With technology advancing at a rapid pace, and tools and objects commonplace in people’s lives, most expect their use of technology to be hassle free, highly efficient, purposeful and effective. When technology lets them down, their mood, their capacity to engage and interact and their ability to achieve goals can be negatively impacted. Most readers would have experienced clicking back and forth between pages and links in an online search, only to give up, without the required information and with a tired hand from clicking. At some point in time, everyone has been frustrated by technology that does not work or lacks in effective design.
Think User Experience
Educators and educational designers must remember to think of the user (the student) when designing e-learning environments and experiences.
A Positive User Experience
Learning itself is not easy. Students appreciate a well-designed learning management system (LMS), and will learn best when the user experience (UX) is positive. An e-learning experience that is intentionally designed to motivate and engage, incorporating regular collaboration and feedback opportunities, will support students to achieve greater gains overall.
So, what does a positive UX look like and how can you make it happen? I find it helpful to examine the UX according to six elements – strategies that work to maximise e-learning:
- Structure and sequence the e-learning environment
Ensure that the components of the e-learning environment are consistently and logically organised to facilitate, as much as possible, intuitive use and navigation. This means being consistent with language and labelling. I recommend using Bloom’s action verbs (https://eduscapes.com/tap/topic69.htm) to provide explicit instructions as you scaffold and sequence learning. For example:
Always start with a welcome. This establishes a friendly and personable e-learning environment. Keep it brief and greet your students as though you were meeting face to face. For example, ‘Hello and welcome to [course name]. My name is… [perhaps include a photograph]. I am excited to share with you my enthusiasm and knowledge of…. Please watch the brief video about this course (accessed via…), which includes instructions, expectations for your study, including assessment and personal messages from your teaching team. I recommend that you maximise your contribution to online forums (assessed via…). Students who engage with their peers and teachers generally do better than those who do not. Feel free to contact me for any specific enquiries, or post general enquiries to the dedicated enquiries forum. Your teaching team will respond within 48 hours, excluding weekends. We look forward to supporting you.’
Some institutions have pre-set structures built into the LMS. If so, make sure that you use the pre-set structure as intended. For example, at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), we use Moodle 3.2 and encourage all teaching academics to use the following pre-set structure across all course sites:
- Getting started
- Study schedule
- Teaching team
Throughout this article, the term course is used to refer to a single unit of study taught across a semester (what some other universities call subjects), and the term course site to refer to the collection of moderated resources, communication and interactive tools used within that single unit.
The advantage of a pre-set structure is that it creates consistency across course sites, which subsequently reduces confusion and the amount of time spent on navigation that would be better spent on learning. I have noticed that course sites that do not effectively use the pre-set structure tend to be more cluttered and untidy than those that do, especially in the Course activity section. Course activity is what students see first when they log into the course site for the duration of the semester, and is where the learning occurs. This is prime real estate for the educator. However, teaching academics often clutter this section with orientation-type information that is more suited to Getting started.
A good Course activity section is clean and clutter-free, minimises clicking (for example, by reducing folders), is dynamic to attract attention and boost interest (students get a sense of growth and movement in their visual space), begins with a brief welcome, provides instruction and promotes new and/or important information directly related to learning.
- Orient students and set clear expectations
Provide clear and succinct instructions that effectively describe how to navigate to the different parts of the e-learning environment. Any icons used should be clearly defined and consistently applied. Consider developing a series of reusable, sharable (with colleagues) and transferable (across courses) how-to videos that will save time in the long run and build students’ understanding of the learning environment.
Set clear expectations and be sure to share these with your students. Detail what the students can expect of you (for example, communication methods, consultations times, response rates and your level of participation in forums) and what you expect of students (for example, netiquette and level of required engagement with content and forums – depth and breadth).
Include an orientation activity (aka ice-breaker) that is age and level appropriate, facilitates interest and interaction and is purposeful to learning.
- Incorporate audio-visual elements
A good e-learning environment is visually appealing, whilst remaining minimalistic to avoid overstimulation or competition for attention within the course site. Incorporate images and videos that intentionally support learning and engagement and are of high quality. You risk confusing, distracting and/or disengaging students if you incorporate any material that lacks a clear purpose.
Use consistent styling (font type, font size, font colour and formatting) and if you use visual indicators (banners and themes to enhance connectedness and establish identity, or icons as signposts to facilitate self-directed learning) these must also be consistently applied.
- Facilitate accessibility, inclusivity and support
Model and foster a culture of respect and value for socio-cultural diversity and equality. All materials and activities must be accessible by all students, including students with disabling conditions and those who have had minimal experience with education technology.
It is easy to include links to internal and external learning and technical supports that you identify may support learning and development. Avoid using red-green colours that exclude colour-blind individuals and use a variety of modes and formats (for example, visual and audio alternatives) to attend to the diverse needs of students. Further information on inclusive e-learning design can be accessed from The Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (https://www.adcet.edu.au/). Search for the webinar titled Inclusive technologies in the age of Blended Learning.
Ensure that you test the functionality of course sites across multiple devices, especially mobile phones, and check that all links and downloads actually work. Be aware of the costs associated with e-learning. Advise students about large files that will use a lot of data to download, enabling your students to choose how and where they download these files.
- Make it relevant, current and sustainable
Only include materials that are current, enduring, easy to update and purposeful for learning. Use Open Educational Resources (OERs) as much as possible. OERs can be found if you search for Creative Commons in Google or YouTube. Creative Commons licences enable the legal reuse of a copyright owner’s material (for more information, see http://creativecommons.org.au/). If you wish to reuse material that is not under a Creative Commons licence, you must seek permission from the owner and include an attribution on your course site. Equally important is an awareness of institutional policies around assessment and plagiarism. Consistently adhere to all requirements and make these clear and accessible to students.
Make the learning journey authentic and relevant by encouraging engagement with the real world. In recorded lectures, explain how the content specifically relates to the world of work. Use forums to share and debate real-world issues and solve real-world problems. Use forums to share the career pathways of recent graduates and examples of discipline-specific job opportunities. Active participation in the e-learning environment will develop key employability skills, such as communication and problem-solving skills. (For information and resources to support the development of employability skills, see https://graduateemployability.com/).
- Foster engagement and collaboration
Teacher presence is vital. Your students must be aware of your consistent and personable presence. So, regularly update the course site to make it dynamic, enticing students to log in and respond to enquiries in a timely manner. Seize opportunities to provide feedback (commendations and specific comments for improvement) and share your thoughts and interests along the way. Make it a course expectation that students need to demonstrate these kinds of online behaviours and make active participation imperative to learning success through intentional design. For example, construct teams requiring students to work together to complete the formative stages of a learning activity and/or assessment task or incorporate peer review. Students will not engage unless they have to – you need to make it happen.
Elizabeth Cook is an Educational Designer at the University of Southern Queensland. In her role, she works with, the School of Arts and Communication, College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research (CISER) and Open Access College (OAC). Elizabeth is passionate about improving the quality of learning and teaching across the higher education sector in order to achieve positive outcomes for students. Her research is focused on career development learning, career education and graduate employability.