How to insert design into the emergency online response – learning designers’ reflections

Higher Educationabc Learning Designstaff development
Like most other countries, South Africa experienced hard lockdown restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Higher education institutions across the country, including the University of Cape Town (UCT), were closed and teaching and learning moved online. In this chapter, we, two online learning designers at the Center for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) at UCT, document our experiences rapidly developing a short online course: the “Design Studio” for teaching staff during this unplanned pivot to take their teaching online. Our roles as online learning designers positioned us as experts to provide our reflections and lessons learnt through our practice designing and teaching on the short course that may resonate with the curriculum and course development sector globally. In Design Studio, we made use of three of Meyers’ strategies for reimaging online spaces as opportunities for transformative learning for students by creating a safe environment, encouraging participants to think about their experiences, beliefs and biases, and adopting teaching strategies that promoted engagement and participation. Critical reflection and orientations to student-centred design, specifically, Universal Design for Learning underpinned design choices in order to both support participants and model good practice.


The literature on the COVID-19 lockdowns in education describes how academics globally faced numerous challenges that included a lack of experience and knowledge with technology skills, pedagogy in an online space, organisation of content and students' lack of interactivity (Ferri et al., 2020). In the South African context, both teaching staff and students were ill-prepared for teaching and learning online. Due to historical discrimination and extreme differences in access to resources, not all staff and students could participate in online and blended modes. The shift to online learning further deepened the existing inequality gap (Statistics South Africa, 2019) by removing access to relatively well-resourced higher education institutions (HEIs). Students were dispersed across the country and away from university residences which had provided physical needs and better access to digital infrastructure than is available in most home environments. Many faced challenges such as unstable electricity supply, absence of digital devices, poor ICT infrastructure, limited data access, socially unfavourable home conditions and information literacy to support learning (Czerniewicz et al., 2020). This was also the case for students from the University of Cape Town (UCT), the most highly ranked university in Africa. 

Due to the sudden move to emergency remote teaching (ERT) (Hodges et al., 2020), the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) was called upon to provide structured institutional support for teaching staff. As a centrally located organisational unit working across the institution, CILT had to rapidly ramp up support for teaching staff who needed to create online courses over a few weeks by providing webinars, training, individual support and self-help documents. The webinar programme introduced the key principles of low-tech online teaching to help teaching staff orient to the new reality, provided just-in-time training on topics such as how to record a lecture video and how to create an online test. CILT also produced a series of new text and video help documentation over this time. 

The need for a Design Studio 

While there was good uptake for the webinars and help resources, it became clear that there was a need for a more structured process to guide teaching staff in their own online course design. At first, we introduced an online Rapid Design workshop of two hours as part of the regular webinar programme. We sought to communicate a “design approach” that is so important for online course development. However, we found this was not sufficient time to work through all the key stages of design, while also providing a much-needed space for personal and peer support in dealing with the radical changes being experienced. In our interactions with teaching staff, it was also clear that the lack of experience of online learning meant it was very difficult (often impossible) for lecturers to imagine what they were trying to create and to understand what students were going through. The Design Studio was CILT's response to support those seeking deeper engagements to redesign their own courses online on UCT’s learning management system (LMS) Vula and to provide opportunities to build a new pedagogic practice and identity as an online teacher.

Both of us were part of the team of CILT academics and learning designers who either created or facilitated the Design Studio. Between us, we authors have over 20 years of experience in educational design from various sectors, ranging from school-based education to adult informal education. Mashudu joined the team as a learning designer during the pandemic and stepped in to co-facilitate the course and make iterative revisions from 2021. Janet is a senior learning designer and unit manager who was part of the original course design team in 2020.

This chapter serves as a design precedent that seeks to disseminate knowledge that may resonate with other designers offering “behind-the-scenes” activities, building knowledge about learning design in practice and benefiting designers across various contexts (Boling, 2010). Using Brookfield’s (2017; Brookfield et al., 2019) concept of critical reflection, we review the Design Studio and the key design practices that we adopted.

Design Studio: From conception to reality

The road to Design Studio

Prior to the pandemic, most staff had used the institutional LMS primarily as a repository for resources and to make class announcements. ERT required that teaching staff teach almost exclusively online, and, in the South African context, that they make use of low-tech, asynchronous, online options. With many staff having little personal experience of online learning, they had few reference points for the challenge of ERT. During support sessions early in the COVID-19 crisis, staff articulated strong concerns about online learning including a lack of skills and experience of using technology and digital content to teach. Our challenge in providing support became more than simply doing skills training for recording lectures or using the LMS tools (which we did as well) – it was to provide a rapid immersion experience in becoming online educators. 

