Digital Pedagogy Toolbox: Ethics as Design

When it comes to designing a learning experience, instructors or designers usually think of conducting a needs analysis, building learning objectives, mapping some activities, identifying relevant content, and developing instructional materials by applying different instructional tools. However, instructional and learning design is much more than that. It’s about designing for the open, inclusive, and equitable creation of new knowledge, sharing knowledge, and service for the good of the community. In this first blog of the Digital Pedagogy Toolbox blog series, which highlights interactive technologies and pedagogies, I would like to discuss another perspective of design—ethics as design. I start with a short personal story and turn to the definition of ethics as design and how we can integrate it into teaching and learning. 

Post by Gwen Nguyenadvisor, Learning + Teaching at BCcampus

My Story

It’s been more than 10 years since the first time I tried to design an extensive-reading book report activity for my English class using Moodle. My intention was to engage hesitant speaking learners and motivate diverse learners to practice extensive reading by reporting on their books with different types of submissions (e.g., oral, written, chat, recording, etc.). For this activity, I was so excited and busy explaining to my learners how to log into the site with their email addresses and use the features on Moodle for their assignment that I forgot all about protecting students’ information and privacy. It was the school’s policy that I could not request students to sign up for my Moodle site for the book report assignment using their school addresses. Although most students showed high interest and engagement in this project, I was called to the dean’s office to explain the situation and had to find ways to redesign the activity. 

What Is Ethics as Design?

As a professional with years of experience in teaching and designing curriculum for adults, I still find it challenging to find ways to ethically engage with tools, especially in digital spaces. It is often not about choosing between good or bad, right or wrong. It is a little more gray when you come to understand the ethics of learning and instructional design. 

Ethics is a process of “reflection, critical questioning, justification, argumentation, and application of moral beliefs, ideas, and systems” (Kaurin, 2018, para. 4). So what are some strategies education designers can use to navigate ethical issues in their work? 

Ethics as Design Framework

As ethics is not simply about understanding and following copyright and intellectual property laws, in this blog post, I promote the holistic framework of ethics as design (Moore & Griffin, 2022), which addresses potential impacts on health, well-being, access, discrimination, equity, diversity, inclusion, safety, and environment issues in designing learning/teaching experiences.

The focal ideas of the ethics as design framework are

  • Imagining and thinking up solutions to ethical problems rather than selecting right or wrong answers
  • Communicating how ethical considerations influence technical specifications and other design requirements

You can also think about this framework as a process in which two main activities weave into each other to help turn ethics into action in design: problem setting (i.e., problem framing) and reflection-in-action.

Problem framing is the preliminary step where the designer defines the problem, lists what should be included and excluded, and plans how to proceed in solving it. This means if you approach design based only on outcomes, it’s time to think of framing it by incorporating other impacts on overall outcomes, such as accessibility, diversity, equity, etc. You can start with a set of questions more specific to the problem and context and continue to adapt and refine as you go to better understand the nature of the problem. For example, how flexible and adaptable are the materials or tools you have chosen?

Along with problem framing is reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983), which is a sustained internal dialogue designers are engaged in when devising a particular design problem. In other words, reflection is not an after-the-fact step but an ongoing ethical analysis process enacted by questioning and generating questions to prompt considerations throughout the design and decision-making process. Back to the story of my failing learning design: I should have engaged with students and other stakeholders in the process of understanding school policies around student data rights and privacy. I should have asked myself questions about implementing the technology and whether my digital pedagogies addressed equitable, inclusive issues.

Where Can You Start?

You can follow some main themes in ethics literature when generating questions for reflection-in-action for design decision points: copyright, learner privacy, accessibility, diversity, conflict of interest, professionalism and confidence, equity, sustainability, and efficacy (Moore & Griffing, 2022). You can also start embracing and applying the ethics as design framework in your work by considering the following list of questions inspired by the B.C.’s Post-Secondary Digital Learning Strategy, Digital Literacy Framework:

  1. Does your design follow privacy, informed consent, inclusion, and accessibility principles and laws in digital spaces?
  2. Do you ensure participants have the digital skills they need for coursework and know where to access support and assistance?
  3. Do you provide alternative participation methods in courses where assignments require learners to publish information in the public domain? 
  4. Do you make sure materials posted online follow accessibility protocols such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), links function properly, and the course site is easy to navigate? 
  5. Do you seek out and choose technologies that support Indigenous self-determination, including the use of Indigenous knowledge and cultural expressions?
  6. Do you mindfully use digital information and tools to expand knowledge and provide multiple perspectives in coursework, including supporting Indigenous self-determination, Indigenous knowledge, and cultural expressions? 
  7. Does your design support digital collaboration, including teaching participants to work together in digital spaces? 
  8. Do you provide opportunities for creative expressions within digital or blended learning spaces and assignments?
  9. Have you established healthy boundaries with digital technologies, and do you use them purposefully to support well-being in your design?
  10. Do you develop safe, decolonized digital learning spaces for community collaboration, including listening to and prioritizing community needs and working with local experts and learners to meet those needs?

Ethics as design is a process in which designers envision what should be instead of only what is and devise solutions to help bridge those gaps. When you design with ethics as design, learning outcomes should include aspects such as social justice, inclusion and accessibility. 

The Digital Pedagogy Toolbox blog series is a monthly blog post series that features highlights of interactive technologies and pedagogies in learning and teaching design. This series is an extended version of our monthly FLO Tech Tool Tip blog series. In these blogs you may find an activity that supports innovative and effective teaching practice in technology-infused learning environments, a short recipe for digital teaching and learning, or some tips on the pedagogical uses of a tool for instruction. 

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Kaurin, P. S. (2018). Ethics: Starting at the beginning. Wavell Room. Retrieved from

Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training (June, 2022) Digital Learning Strategy (Consultation Draft), pp. 20-31

Moore, S. L., & Griffing, G. (2022). Integrating ethics into the curriculum. In J. Stefaniak & R. M. Reese (Eds.), The instructional design trainer’s guide: Authentic practices and considerations for mentoring ID and ED tech professionals (pp. 121–134). Routledge. doi:

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Temple-Smith.