Courseware, students, participatory design . . .

litldeskI sometimes hear educators say that students want only one courseware to contend with, that students don’t want to deal with multiple platforms for the courses they take each semester.

I haven’t heard evidence for this claim, although one can see how it almost appears to be common wisdom.  But have we got at the truth here?  Untested ideas such as this are the very kinds of potentially wrong hweuristics that ethnographic research is designed to correct.  If you ask students what they want, they will be happy to tell you, but they might provide the wrong solution.  Asking students for their “solutions” is the design charrette approach.  Do you want soft chairs or hard chairs?  Do you want this pink or blue?  Do you want all your courses to have the exact same layout?

I think the more successful approach is participatory service design.

The first step in participatory design is ethnographic research – close observation in a systematic and rigorous way to find out how students interact with courseware.

The second step is rigorously interpreting the data you gather, and applying it to the design problem in order to arrive at an optimal solution.  Interpreting the data and evaluating  potential solutions is done by people whose profession involves service design.

There are many stakeholders in the selection and support of courseware, and one or two platforms on campus will often be the right choice in balancing across constituencies.  And even though that solution may quiet student complaints, it doesn’t address what I’m guessing (and what ethnographic research could determine) is really the source of student complaints — poor design of online learning environments.

I take a lot of classes so I am frequently in the role of student.  But I am not suggesting my perspective leads directly to “the solutions”  for design of online courses.  Being a student just helps me understand why participatory design succeeds. (IT people sometimes call this “eating your own dog food,” meaning that putting yourself in a user’s shoes helps you design better.)

As a student, online courses can annoy me in 3 ways.  There are many, and in my opinion, better solutions to these annoyances than herding everyone into the same courseware corral.   (I’m only looking at a student point of view here; I’ll briefly mention faculty-as-users in a bit.).

My first annoyance is that it is often hard to figure out the navigation of onliNumber Onene courses — where has the usual “stuff” been put.  Not everyone takes the same meaning from labels like “syllabus” or “course policies” or “assignments.”  An institution or program could, of course, “design once” and make everyone fit into the same straitjacket — same courseware platform, same course design, same labels, etc.  Then students just need to learn that one pattern. It isn’t hard to see that there will be a downside to this approach, even if it might smooth things over with students in the short run.  Personally, I’d prefer good designs customized to course objectives over sameness.  Some people get course navigation right — it’s like walking into a room where the furniture is arranged nicely versus walking into a room where things are awkwardly placed.  It’s essentially a design question, not a platform or technology problem. So, how costly is it to raise institutional knowledge of course design?  Or, how costly is it to sidestep it?

Number 2Another issue for me, wearing my “student hat,” is understanding the affordances of a platform.  Can I plz be told how the tool works in some plain simple way?  If the lecture videos can be slowed down, for example, that’s important to know. Can I run my writing thru a check that will help me improve it prior to turning it in?  Again, research can tell us how best to present explanations so that students take advantage of features and avoid pitfalls.

Annoyance number three involves knowing what I have to do each week.

Number 3This is presented in wildly different ways in each course I take – it is not dependent on the platform, it reflects the instructors’ preferences. In the worst cases, weekly lectures are in one place, assignments for submission are described in another, the requirement to post to discussion forums is listed somewhere else.  And as these things inevitably change during a course, instructors sometimes update deadlines in one place but not in all the places where the information is duplicated.  The result is significant administrative overhead for students madly trying to complete weekly requirements.  The problem is not complicated — it’s just this:  the design does not efficiently allow the student to “know” when they are done for the week.  The corollary is inefficiency for the student trying to plan ahead for what they need to do.

I suspect some of these design flaws are actually features for faculty — they are done to minimize the instructor’s administrative overhead either during the course or in migrating the course forward for the next semester.  This is the reason that participatory service design needs to study all users of a system — how do the faculty use courseware?  what about other stakeholders?

My overall point…   Yes, one or two courseware platforms on campus may well be necessary for a host of reasons, but I’m not ready to interpret student complaints as buttressing a “one-size-fits-all” decision about instructional design.   For me, student complaints may lead in a different direction.

One of the IT speakers I heard at ELI a few years back spoke to the problem of balancing standardization and innovation, questioning if short term gains from standardization are outweighed by creating inflexible people in a rapidly evolving climate.  It could be that the really strong institutions of the future will have devoted as much or more time to raising institutional knowledge about the design of learning environments as they do to standardizing on pre-selected platforms.


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