Solution Summary: Empathetic Informed Design

Digital learning environments (DLEs) have saturated primary, secondary, and post-secondary education recently. Their rapid adoption is perhaps, in part, due to the recent global pandemic that forced many educators and institutions to explore non-traditional means to reach their learners. However, despite its recent publicity, DLEs are not new to education. They have been investigated since the advent of the internet by using media like bulletin boards to facilitate discussion and massive open online courses to deliver course content on global scales (Weller, 2020). Nevertheless, despite initial optimism and success, DLEs are still met with skepticism. When compared to the traditional learning environment, the DLE is still in its infancy; Morris exemplifies this point by comparing online learning to “a two-year-old child who discovers they can walk but does [not] really understand the nuances of the ambulatory act, nor really even what walking [is] for” (2018, para. 33).

Two educators examined the nuances of DLEs, Jonathan Carpenter and Michael MacKay, in the hopes of closing the perceived gap between online learning and traditional learning. Jonathan delivered courses at the post-secondary level primarily online or through hybrid approaches, while Michael was a secondary school educator and taught in a traditional classroom environment until the recent pandemic required him to move his practice online. While a myriad of different issues and problems were identified, the source of most of these problems stemmed from the inability of educators to develop the empathy needed to encourage critical thinking in their courses. Physical learning environments have the learning deeply integrated into the learner’s life and community, while DLEs struggle to represent these areas of participation, identification, and socialization (Morris, 2018, para. 6-7) that help bend learning into a microcosm of reality.

They agreed that educators needed to develop empathy with their learners to encourage critical learning through their pedagogy. Critical pedagogy asserts that learning is about engaging in the content, moving beyond the facts to create inquiry on a conscious level (Morris, 2018, para. 9). Likewise, empathy is the foundation of a critical pedagogical approach because it allows educators to tailor environments and methodological approaches to instruction based on the learner’s needs, values, and interests (d.School, 2018). In traditional environments, this empathy is developed almost passively through the environment’s affordances, such as short conversations before or after class or non-verbal queues. However, DLEs can struggle to facilitate these mundane interactions online. The Empathic Informed Design for Digital Learning Environments framework was developed to help educators advance and modify courses by observing, engaging, and immersing (d.School, 2018) themselves in a learner’s critical thought process (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Empathic Informed Design for Digital Environments
Note. An overview of the empathetic informed design for digital learning environments framework.

The framework has been divided into three major phases, questionnaire, challenge, and reflection. Each section focuses on understanding the learner, their previous knowledge, perceived abilities and skills, and possible methodological avenues for instruction. The questionnaire or the first phase focuses on understanding the learner’s educational experience and how they view the learning process (Carpenter & MacKay, 2021). Questions focus on self-analyzed views on learning skills, problem-solving skills, computer skills, study habits, learning styles, and educational backgrounds. However, these questions are not meant to be measured as a defined truth but help derive the learner’s ethos or guiding educational beliefs. As the name implies, it should be delivered prior to the course’s start to help the educator develop an understanding of their learners and kickstart the best possible scenario for the challenge phase.

The challenge phase focuses on engaging and challenging learners to think critically to solve an ill-defined problem (see Figure 2). The problem itself needs to encourage critical thinking by allowing for a multitude of different solutions. There is no best practice for developing an effective challenge; as Morris states, “the wors[t] best practice is to adhere to, or go searching for, best practices” (2018, para. 27). However, it is best to foster a beginner’s mindset, the idea of assuming the role of a novice to put aside any biases and view the challenge as a new experience (d.School, 2018, p. 1; Morris, 2018, para. 34). Furthermore, the educator can use the philosophy of backwards design (Crocker, 2020) or looking at the necessary result to inform action by answering four guiding questions:

  • What does critical thinking look like in the course context?
  • What knowledge, skills, and attitudes are needed to be successful?
  • How will the assessment be implemented?
  • What are the learning outcomes?