The learning design team at CILT had already adopted the ABC design approach developed by the University College London based on Laurillard’s (2013) conversational framework for the development of fully online courses. The ABC design approach was, at the time, an intensive 90-minute, paper-based guided design process. The conventional ABC workshops were intended for a teaching team involved in a more formal redesign process, while we now needed to be more flexible and revisit what we included. The in-person design workshop was transformed into a virtual workshop called the Rapid Design workshop, and we found that designing for online modes offered lecturers an opportunity to experience what they were creating for their own students. But given the scale of the demand on lecturers, the single Rapid Design workshop was not sufficient to enable staff to undertake redesign processes on their own. The ABC method focuses on student learning as the starting point for design, and while this approach was retained, we felt teaching staff needed more support to move beyond the content transfer model. This was the inspiration for developing a longer engagement which would provide teaching staff with a guided course design process intended to build their capacity as online lecturers through a “learn-by-doing” experience.

A brief description of Design Studio

For teaching staff, the usual mental reference points about what it is like to be a student based on their own experience in the lecture theatre or the lab were no longer available. The learning design team had to think of a way to give lecturers an insight into the experience of being an online student. Brookfield (2017) insists that a critically reflective teacher must be able to take into account the perspective of students (the lens of “students’ eyes”) as well as the perspective of peers. Design Studio built on our experiences with the Rapid Design workshop, and offered teaching staff a step-by-step online course design process over six weeks while also providing them with an immersive experience of being an online learner. In the role of students on the Design Studio course, staff participants are guided on a six-week journey to redesign their course. It requires approximately 20 hours of work with much of that time spent on producing components for their course. The course objectives are for academics to produce a well-structured, high-level plan for their course using the ABC design method, create a few digital learning materials (such as a video), develop ideas for student engagement activities and build a restructured course site. In producing the artefacts, they are practising the skills being taught and applying some of the insights gained in viewing learning materials as students (“personal experience lens”). The Design Studio actively strives to create a positive peer-to-peer learning environment with Padlet boards for sharing content artefacts, online discussion spaces about common problems and fishbowl-type exercises working on aspects of volunteers’ courses during the live sessions. 

Getting staff to reflect on the challenges of the COVID-19 context and what their students were experiencing online was a key element of the Design Studio. The adult education tradition strongly emphasises the experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984). Kolb’s experiential learning theory describes a 4-stage learning cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. In the UCT context, Design Studio invites participants to occupy several concurrent roles: teacher, designer and student. They arrive as lecturers bringing their subject-matter expertise and pedagogic approach and they are invited to participate in the role of teacher-as-designer (Laurillard, 2013). By engaging with the Design Studio course site, lecturers are exposed to a model for site design and experience the value of a systematic site layout and scaffolding learning. Lecturers are enrolled as “students” on the course site providing an immersive experience similar to that of their students. By placing staff in both a student role and a designer role, they have opportunities to reflect on their teaching and existing course site design. Reflection, a key part of the experiential learning cycle, creates space for the development of new knowledge and for adaptations in practice. 

The weekly live synchronous sessions were set up to model online teaching or facilitation – exposing participants to new tools and approaches as well as a first-hand experience of what it is like to be on the student-end of virtual teaching. The abstract conceptualisation stage introduces them to learning and teaching concepts and frameworks. The entire course is structured around staged tasks that participants are asked to complete each week to create a part of their own course design. These weekly tasks require “active experimentation” – the final aspect of the experiential learning cycle.

While our goal was a fast, practical guided design process with an immersive experience, this approach surfaced many contradictions.

In reality, for many staff, keeping up with the learning and producing artefacts during Design Studio proved challenging. Even during the heart of the lockdown period, the Design Studio was a voluntary activity; most staff continued with their regular teaching, often with extended pastoral duties for students. Some staff shared their feelings of being overloaded due to changing workload as academics (continuing regular responsibilities supervising students, marking assessments) and new roles in preparing online learning materials. Additionally, given the COVID-19 context, most of our participants were working from home and not always in spaces that were conducive to an uninterrupted workday (Czerniewicz et al., 2020). Staff members with children had to take care of their children and attend to daily chores at home (Czerniewicz et al., 2020). While they expressed the intention to work through the Design Studio’s asynchronous learning activities, few were able to keep up with the course schedule even when we tried different pacing options. 

