Conceptual Abstract for a forthcoming Practice based PhD

Article published on: Oct 1st, 2016

Updated on: Mar 26th, 2018

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

This is an abstract for a yet to be completed PhD which will be used to set and keep the focus of my research. This is a live document and will obviously change. I have also not included comments on the outcomes of the PhD as I do not know what these will be. I am confident it will not be a new off the shelf Blackboard or Moodle (MLE) however it will be a series of experiments and reports that culminate in systems and a manifesto ~1~, whether this be dropbox, seeing spaces (Victor, 2014) or something else.

The following conceptual abstract is designed to help inform my research and obviously hints at chapters that would outline the details of some of the statements I am making here. As such there are more references and concepts that I have not included at this stage as they will form the broader actual research and wouldn’t add value to this post at this stage. Comments are however very much welcome on points of research and practitioners that you think could inform chapters or experiments within this PhD, even if I am already looking at them, it does not matter.


New Ed-tech tools are being created almost daily however this is often driven by marketing, business or technology. There is a dearth of experience and design-led systems. Blackboard and other such Managed Learning Environments (MLE) promise to enhance education and yet there is very little evidence that this is in fact the case.

Despite the widespread application of digital technologies in higher education there is scant evidence to suggest that these have had a significant impact on student learning. (Bainbridge, 2014)

These outdated yet digital filing systems replicate paper originated practice and although some supplement teaching and allow for additional tasks such as lecture capture, wiki’s, blogs and quizzes they do little to embrace the medium they reside on. It is also worth noting that within Higher Education Ed-tech appears to have been driven by agendas that had little to do with enhancing education.

This imposition often reflects what amounts to a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, in which pedagogy is side-lined by neo-liberal practices of efficiency and surveillance. (Hannon and Bretag, 2010; Holley et al., 2011).

The following PhD outlines a new approach to the MLE. This document provide methods to approach the needs of an institutional level art & design learning environment that extends well beyond traditional classroom learning and is far removed from the file and folder systems we currently endure.

We shape our tools then our tools shape us.  (McLuhan, 1967)

The Practice based PhD utilises case studies, an open source repository of materials, working prototypes and a manifesto that indicate new design approaches to run, adapt and create new hybrid learning platforms to foster new and innovative thinking specifically within the field of art & design higher education.

This PhD sets forth it’s manifesto and guidance via thorough testing, iteration and design thinking to create a new dynamic medium that truly enhances learning within UK Art & Design Higher Education. By taking a new approach to software as a service and creating a dynamic medium that encourages new representations, via contextual learning, adaptive and dynamic learning this PhD challenges the current conventions of an Ed-tech system.

Today many academics in humanities and social sciences still need to grasp this simple but fundamental idea. They continue to think of software as being strictly the domain of the Academic Computing Department in their universities — something which is only there to help them become more efficient, as opposed to the medium where human intellectual creativity now dwells. (Manovich, 2013).

Learners –– both students and professors alike — will be able to take this transparent and open system and create and connect to an edu-network with privacy, knowledge acquisition and networked learning at the core. A corner stone to this new way of thinking is to understand that the web has become centralised and that the web is now based on a database culture. Services such as Facebook dress themselves up as networked culture but are in fact databased culture (Gupta, 2015), with the sole purpose to data-mine information for profit.

Indie ed-tech underscores the importance of students and scholars alike controlling their intellectual labor and their data; it questions the need for VC-funded, proprietary tools that silo and exploit users; it challenges the centrality of the LMS in all ed-tech discussions and the notion that there can be one massive (expensive) school-wide system to rule them all; it encourages new forms of open, networked learning that go beyond the syllabus, beyond the campus. It’s not only a different sort of infrastructure, it’s a different sort of philosophy than one sees promoted by Silicon Valley — by the ed-tech industry or the (ed-)tech press. (Watters, 2015)

To create decentralised systems that are capable of serving large and small scale art & design learning, these prototypes utilise blockchain and P2P technology. Learners own their material and share this material in a distributed, secure, private and personally owned system, and all rights are controlled by the contributors. This new networked and decentralised system encourages proximal development, Vygotsky (1978) describes how individual learners can extend the amount they learn when they are connected to other more knowledgeable individuals. Thus they form a community of practice.

Throughout my practice based PhD I have been undertaking workshops and activities to create prototypes and materials with Art & Design students and staff at undergraduate level. The PhD discusses the work, the prototypes, the findings and the issues arising that help inform the ‘Hybrid Ed-Tech Manifesto’.

This manifesto, its examples and frameworks will provide an approach to create dynamic media for new networked education practices.