By reflecting on these questions, the educator can determine many of the challenge’s needs in the course context. For example, examining the learner outcomes can determine what outcomes best adhere to critical thinking challenges and what means are needed to assess them adequately. Moreover, this process helps identify the signifiers or signals that help determine a learner’s stage of critical development.

Figure 2
Challenge Phase of Empathetic Design

Note. The guiding questions to help implement a challenge.

Understanding the stages of critical development would be vital to manage learner expectations and scaffold effective learning strategies. The IDEAR stages of critical development, which stands for identification, description, exploration, action, and reflection, were adapted from Schell and Kaufman’s work on the stages of critical development and their associated codes (2009) to help standardize an approach to critical skills development. Beyond giving educators a common vocabulary to discuss critical development, it can also inform educators of the best interventions and scaffolds needed for each learner and community. The IDEAR stages act as a hierarchy; the further down the stages, the more proficient their critical thinking skills. The stages are (1) identification, the ability to identify the problem at hand, (2) description, the ability to express the problem coherently using concepts and terms, (3) exploration, the ability to understand and analyze ideas and factors related to the problem, (4) action, the ability to generate a solution to the problem using one’s skills and knowledge, and (5) reflection, the ability to critically analyze one’s work. A simplified checklist was developed using the adapted stages to help educators assess learners’ critical development based on the challenge’s observations (see Figure 3). Using this checklist, educators can create a deeper understanding of their students, developing the empathy needed to create compelling scaffolds and modifications to later content delivery to encourage critical thinking.

Figure 3
IDEAR Stages

Note. A checklist used to help identify a learner’s critical development skills based on the IDEAR stages.

The final phase of the framework is reflection. While it can often be viewed as an afterthought in the educational process, students and instructors need to reflect upon their thinking to make the learning conscious, moving beyond set facts, ideas and precedents (Morris, 2018, para. 9). Learners can complete a self-reflection of their work using any media or means they are comfortable utilizing; this process will help identify the learner’s critical development stage and recognize any skills or preferred media that may have been missed in previous phases. Likewise, the instructor will need to reflect on the empathetic design process by asking themselves three questions:

  • What are the pedagogical adaptations that could be made to help encourage critical thinking in the course?
  • What are the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that are unique to their learners, and how will these needs best be met?
  • What are learner’s media preferences, and how can this be utilized to increase engagement?

Once these questions are answered, the educator can make adjustments to the course and even the process itself to encourage critical development and engage learners critically in the course’s content. These changes can also be used with existing instructional design models to inform the design of future iterations.

The implications of adopting such a framework could be massive for developing empathy and closing the perceived gap with traditional physical-based learning environments. By acknowledging there is no panacea for education, educators can explore the human aspect of learning by developing empathy with their learners. In many ways, this framework encourages empathy or the first step in critical pedagogy outlined by the d.School’s design thinking process (2018). However, rather than interviewing learners, the act of critical thinking is demonstrated in a safe, controlled environment. The educator develops empathy, not through interviews and conversations, but engagement and observation of the process of critical pedagogy. Likewise, the framework is agile enough to be embedded in other instructional design processes or viewed as a stand-alone methodological approach to inform empathy. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the framework is still in its infancy and will need many adjustments and iterations to suit an individual instructional style and, undoubtedly, identify and improve upon areas that need revision through testing in the field.


Carpenter, J. & MacKay, M. (2021). Pre-course questionnaire.

Crocker, W. (2020). Backward course design. Centre for Teaching and Learning.

d.School. (2018). Design thinking bootleg. Stanford d.School.

Morris, S. M. (2018). Critical instructional design. An Urgency of Teachers. Pressbooks.

Schell, R., & Kaufman, D. (2009). Critical thinking in a collaborative online PBL tutorial. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 41(2), 155–170.

Weller, M. (2020). 25 years of ed tech. Athabasca University Press.

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