“Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will” – Applying Theory U for developing meaningful learning in the context of COVID-19

Teacher EducationTeacher Education LeadershipHigher EducationLearning DesignTheory U
In this interview, Sandhya Gunness and Rubina Rampersad from the University of Mauritius, discuss their adoption of a Theory U approach to learning design during the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion unfolds to reveal the unique challenges faced by the small island of Mauritius, with a shrinking student population and the emergence of private universities. The interview delves into the equity concerns arising from the shift to online learning, highlighting the challenges faced by their course participants in their own individual teaching contexts. The interviewees surface the subtleties of societal differences in Mauritius acknowledging the challenges and nuances within their community. The core of the interview revolves around the Theory U approach adopted for their education leadership module, emphasising the importance of building relationships over the duration of the course and creating supportive learning environments for adult learners. Sandhya and Rubina share their experiences of creating a space for open communication, vulnerability, and intense collaboration. The emphasis on care, empathy, and meeting students where they are becomes a key takeaway for learning designers, highlighting the necessity of building relationships and adapting to diverse student needs.

In this interview, I (Shanali Govender) have a conversation with Sandhya Gunness and Rubina Rampersad from the University of Mauritius (UoM). In this interview, they talk about applying Theory U to develop meaningful learning in the context of COVID-19. 

Can I ask each of you to introduce yourselves, tell us a little bit about where you're based, what you do and perhaps how you came to this project?

Sandhya: Thank you Shanali for giving us this opportunity to present one module that we've taught during COVID-19. I work at the Centre for Innovative and Lifelong Learning (CILL) at the UoM. We have both been at UoM for more than 20 years, working as learning designers on education technologies and education leadership programmes. While I’m more linked to education technologies than education leadership, we were provided with an opportunity to collaborate with the University of Seychelles and launch the Master of Arts Education Leadership Programme. The programme draws heavily on open educational resources from the Commonwealth of Learning. Most of their content is open access which we can reuse, and adapt based on our contexts and collaborations.

Rubina and I have also participated in the African Leadership in ICT programme where we used The Futures Wheel, and realised the importance of futures thinking and seeing the educational landscape unfold. While researching further came across Scharmer’s (2009) Theory U, which I wanted to apply within the Master of Arts Educational Leadership programme because I felt that our students (heads of schools, or teachers with many years of service) needed that reflective approach to understand how to deal with the COVID-19 situation. They needed a more compassionate approach, breaking away from anchored teaching methods, and seeing the education system with fresh eyes..hence the Theory U approach. 

Rubina: I'm Rubina Rampersad, I joined UoM 25 years ago. From my background, literature, I re-engineered into instructional design and eventually into educational technology. My core role at the university is working with the industry. We design a lot of training programmes that are tailor-made for the industry. And what I have been doing over the past 20 years is to listen to industry needs and try to design programmes that are really tailor-made for them. We don't try to impose our model on the industry, we let them speak first. We’ve been designing programmes that are very responsive to their needs and we have been introducing, gradually, things that were not easily acceptable at the university but because they were industry-led, we’ve been able to introduce, gradually, some innovative programmes. We've been very careful to introduce innovation gradually to make it acceptable and we hope that eventually these changes will be more widely accepted in the university.

It sounds like you have a number of strategies for thinking about learning design and change management. That’s something we’ll come back to in a moment. Before you dive any deeper though, could you tell us a little bit about the context in which you are designing?

Sandhya: We are a small island of 1.4 million people and our universities bring development to the island. Given the absence of high-value natural resources, a key resource the country has had to rely on is human capital and Mauritius has invested heavily in education through the welfare state which provides free education at all levels (Ramtohul, 2016). So, it's mostly courses which are responsive to the needs of a globalised world but we have been able to diversify in terms of agriculture, engineering, law and management, in terms of ICT, off-shore services and finances. So, we have many baskets where we are investing our human resources.