Key Influencers;

  • Bret Victor (Ivan Sutherland)
  • Lev Manovich (Alan Kay / Douglas Englebart)
  • Marshal McLuhan (Howard Rheingold)

Other important influences;

  • Audrey Watters — Ed-tech
  • Aral Balkan / Laura Kalbag —  delightful design / ethical manifesto / indietech
  • Steve Wheeler — Ed-tech
  • Doug Belshaw — Ed-tech
  • Vinay Gupta — Blockchain

Some suggested key further reading

  • White Night Before A Manifesto — Metahaven
  • 1985 GNU Manifesto — Richard Stallman
  • Deschooling Society — Ivan Illich
  • Blue Print for Counter Education — Maurice Stein, Larry Miller,
  • Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond — Eames

Short text on two key influencers

Bret Victor

Media for Thinking the Unthinkable

Bret’s concerns are that current software design are a ‘straight jacket’ to thinking.

Now we’re staring at computer screens and moving our hands on a keyboard, but it’s basically the same thing. We’re computer users thinking paper thoughts. (Victor,2014)

Bret suggests ideas live in representations and through great representations people are enabled to think new ideas.

Roman numerals, basic multiplication was considered this incredibly technical concept that only official mathematicians could handle. But then once Arabic numerals came around, you could actually do arithmetic on paper, and we found that 7-year-olds can understand multiplication. It’s not that multiplication itself was difficult. It was just that the representation of numbers — the interface — was wrong. (Victor,2014)

Software is a powerful way to represent information but we are currently limiting this within old paradigms and Bret suggests we now have the ability to enhance these with approaches that are not limited to tactile less screens and rectangles.

The important thing isn’t thinking about computers or programming as they are today, but thinking about moving from a static medium like marks on paper to a dynamic medium with computational responsiveness infused into it, that can actually participate in the thinking process. (Victor,2014)

Bret focuses on inventing on principle and inventing the dynamic medium. We can then break away from simply transposing current limitations of paper and pen to the screen (viewport) and mouse (finger).

Lev Manovich

Software takes Command

The following quote from Lev Manovich’s Software takes Command (2013) and his general concepts outlined and approaches support some of the theory within this PhD. I intend to explore this further in due course.

My all-time favourite book, however, remains Tools for Thought published by Howard Rheingold in 1985, right at the moment when domestication of computers and software starts, eventually leading to their current ubiquity . This book is organised around the key insight that computers and software are not just “technology” but rather the new medium in which we can think and imagine differently. Similar understanding was shared by all the heroes of this book who, with their collaborators, invented the computational “tools for thoughts” — J. C. R. Licklider, Ted Nelson, Douglass Engelbart, Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, Nicholas Negroponte. (Today many academics in humanities and social sciences still need to grasp this simple but fundamental idea. They continue to think of software as being strictly the domain of the Academic Computing Department in their universities — something which is only there to help them become more efficient, as opposed to the medium where human intellectual creativity now dwells.)(Manovich, 2013)

Next Steps

  • Solidify this abstract into aims, methods and outcomes.
  • Read a lot of design manifestos.
  • Get making more things and making them open source.


  • Bainbridge, A. (2014) ‘Digital technology, human world making and the avoidance of learning’, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. 2014 edn.
  • Culkin, J. M. (1967) A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. Saturday Review.
  • Hannon, J. and Bretag, T. (2010) ‘Negotiating contested discourses of learning technologies in higher education’, Educational Technology and Society, 13(1).
  • Manovich, L. (2013) Software Takes Command.
  • Victor, B. (2014) ‘Seeing Spaces’.
  • Victor, B. (2014) ‘The Utopian UI Architect — re:form — Medium’.
  • ‘Vinay Gupta on Techno-Social Systems, Meditation and Basic Human Needs’ (2015) ‘Vinay Gupta on Techno-Social Systems, Meditation and Basic Human Needs’, 12 May.
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Watters, A. (2015) Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015: Indie Ed-Tech, Available at: (Accessed: 10 January 2016).
  1. For now I am using the overarching term of a Manifesto however this needs much more research as a concept, and maybe more in line with design Manifestos or design guidelines such as those currently provided by and London transport. An argument against a Manifesto is that

    a Manifesto suggests a statement, but it’s a loaded concept. Political in nature, non-conformist, counter-culture. Manifestos don’t infiltrate and aren’t really intended to impact the mainstream, so if you are looking at creating one, you are admitting that your ideas may be a niche thing rather than something embraced on a large scale. (Fox, 2016)

Decentralising Education & the Blockchain

Article published on: Oct 21st, 2015

Updated on: Apr 18th, 2020

Estimated Reading Time: < 1 minute

There’s a tension between personalised learning networks and institutional systems around the support of programmed learning. This will no doubt continue into the future, specifically as institutional systems are often seen as controlled by the institute and can thus foster a barrier to engagement for learners. A controlled institutional system inherently supports and reinforces a top down hierarchy of learning, however design and experience led learning should actively promote the idea of a ‘Community of Practice’.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. (Wenger-Trayner, E. and Wenger-Trayner, B. 2015)

Studio based teaching and learning fosters cross collaboration and iteration and has an inherent need for a reduction or flat hierarchy. In doing so you promote innovation, enable fear free collaboration and support new learning, whether that be undergraduate, teaching fellow, professor or other.

