Reflection: The Complexity of Designing Digital Learning Spaces

We can design digital learning environments with virtuous intentions and in good conscious; however, the space will take on a life of its own. As learners start to interact in the space and use the technology, a new form will emerge with the learners shaping the environment and the environment in turn shaping them.

What appears abundantly clear to me, after attending the MALAT Virtual Symposium 2021, is the need for careful consideration and deliberate assessment of both the selection of technology for digital learning environments and the use of technology.  By making tech a focal point, educators risk neglecting both the pedagogy and intentional construction of the social learning environment. MALAT student Mark Regan’s work experience validates how the mere existence of technology does not ensure learners will use it effectively or actually learn. Technology choices, therefore, must be made thoughtfully and frequently revisited to ensure continued efficacy.

Dr. Jaigris Hodson, social media and communications expert, rightfully warns against the inclination to use tech for tech’s sake and outlines the range of unintended consequences, such as human rights violations, e-waste, and privacy or legal concerns. An obligation exists for educators to mindfully balance the educational benefits with the potential harm. When working in an open learning space, the guardrails are removed, introducing what Dave Cormier refers to as “intentional messiness”.  In an untethered digital learning environment, the networked educator needs to carefully attend to the issue of safety, particularly for marginalized groups. Very real dangers must be navigated and mitigated.

Therefore, design should account for complexities extending far beyond the technology, such as social interaction, the flow of information, safety, participation, digital identity, quality, and human connection in the digital space. As evidenced by Susan Crichton’s 8 design principles, your design choices would best be filtered through the lens of your principles, allowing “you to go back and say, did I actually do what I set out to do?” (Crichton, 2021).

The recommendation to first develop a social contract and then determine the technology best suited to enable and sustain it makes a lot of sense. As explored in Fiorella De Cindio’s Guidelines for Designing Deliberative Digital Habitats, “a given technology – namely, a discussion forum – may produce different effects upon dialogue depending on the policies (the rules shaping online conversations) adopted to manage it.” The architecture of the digital space is a foundational element that underpins the social interactions, communications and usage; it should act to reinforce the social structure as designed.

All leading to the question: how do you maintain the integrity and values that guided your original design once the space goes live and the community has claimed it as their own? Educators carry a degree of responsibility for what happens in these constructed digital spaces. Is it inevitable that in an open digital learning setting “the community will eventually become the curriculum” (Cormier, 2017) and with whom does the accountability reside for what happens in this space?


Boyd, D. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self (pp. 39–58). New York, NY: Rutledge.

Cormier, D., (2017). Intentional messiness of online communities [Video]. Blackboard Collaborate.

Crichton, S., (2021). Design Conversations with BC Educator: Lessons Learned During COVID-19 and more        – CANeLearn [Video]. Blackboard Collaborate.

Cronin, C., (2017). Open culture, open education, open questions [Video]. Blackboard Collaborate.

De Cindio, F., (2012). Guidelines for Designing Deliberative Digital Habitats: Learning from e Participation for Open Data Initiatives. Journal of Community Informatics. 8.    DOI

Hodson, J., (2018). “Mindful” social media engagement in an age of Cambridge Analytica [Video]. Blackboard Collaborate.

Regan, M., (2021). Air Traffic Control Training Addressing Student Task Saturation through the Use of    Simulator Technologies by the Royal Canadian Air Force [Video]. Blackboard Collaborate.

2 thoughts on “Reflection: The Complexity of Designing Digital Learning Spaces”

  1. Hi Lisa,

    Beautifully expressed summary of so many valuable concepts from the symposium! I couldn’t agree more about the necessity to be very intentional in selecting technology and facilitating learning within it. Are you familiar with the design thinking process? There are many variations on it, but in essence, it’s a cyclical process that includes phases such as researching background and needs, defining the problem/goal, generating ideas, creating prototypes, and testing them out. Participants move through and loop back to various phases repeatedly, always reviewing, researching, and refining further. It’s an ideal process for designing technological learning.

    1. Hi Alisha,

      Thank you for your kinds words. Very recently, I completed the IBM Practitioner Certificate in Design Thinking and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it; however, I haven’t had an opportunity to put my learning into action yet! Hopefully soon. It sounds like you are quite familiar – I would love to learn more about the ways in which you’ve applied it in the field with favourable results.

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