Much as we had seen from designing massive online open courses (MOOC), volunteer learners have to be strategic about their time and will do what they feel is most valuable given the competing demands (Deacon et al., 2019). For Design Studio, participants often came along to the weekly live sessions even if they could not keep up with the course outputs. The live sessions became a space for peer support and solidarity – sharing the emotionally and physically exhausting experience of teaching online under these conditions. As facilitators, we had to be flexible and adapt to accommodate our participants. For example, we recorded the live sessions for those that were not able to attend to watch when they could. We also offered extended deadlines for participants to complete the asynchronous course materials long after the official course period had ended. We hoped to model caring approaches to students by intentionally facilitating peer support, mutual self-help and building trust in the classroom (Imad, 2021) to give staff a personal experience of how this can transform a student’s learning engagement.

The Design Studio team

The design process for Design Studio included a collaborative team of 15 people, drawing in both learning designers and academic staff developers, some in design roles and others as teacher-facilitators with a few doing both. The initial run of Design Studio, in mid-2020, consisted of three overlapping cohorts each with a different facilitation team. While the highly collaborative process was exhilarating, it was not a sustainable approach. After the first three cohorts, we reduced the Design Studio team to five people who took responsibility for administering, running, reviewing and maintaining the course.

The Design Studio facilitators had imagined the collaborative nature of the design would encourage peer support among academic lecturers. This was not always the case – some participants felt that the CILT example was unrealistic and impossible to replicate. There is a risk that the modelling of “good practice” is discouraging to lecturers who have neither the collaborative organisational context nor the digital skills and resources available to the CILT team. This was a sobering reminder to us as learning designers to adopt our own principle of designing for the students we have rather than for ideals. While we might promote collaborative teaching, we cannot assume this will be possible and should not design for this idealised context.

The learning designer’s experience of Design Studio

In many ways, as designers we were simulating the experience of the regular teaching staff – having to come up with immediate solutions without the careful design approach we would normally recommend and adopt. Nine learning designers participated in a guided design process to come up with a curriculum, create the learning materials and build a course over a month. After a collective virtual workshop, the team split up to work on modules: creating course maps, materials and learning activities on the LMS. It was a uniquely stimulating experience for the learning designers. Although the timeline was short and often required the design teams to work overtime and on weekends to get the course ready, most of the CILT staff enjoyed being involved in creating a course design as the experts instead of the advisory roles they are normally called upon to play. With the high levels of design competence and multimedia skills, the process from course mapping to course build was very quick. 

Figure 1

Screenshot of one of the Design Studio module “maps” from May 2020 using Laurillard’s learning activities

Transformative pedagogy in an online space

Meyers (2008, p. 219) identified five strategies for reimaging online spaces as opportunities for transformative learning for students. He encouraged staff to: 

  1. Create a safe environment.
  2. Encourage students to think about their experiences, beliefs and biases.
  3. Use teaching strategies that promote student engagement and participation. 
  4. Pose real-world problems. 
  5. Help students to implement action-oriented solutions.

Although Design Studio serves staff rather than student participants, Meyers’ strategies nonetheless provide a practical lens for understanding Design Studio practice. The Design Studio seeks to function as a space where transformative pedagogy through experiential learning takes place. This is achieved in both synchronous live sessions and asynchronous interactions in the Design Studio course site. We sought to create a safe and inviting environment for participants, encouraged them to think about their experience, assumptions, beliefs and biases, and to use teaching strategies that promote student engagement and participation. Furthermore, Design Studio has a strong real-world orientation as participants work on real courses for actual students and is fundamentally oriented to promoting and achieving equity in relation to multiple dimensions. 

Create a safe and inviting environment 

First, before the course begins, participants receive an outline of what they can expect from the course, the overall structure and a schedule of events. 

One of the most challenging aspects of the short course design has been dealing with time constraints. A common refrain of the teaching staff was the massive increase in workload in the online pivot. The design team tried to maximise the value of the expected learning engagement for teaching staff by designing Design Studio activities around artefacts and processes that staff could use in their own courses. Despite this, participants struggled to keep up with the expected outcomes. We continue to look at adjustments to the current design based on feedback including reducing the number of expected outputs and encouraging participants to focus on the most useful aspects. 

