Free the Learning

Category: Higher Education

Form Human Centered Design

Project Description:

Getting access to courses and learning activities is a problem for many students across Ontario, especially for under-represented groups. Barriers include access to the internet; getting and using the required technologies; course prerequisites, credits, transfers and availability; institutional and departmental policies; cost; flexibility, time and control over schedules, and; lack of support, especially for online learners. This project explores new ways to enable learners to access the educational experiences they need in order to meet their learning goals.

The project research suggests that these barriers lead to poor academic and career outcomes despite the numerous services and supports available. We found students with multiple barriers are unable to find and use the support with their limited time and knowledge of them. With that in mind we asked: how might we enable and/or create opportunities for underrepresented students in the post-secondary environment?

Research Insights:

While the project research revealed multiple barriers students face, the focus was on tackling the lack of connections and role models available. The key findings suggested that a lack of visible role models can make post-secondary education seem less attainable. One respondent from a survey said that making connections throughout PSE was an important part of their experience, and other respondents stated similar thoughts – they wanted an opportunity to connect with upper year students, graduates, and professionals during school.

The research also indicated that underrepresented students often report feelings of isolation, social discrimination, loneliness, which can often result in drop-out rates due to failures in accessing institutional supports. The findings also suggest that students need to form meaningful connections with others and feel connected to their learning experience through relatable content and role models. Thus, the priority of this project is to focus on solutions that address “sharing experiences through meaningful connections.”

Goals and Mission:

This project aims to enable and create more accessible learning opportunities for underrepresented students (such as first-generation students, Aboriginal students and/or socioeconomically disadvantaged students), so that they can find, use, and fit within their day-to-day lives even while experiencing multiple barriers.

Through the use of design thinking methodologies, the project leads found that students receive most of their support from peers. To respond to the research findings and design outputs, the team created PeerUp, a conversation focused app, that allows students to search for other students they share commonalities with, comfortably ask questions, overcome barriers, demystify post-secondary education/career paths and make social connections to their learning communities that they would be unable to make themselves.


PeerUp is an anonymous chat app that provides post-secondary students with access to relatable role models, so that they can build meaningful connections and support systems. With PeerUp, students are able to connect with others so they can take their learning and academic planning into their own hands, equipping them with the skills to design a personalized learning post-secondary experience, and navigate whatever barriers they may face.

Project Materials:

  1. Prototype Report
  2. Interactive Prototype
  3. Research Files


Karen Ngo, Sheri Burke, Deanna Divito