But I’m a designer, not an educator!

Accepting responsibility for the part we play in children’s development

Designers and developers are now making decisions about how and what children learn

As designers and digital developers, we find ourselves in the position of being able to influence the learning behaviours of developing minds. With the rapid uptake of mobile, networked devices among youngsters, education has become an increasingly commercial space.

Game designers, app developers, edutainment start ups, web developers, peer to peer learning platforms and social media organisations are able to access children and become a part of their educational journey with unprecedented freedom.

It has never been more important that technology and design professionals collaborate closely with educators, academics, policy makers, students, parents, schools and universities to ensure ethical standards are upheld, children are not exploited and knowledge is shared across both public and private sector organisations.

Kids these days — learning whatever, whenever and wherever

The increasing use of smart phones, social media and online gaming by youngsters is driving the increasing exposure of Australian kids to a range of online learning environments. These technological developments are changing young people’s cultural world, allowing them to communicate, socialise and collaborate on personal projects in new ways.

They are also fundamentally altering the types of “literacy” kids need to navigate their own learning. Digital education platforms require 21st century students to integrate multiple competencies, continuously evaluate content, and be more responsible for their own knowledge consumption and production.

What’s more, informal learning environments are breaking down traditional structures of education. More than ever before, learning extends beyond the classroom into kid’s pockets and pastimes. Kids are self selecting into learning environments, seeking out content and materials that can’t be regulated or monitored by educators (or parents to some extent) for age and ability suitability.

Ethical practice among tech professionals

This opening up of education is a really exciting thing. Kahn Academy, Facebook, YouTube and countless educational apps are facilitating new kinds of engaging, effective learning experiences that have never been possible before.

However, this almost unrestricted access of children to technology-enabled learning environments - and vice versa - presents individuals working as researchers, designers and developers in the commercial space with new ethical considerations.

An ethical implication of the increasing involvement of children in online learning environments is that companies can promote products to children, turning them into consumers. Smartphones and social media are linking informal and non-formal learning activities directly to economic activities and consumption.

One example is the growth of “edutainment”, an industry that markets computer games as educational products, promising “quick, fun and effective activities designed to enhance performance in all areas by assisting whole brain integration,” according to one company. This has implications for consumer choice and awareness, and for safety, anonymity and creativity of online education-based interaction.

As designers and developers find themselves in increasing positions of influence over the educational journeys of children, it is important that the broader implications of their work are explored, understood and scrutinised. Ethically committed practice requires disciplined conversations in which reasons for action are scrutinised, critiqued and modified.

It is this kind of thinking that underpins the argument for participatory, research-led and iterative design processes, such as Service Design. Only by involving children, educators, parents and policy makers in a co-design process can designers ensure they generate products, services and platforms that maximise educational outcomes while minimising the risk of harm or exploitation to children.

The need for an integrated public / private community of practice

Without a doubt, it is important for designers and developers (who actually program learning and behavioural change pathways) to engage in ethical practice. However, it is also important for private sector professionals to be proactive about sharing knowledge and data back across formal education networks.

App developers, game designers and web organisations have a responsibility to invite qualified educators to bring to bear an informed perspective on the ethical and cultural consequences of the changing world of digital learning.

Working more closely with private sector professionals gives policy makers, academics and educators better access to data about how young people interact with online learning environments, which can then inform how technology can be applied in formal educational settings.

An integrated, ethically conscious community of public and private sector collaborators is what’s needed to guide the future of education.


Lally, V., Sharples, M., Tracy, F., Bertram, N., & Masters, S. (2012). Researching the ethical dimensions of mobile, ubiquitous and immersive technology enhanced learning (MUITEL): a thematic review and dialogue. Interactive Learning Environments, 20(3), 217–238.

Written by Ashlee Riordan, Business Design Lead at Thick.

Thick is a strategic design consultancy with a focus on health, education and public services. Read more essays from the Thick team.