Within a University environment we are all learning. Whether we be staff or student. Learning is not a one way flow but a co-determining situation between tutors and students. Learning should be an environment, an ecology in which not only cognitive but also affective events happen.

If an institution system is designed to support this core principle, support this as its manifesto, it would also need to be hierarchy free. With this in mind I have been thinking about decentralised systems (Pereira, J. 2015), specifically around the generation and dissemination of learning materials.


  • Pereira, J. (2015) A New Educational System, Available at: (Accessed: 30 September 2015). 2015
  • Wenger-Trayner, E. and Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015) Communities of practice a brief introduction, pp. 1–8.

Procter Periodical Archive

Article published on: Sep 11th, 2015

Updated on: Jul 10th, 2018

Estimated Reading Time: < 1 minute

Here are the links to the web version of my newsletter on tech, education and hybrid design.

  1. Procter Periodical #14 July 2018
  2. Procter Periodical #11 August 2017
  3. Procter Periodical #10 Feb 2017
  4. Procter Periodical #9 July 2016
  5. Procter Periodical #8 April 2016
  6. Procter Periodical #7 Feb 2016
  7. Procter Periodical #6 Oct 2015
  8. Procter Periodical #5 Sept 2015
  9. Procter Periodical #4 Aug 2015
  10. Procter Periodical #3 Aug 2015
  11. Procter Periodical #2 July 2015
  12. Procter Periodical #1 July 2015

If you like my Periodical please share this page and encourage others to sign up to receive the email.

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Illustrate This!

Article published on: Jun 27th, 2015

Updated on: Mar 26th, 2018

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes

Make my blog better!! Calling all editorial Illustration students

To start to formulate the concept for a new Learning Management System I am researching and writing about areas that could impact on the design of such a system, here on this blog and I want to have illustrations lead my posts to capture the essence of each post.

I thus want to involve some illustration students to support my writing. There is no money at the moment and your illustrations would need to be sharable1 via a Creative Commons licence but I will actively promote your work, link to your own web presence and this blog is going to be online and updating for at least the next 5 years! I also plan to make many things for my research and so I hope there will be plenty of scope for supporting your work in the future, if you were to get involved. My thought is that students who are keen to work within editorial illustration might take up this challenge, opportunity.

As an example of the type of thing I mean take a look at the site A list Apart, which up until recently used one illustrator. This post will give you a really good idea of what I am looking for, not necessarily in style but in essence.

Here are some individual articles I like:

Feel free to browse any the articles, you will see a wide range of Illustrations.


After each entry is posted2 on this blog, you would submit roughs for my approval to then be made into finished art work3. The final art work would need to be responsive and thus may require 2 or 3 versions to cope with small screen and large screen displays, see this as great example where it really works, squeeze your browser window and see the team line up change!

At the moment more and more posts are started to need illustrating, so I am keen to backfill asap. I am still working on overall, typographic style and layout, however the illustrations should be a response to the text not the style of this site.

Tweet me if you would like to get involved. @adamprocter

  1. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

  2. Note for now I imagine entries go live before any artwork is generated, if we get to a suitable point where we go live with text and image great, but I am currently thinking within 7-10 days of me finishing a post we could get the illustration done.

  3. Either Adobe Illustrator or Sketch Files would be required.

Information Design & Data Visualisation

Article published on: Jun 25th, 2015

Updated on: Jun 29th, 2020

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes


Information Design & Data Visualisation

The following post aims to lay out the ground work as to why the application of the guiding principles of information design & data visualisation should be applied to a design manifesto for a design led learning system (DLS).

The skills that information designers possess are arguably the most important in the design industry. Without them we cannot understand new ideas, and if we cannot understand we cannot learn and if we cannot learn we perish. (Eye Magazine #78 p100 2010)

Today we are able to obtain and provide a wealth of data on a daily basis. We occupy a world where this data can be utilised in ways that could be great:

Our Future depends on finding answers in data. Climate Science, economic and genetics all present us with problems that are solvable in part through the right visualisation of their complexity. (Eye Magazine #78 p100 2010)

or it could be terrifying:

I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity. (Snowden, Citizen Four, 2014)

A managed learning environment is a collection of resources, in our instance related to Art & Design teaching and learning — this is our data.

How this data is organised and presented is a key factor in the design of such an environment. To understand how we may apply this we will first take a look at information design in a broad sense. Then a subsequent post will look at the history and application within human computer interaction and the ways that people have overcome the challenges of presenting such data. By taking a historical perspective we may find new references and results for different futures:

Ideally, simplification means making the content (the product, the system or the rules) simpler but often all we want to do is present it in a way that is easier to use and understand. (Simplification Centre, 2010) [Centre for Information Design Research]

So for a moment lets apply some basic simplification to a set of learning materials likely to be needed for tutors and students within a managed learning environment for an Art & Design project are as follows. For example:

  • Timetable
  • Scheme of Work
    • Detailed Session Plan
  • Slides (launches / information)
  • Project Brief
  • Workshop Materials Outline
  • Videos / Training Videos
  • Links (URL’s)
  • Reading list

We will keep this as a list of our core data.

Data Decoration

What we are not concerned with is data decoration (Mollerup, 2014) and so it is clear to lay down issues within this field and pin point the principles of information design.

The terms data and information are often used synonymously, but it’s important to differentiate between the two. Data holds no meaning on its own, it’s through the process of interpretation and the assignment of meaning that data becomes information. (InformForm, 2012)

The world of infographics as represented in the best selling book Information is Beautiful (David McCandless) claims to show how visualised information can help us comprehend, navigate and find meaning in a complex world. However what tends to happen is that many designers seem to fall into the category of visualising information to look ‘really cool’ without what appears to be any consideration for the data or the audience. Here is a typical board of infographics. These visualisations serve very little purpose in actually helping the audience to better understand the data, they do very little beyond making it ‘look pretty’; they do not consider the forms intent.

Perhaps a sparkline2would suffice, providing the same level of information but where simplification allows quick decoding of the data. For example:

There is a mismatch between visualisation and purpose; in fact simply making the information beautiful can degrade or distract from the value of the data. However when data is represented in a clear way it can open understanding and perhaps even action. As of 2009 there are currently 19,000 objects in orbit around the earth, 95% is debris (2009, NASA) is a meaningless piece of data but without a lot more text and background you would not gain insight as quickly as you do with the following animated GIF.

Something to note for future discussion is that the world of information design is starting to unlock the potential for contextual knowledge built on data combinations that allow rapid user responses to data.

Instead of data visualisation, Felton imagines a future built upon pure insight. No one needs to see a weather radar, he contends, when all you really want to know is whether or not you need an umbrella. (Fast Co Design, 2015)

Context driven design is seamless and almost transparent, a recent update to the app Dark Sky enables custom notifications on the weather conditions to prompt the user to take action without the need to ever view the user interface (UI); the Apple WATCH Glances offer a similar option.

A new network

As knowledge increases amongst mankind, and transactions multiply, it becomes more and more desirable to abbreviate and facilitate the modes of conveying information from one person to another, and from one individual to many (Playfair, 1786)

By unlocking learning data via the guiding principles of information design, there is the potential to realise and discover new avenues of making and thinking. The application of this principle within an networked environment that caters for and nurtures a learning network (Watters, 2015) via a set of ‘starter’ materials has the opportunity to unlock ideas that we have yet to realise.

If, as some argue, learning networks are powerful new ways for us to organise and share as learners, then we must consider how we can build and wield them (Watters, 2015)

The next post will look at the concept of data visualisation specifically within the historical context of the Augmentation Research Centre (ARC), Xerox PARC and other iconic research centres. The post will focus on the design experiments and concepts related specifically to the direct manipulation of data via the Graphical User Interface (GUI).

Data by itself is not enough, data needs poetry (Dawes, 2013)

Feedback welcome. Tweet / follow me @adamprocter


  • Anon, 2010. Eye Magazine #78,
  • Citizen Four, 2014. Film. Directed by Laura Poitras. Germany: Praxis Films.
  • Anon, 2011. Our first two years: 2009–10. pp.1–16.
  • Mollerup, P., 2015. Data Design, Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Anon, 2012. InformForm.
  • Anon, 2009. The Threat of Orbital Debris and Protecting NASA Space Assets from Satellite Collisions. pp.1–14.
  • Wilson, What Killed The Infographic? Available at: FastCo.
  • Playfair, 1786
  • Watters, Learning Networks, Not Teaching Machines. Available at: HackEducation.
  • Dawes, Data by itself is not enough, data needs poetry. Available at: YouTube

  1. Illustration by Jade Carter

  2. A sparkline is a very small line chart, typically drawn without axes or coordinates. It presents the general shape of the variation in some measurement.

New newsletter – Join my Newsletter.

Article published on: Jun 11th, 2015

Updated on: Mar 26th, 2018

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes

I am creating a newsletter 1 which will be a collection of links, images and thoughts that I have discovered over the last two weeks.

Why ?

If you only follow me on twitter or glance at my short links page you will know I like to find, save and share stuff, a lot, these locations are not the only places too!

