Mark Selkrig

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.

When the going gets tough artists & arts educators get going with innovative ways of connecting and learning

As 2020 lurches through multiple uncertainties the Australian arts community, already feeling the effects from budget cuts and a stripped back Australia Council funding round, discovered many members do not have  access to the Government’s stimulus measures. Australian artists and arts workers united early in April for a day of action under the hashtag #CreateAustraliasFuture to remind us all how much the arts matter in our lives, especially during a time of social isolation.

There is no doubt the arts community is in a tough place at the moment.  But despite the gloomy outlook, we are seeing artists and arts educators, survive, adapt and some ways even thrive in this time of change. Arts educators in universities and schools are working in different ways with students, rethinking practice, and redesigning how the studio works in an online COVID-19 world.  

How the arts community is helping us as we isolate

In this time of social distancing and self-isolation, the arts are helping us connect. For example the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and other performing artists are working online to  #KeepTheMusicGoing, the Australian Ballet launched the ‘At home with ballet tv’  and numerous Australian musicians raised money for a non-profit organisation by playing free in the Isol-aid  online festival. Visual Arts organisations such as the National Gallery of Victoria has launched online drawing classes so you can get quaran-crafty. UNESCO organizations such as the International Society for Education Through Art  (InSEA) have initiated ways to keep us connected when we are forced apart physically through drawing via #inseadrawcloser

These are just some of the ways the arts community in Australia are still connecting with us.

The benefits of arts education in schools 

We probably don’t need to remind you of the abundance of evidence that exists about the impact and benefits (both instrumental and intrinsic) of the arts and arts-rich learning environments both inside school sites and more broadly in and amongst broader communities.  

In schools the benefits of the arts  include increasing young people’s self-esteem and engagement in learning at school, improving learning outcomes in other areas of the curriculum, and through assisting young people with social behaviour and their connection with others.  In the broader community the arts have been harnessed  to enhance notions of wellbeing including personal health, personal development, social support, social inclusion, social capital, urban renewal or neighbourhood regeneration, tolerance, as well cross cultural connections, creativity and economic development. 

With greater emphasis placed on the instrumental benefits of the arts, others have argued that vital components and two essential aspects related to the intrinsic worth of the arts are being overlooked.  First, individuals participate in the arts for pleasure, stimulation, and meaning, not necessarily for the purpose of better test scores or to stimulate the economy; intrinsic benefits are the starting point for all other types of benefit.  Second, intrinsic benefits are not strictly private and can contribute to the public domain. 

In creating these successful rich learning ‘in’, ‘with’ and ‘through’ the arts experiences in many instances artists or arts educators take on key roles to enable these public and private benefits to occur.   Arts educators in higher education settings are applying the dynamic skills and dispositions they have developed over time to innovatively respond, step up and lead in a range of ways.  

Stepping up to lead

Our educator colleagues are leading change in a number of social media spaces such as on Facebook pages, with Twitter handles and creating Instagram posts These sites are being used to share a range of collaborative resources for arts educators across the country and globe.  

Many members of the Australian Association for Research In Education Arts special interest  group, the  AARE Art Education Research Practice (AEPR) SIG, are engaged in leading, supporting and shaping the communities in which they are involved.  

Some examples of the work we are doing

Margaret Baguley from the University of Southern Queensland, Kathryn Coleman from the University of Melbourne, and Abbey McDonald from the University of Tasmania have developed a digital learning and teaching space to support collaboration and help with resourcing schools and Visual Arts educators across the country. This evolving Google doc has over 40 curated resources and growing. 

Also Narelle Lemon from Swinburne University has used her arts educator background to develop the series of podcasts, Welcome to ‘Teachers supporting teachers’, which provide insights into being and becoming a teacher at this current strange time.  Sue Davis from Central Queensland University, has also stepped up and produced a living digital resource Arts Education Challenges for schools to use.  

The work of Helen Cahill, from the University of Melbourne, and colleagues from the Youth Research Centre earlier this year developed Research-informed approaches to supporting student wellbeing post-disaster, a valuable resource for educators, when the focus was on bushfire recovery.  This generous resource includes a range of arts –based strategies that are also germane to the COVID-19 world we are living in.  

Our multi-modal response

We know from this small sample of digital work and leadership in arts education and from our connections, that sophisticated and conceptual teaching and learning is abundant in Australian arts education.

Over the years our AARE Special Interest Group colleagues have shared their leadership, innovation and entrepreneurial strategies for advocating and activating arts education in their institutions. Many have been online in some way for a decade or so.

What we have witnessed during this time of social isolation is that the attributes and capabilities we know underpin arts education, our arts educators hold and lead with in their sites of learning. We have witnessed this over the few months through bushfire recovery and now with the online teaching that is happening – the ability to be open minded, empathetic, innovative, problem solve and articulate complex reasoning skills in multi-modal sites and spaces are the cross cutting, transferable capabilities of the arts.  The online space is just another site to conquer – an attitude that Lexi Lasczik and Peter Cook, from Southern Cross University, have shared over the years.   

In this post we wanted to showcase how, when the going gets tough, arts educators get going.  We know that the generative and collaborative spirit of arts educators sharing their resources will continue. We hope you see this as a call to action to share your own shifts in practice and to lead in times of change

Please visit our AEPR SIG Facebook page to check out other resources we are sharing.

Kathryn Coleman is a senior lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. She is an artist, researcher and former teacher. She is the Australasian representative on the Board of Directors of Association of Authentic, Experiential and Evidence Based Learning (AAEEBL) and World Council Representative for the South-East Asia Pacific Region for the International Society for Education though Art (InSEA). Kathryn is on Twitter @kateycoleman

Mark Selkrig is an Associate Professor in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. He works in the fields of teacher education and creativities and the arts. His research and scholarly work focus on the changing nature of educators’ work, their identities, lived experiences and how they navigate the ecologies of their respective learning environments. Mark is on Twitter @markselkrig