E-learning and the issue of usability

2 Jun 2010 - 8:22am
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etoriello
2010

Wireframe, prototypes and usability in generale are still rather new to e-learning apps.

In the last few years, technology has improved so much that new domains like education started using it. E-learning is still a newly born science that can be defined as learning via information technology (IT). Internet is an obvious platform for e-learning and certainly the most popular tool. The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) goes even further, arguing e-learning is a broad set of applications and processes that has become primarily web-based.

In the last few years, technology has brought more flexibility and efficiency to course material. In parallel, the demand for online delivery of higher education courses continued to rise. Online courses provide more time and location flexibility than traditional education and it allows universities to expand their course offerings by expanding their virtual infrastructure.

Unfortunately, user-centered design techniques like wireframes or application prototypes and task analysis are still uncommon in the creation process of e-learning apps.

E-learning usability is still new but surprisingly very little used. Yet the concept of improving e-learning apps usability or “learnability” is pretty straightforward. A system simple and easy to use will take the learners thinking off the system and onto the course material itself.

Usability testing usually offers an effective way to ensure an app actually works. This means that most people can make sense of it and use it without an extensive formation. Unfortunately carrying these tests is often expensive. That’s why many companies rely on previous analysis showing reliable principles. But here’s the catch: proven sets of principles of what “works” for online learning, based on research findings or industry best practices, don’t yet exist.

Design and usability standards such as website wireframes have already proven their worthiness for e-commerce applications. However, to apply them to e-learning, they need to be changed substantially. The two areas have completely different goals. Wireframing a site to sell shoes is not the same as designing another to create an effective and appealing science class. Don Norman, professor of computer science at Northwestern University, argues “Even though usability and learnability are slightly different, usability practices followed by the User Interface (UI) community can be easily applied to learnability.”

If e-learning practitioners were using usability testing, usability experts could then assess how testers handle learning tools or cope with lots of data without a teacher telling them what to do. Through the use of wireframes and functional prototypes, they will be able to test their app before its development, assessing how new students navigated virtual classrooms. “Many people think they can’t really afford usability,” argues Michael Korcuska, design director of DigitalThink, e-learning software development firm. “Unfortunately, the market doesn’t care about quality so much as price and speed improvements,” says Korcuska. “And until the market demands it, and is willing to pay, it won’t get it.”

But other usability experts like Mathieu Collet, interaction designer for SQLY Agency suggest there is a competitive advantage to designing the user-experience of e-learning websites”.

With the coming of the web2.0, recent developments in streaming video and interactive interfaces can make e-learning softwares potentially more dynamic, but also more complex. Therefore, e-learning apps should carefully take the user experience into account before starting any project. 

User-centered designers have a real challenge ahead, both in proving to universities that usability is worth the money, time, and effort, and in developing e-learning usability standards that can be shared. But the stakes in game are worthwhile because a well-designed user experience makes the interface almost disappear, enabling users to concentrate on their work, exploration, or pleasure.

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