If your in my contact list for email or messages you would also know this very very well. To be a friend can be worse still as you are likely bombarded with stuff … too much stuff. This has meant that much is missed, ignored or not easily relocated by said recipient.

I am, shall we say, sometimes a little over keen on sharing due to my firm, creative commons, opensource, open education and open knowledge ethos. I get excited when I find something I think other people should or would like to know.

For myself I collect even more in numerous formats, foldingtext notes, wishlists, tweets, retweets,, instapaper, medium, papers (a app), ember, delicious and probably a few more. I never delete my browsing history and use Firefox’s Sync to store it across my Macs!

So part of my consolidation 2 and focus is to allow friends, followers and myself to be able to digest all this stuff at the right time and more importantly with the time to do so. The newsletter will be a curation of the stuff I consider worth more than a moments glance.

Sign up!

So that was a long preamble! Sign up below and look out for the pretty packed first newsletter from July the 17th 2015.

  1. I am scrapping my idea for Short Notes in favour of the new newsletter and stopping my old Mailchimp newsletter.
  2. I will take me a while to get into the habit of less communication, and I still think for twitter followers for now are unlikely to see a reduction in sharing, but over time and once I am confident with my capture and review methodology. I’ll be encouraging people to join this list or visit the archive when they have the time.

Short Note 1

Article published on: Apr 27th, 2015

Updated on: Mar 26th, 2018

Estimated Reading Time: < 1 minute

Between my longer [more researched] posts I have decided I want to include some [off the cuff] shorter related links and text relevant to my PhD research. As I am starting to locate more and more materials, I hope by sharing as much as possible I can start to engage my [few] visitors around the topic of a future VLE into the discussion.

If you follow me on twitter you will find many more links and sources but less curating, here I hope to curate the more interesting finds on a more regular basis than the longer posts.

This week I have 3 edutech videos you may enjoy

Please feedback or tweet / follow me @adamprocter

State of Union – Managed Learning Environments (MLE)

Article published on: Feb 2nd, 2015

Updated on: Jun 29th, 2020

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

You only have to ask a colleague about Blackboard to find that there is rarely a positive word to be said about this system. However if there is negative comment this is usually followed by tips to improve such a system; in fact everyone seems to know how to ‘fix’ Blackboard. Other staff are indifferent and so long as they can upload course materials then the ever present blackboard will be there to support students all year round. These content delivery systems do their job and of course there are many reasons why having materials available is good. However Blackboard and such systems often promise to enhance education and yet there is very little evidence that this is the case.

Despite the widespread application of digital technologies in higher education there is scant evidence to suggest that these have had a significant impact on student learning (Bainbridge, 2014)

Content delivery systems currently supplement teaching and can allow for additional tasks, lecture capture, wiki’s, blogs and other such tools. But it is worth noting that within Higher Education their introduction appears to have been driven from agendas that had little to do with enhancing education.

This imposition often reflects what amounts to a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, in which pedagogy is side-lined by neo-liberal practices of efficiency and surveillance (Hannon and Bretag, 2010; Holley et al., 2011). (BainBridge, 2014)

Numerous JISC 1 reviews and reports (2002) indicate that systems have indeed been adopted and the install base have grown yet there is little in most reviews on the educational impact.

While these points of view are both true my own focus is not on whether learning has occurred or whether a large install base is a positive thing, rather, I want to propose that there is a chance to reimagine the Learning Management System (LMS) from the ground up and to imagine it from a new perspective, namely a design perspective (specifically within the context of Art & Design Higher Education).

For now let’s call it a design led learning system (DLS).

I am not going to defend the need for a digital learning environment, but I agree that In education it is often taken for granted that technologies can ‘enhance learning’(Kirkwood, Adrian and Price, Lind, a 2014). So this research and related outcomes will not take a technology focussed approach but a design led approach and one that uses the current conditions to suggest we stand at the cross roads were we have the technology (good network infrastructure), we have the features (the web), but we don’t yet have the right experience.

Many may argue that the Personalised Learning Environment (PLE) will offer the answer. I think this will play a large role, however I still think (for now) there is a place for a Institutional Learning System (ILS), but one that fosters communities of practices and establishes new behaviours. I also argue that the MOOC (c or x) is not delivering this outside of an institute, although interesting I see this as another reinvention of the wheel with the suggestion that technology alone could disrupt specific location based learning within Education. Within the field of Art & Design education many argue for the studio culture (Murphy, 2012), with which I totally concur. Indeed the studio is where the best work is done and the chance to actually sit side by side with creative thinkers in creative surroundings and experiment is crucial. However I suggest there is a place for an ILS, perhaps it is just a repository of documents, a few blogs and lecture capture system. But I suggest we could try a brand new approach and, further, that stagnate systems such as Blackboard and the numerous re-inventions of Blackboard are in fact getting the starting point wrong.

