Dean of Educatio at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington