The Making of The Liberated Learner

… As far as I can remember it.

This is for John, who asked me to write about this. Below I will try to tell the story of how it all came together. Check out the thread, too, as it explains what the Liberated Learner is all about.

Where It All Began

There are a few things that had to happen to get this thing going. David Porter had to bring the “Anatomy of the 21st Century Educator” framework to eCampusOntario and anchor it as the framework for a fabulous professional learning program called Ontario Extend. And then, once that thing was going gangbusters, Lena Patterson had to think out loud “Hey, we should do this kind of thing for learners, too!” Years later, eCampusOntario had to roll out the VLS funding. And Trent Online had to give me the go ahead to work on a proposal.

Getting the Gang Together – Part 1

I think even before a word was typed in the proposal it was clearly student co-design as the central, fundamental approach to doing it right. So when I reached out to collaborators I reached out to ones that I knew would love the approach, and trust students enough to let them truly co-design this thing. Enter the likes of Giulia Forsythe, Dave Cormier, Jenni Hayman, Joanne Kehoe, Sarah Wendorf, Pat Maher, Heather Carroll, Alex Venis. Our 7 institution team was formed! (That’s Trent, Seneca, Nipissing, Cambrian, McMaster, Brock, Windsor if you’re keeping score).


Okay so obviously we were successful in getting the proposal funded. As soon as that was all set, we got together for the first of our weekly/bi-weekly meetings that would take us through the year. We were all set to follow up to the “Empowered Educator Framework” with The Liberated Learner Framework. It was pared down to 4 modules (from 6) and included: The Learner, The Technologist, The Navigator, The Collaborator. We divvied up the work. Windsor would take on the learner Module themselves, McMaster /Trent would tackle Collaborator, Nipissing/Cambrian the Navigator, and Seneca/Brock the Technologist.

Getting The Gang Together – Part 2

Next it was time for each of the module teams to find their student co-designers. We didn’t try to specify how each team should handle their student co-designer budget. They could hire one for a long time or a bunch for a short time. Whatever worked best for their context. I can only speak closely to how Trent went about it. We looked to hire 2 co-designers for the summer. Getting a fantastic response to the posting (around 1oo applicants), we decided to go with 2 rounds of group interviews. Those group interviews were actually wonderfully cordial and collaborative experiences themselves (even though it was a “competition”). We really couldn’t have gone wrong in our choices. But we were definitely extra correct in choosing Asa Reynolds and Dana Jamaleddine as Trent’s Student C0-Designers. And as a cherry on top, we got to add Liam Peart in to the mix in September. They weren’t just great to work with. They were clearly fundamental to making this thing turn out the way it did.

All the other teams have similar stories of finding just absolutely fantastic student co-designers. I think it might just be a really easy task to find great students to work with. You just have to invite them in. Have a look at our “end credits” video to see all involved.

Actually Listen

Dana recently said something along the lines “I was pretty skeptical.” or “I figured you were full of it” in regards to her belief that we were truly going to co-design with students. She was happy to be wrong. Early on a truly fundamental idea was brought forward by Asa. He suggested we need to hear the stories of the “wicked problems” that students face in their pursuit of education. That those stories should be what inform the content of the modules we go on to create. Most of the rest of us, in our heads, were like “holy shit. yes.”

From that nugget the Liberated Learner Design Sprint was born. We took a chunk of our budget and asked students to join us every day at lunch time for a week and we’d pay them $100 to tell us a wicked problem story. They would describe the story and suggest any lessons learned. They would also help us categorize them to see which module we might fit the story in to. The sprint was another example of the strength of student co-design. To kick things off, I gave a little context and told the sprinters about what we were doing, but then we handed everything off to student co-designers (Asa and Dana from Trent, Rana Kilani from Windsor, and Krisha Amin from Seneca). Giving the sprinters the chance to try out their stories with their peers (and not the “institutional staff” that people like me would represent to them) really allowed them to draw out the real stories.

I’ll take a moment here to recognize that I’m pretty sure seeing the work Dave Cormier does with his students at UWindsor Open Learning are the footsteps we were following here in our approach to co-design.

And we ended up with 99 problems! Too perfect. See them all here:

Trust Each Other

Okay so at this point we are in to summer, 2021. We have all these stories to work with, but people are drifting off on summer break kind of schedules. We keep meeting weekly with whoever is not off on vacation. But really this was a time of each module team just digesting what we have. Asa and Dana did a review of the stories and helped us summarize and code them in order to pass off a collection of stories to each module team (and each team kind of did their own review as well). We kind of let things simmer for the summer.

Take the Time

Let’s just take a minute to have a laugh about how I said in our proposal that we would have this all done by October. Lol! And now let’s take a moment for to thank eCampus for being flexible and being able to adjust dates. We took all the time, didn’t rush it, and were all the better for it. We did hand it in a few days early. But not months! In September we got into a routine of weekly meetings involving round table updates of where each team were in the process. This lead to discussions around what topics had been drawn out of the stories, which module it would fit in, where were there opportunities to “tentacle” from one module to another (for example, the technologist module “reaches” into the other modules by suggesting you use your new found awesome technological skills to make your responses to activities in the other modules more technologically fancy.) Some modules were moving ahead more quickly than others, and that was more than okay. We didn’t take meetings too seriously with task lists and agendas. We dabbled in that. But in deciding to take all the time we could, we released the pressure on the meetings and just allowed ideas to form a little more organically. I think this approach showed trust in the collaboration.

See Opportunity? Go For It

It was in the fall at some point a wee connection was made in my brain. I had often listened to “lofi hip hop” as I worked away on things. Specifically this channel. I thought hey this music is conceptually tied to studying and learning… The Liberated Learner project is about studying and learning… We’re making this thing for and by the students of Ontario Post Secondary (and beyond of course!)… Seneca College has an independent music production program… Maybe they could make us some of our own “beats to study to” and we could make some videos to go with it, reminiscent of the lofi hip hop channel that inspired this. One email to Seneca IMP’s coordinator John Switzer, and the ball was rolling.

I’m even listening to the playlist right now as I write this. It works very nicely for me. Those Seneca students really brought the goods!

Find Gold? Mine It.

Some hidden talents came to light as we worked away. Like it was clear from the start that all the co-designers could make things happen. That Bethany Brown (our graphic designer) was making beautiful graphics for us. But other skills appeared and we took advantage of them. For example, Harsh Bhavsar can make fantastic animations and Patrick Carnevale has the voice from the heavens as a voice over artist. And so we end up with 4 absolutely delightful animated videos that each kick off a module.

Help Set The Tone

At some point in November each of the module teams were at different stages of development. The Technologist Team had been quite focused in the summer and their student co-designers pretty much had their content wrapped up and ready to be moved in to Pressbooks ahead of the others. I was keen to see things start to form in there so I asked the if they would mind if I just went ahead and moved their stuff in. They said okay but don’t eff it up (they did not say that). I worked closely with Alex Venis on working out some details of the global look and feel, got some great stuff from Bethany to add, and voila, we had a prototype to show the others.

Be Cool That The Tone You Set Needed Some Work

The Learner gang were ready at this point to get in there and get their stuff into Pressbooks, so they did. I asked, once they were done, if I could try to make the look and feel consistent between the two. They said ok. But I went in the wrong direction. I should have used their format as the base rather than what I had done in the Tech module. I am happy to say that they weren’t afraid to let me know. We got there in the end (thanks to them!) Things were falling in to place now!


If you were granted editor rights to the pressbook, you could see that many pages have many revisions. I couldn’t stop tinkering. I would ask Alex for some coding help or Bethany for another icon (see them all here) or some Giulia Forythe doodles of things like sleeping bananas and Darth Vader! For a while there I could not stop tinkering.

Bring in Fresh Legs

Some things worked out quite nicely, timing wise. By January, Dave had some fresh co-op students at Windsor. Students who were not “in too deep” on this thing. We asked them to take on a global evaluations and formed the “Evaluation Strike Force Team” and they were wonderful in catching errors, fixing the ones they could, and giving us suggestions as to how to make things more meaningful or helpful or appealing. That evaluation took this thing to the next level.

The Final Touch

Jenni Hayman, out of nowhere at the last minute, finds us an even extra level of evaluation in the form of the one and only Kyle Mackie. Kyle has been building beautiful online learning experiences for what I assume is hundreds of years. To have him take a final global look, makes some very helpful suggestions and edits and call it “lovely” was, for me, a real thick layer of icing on the cake.

Just My Take

Please remember that this is just how I remember this happening. I have three small children. I am tired and may be mis-remembering the whole thing. I probably forgot to mention some very important contributors. I hope others are able to take their time to reflect on their experience making this thing. And, most hopefully, that in time the real story of this project is that learners found it, made use of it, and got some more joy out of their learny journey.

Bespoke Beats

It’s not every day, as an instructional designer, that you get to organize a bespoke soundscape for a learning experience.

But I got to do it this time!

We’re reaching the end of building the Liberated Learner project, built as a “learner version” of the Ontario Extend Empowered Educator program. Like the original for educators, there will be modules aimed to help learners empower themselves in various areas in order to become a more well-rounded and prepared-for-anything learner. The Pressbook is still under construction, so I will save sharing that out here for later.

But I cannot hold back any longer in sharing our “Chill Beats To Study To”. Early on in the project, we thought it might be cool to link learners out to something like the lofi hip hop radio playlists to listen to while they worked their way through the materials and activities. But then we thought… Maybe we can have our own beats, just for this, crafted by some of the very students that might be working on this program to support their learning. Why the heck not?

After all, every step of the way we’ve been very intentional about inviting learners in to co-design and develop this with us. We held a design sprint to collect the stories of the difficulties that learners have faced in their learning experiences. We then used those stories to inform the content. We have all the aforementioned student co-designers who have been absolutely integral to the development. The graphic designer was in the middle of her program when the project began. The translation is all being done by students in the Humber College French To English Translation Program. The evaluation team is comprised completely of students.

Enter the Seneca College Independent Music programs (Production, Songwriting and Performance). I reached out to John Switzer, who coordinates the programs, to see if he thought his students might be interested in the idea. He said “sounds cool!” and reached out to his students with the idea. Once a number of students showed interest, we figured it was an idea worth following through on. With John’s ongoing help, we’ve now received a playlist’s worth of “lofi” beats to study to, crafted by some of the very learners that our original funding was designed to help, Ontario post-secondary students.

And here we are today with our own Soundcloud playlist of chill beats to study to, specifically made for Liberated Learner Project participants.

And there’s more to come! We’ve also crafted, for Youtube, some video versions that hearken back to the lofi hip hop radio videos that originally inspired the idea. Here’s a draft version of one of those.

Once the project is all ready and released to the world as an Open Educational Resource that anyone can make use of, we hope people make great use of our beats to study to along with the program itself. It has been an absolute delight seeing the talents and efforts of all involved bring this thing together.