What will drive the expansion of design in digital higher ed?

We’ve yet to “pick up the other end of the stick.”

When we move the locus of education from the classroom environment to the digital environment, we move the student experience to one in which design matters a great deal. Design, here, refers to the field of graphic design and industrial design – where aesthetics and function merge.

In a previous post, “Design Matters”, I made a number of assertions about design:

  • There is a growing recognition in other industries that the “look and feel” of industrial products is fundamental to their value; design is not merely about “surface” aesthetics, but involves aligning the needs, sensibilities, behaviours of people with “things”;
  • The value of screen-based experiences (e.g. laptops, tablets) is highly dependent on the quality of design;
  • For a variety of reasons (that I will address in a future post),  software and content created for digital higher education have completely ignored the role of design – and it shows. However, there are a number of forces in play that may give the field of design a more central role in digital higher education. Below, I offer some of the most important forces in play.

A Salve for Change

Ray Kurzweil famously argued that the rate of change in our lives is increasing. Design is a tool for making the changes we face less difficult, less jarring and ultimately more useful.
“. . . design has spread like gas to all facets of human activity from science and education, to politics and policy making. For a simple reason: one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change” (Economist, 2011).
The shift from nine centuries of classroom education to digital education is as jarring a change as any. Design will likely become an increasingly important tool for educators to enable this transition.


A new generation of ed tech and ed media leaders is emerging. And as is always the case, the new generation see things differently than the previous generation. This is evident in the usability of the Instructure Canvas LMS, for example – started by two college students. It’s clear, also, in the little-known LMS, SmartlyEdu. SmartlyEdu co-founder, 17-year old Alain Meyer argues that “Ugly software gives education a bad name.”

Merger of Consumer and Educational Applications

Consumer applications tend to offer more sophisticated design quality than education applications. Slowly, but surely, these tools are finding their way into digital higher education. More platforms now support Google docs, and offer Facebook and Twitter integration, for example. This may raise the overall standards for design in digital higher ed.

Traditional Media

There is growing interest in digital higher education among traditional media companies. Companies that invested in education include News Corp, New York Times, The Washington PostBertelsmann AG, and Conde Nast. These corporations will bring with them, a concern for and broad experience in, packaging and delivering high-quality design.

Design as a Competitive Differentiator

Although pundits have been talking about the highly competitive landscape of online higher education for almost 15 years, it is only recently that the supply of online programs is such that colleges find themselves offering very similar programs to their competitors, at similar prices. (In fact, at this time, this state of affairs is only acute in certain disciplines, such as business and nursing.) Real choice leads to real competition and competition requires differentiation. Design is one of the few tangible ways – beyond price – that colleges can demonstrate the differences of their online programs to prospective students.

Apps, Apps, Apps

Chris Anderson notes that the way we access the internet is shifting from the web (browser) to applications. Browser-based traffic is declining. Traffic is increasingly managed by applications likecNetFlix, Facebook, and XBox. And as more internet traffic is accessed via mobile devices, the trend will continue. Anderson argues that applications offer a better user experience than browsers.

In future posts, I’ll look at the research being done on the educational value of design, present a few examples of great design in education, and identify some of the obstacles that have kept design at bay until now.


Keith Hampson, Ph.D. is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximising value. 

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