Catherine Smith

Digital learning: how to manage a very tricky balance

The way we navigate the fast-changing digital landscape is crucial for the academic and social experiences for students of all ages. The digital age presents opportunities and challenges for all learners, whether it be a student in an early childhood setting or an adult engaging in vocational education. We know that for all students to be successful, we need to think carefully about what we are doing with technology and why we are doing it. While understandable given the nature of the crisis, the rapid shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many unintended consequences of engaging with digital pedagogies in a haphazard way.

The ‘remoteness’ of remote learning also revealed how crucial connection is in education. Everyone loses when digital education – digital learning – fails to meet the needs and interests of learners, educators, and other human beings in educational contexts. So how do we make sure that online teaching prioritises the human?

Our new industry report delves into human-centred digital design in online learning, emphasising the crucial role of learners, educators, and stakeholders in shaping the educational experience. Learners are placed at the core of the learning experience in a human-centred digital design model. By offering flexibility and personalization, educators create a real-world learning environment that empowers students to take control of their learning journey. 

No quick fix

However, this is not a quick fix. While human-centred digital design offers numerous benefits, it also presents challenges. Transitioning to online learning can be isolating for some, and educators may struggle with new tools and methods. This approach demands significant resources, collaboration, time, and dedication. But these challenges can be overcome by adopting thoughtful strategies that prioritize the needs of learners. These strategies focus on creating a dynamic and inclusive learning environment that empowers students and fosters meaningful engagement. In our report we focus on a range of dimensions. These intersections intersect to make digital learning and teaching structured and flexible, active and engaging, and inclusive.

Striking the right balance between structure and flexibility is essential in catering to the diverse needs and interests of learners. By offering a well-organized curriculum that outlines clear learning objectives and milestones, educators provide a roadmap for students to follow. Allowing room for individual exploration and personalization enables learners to engage with the material at their pace. This makes the learning experience more meaningful and relevant. Understanding the ecology in which digital learning and teaching takes place is essential to good and holistic practice.

Where to give priority

Priority can be given to universal accessibility to ensure all learners, regardless of abilities, can fully participate in learning processes. These include ranging from multimedia formats for curriculum sharing and opportunities to demonstrate learning through different forms of media. Valuing diverse perspectives, strengths and forms of communication, educators can foster an enriching and inclusive learning community. Effective digital learning and teaching—like any learning and teaching—is differentiated to learners’ needs, preferences and contexts.

Encouraging active learning and inquiry-based approaches empowers learners to take an active role in their education. Rather than passively consuming information, students become engaged participants in the learning process. Through hands-on activities, problem-solving exercises, and group discussions, students develop critical thinking skills. They also gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

A sense of community and connection

In the online learning environment, fostering a sense of community and connection is crucial. Ensuring both teachers and students have a visible presence in virtual learning spaces through real-time interactions enhances engagement and support. Virtual office hours, online discussions, and video conferences provide opportunities for students to seek assistance and collaborate with their peers. This fostering a strong sense of belonging. Community and belonging in digital teaching and learning are supported by practice that prioritises accessibility, diversity, and inclusion. Building social connections through play is also important for all students. Digital spaces can help facilitate these connections as illustrated through the below footage of YellowCraft, an online Minecraft server established for autistic girls and women that first began in 2020.


Collaboration enriches online learning. Group discussions, teamwork, and project-based learning allow students to share perspectives, exchange ideas, and construct knowledge collectively.
Through collaborative online activities, learners can share their unique perspectives, exchange ideas, and collectively construct knowledge. This leads to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and each other, developing higher level communication skills in multiple mediums. Effective digital learning is student-centred, fosters collaboration, and enables communication and connection.

What happens when you take a wrong turn

When it comes to online learning, assessment and feedback play a crucial role in helping students succeed. Assessment tasks guide educators and learners towards their educational destination and should guide the learning journey. Just as Navigation apps (such as Google maps) provide us with a choice from multiple routes leading to the same destination, offering a choice of assessments gives students the flexibility to showcase their understanding in ways that suit them best. Whether it’s through a quiz, a project, or a presentation, diverse assessment options make learning more engaging and personalized. Formative assessments act as pit stops along the way. This helps learners gauge their understanding and providing valuable insights that can guide adjustments in learning strategies. And just like when the app recalibrates when you take a wrong turn, assessments should be responsive, guiding educators and students when learning needs adjustment. 

In our report we explore some of the challenges involved in digital design through six dimensions of practice which we believe will help us as we consider new challenges, new technologies, and changing contexts. By embracing new technology, flexibility, inclusion, and active learning strategies, educators create engaging and meaningful online learning environments. For this to be possible and successful, educational institutions need to be contexts where teachers can experiment and take risks with innovative practices. Resourcing teaching and learning informed by human-centred design involves the risk-taking, time, collaboration, resourcing and the reciprocal identification of needs and goals, with agency and control in the hands of the student and educator. 

Nicky Dulfer is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research agenda is driven by a social justice imperative and seeks to make a significant change to the ways in which marginalised people access and experience education.  Catherine Smith is lecturer in education at the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne with specialisation in technology, wellbeing, equity, policy and community development. Matthew Harrison is a Senior Lecturer based at the University of Melbourne, Faculty of Education His research is interested in digital inclusion for children with disabilities and neurological differences, and he is the co-founder of Next Level Collaboration. Mark Selkrig is an Associate Professor in Education. His research and scholarly work focus on the changing nature of educators’ work and how they navigate the ecologies of their respective learning environments.