The public universities eventually respond to these government-driven needs. Universities, especially the UoM, but we have our own Act which defines the objects, powers, functions and structure of the university. We have our own senate and we have our own council that governs all the decisions taken at the university. While the different faculties offer highly specialised and discipline-specific courses, at CILL we have more flexibility to be interdisciplinary given that our academic board comprises faculty members as representatives and together we can come up with more innovative programmes. At the Centre for Innovative and Lifelong Learning, we have the ability to offer these courses a bit more freely. We can reach out to industry, and work in more autonomous and collaborative ways. We are the oldest established university and have the biggest campus. Right now we have around 9,000 students but registration is reducing because a lot of students prefer going abroad. Even with COVID-19, we did not have as many students come back to the university as we thought. Additionally, there are a lot of private universities coming up so we still have to fend for getting students on board, especially in the education fields because we also have the Mauritius Institute of Education (MIE) education and they have been mandated to provide degree- awarding courses to in-service government and Aided-School teachers, which means that the students who would join the MIE for degrees are sponsored and need not pay fees as compared to the UoM. Although, in the past two years we have reduced our fees and undergraduate students are paying only an administrative fee which is very low. So, basically, our income is from the master’s level courses. 

Rubina: Tertiary education is free in Mauritius. The advantage we have at the UoM as Sandhya mentioned is that we are the oldest university so we are lucky to get the best students who will be exiting from the secondary level, so it’s quite competitive as well. Not only are there many alternatives for post-secondary education but also we have an ageing population so we are going to have fewer people joining primary school, secondary school and eventually tertiary.

So, the problem is a bit more complex. We are living in a competitive world and it's going to be tough in the future to attract students so we'll have to be better, more competitive and innovative. We also have a few international students who are with us on our programmes. And also, they are also on campus as well, from Africa and some doing medicine from other countries as well. 

I hadn't thought of Mauritius as having an ageing population.

Rubina: If you look at our population pyramid it's changing, it's changing completely. So now Lifelong Learning is the target. This is what our centre is doing. We are seeing the lifelong learning market as an emerging market and this is where we are putting all our energy because people are going to come back for training, recycling, re-engineering of their degrees so this is where we tap into.

So, that gives me a bit of a sense of what the higher education landscape is like in Mauritius. Can you tell us a little bit about specific equity concerns for your context? 

Sandhya: I guess it's quite similar for many institutions. I think many of us realise that even if we were in education technologies, our actual reach into school educators was quite limited. As pioneers in Educational technologies, we had produced most of the educators who were then seconded to duty at the MIE for relaying their skills to teachers in government school, thus cascading (perhaps diluting) our teaching to teachers. And during COVID-19, there's these new voices coming up and saying, okay, this is how education technology should be, especially with education going online.

And staff teaching online for the first time thought “Oh, this (Zoom classes or video conferencing) is what e-learning is about!” and actually it wasn't at all what e-learning was about. They were using Web conferencing tools as a window into their classes. In terms of equity of access, these teachers could only reach out to students who had access to the internet, or did not have to share their devices with siblings. During COVID-19, the activity-based approach should have been favoured, but teachers were not trained to let go of their synchronous ways of doing things. What was an issue for our students was that they had to change their modes of working and that cognitive load did impact on the quality of their work, the quality of collaboration that they could have and the quality of group work that we had already been embedding in our courses. 

Equity wasn't as much of an issue as much as quality was — the quality of responses, the quality of research. As these were in-service teachers working together, the time they had available for class tasks was limited. Their home and work responsibilities took participants away from studies at CILL. And I guess the interest in studies also went down, priorities changed, these educators 1were not so much into spending time on their own learning when they had their own students who were not able to learn. So, I think that took some toll on their time. 

I'm hearing that over the COVID-19 pandemic there was a shift in the priorities of your more adult students, your masters students and so on. Tell us more.

Rubina: Yes. Because they also had their family obligations. They were wearing so many hats. In 2020, we interviewed teachers from different backgrounds, including those from Zone d'Education Prioritaires. That is schools where children have very low levels, they come from broken families and challenging circumstances. And the teachers were in distress because they could see how their kids were missing out. They were dealing with a lot of distress and they knew some things were not going on as they should. It was a very difficult situation. So, we had a lot of “Once the lockdown is over we are going to do this, we are going to do that.” We don't know whether they did it eventually, maybe we have to do a follow-up interview with them and see but there was a lot of stress. And teachers were at the forefront as parents, as teachers, and administrators.

Sandhya: And you can also say there were two types of teachers. Teachers who saw it as a challenge and really wanted to investigate and explore. At the same time, you also had teachers who were totally at a loss. They didn't know how to connect to students and how to talk to them online, how to even turn on a computer, for example. So, you had these two types of people.

Am I right in thinking that your participants approached it as a challenge?

Sandhya: Yes. I think because our educators come to the course, like Rubina mentioned, they come to the course because it is online, because it is flexible. Well, they think they will be able to get the ropes, how to use the technology. 

