Strategies for sustainable learning design: A response to Daniela Gachago’s “Learning Design Voices” provocation

EquityCareHumanising Learning Designsustainable learning design
Gachago (2023) proposes Compassionate Learning Design as a way to humanise education. However, much of the work relating to humanising pedagogies paints the perfect utopia. Only if learning designers and educators who do learning design work establish what is real and achievable in their own contexts as existing systems are well-entrenched and take time to shift, that we can promote a future where care, equity and justice are an integral part of learning design.


It is only in recent years that concepts such as pedagogy of care (Noddings, 1988, 2012), ethics of care (Tronto, 2013, 2015) and trauma-informed pedagogies (May, 2021) have entered into my formal vocabulary as a learning designer. These form the backbone of Gachago’s (2023) provocation on "Compassionate learning design for unsettling times" and the practicalities of incorporating humanising pedagogies into the learning design process. For me, it’s no no-brainer to support practices that encourage us to intentionally support equity and care. The question is not if compassionate, humanised learning design is needed, but rather how we as learning designers can enact it and do the work within the wider system.

At first, the concept of humanising learning sounded like a strange concept. As I learned more about the movement towards inclusivity, empathy, compassion and care in the student experience, it pushed me to question the system I was working in. I wondered at which point in education did we forget about “humanness” that we needed to add it back in? And what has resulted in the “dehumanisation” of education? And lastly, how do we incorporate these humanising pedagogies into learning design within the current massified system of education?

My decade as a learning designer is primarily based at a residential university in South Africa servicing almost 30 000 students. During this period, I worked on the development of several Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), online and blended degree development and supporting mainstream undergraduate and postgraduate courses. I have worked primarily at the course design level, working closely with lecturers, facilitating workshops for storyboard development, reviewing content such as video scripts and assessments, building on the online learning platforms and course maintenance. I had coordination responsibilities, managing teams for course and programme development and piloting innovative projects. Therefore, my experiences stem from my learning design experience on the ground, working closely with lecturers on online and blended course development.

I believe I’ve always tried to incorporate good practices into my learning designs, although, perhaps in a less explicit manner than outlined by Gachago and others. I consider humanising pedagogies to be integral to my work as a learning designer, and contribute to good teaching and learning. However, I must be guided by my students' and lecturers’ capacities and wider constraints. As a learning designer, I am not the sole decision-maker, and my role is multifaceted – I am often the questioner, the devil's advocate, the prompter, the facilitator, the problem-solver, technology support, the teacher and the list goes on. This resonates with words by Walji (2023) who highlights that learning designers often play a change agent role and have 

“unique insights into a course or programme and in their facilitating of conversations with university teachers, content experts and course teams they will often broker conversations and reflection” (p. 5). 

My response to Gachago’s provocation will centre on the practicalities of humanised pedagogies from the perspective of a learning designer and change agent, the challenges I have experienced and how achieving humanised courses and classes will be a process of ideals to engage with, rather than a destination. 

The impetus for compassion

As Gachago (2023) notes, many in the field draw on Paolo Freire's work from the 1970s (2020). Freire challenged the banking system of education which emphasises “depositing” information through memorisation, facts, formulas, and discipline. Instead, Freire advocated transformational learning based on dialogue, arguing for mutual humanisation, and for lecturers to be partners with students, where they are jointly responsible for the process to grow and learn. These underlying humanising pedagogies show up in different ways and activities in course design, such as reducing teacher-centredness or creating opportunities for connection and care (Kızılcık & Türüdü, 2022). Bartolomé (1994), highlights an example of moving away from assessing through close-ended activities to diagnose “weaknesses” to using open-ended activities that amplify the student voice. We have seen an increasing emphasis on moving toward culturally responsive student-centred learning for decades, intending to move away from didactic teaching as a default.

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded changes to the higher education landscape, particularly with regard to online learning. That period of time, especially the early intense days of the lockdowns, required even higher levels of empathy and care as students and staff faced unprecedented challenges in their personal lives. For students, this inevitably impacted their academic lives when they had to study in far-from-ideal home environments. Institutions were in a difficult position and staff had to respond to student needs to ensure the academic year continued. 

We saw a change in practices such as offering flexible deadlines, moving away from examinations and providing access to devices. An important change was the provision of course material in multiple formats to maximise flexibility and access for those with varying levels of access to devices and the internet. For example, students were provided with videos with downloadable slides and transcripts, or if lectures were live online, students would have access to recordings. We saw big changes to assessments too, such as dropping late penalties for submissions, changes in grading structures and adapting invigilation-based summative assessments. While some of these practices had traction already, in my context some were not widespread pre-COVID-19. 

While to some extent, these changes can be considered reactive responses to contextual needs around student wellbeing and access, the conversations on humanised learning become increasingly widespread. Some of the practices have continued even as face-to-face teaching resumed post-COVID-19. And, in my observation, some practices have stopped, with the return of summative in-person examinations, late penalties and hard deadlines, especially as mechanisms to reduce cheating and manage the grading of assessments. These practices are often present in massified systems to improve efficiencies.