It’s like Blackboard, I hear them say, but with… (2014, Watters)

Blackboard, you’ll often here these entrepreneurs say, is “ripe for disruption”. (2014, Watters)

Many of these “new” Blackboards are being created from or with the “Silcon Valley” startup mentality; the Valley are all over Blackboard seeing it being ripe for disruption. These start-ups are the lean, mean and agile machines that can offer a pace of change that Universities supposedly can’t, yet much like Blackboard they have a technology or business focus point. We now see some VC companies such as Pathbrite appearing on the scene offering free online Portfolios to students, with the option for Universities to purchase the Pathbrite LMS as a grass roots attempt to disrupt Blackboard. (2014, Further, others are seeing the potential to mine data from these systems, using this data in all kinds of potentially invasive ways.

Lets briefly review old Blackboard

Blackboard arrived (founded in 1997) in the middle of the dot com boom and bust, securing investment from AOL, Dell and Pearson and was profitable in the first year. Blackboard went public in 2004 and in 2006 was granted a patent for Internet-based education support system and methods. This was followed the same day by suing Desire2Learn (a blackboard competitor) for patent infringement which was only later settled in 2009 when the US patent office revoked the patent. This damaged Blackboards reputation and they soon reverted to a Private company. Another key factor to Blackboard dominance beyond early to market, was aggressive business tactics proposing that the system supported the administrative needs of institutes. (2014, Watters) Blackboard is very much a “business first” organisation that has now established itself in numerous institutes world wide.

Blackboard costs can be huge for an institute: figures of $300,000 are not unusual. Another reason for VC interest indeed, and it can take even more years for Universities to consider changing and even more to actually change such a change is so costly that caution is a major factor. With the technology since 2001 really not changing much software providers attempts to out perform one another on features, or on sales tactics (Insidehighered, 2014). One huge road block, even after deciding one system supports the administrative and teaching functions within an institute better, can be that of staff re-training. So often it’s “better the devil you know” which brings these factors together and this make change increasingly hard.

Innovation indeed seems to be stuck in the world of features (technology) and commercial interest. Change is hard, although there is recognition that there is a need to have something better. What we then often see attempts to combat the slow moving institutional change via a proliferation of systems across a University.

Many would agree with Groom (YYYY) Blackboard is profiteering from the efforts of others However this proliferation of systems in turn adds to confusion. Staff may not even know there is a better option already installed and often these new systems are created within Computer Science Departments or tech savvy individuals who can connect open source projects together. These individuals within various faculties (Madsen-Brooks 2013) will doubtless use good knowledge of the administrative and learning needs of there students. But I argue again that these internal “startups” are often technology or administrative focussed or eventually left to languish on the shelf in the long run and that they are not daring or able to step far enough away from reinventing the wheel beyond the exception of perhaps installing a “cheaper”, more “customisable” and “open” system, such as Moodle 2.

New paradigm required

The tension between new tools and old practices should give you a hint. It’s simple to introduce iPads into the classroom, for example. It’s much more difficult to use them to do entirely new things, particularly things that run counter to how classrooms have operated in the past.

We have too often seen this scenario play out with sectors slow to adopt a new practice whether that be the music industry and Napster or the publishing industry. The also stagnate digital publishing sector attempts to mirror current paradigms in a new space. Even the Apple WATCH is coming under fire and I think rightfully so for using the term WATCH, much like the term Blackboard, it hangs onto notions of previous practice.

It’s like calling a smartphone a pocket watch, or a computer an electronic abacus. (Debenham, 2015)

I shall attempt to see if a design led, Apple-inspired design authoritarian approach to the question of the LMS could offer up alternatives. I want to look at an LMS that hangs its decisions around user experience and user led design, which is not about making the interface bluer, prettier or bowing to feature pressure but takes its lead from a manifesto and at each step looks to delight3.

the learner4.

As we move forward, “building the digital institution,” I think we must retrace and unwind some of these connections.” (Watters, 2014)

In this post I have sought to set the scene. It is a call for commentary or additional resources that people feel I should look at. My next steps are to look at the role of the Design Manifesto and the visual representation of data (infographics).

Thank you @adamprocter

  1. Historically, JISC stood for Joint Information Systems Committee but over the last decade we have evolved and as a company we are now known as Jisc.
  2. Moodle is often seen as the alternative to Blackboard due to the open source nature of the project. Moodle was created in 1998 and its timing is very similar to Blackboard. The Open University took on the decision to use Moodle in 2005. Due to its customisable nature, many have enabled the Moodle system to fit better their own institutes’ administrative needs and perhaps reduce costs of buying (subscribing to) Blackboard.
  3. I will unpack this term later on but it refers for now with a paper I produced for the First International Workshop on “Understanding Delight in Design: User Experience, Technologies and Tools”.Paper.
  4. I use the term learner here to include the teacher and will unpack this concept more later.