Rubina: And some are aspiring principals, deputy head teachers, so they do it because the course counts in their promotion. So, it's not just because they want to change the system, to be change agents, no. But they have an interest, a personal interest to do it.

If I think about your participant group, it's a group of head teachers or aspiring head teachers perhaps, and one of the dimensions of difference that you're identifying, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, is a very internal one. Even in relatively homogenous groups like your head teacher group, there are these dimensions of difference. Sometimes schooling, sometimes the kind of schools that the head teachers come from. 

Rubina: And you have a difference between public schools and private schools. Maybe in government schools, they would be more inhibited, they'd be afraid and in private schools, they would be more free. 

So, another dimension of difference you're highlighting is the location of the educator. In the Mauritian context, how did the classical dimensions of difference surface? So, are there issues of race, class, gender that surface in your context? 

Rubina: It's subtle, it's not obvious. Maybe the outsider will see it more. 

Sandhya: It's also something to do with the small island state that we are in and everybody knows each other but yes, within your own circles. But you need to manage these intimacies, it's called managing intimacies in the context of small states (Bray, 1991, pp. 21–25) actually, and where you are wary of what you say in public but then within your small groups you would have a different sort of discussion. But in terms of education, no, education is free and it is open to everyone and it's by law, it’s compulsory to be in school till you're 16. 

RubinaSometimes the issue can be race but sometimes the issue can be class. So it depends on the issue at stake, then it can shift from race to class. It's very subtle, we juggle with it.

And sometimes it's the complex interweaving of those two things. If we take as given the complex context, created by intersecting dimensions of difference, what was the gap, the space, the triggering issue that you were trying to respond to in your design of this particular programme and workshop?

Figure 1

Theory U by Presencing Institute CC BY SA 

Figure 1 is a conceptual diagram representing Otto Scharmer's Theory U in the shape of a U, starting from Downloading at the top, to Presencing at the bottom and to Performing at the top.

Sandhya: So, we were in a COVID-19 situation, heads of schools or teachers who are taking this course are losing ground at work and losing touch with the course. I thought that our module on leading education systems needed a change management approach which was not the usual approach. We needed to bring them back and motivate them into something different. 

I came across Theory U (Figure 1) from Professor Scharmer, at Stanford, who proposed it as a change management tool. Theory U is a social methodology that integrates systems thinking, leadership and organisational learning from the viewpoint of an evolving human consciousness. Theory U focuses on enabling change - and we had to shift people’s ideas about online teaching — that it is more than video presentations and talking heads or digitising normal classroom practices. Wanting to make an impact, we had to ensure that our target audience understood the difference between decision-making and sense-making, and in this case, about technology integration in their modules. Theory U allowed for “cracks” in the system to become more explicit and could be implemented as an important learning design principle for educational leaders, educators and graduate students, in general, to delve into their “interior conditions”.

Theory U pointed us in the direction of “seeing with fresh eyes” and “sensing into the field”. We asked ”how do we bridge the equity gaps, how do we reach out to students?”. It was important that our educators realised it's not just giving notes and getting students to learn things on their own. They had to realise that the situation, the context was different — that their own pupils needed a bit more in terms of human understanding. One of my friends would start her course by asking, “Have you eaten?” Because the shops were closed, some people had to line up for long hours to be able to get some groceries. It was quite a very different situation. This was her way of “presencing” in the situation. 

I think we needed to have a more human approach and a bit more of an understanding when the teachers would be thinking eventually of the future of and in their schools. I saw the module as an opportunity for them to rethink the way things have been going through and whether there were changes that needed to happen — lack of teacher empowerment, for example, they're not at all empowered to make decisions or voice out their perspectives. 

Now that schools have resumed, teachers are very happy to go back to school but how have they managed? Nobody has taken stock of teachers’ experiences from that time. And I think that that's an important discussion to have. And it's more the human touch that we need to bring back into the school, into the education system, the values. Because the way the teachers are going to be talking to the students, to their pupils is going to impact on the pupils. We just need to get that circle a bit more virtuous than vicious. We wanted to have these ongoing discussions so the assignments were not assignments anymore, it was more of discussions, dialogues, and things that we wanted teachers to come up with from a deeper perspective, I would say.

Rubina: I'll just add that we had to make sure that we were walking the talk. When we told our participants that they had to do something with their students, we had to be sure that we were doing that as well with them. So, we had to have that listening ear and be there for them, be available, then be flexible in our assignments and listen to them.

