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Blog post

Rigorous designs for learning bridges are challenging but we need them now more than ever

John Cook, Goethe University of Frankfurt

Donald Clark (CEO at WildFire Learning) published a thoughtful blog post on 27 March: ‘I fear,’ he began, ‘that the UK University system has been myopic regarding online learning’ (Clark, 2020). A reply to the post by Tom Reeves (professor emeritus at the University of Georgia) – in which he talked about his colleague who had tried to ‘promote the idea that educators from diverse nations should collaborate in the rigorous design and testing of world-class courses on core subjects’ – caused me to reflect that in this way we can systematically scale-up online learning. Indeed, like Reeves, rigorous design and testing is something I have worked towards in an educational design research context for a number of years and, with Yishay Mor and Patricia Santos, have recently published an article in the British Journal of Educational Technology (Cook, Mor, & Santos, 2020) in this area. The problem is that real-world contexts are complex, ill-structured and unpredictable. Rigorous designs for learning in such conditions are challenging.

Our article contributes to design discourse by drawing on educational design research (EDR) that has been conducted into what we call a zone of possibility (ZoP) over the past seven years. We define a ZoP as a place where individuals can overcome the constraints of expectations and power structures to effect desired change. Specifically, we present details of how our initial research question evolved into ‘In the context of hybrid learning spaces, how can the design process and design thinking advance or bridge “successful communication” and an understanding of social context in a ZoP?’

Bridging arises when people from various backgrounds make connections by entering social networks that offer the chance to be more ‘inclusive’. These kinds of networks literally create ‘bridges’ which allow ‘people, who might not have had the possibility to encounter one another in their daily lives, the opportunity to become acquainted’ (Tomai et al., 2010, p. 265). To describe the evolution of a research question, the paper is presented as three cases (Confer, ZoP Stokes Croft and Google Lens in HE) that have provided insights to explore the concept of the ZoP and its implications for EDR. For example, Confer is a groupware tool that provides support to bridge hybrid face-to-face and online discussions in professional work groups, which was designed and developed in the context of the Learning Layers project. The Learning Layers project was funded by the EU FP7 programme and developed technologies to support informal learning in the workplace, specifically in the healthcare and construction sectors. The Learning Layers project has won the VET Research Excellence Award 2018 and ran from 2012–2016.

One of the main conclusions of our article (Cook et al., 2020) is the importance of bridging positioning practices as ‘successful communication’ and an understanding of social context in hybrid contexts (that is, the ZoP). Supporting bridging as a mechanism for expanding an individual’s social context will include an undertaking to develop ‘low flying’ or ‘low overhead’ mediational tools that address ethical and privacy concerns of citizens. These should also sit easily in users’ learning, cultural and work practices.

‘Supporting bridging as a mechanism for expanding an individual’s social context will include an undertaking to develop “low flying” or “low overhead” mediational tools that address ethical and privacy concerns of citizens.’

Clark ends his blog post by proposing that in global higher education (HE) we should ‘[s]top capital spend now. Building more buildings is not the answer. That money needs to be spent on online learning, at least a mixture of offline and online for all courses’ (Clark, 2020). I have to say I agree. However, even with all and sundry going online in the Covid-19 pandemic, the war of words continues to rage between the ‘EdTech’ sceptics and those that have argued for some form of learning mediated by tools (such as technology). As a former Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning manager and former chair of the Association for Learning Technology, I continue to champion institutional, practitioner and student-centred change; often hitting the buffers when it comes to widespread HE adoption. I am sure some institutions responded well to Covid-19; but, like Clark, I am betting that the majority did not.

This blog is based on the article ‘Three cases of hybridity in learning spaces: Towards a design for a Zone of Possibility’ by John Cook, Yishay Mor and Patricia Santos, published in the British Journal of Educational Technology on an open-access basis. It forms part of a special section on ‘Hybrid learning spaces: Design, data, didactics’, guest edited by Anat Cohen, Rikke Toft Nørgård and Yishay Mor.


Clark, D. (2020, March 27). Universities and coronavirus: Revenues will fall, costs rise, liabilities increase [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Cook, J, Mor, Y., & Santos, P. (2020). Three cases of hybridity in learning spaces: Towards a design for a Zone of Possibility [Special section]. British Journal of Educational Technology, 51(4), 1155–1167.

Tomai, M., Rosa, V., Mebane, M. E., D’Acunti, A., Benedetti, M., & Francescato, D. (2010). Virtual communities in schools as tools to promote social capital with high schools students. Computers & Education, 54(1): 265–274.