Design and Screen-Based Learning in Higher Education (2013)

“. . . design has spread like gas to all facets of human activity from science and education, to politics and policy making. For a simple reason: one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change.” (Economist, 2011).

It’s widely thought that the rise of design during the past couple of decades owes much to the rapid pace of change that characterizes modern life. Design facilitates change for those seeking to stimulate change.  And for end users, design serves as a means of making changes less jarring and uncomfortable.


As Ray Kurzweil, author, inventor and director of engineering at Google has argued, the rate of change is accelerating as never before.  The time between the invention and mass adoption of, for example, consumer technologies (e.g. mobile phones and social networking), has dropped dramatically.

The migration from the classroom environment to the Internet is one of the most dramatic changes in the history of higher education.  Although the Internet has been in Western households for 20 years, the vast majority of students and educators have grown up in the physical classroom model. Our institutions are designed according to the needs and logic of place-based learning. (We shouldn't be surprised that the initial approach to web-based education was to try to replicate the classroom environment).

Screen-Based Learning

But the migration from the classroom to a screen-based environment is a change like no other. It’s a migration to a design-dependent environment. The digital learner's experience is highly-dependent on the quality of design. The particular mix of colours, layout, audio, animation, words per page and other design elements can make the difference between a good and bad experience for learners on laptops, smartphones and tablets.

To date, digital higher education has largely ignored the role of design in online learning. It's not part of the conversation. You'll be lucky to find it discussed at conferences or in journals. This is partly because good design practices are not part of most institutions’ DNA.  (Have you ever tried to find your way around an unfamiliar campus? Signage, anyone?). And partly because institutions often frame aesthetics and related matters as enemies of science.

It's time that digital higher education recognize the demands of this new online environment. The factors that determine the quality of learning are different than those that ruled the classroom in which we grew up. We need to include design talent and processes in our course design and development practices if we are going to make better use of this (still) new environment. As the saying goes, "When you pick up one end of the stick, you pick up the other end."