I also encouraged them to open up during the classes as nobody is going to judge. There are no right and wrong answers. so that when they go back in class they see the value of what we've been doing with them and then they can replicate that in the classroom if possible.

What I’m hearing you say is that the workshops were driven by open communication and application in the local context. It sounds like you had yourselves, your students but also all of their students present in that space.

Rubina: We were able to know their story. They were bringing their story to the class so we knew everybody's context. So, it was interesting and it added to the discussion. But it also made us very vulnerable. The two hours on Zoom were lively sessions. We gave them the floor and they were just so happy to just share. And we were listening and that's what was important, listening to them.

What it's like to be in a situation where you are working with head teachers as students, as participants. It's a pandemic scenario, where everybody is incredibly pressured, stressed and traumatised in a range of ways. Holding that, being the workshop leads, being the people who created the design, imagined the design, held the design, what did that ask of you? 

Rubina: When I was doing my Zoom session, I had to anticipate that students would be asking me different things and I created folders with reports, articles, because so much was happening around us. We were "stalking" famous researchers and looking at the materials they were sharing. That was our community of practice. That was our resource!

These materials were so handy when we were doing the Zoom sessions because we were creating a community, there were eye-openers. If you look at the PowerPoint that I was sharing during these Zoom sessions, I’d just quickly add links to articles based on discussions during the session. Although this started as my document, at the end of the two hour session, it was something else, it had grown. I’d be adding comments, putting in question marks or images. It grew by maybe 30 or 40% from what I had at the beginning of the session. So, it puts us in a vulnerable situation but you need to be prepared. And you had to have an open mind, open heart, open soul — you had to be ready to be challenged.

And I told them, it's okay because I'm not a primary school teacher, I'm not a secondary school teacher, I don't know their context. And they're free to tell me when I don't understand their specific context and constraints. This is our reality. So, I had to put myself in that very vulnerable situation.

Sandhya: I think it's also about the teachers having the misconception of what is teacher-centred and what is learner-centred. So, for them, when they are teaching they're teaching to their students and they are learner-centred but having just that one-way flow is what they have always been doing and they don't know the two-way or they won't accept or encourage it. Eventually, we're trying to get away from this notion that the teacher knows everything and we want the teachers to bring in their students to participate, to contribute to the classroom.

They talk about this in theory, in reflection, but they don't really do it in practice, they don't have the time, they don't have the space for it. And technology further complicates the situation. Perhaps they feel that the students are overtaking them in terms of technology, so how do they then manage the students who will say, okay I can get better content outside classrooms? 

It sounds like you were very aware of your participants’ contexts and that as facilitators, you were comfortable to create a culture of powerful vulnerability. 

Rubina: It would have been very presumptuous on my part to say that I understand the primary school setting because I know the context is different there, broken families, resources, imposed curriculum and unions. I wanted all this to come out in the discussion. And we even have a few students who are working at MIE looking at curriculum design in primary schools. 

It's just fascinating to me because it sounds like you've got a cultural gap. 

Sandhya: Actually, it’s a bond — a bond that really binds these people to old ways of doing things. And people don't want things to change because this status quo helps them to not go beyond what they can do, especially, I think, during pressured periods. People wanted the status quo, they wanted things to stay as they were and not be too disruptive for them. I mean, perhaps the new teachers when they have access to, if they're interested, they would want to change things. They would have their own peers who would say, “Why are you bothering yourself with that? Just enjoy what you're doing, just follow the syllabus…”. There's lots of peer pressure in schools where some teachers don’t like innovation or changes in their usual habits. 

And especially, because it’s a small island state, because it’s a place where either you conform or you become marginal. We're very social beings, home is very important for us. The school system is a very traditional one and getting out of that tradition is a big step.

So, if you think about this process and if you think about both the design that you created but also your experiences of it, what would be your takeaway from that that you would want other learning designers, other folks leading courses to really focus in on? 

Sandhya: For me, the care. All the time it was caring. We have human beings who have loads on their backs. So, we have to pay attention. So, empathy and care. It's a duty. It's not something fancy. I think central is care. And you can get them to do so many things, it's a relation of trust that you build with them and then it goes on smoothly. Because then even if you introduce something more to them, it is acceptable so long as you can justify and explain it.