(dont look ! need to sort out !)

Reclaiming Innovation (n.d.) Reclaiming Innovation, Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2014).

Madsen-Brooks, L. (2013) True innovation in Higher Ed will emerge from faculty-driven, open-source projects, not start-up commercialisation. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2014).

Northwestern and Washington State U., with similar needs, pick different learning management systems @insidehighered (n.d.) Northwestern and Washington State U., with similar needs, pick different learning management systems @insidehighered, Available at: (Accessed: 29 January 2015).

Bailey, P., MLE landscape study executive summary. (JISC)

Debenham, A. (2015) Android Wear and the Moto 360 Browser

, Available at: (Accessed: 29 January 2015).

Excerpt From: Audrey Watters. “The Monsters of Education Technology.” iBooks.


Excerpt From: Audrey Watters. “The Monsters of Education Technology.” iBooks.

Excerpt From: Audrey Watters. “The Monsters of Education Technology.” iBooks.


“The technology hasn’t changed much in the intervening decade. (And the phrase “content delivery system” is still used to describe online education, sadly.)”

“The learning management system is a silo, a technological silo, by design.”

“it’s a reflection of the institution of education. The LMS silo works because we tend to view each classroom as a closed entity, because we view each subject or discipline as atomistic and distinct. Closed. Centralized. Control in the hands of administrators, teachers, and IT but rarely in the hands of learners.”

Excerpt From: Audrey Watters. “The Monsters of Education Technology.” iBooks.

Bainbridge, A., 2014. Digital technology, human world making and the avoidance of learning. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, pp.1–17.

I make the case that digital technologies are being imposed upon formal learning environments, particularly focused within HE and often associated with the ‘student experience’ agenda (DfES, 2005; HEFCE, 2009)

United Kingdom government judge it necessary to provide policy and strategy documents to encourage their uptake in HE (DfES, 2005; HEFCE, 2009)

Kirkwood and Price (2014), in their review of technology-enhanced learning (TEL), note that the £12 million government allocation represents a significant investment in schools and universities. It is surprising that in a profession that can often be heard bemoaning the lack of fiscal support, that the £12 million has not had the impact it was expected.

Significant voices in the world of TEL agree; Baume (2013), Beetham (2012), Hannon and Bretag (2010), and Holley et al. (2011) all raise concerns that the technology is taking over from pedagogy and crucially the practices of efficiency, surveillance and an apparent ‘opening up’ of HE, all detract from thinking about learning.

Psychoanalysis teaches us that learning is a complex and difficult process, influenced by defence mechanisms that protect the individual from the anxiety inherent in confronting new knowledge. The use of technology in HE can therefore be located within a discourse of psychological defences, where the teacher and learner, influenced by an unconscious ‘passion for ignorance’ and simplistic split thinking, are seduced to avoid engaging with the difficulties and anxieties associated with learning. Instead, the seduction leads to fetish-like confused attempts to find satisfaction in learning mediated by digital technologies. Unfortunately, this technological product of human world making, with its own logic, ultimately confronts and maintains the damaging disruption of the dialogical holding environment relationship.

Kirkwood, Adrian and Price, Linda (2014). Technology-enhanced learning and teaching in higher education: what is ‘enhanced’ and how do we know? A critical literature review. Learning, Media and Technology, 39(1) pp. 6–36

Some reviews focus on assessing the uptake of technology in the higher education sector (e.g. Walker, et al. 2012).

There are reviews undertaken to synthesise findings relating to a particular technology (e.g. Naismith, et al . 2004; Kay & LeSage 2009; Sim & Hew 2010) or discipline

area (e.g. Arbaugh et al. 2009; Papastergiou 2009). Others reviews attempt to provide a meta analysis of findings from experimental or quasi experimental studies of the effects or impacts of TEL projects across the sector (e.g. Means

et al. 2010; Tamim et al. 2011).

Many of the studies reviewed concentrated on the means: replicating and supplementing existing teaching. Fewer considered the second aim how.

The potential of technology to transform teaching and learning practices does not appear to have achieved substantial uptake, as the majority of studies focused on reproducing orreinforcing existing practices

Radical Ideas for Reinventing College, From Stanford’s Design School | WIRED

2 pressures

“abundance of new technology is starting to make us ask questions about what is the meaning of online learning and what does it mean to higher education”

“what happens if they are use to new tools from elementary school and they arrive and come to lecture rooms”


“the cost / social and economic value”

HE to help estalish social mobilty.

Walter, A. and Spool, J. M. (2011) Designing for Emotion.

Murphy, C. (2012) ‘On Creative Spirit’, in The Smashing Book 4.


