There’s a scene from Jean Cocteau’s 1949 classic film adaptation of the Greek tragedy ‘Orpheus’ that I often bring to mind when at a crossroad in a difficult design project.

It is an unforgettable scene: our hero Orpheus reaches out, with fear and uncertainty, to a mirror before him.  The mirror, he has been told, is a chasm: a watery veil that will transport him to another world.  At first, Orpheus touches the mirror and is stonewalled.

‘Perhaps you are afraid?’ Heurtebise asks.
‘But it is just glass,’ Orpheus replies.
‘You don’t have to understand, you just have to cross,’ Heurtebise tells him.

Orpheus’s eventual crossing through the glass is a powerful metaphor for so many of the challenges in our lives.

In my professional life of educational publishing, I find it a particularly powerful reminder of the role that digital technology needs to play for the individual learner.

When they are most effective, digital technologies perform a mirror-like function; reflecting the uniqueness of the individual; providing a seamless chasm for the learner to move from physical to virtual environments.

Too often in education, I find, the technology plays a role of mere transmission; a basic digitisation of the physical.  The rise of eBooks, I think, is an example of this.  While it has obvious benefits of convenience and transportability, in educational terms there is little benefit to the learner in the crossing from print to digital.

In this instance (like so many others), technology has not been used effectively; it has failed to ‘mirror’ the uniqueness of the individual.  If digital is used only to transmit information, the learner, like Orpheus, is stonewalled at the watery interface.

The story of Orpheus is a constant reminder to me of what is most important in the art of digital learning design: the individual learner.

When the learner is at the centre of the design, their own strengths, weaknesses and level of skillmastery shapes the virtual interface in ways that are unique to them.

What the learner then sees reflected in this type of environment, is their own potential. The digital mirror provides a 2-way visibility for the individual: a reflection of their current understanding of topics and a clear, personalised pathway for achieving their learning goals.

The mirror scene from Cocteau’s Orpheus


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