We designed the course to offer flexible engagement (mostly being online and with many opportunities for asynchronous learning and work), with limited, carefully designed live sessions to keep participants motivated. Through several variations, we found the most effective pacing includes two live sessions per week – an optional 30 minute live briefing at the beginning of the week to clarify and elaborate on tasks participants needed to complete in that week and a required 1.5 hour synchronous live Design Sprint session later in the week were allocated time for participants to work on their own courses and with help close at hand. In the 30-minute introductory sessions, we offered participants a space to speak or write about their experience of the course at that moment. Such feedback allowed us to make adjustments as we went along. Participants were also encouraged to contact us via email with any queries that would arise. We consciously tried to build a sense of community and connection in the live sessions, emphasising respect and support to create a safe space for sharing affective and practical challenges.

A flipped classroom approach was applied where the week’s module was unlocked before the first 30-minute live session. The resources to be used and discussed in the session such as the slides were made available to participants before the live sessions.

Encourage students to think about their experiences, beliefs, and biases

The course begins with a module titled Designing for your Context. This module gives participants an opportunity to review how their courses have run previously and to think about how the local teaching context will shape their course design and teaching practice going forward. 

In this module, we asked staff to reflect on how ERT impacted on their past design and teaching process. They identified and shared with colleagues through online comments, key aspects of their context that shape their design in relation to Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2008), disciplinary context, assessment requirements and broadly active, student-oriented pedagogic strategies. Lastly, they identified or constructed a model of online and face-to-face teaching that responds to their students' contextual requirements and constraints.

In the live sessions, we used questioning strategies that prompted the participants to continuously think about their context, who they were designing for, what they wanted their students to learn and to think about how they could create meaningful learning opportunities for their students. 

Use teaching strategies that promote student engagement and participation

A common challenge during ERT was the lack of, or perceived reduction in, student engagement and participation in the new online space. Teaching staff expressed the need to find new ways of connecting with the students and creating a community in an online learning space.

In the Design Studio course, we modelled ways to encourage participant engagement in both live sessions and asynchronous activities. At various points in the last three years, we have used Zoom and Teams. While Zoom performs better in terms of accessibility especially for mobile devices, MS Teams is available to all staff and students and has persistent chat functions. Live meetings were scheduled and hosted on these platforms. Participants could hold discussions in the meeting chat, they could reply, like and react with emojis. Live meetings also allowed facilitators to run small group discussions in breakout rooms where participants would have discussions and give feedback to the rest of the cohort members after the group discussions. 

In the Design Studio course site, several opportunities and activities were created that required the participants to actively engage in structured discussions using a range of tools such as “add comment” function, chat and discussion tools. An example of such an activity is shown in Figure 2 below. In this short activity, participants shared with each other some of the LMS tricks and tips that they had used before. A discussion activity such as this one provides participants with the opportunity to engage with one another and learn from each other.

Figure 2

LMS (Vula) strategies – chat activityGraphical user interface, text, application

Description automatically generated

In module 2, titled Engaging Activities, the Design Studio outlined a method for thinking through how to design opportunities for engagement into a course. This has been the greatest source of frustration for academic staff. In face-to-face teaching and learning context, engagement seems to happen “naturally”. In an online environment, opportunities for engagement need to be specifically designed into a course and even then participation varies: we discuss the challenges, provide resources on student engagement and then give participants an opportunity to think about what could work for their students and their context.

In Design Studio, we provide participants with a four-part distinction that helps them identify key opportunities for engagement in their course by focusing on what students are doing. By outlining elements of the course i.e. content, student activities, communication and learning organisation and assessment, participants can identify opportunities for engagement in each quadrant. The course unpacked how this framework might be used in great detail in an online course. As a result of these challenges experienced, teaching staff expressed their need for strategies and tools to help them continue to transfer certain interactions that were present in a face-to-face environment to an online space. This ranged from formal and informal assessment strategies such as quizzes, tests, student engagement and discussion strategies.

During the ERT period, it was evident that many academic lecturers who were experienced with face-to-face teaching lacked exposure to tools that support learning online. They battled to ascertain which tools would best be suited to promote engagement and create learning interactions in their course. Some academics were also not well versed in the technical use and application of the tools that they needed to create meaningful teaching and learning experiences in an online space. For example, some of the academics had little to no expertise in recording lecture presentations from their own devices remotely, a skill they suddenly needed to have to create recorded lecture videos for their students. 

Without time or support, many lecturers had not designed clear learning pathways for students. Some used the LMS as a materials repository and materials that would have otherwise been presented on paper and on face-to-face lectures were replaced by digital equivalents. 