The cost of empathy and compassion 

Using the word cost and empathy is a contentious pairing, but I use it to surface an important consideration. Empathy requires time, effort and material resources. Academics often experience intense workloads due to research and service demands that compete with their teaching. How do we truly implement a course built around humanising pedagogies while balancing competing demands?

Like the learning designers and education developers in the rest of the world, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was near the front line, upskilling and training staff to deliver their courses online. A few weeks in, the exhaustion, burnout, and lack of self-care among academics started to surface. It was not uncommon for me to have emotionally charged discussions with academics expressing their frustrations and uncertainty. Academics needed reassurance that they were not alone in their feelings and were doing the best they could. At the same time, as academics were experiencing burnout and exhaustion, my colleagues and I, based in a centralised support unit responsible for learning design and educational technology provision, were also experiencing exhaustion.  

Eloff et al. (2022) report that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, over and above their academic duties, lecturers played a significant role in the wellbeing of students and had to increasingly provide emotional support to students. The nature of teaching and learning changed during COVID-19, requiring significant curriculum changes. As mentioned, academics no longer exercised strict deadlines and late penalties for hand-ins, citing a lack of certainty about which student appeals for late submissions were legitimate or not. With varied deadlines for students, marking student submissions becoming haphazard and with fewer tutors due to lockdowns, giving timely feedback became much more difficult. The challenges faced by academics during the heart of the lockdowns point to the challenges of enabling flexibility, and what might be considered more individualised and humane teaching practices. Underpinning staff behaviour and choices is a system of standards, policies and frameworks that govern what is expected in a system at scale. Fundamentally, the current higher education system was not – and is not – set up well to foster the level of inclusivity we seek, requiring a much bigger systemic change.

I find that humanising approaches is a balancing act of what we believe is best for students and our knowledge of these practices with our constraints, which includes managing our own health and wellbeing. While a core function of our role as academics and as learning designers is to champion the student experience, we need to consider the impacts on the wider team, including academics, administrators, tutors, parents and even ourselves.

The broader system plays a large role in what we can or can’t do. Constraints of a slow, rigid and underfunded system mean we have little choice but to follow what the system tells us to do and breaking that mould is challenging. At times when I have engaged with staff on strategies for creating a nurturing environment, I can be met with pushback by staff who feel reluctant to pursue experimental ideas such as engaging students in a reflective manner. I suspect there are still much-needed conversations that need to be had, that I typically cannot do justice to in my short time with staff when I have one-on-one consultations as changing practices require dialogue over time. It also requires that the learning designer possesses the background or skills to facilitate conversations and communities that centre care, equity and justice. This brings us to essential questions on how we in the field can create spaces where staff become aware and confident in navigating a humanised classroom. There needs to be a level of comfort with experimenting, failing and trying again when changing practices.

Let’s look at ungrading which I consider falls under the umbrella of compassionate learning design activities. Ungrading is an approach to assessment that questions the systematic practice of grading and reducing student submissions to a mere number (Stommel, 2021). For example, instead of limiting students to one submission, students are allowed to submit their assignment three times, where detailed feedback is received from the course team on the first two draft submissions. The time required now for marking is three times what would have typically been required. Students are in a much better position to be graded on their final submission. In a class of 500, this assessment design will likely be met with significant pushback due to the people, time and financial resources required. A peer who pursued ungrading in her course and shared some of her considerations:

I co-teach a postgraduate course on Online Learning Design with two colleagues. We are strongly committed to students experiencing the course in ways that reflect the best practices taught in the course. Over the last three years, this has meant two substantial shifts. Firstly, we have worked to make the course “looser”, to open up the structure in a way that allows course participants to shape the course alongside the course team. Secondly, we’ve revisited our assessment practices – as themes such as ungrading have become more prevalent in the literature, we’ve looked for ways to bring this into the assessment design. For example, we negotiated the weighting of tasks with students, whether all assignments were relevant to their practice; we regraded based on student requests and resubmissions, and offered each student a 30 minute consultation to review their final assessment prior to submission. 

While the jury remains officially “out” on our experiences, greater flexibility in the course structure and shifts towards ungrading appear to generate the most benefit for the strongest students. Students who experience barriers to learning (such as being less prepared for formal study, juggling competing commitments, having less experience in the language of learning and teaching, or having access to fewer material resources) seem to derive fewer benefits from the flexibility and shifts towards ungrading. In fact, instead of making these students more confident, the increased uncertainty created by these two strategies was experienced as stressful and confusing for many students, who expressed a desire for more structure, more direction and fewer choices. At the moment, I’m understanding this in terms of concepts such as decision fatigue, cultural capital, and risk.

Although we have a relatively small and adult class, greater flexibility in the course structure and shifts towards ungrading had substantial implications for the teaching team. Our collective preparation time increased - feeding into a more expensive teaching model. We spent a lot more time checking in with each other. While we were happy to think of equitable choices as providing individual students with what they needed to succeed, not all our students understood or supported this understanding of equity which led to quite a lot of additional work with the class. Our time spent on assessment preparation and feedback increased. While this made good sense for a professional course, I can see how this might face resistance in undergraduate courses, especially larger classes.