Article published on: Feb 1st, 2015

Updated on: Apr 18th, 2020

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes


I plan to research the potential to create an experience rich engagement for learners who are both creating and contributing to online learning materials via a platform that is design-led and experience driven taking into consideration todays robust networked infrastructure and connected society.

A more delightful and design considered virtual learning environment (VLE) could provide a better experience for tutors and students, that both predicts and establishes new behaviours.

Potential core question

Could a brand new platform guided by delightful, design-led & ethical consideration enhance the tutor and student VLE experience ?


Jussi Parikka –

Hugh Davis (Director of CITE) –


Through my PhD Research I will suggest that now is an opportune time to shake up the status quo and a chance to re-imagine the approach to a VLE.

I propose that although some new learning environments are being created such as the trend in MOOCs (massively open online courses) and less recently open education repositories these are often driven by marketing, business or technology(features) and that there is a void for an experience and design-led VLE specifically within design education.

Blackboard is profiteering from the efforts of others (Groom)

The research and outputs I create will encompass the ethos of the new Indie Tech Manifesto (Balkan, 2014), launching in July 2014, this manifesto born from the Edward Snowden leaks and the privacy issues around ‘free’ services has 3 core principles.

  • Design-led
  • Free and Open
  • Independent

I will argue that just as we have seen teaching in the classroom move from the content driven to the experience driven, the same principles can apply to the VLE where focus must shift from the features and tech to a design-led concept that goes beyond the functional but provides a truly “delightful” (Walter, 2011) learning experience.

To take a design-led yet open source approach will allow space to create and experiment with new paradigms around interface, user behaviour and interaction with screen located learning materials.

Technology that is transparent is easy to use and has little demands on the cognitive energy of the user. Transparent technology is often referred to as ‘user friendly’ in that it allows the user to ‘see through’ the device into what it is able to do for them. (John & Wheeler, 2008; p 96)


My PhD is research led practice and the aim is to create a number of online experiments (prototypes) and user testing aimed at Art & Design higher education staff and students.

Through these experiments and written reflection I will look to develop an appropriate visual language around the access of online design education materials through the interface.

By building various prototypes that are learning materials focussed, community of practice focused and support both inside and outside the classroom this research hopes to culminate in a brand new open source VLE for use within Art & Design higher education.

There are links and synergy specifically with the Graphic Arts (GA) research hub inkubator already formed under Derek Yates, inkubator would be an ideal vehicle for the research, experimentation and user testing of the products produced.

I would like to ensure that considerations for a VLE embrace the delivery medium (networked devices/screens/context) and that the design of the VLE scaffolds from the learning materials and builds out, I want to considering a transparent experience that can transition from the virtual to the “in person” and allow students seamless interaction and community both inside and outside the physical location of the studios.

The theory of scaffolding (Bruner) also applies where students can gain support for their learning from their peers, their tutors and also through their tools. These include the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) which describes how individual learners can extend the amount they learn when they are connected to other more knowledgeable individuals.(Wheeler.S, 2014)

My written work will be a conversation around the prototypes, user testing and any finished products but it will also lead the practice and thus investigate the role of the VLE, taking into account aspects such as the Personal Learning Environment (PLE), the robust networks and connected studios. I want to look at the historical journey of companies such as Moodle and why this and many VLEs have ended up with the same visual language along with historical interface design concepts and consideration. The research will also look at the current culture of design influence (Apple as a prime example) and core user design and user experience principles. A key area I would like to focus design consideration will be on how the visual language of a VLE could both predict and influence behaviour around learning objects.

Our lives are a string of experiences. Experiences with people and experiences with things. And we, as designers — as the people who craft experiences — we have a profound responsibility to make every experience as beautiful, as comfortable, as painless, as empowering, and as delightful as possible. (Balkan, 2013)

Wrap up

I’d like to write an “Open” PhD, publish in some open manner if possible and produce external resources such as the following sites and a potential podcast interview series to document the process. –

Video of my recent Staff seminar – – password: drpro

Some related references

  • Wheeler.S , Active learning spaces. Available at: [Accessed June 18, 2014].
  • Walter, A. & Spool, J.M., 2011. Designing for Emotion,
  • Paterson, K., 2005. Differentiated Learning, Pembroke Publishers Limited.
  • Shaughnessy, A. & Brook, T., 2009. Studio Culture, Laurence King Publishers.
  • Dirksen, J., 2011. Design For How People Learn, New Riders.
  • Saffer, D., 2009. Designing for Interaction,
  • Belshaw, D., 2013. The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. pp.1–100.
  • John, P. & Wheeler, S., 2012. The Digital Classroom, Routledge.
  • McFarland, C., Experiments for Designers, Five Simple Steps.
  • Wheeler, S., See-through learning. Available at: [Accessed April 29, 2014].
  • Kahneman, D., 2012. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin UK.
  • Wenger, E., 2012. Brief introduction to communities of practice,