We tried to address the challenge above by incorporating various tools within the course through learning activities to provide teaching staff lectures with a student experience of using the tools. We designed the course to provide participants with opportunities to interact and use the new tools in the Design Studio course, giving them the personal learning experience needed for a teacher to adopt a practice. We hoped that by requiring staff to create learning activities and digital materials, they would develop more confidence and mastery in managing technical tools. 

The course modelled how those tools could be used in their courses both on course sites and in live synchronous sessions. Although, during ERT, we were cautious about promoting synchronous activities for students due to the cost of data and difficulties with connectivity from remote locations. The activities on the course site also modelled instructional text on how to use the tools or participate in activities as this was an area of inexperience for staff and students alike. 

Apart from the concrete experiential learning tools, the Design Studio introduces participants to content where participants learn about appropriate tools to use for specific learning types according to Laurillard’s framing. One of the modules describes how one could select tools that might enable the six learning types in an online learning space. We focused our attention on the core LMS tools as well as third party supported tools. We developed a tool wheel that mapped many of these tools to the six learning types (Figure 3).

Figure 3

The tool wheel

Organisation of content

Design Studio enrols teachers-as-designers (Laurillard, 2013) in understanding the key approaches to designing learning via the LMS course site where they would get ideas of how a course could be organised and experience the value of a systematic site layout. Participants would be given opportunities to reflect on their teaching and existing course site design, and be encouraged to refine their sites on the basis of their reflections. Most indicated that the course gave them a student’s experience of the LMS site through this engagement with content.

After each module, we would unpack how that module had been designed, explaining our design rationale for the selection of tools as well as any technical setup. This invited the teacher-as-designer to look back at what they had just experienced to see exactly how it had been created on the LMS. 

Figure 4

Screenshot showing a module’s design rationale for tool selection

Design for a diverse range of participants

Given the relative speed of the course development process, we needed to adopt an iterative approach – seeking feedback and making adjustments after each course run. 

We have experimented in a range of ways with the structure and pacing of Design Studio. A self-paced version was created with the intention of creating multiple learning pathways through the course site. The number and length of the live sessions have varied. Overlapping cohorts were run off a single site which proved complex to manage. The order of modules has been shifted around. New material has been added and professional development certification is offered. 

The design team has been reflecting on what this short course can provide for teaching staff given the diversity of needs. Several assumptions were made at the outset including that the primary participants would be teaching staff from UCT. We made intentional decisions to model effective practice around site design and layout and to promote the institutional LMS (because it was less data intensive for students) and institutionally supported learning tools (because it would be easier for staff to get assistance when they required it). A few individuals from other universities participated in the short course and indicated that the design principles were translatable into their own LMS. While teaching staff have a range of needs based on their experience, confidence navigating digital environments and specific disciplinary contexts, Design Studio focused on providing some fundamental design approaches that could be adapted as necessary. There was an emphasis on the student context which included thinking about personas and an introduction to Universal Design for Learning which emphasises inclusive design. 

Critical reflection mirrors the learning cycle in that it is an interactive continuous process of monitoring, improving and adjusting. The original purpose of the course was to cater for the community of teaching staff at the university, but Design Studio is not an effective learning experience for all. We are experimenting with Rapid Design workshops, the self-paced version and DIY resources but our challenge, as learning designers, is to continue to better understand and focus on what the teaching staff in our context need from a course. We continue to redevelop and adapt our approaches to accommodate those needs while remaining committed to our first principle – the “experiential learning” aspects of learning online. 


We would like to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the CILT team in creating and running the Design Studio and especially thank Andrew Deacon for reviewing this chapter. 


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Mashudu Raudzingana

University of Cape Town

Mashudu is an Online Learning Designer on the CILT Course and Curriculum Development team. She received her Post Graduate Diploma specialising in Education Technology with the University of Cape Town and has held various teaching positions at previous educational institutions prior to joining CILT. Mashudu is currently invested in a Masters of Education with a focus on the shifting roles and identities of academic staff in the blended and online teaching and learning spaces. She believes in lifelong learning and fostering 21st century skills through learning experiences.
Janet Small

University of Cape Town

Janet manages the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) learning design unit. She has an Adult Education MPhil and has worked in educational design for 15 years. She is passionate about widening access and creating effective opportunities for learning. She leads the Redesigning Blended Courses Project (2021-2023) which integrates the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into models of blended learning. With other CILT colleagues, she ran the UCT MOOCs project which created 23 Massive Open Online Courses between 2015- 2019, and has been part of collaborative research on MOOC-takers living in Africa.

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