Rubina: Yes. Sandhya was my lecturer when I did my Masters of Science in Educational Technology and she, I think, two weeks before the deadline for our viva voce she said, ”Let's do a pitch, a PechaKucha” and everybody complained. She makes us do creative things and I know she has an intention and that intention is noble and pure. 

You know working with Sandhya is crazy and fun, she comes up with new ideas often. So, because we have that relationship of trust I know she was not an unprepared lecturer or unorganised. Just she wanted us to do something different. 

Sandhya: What I learned was to not be so disruptive. There are very few students like Rubina, obviously. She jumps in and she drives the group. 

Rubina: I think that's a balance that we have to build in the class. When I do a class with the students I tell them first to let go. But some can't let go, they need that comfort zone, they need that scaffold. So, we have to be able to use judgement. And I also tell them that I'm okay with the difference. I'm not happy with conformity. I think these are the seeds that you have to sow at the beginning of your classes and tell them your expectations are different. 

When we have multimedia students we tell them, you must think differently because if we all think the same we're not going to evolve and this is what we sow in their brains, eventually. But the scaffold is necessary for some but we also make room for the difference. We build, we encourage.

Sandhya: And I think that as a learning principle, the idea of meeting students where they are in terms of understanding and pedagogical approach as the starting point. Then you can gradually hold their hands, be at their elbows and guide them to where you want to get them. They really need a lot of support and hand-holding. 

Rubina: For the Master of Science in Educational Leadership we had only 15 students but when you have classes with 60, meeting them only via Zoom sometimes with their camera off, it's like talking to a wall. And after 15 minutes you're drained. 

So we had to break them into classes of five and when I met them in small groups it was so interesting. I was meeting human beings with interesting backgrounds, 18 year olds who had their own business, who had interesting lives and who were doing social work. And these things don't come out unless you meet them more intimately somehow.

You need to see as a lecturer what works out and how to reach out to them. You have to. So, somehow you have to get to know your students. I think there's no way out. There's another relationship you're going to build with your students. After each Zoom session, I would be exhausted. You're so passionate, there's so much passion. Each time I had a Zoom session I wouldn't sleep that night because it was so intense. The energy was palpable.

Sandhya: And there's no easy, quick way to do that. You need to get involved as much as the students need to get involved as well. 

Rubina: It involves a lot of time. 

My takeaway from your design is how incredibly personal it is and how much you have to show up in those sessions and how much you're demanding that of your students. Reflecting on your experiences of using Theory U, are you continuing to use it, and how do you feel about the use of Theory U in other contexts? 

Sandhya: I will definitely reuse Theory U, although I’m seeing more and more critiques of it, which means that it's still very much alive and kicking. But eventually, we need leaders who understand the importance of stepping back, taking stock of the situation and having the courage to admit to deficiencies in the system. Theory U does exactly that with a very good dose of Pedagogy of Care, so there’s quite a lot of opportunity to use with a mature crowd of students who can understand the value of sensing and presencing ‒ and how your presence has an importance and can make a difference. 


Bray, M. (1991). Making small practical: the organisation and management of ministries of education in Small States. Commonwealth Secretariat.

Scharmer, O. C. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Ramtohul, R. (2016). Globalisation, internationalisation and higher education in Mauritius: The compromise of quality. Africa Development, 41(3), pp.117–138.

Sandhya Gunness

University of Mauritius

Did my first degree in Physics from the University of Mumbai. Came back to Mauritius and joined the University as a Lab technician -Physics Department, then joined the Virtual Centre for Innovative Learning Technologies (now Centre for Innovative and Lifelong Learning) moving up from Instructional designer to Senior Lecturer in Open and Online learning since 2014. Have been doing consultancies for COMESA, AUF, COL, in Digital Literacies, Learning design and Moodle. Have been teaching and Coordinating on the MA Educational leadership Programme in collaboration with University of Seychelles. Also teaching on MSc Educational Technologies programme at UoM. Current Research interests include Collaborative Learning Networks and Inner Development Goals.
Rubina Devi Rampersad

University of Mauritius

Rubina D Rampersad is a trained educational technologist at the University of Mauritius, with more than 25 years of experience. She supports content experts to design modules on distance, online and blended learning modes. She also works with the industry to mount programmes that are customised to the needs of the employers in terms of mode of delivery and assessment. She has designed MOOCs targeting an international audience with more than 10,000 students. She holds an MA in Distance Education and an MSc in Educational Technologies.

This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.

Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/ldvoices/TheoryU_learning.