Instructional designers are constantly encouraged to apply “U/X,” or “user experience,” principles to ensure their work is “learner-centered.” While this advice seems sage on its surface (after all, instructional products are designed to help a user learn something), it’s often counterproductive in practice.
By way of example, I’ll describe my experiences with e-learning as an designer, as an instructor, and as a student to demonstrate how the conflation of “user” and “learner” can lead to unsatisfactory results. I’ll conclude with a different approach to “users” and “learners” that should provide some guidance for new designers.
As an Instructional Designer:
As an instructional designer, I love mapping out a course: pin-pointing objectives, tracing pathways, aligning assessments. The toys are amazing: I can soup up my slides; live-stream my lectures; and give my lesson some pop with a quick class poll.
Of course I think e-technology is amazing – the apps are designed for me, for my experience as a designer, rather than for the instructors who will adopt my products or, coming in at a distant third, their students.
But instructional designers rarely think that far ahead. We’re all too busy playing in our sandbox courses and crushing on Articulate. As a result, we ask questions like, “Does this LMS come with an HTML editor for the WYSIWYG?” rather than “How does this tool help teachers help students learn something?”
Takeaway #1: The default “user/learner” for any e-tech app is not the student, but the instructional designer.
As an Instructor:
We teachers are not anti-tech (after all, who else would lug a multi-shelf media cart to work?), but we sense that e-tech apps aren’t designed with us in mind. We don’t need auto-graded multiple-choice assignments, because years of practice have shaped our occipital lobes into human scantron machines. We associate “being universally accessible” with answering emails from panicked students at 2:00 a.m., not with captioning training videos on Kaltura.
We would be more amenable to e-learning if the tools and apps made it easier for us to use, that is, to help students learn stuff. Simplify administrative tasks and open lines of communication with fewer features and bigger buttons. The campus Help Desk will thank you when faculty stop blowing up their phone lines thinking they’ve broken the LMS after accidentally clicking on the HTML editor.
Takeaway #2: The default “user/learner” for the instructional design product is not the student, but the teacher.
As a student:
I’m the ideal e-learner: middle-aged, educated, experienced, with three school-aged kids. I have the academic aptitude and organizational skills to learn independently, and asynchronous courses fit my busy schedule. When I started taking online classes, however, I found e-learning to be more challenging than regular old learning. Here’s why:
By the time I access an e-learning product, it has already undergone several user-design shifts: from creator to designer, from designer to teacher, and from teacher to me. Like the old game of “Telephone,” the original message gets lost in a layered maze of pages, links, and embeds. And if I’m brave enough to wander the maze, I’ll eventually run into the 404 Error that my instructor doesn’t know how to solve.
When my teacher is a tech enthusiast, my confusion only grows. Teacher-techies often use learners as guinea pigs: yesterday, we met on BigBlueButton, but today, it’s BBCUltra! Since they know how to use all the features, they use all the features – often as “learner-friendly options.” But for a learner, two options is too many. I don’t need to know the myriad ways the LMS makes it possible for me to turn in my homework; I just need to turn in my homework. In fact, if I have to spend time figuring out how to turn in my homework, I might wind up turning it in late, or not at all.
Takeaway #3: The default user/learner for the classroom implementation of an e-learning product is a combination of the designer and the teacher, not the student.
The above scenarios show how even the most well-intentioned instructional designer can produce an e-learning tool that interferes with actual learning.
How, then, do we design for learners?
Answer: Design for novice teachers, not students.
An app that’s confusing for novice teachers will confuse students.
But an app that makes life easier – not cooler, not edgier, not more fun – for novice teachers will make learning easier for students.
How do I know I’m doing it right?
Answer: Ask novice teachers and their students.
No instructional designer starts out thinking they’re going to publish a user-unfriendly product, yet many products are user-unfriendly. That means that we designers can’t trust what we think we know. Like good learners, we have to turn to the experts: the teachers and their students.
Asking about the users’ experiences with the technology is abstract, time-consuming, and – given small classroom sizes – usually statistically unreliable. But it is the only way we can re-frame our point of view to the actual learners, and re-design our products accordingly.