While in theory, I love the idea of not having to give my students a mark, grading is an activity that has import and impact across multiple systems, many outside of my direct influence. To be able to engage in innovative teaching practices and to have the capacity to counter the dehumanising pressures of massified education systems requires more than the intention of the individual, but systemic support. 

Strategies for sustainable care 

Although I might have painted a picture that outlines the obstacles, I do believe there are ways to challenge the system to pursue humanising practices even within the systemic constraints. We need to not only build care into the design process as a whole but also humanising pedagogies into the design of the course as Gachago (2023) emphasises. The following subsection describes key strategies I use in my pursuit of creating a process that fosters care during course design and development.

Be present for your students 

Championing students is integral to the work we do and it is necessary to consider their personas and feedback in course design and improvements. When I run a course design process, I typically develop personas with the teaching team to keep students present in our minds during the design process. In an ideal world of co-creation, students would be included in the design journey; however that is often unlikely, and personas are used instead. Personas, typically used in user-centred design, are representations or archetypes of students whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of students (Miaskiewicz, & Kozar, 2011). Once personas are developed, at the beginning of each course design workshop, I would print the personas and place them in the room to have students “in the room”. For example, if you are designing a course for professional students working in healthcare who work shifts, there needs to be consideration for the timing of content release and deadlines. In this case, working with a course team, we could release two modules at a time, with spaced deadlines as opposed to weekly deadlines. Each case is different and additional changes are likely to be made to the deadlines to further align the course experience with professional lives. Student feedback during and after the course can allow for further improvements.

Channel a change agent mindset

As Gachago (2023) cited, “Design is a living practice, not a done thing” (Morris, 2021). The course design process is often a long journey of up to several months, requiring several interactions over an extended period of time. Therefore, we need to think of our “change agent” role as a process which can be likened to the “change management” process used in business contexts. Successful change management requires extensive efforts: repeated communication and attempts to get the message across, evidence of why the change is valuable or necessary. At times, these efforts may cause moments of tension. For example, encouraging a lecturer to create flexible deadlines to give students choice over their learning or to add a reflective dimension may be met with reluctance. While in principle there may be ambition to use new ideas, these may not be enacted for various reasons such as imposed deadlines, governing policies, capacity and time needed to continuously grade assignments. In our role as change agents, we often plant “seeds” or ideas during course development that may have positive outcomes later on. At the time the idea is brought up, it may receive little interest, but the following time it is brought up there may be more buy-in. It's also important that we understand change is not a solo endeavour, and we often have to gain trust of those we work with and build a community working toward change. 

Care considers everyone

As Gachago (2023) mentions, student wellbeing is widely recognised, staff support less so. There are several levels of care that we need to consider in the course design process as learning designers, such as (1) the staff we are co-creating with, often the academics and extended course teams and (2) the students who will experience the course design. While we are almost always championing the student experience, it is important that we don’t forget about the rest of the team – including the tutors, assessors, administrative staff, moderators - anyone who is impacted by the course design process and running of the course, including ourselves. This will vastly differ by context depending on role and responsibilities. In my context, tutors, who run small tutorial groups have excellent insight into how students are grasping the course material and administrators have insight into managing the learning platform and student queries. We need to consider a holistic view of care by leveraging the insights of the wider network into meaningful course design.

“Small is good, small is all”

Brown (2017) offers several principles for emergent strategy that we could pursue to work toward systematic change. Brown’s (2017, p.37) principle “Small is good, small is all” resonated with me as did the concept of atomisation of large challenges. Through small, incremental change and continuous improvement, there is a cumulative impact that can very well result in systematic change.

We have all experienced how at the start of any project or process, we are often our most ambitious and idealistic. The reality is that we cannot achieve everything, but instead, we can achieve one or two parts of the design that are highly impactful for students. For example, this could include introducing reflective opportunities for students or changing the assessment structure to have less weighting on a final assessment, thus increasing student opportunities for success. Bali (2020) encourages teaching teams to get to know their students and vice versa. Doing this at the beginning of the course is often the best time as you are setting the scene and engaging in a high opportunity zone to form relationships with students, and students with their peers (Pacansky-Brock, 2020). 

As a learning designer, it is often our role to facilitate the design of these initial weeks of a course, prompting academics with key questions, “How are we going to onboard students to the course?” or “What do we need to include in the course to create a sense of community?”. I always have examples to show academics what it looks like to ensure they understand the level of work needed. This does mean we have to be equipped with appropriate frameworks and pedagogies to hold these conversations. Taking small steps, listening to student feedback and iteration are essential.

The path ahead

The concept of humanising pedagogies paints the perfect utopia, articulating a blue-sky approach that gives us important ideals to work toward. However, we need to establish what is real and achievable in our own context as existing systems are well-entrenched and take time to shift. For now, we should aim to take realistic, smaller steps to make our goals achievable and sustainable and do the best we can within the constraints of our environment, as we move toward curricula and pedagogy that emphasise compassion and care. Through learning, unlearning and relearning, we can adopt practices that are more caring towards ourselves as well as to others, in order to promote a future where care, equity and justice are an integral part of learning. 


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