User-Centered Design and Pedagogy

August 23, 2007

In my blog post at Penn’s State Terra Incognita blog, I talked a little about how UX designers can help bridge the gap between instructional designers and developers of teaching and learning software:

Another challenge in creating applications for academia is that many of the user goals are embedded in pedagogical methods that may be discipline specific or not expressed in a generalizable way. Instructional designers and faculty are rarely part of a development team. In the higher education community source environment we have an opportunity to remedy this. It may require reaching across local organizational divides to ensure that the user and instructional goals are adequately being met: Often, instructors don’t speak the language of technology, so the instructional designer can help translate, generalize, and communicate their needs. In turn, the instructional designer often doesn’t speak the language of the application programmer, and the UI designer can help translate and represent their needs within the design and work flow of the application for the developers. Here is a diagram that attempts to illustrate this point and show how UX can be a bridging activity: UCD in Higher Education

Since that writing, there has been a string of emails across the Sakai UI and Pedagogy email lists pertaining to this issue (just lucky timing I think). Mark Notess, a usability expert from the University of Michigan pointed the list to an article he wrote for eLearn magazine back in 2001, titled Usability, User Experience, and Learner Experience. While somewhat dated (according to Mark) there are still plenty of points that hold true today as we work on Sakai. This one in particular caught my attention:

Learner-Centered Design

How do the concepts and processes of user experience apply to online learning? To the extent that an online learning system is another piece of software, the applicability is straightforward. All of our methods that have worked well with software applications should be used with online learning and should work equally well. But creating online learning is not identical to creating typical software applications because we have to concern ourselves with things like instructional strategies, content sequencing, and quality of learning.

Web usability has been a hot topic for the past few years, but web-based learning faces some different issues. Web usability has largely concerned itself with e-commerce–product catalog navigation and converting hits to purchases. Other web usability work has focused on information seeking and finding. But web-based learning is a different experience. It raises questions like these:

  • How can we keep learners engaged with large amounts of content?
  • How can learners get oriented and effectively navigate an online learning environment consisting of dozens of learning resources, tools, and activities?
  • How do we engender effective online collaboration between learners?

He included in his email the comment,

“My contention, which is actually motivating my current dissertation research, is that the growth of the web and web-based learning environments has increased (or perhaps created) the need for IDs to be able to work with UX people and developers such that there is a need for a common language and inclusive, cross-disciplinary processes.”

I think he and I are on the same page. When I look back to my graduate training in instructional design, the principles in conducting a needs assessment in a performance or learning environment don’t vary too much from the principles of a good UX field study. Perhaps simply finding the shared vocabulary would be a good starting point. However, UX still needs to translate to developers on the other end of the continuum. They also tend not to have the depth of knowledge (I know I am generalizing here) in understanding the tools of the trade in learning theory, and where behavior in the teaching and learning activities can be generalized and the issues and assumptions imposed by discipline, etc… However, I am starting to ponder the importance of the fact that not only do instructor’s not speak developer-speak (for the most part) they also very often don’t speak pedagogy-speak! So, that leaves us with a lot of people in different fields with common goals and close enough vocabularies to confuse the heck out of each other!

I know this is actually a good thing. I know that the fact that community source efforts allow us to be embedded in an environment where we actually have these different skills sets all organized around a common goal has the potential to be incredibly powerful. It feels like the answer is on the tip of our tongues!

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2 Responses to “User-Centered Design and Pedagogy”

  1. Mark Notess Says:

    Hi Mara,

    Please note that I am at Indiana, not Michigan!

    But thanks for the mention. I like your diagram, although I think I’d draw it as three overlapping circles rather than two. Otherwise it starts wanting to be some kind of continuum, whose scale I don’t quite understand.

    I think both ID and UX are bridging disciplines, ID between the SME (or instructor) and the technologists, UX between users and technologists. Efforts like Sakai require both sets of bridges to be built. (Which also requires developers to realize they are on an island, not the mainland… 🙂

    Good discussion!

  2. marahancock Says:

    Sorry about the mistake, Mark. I can only find the excuse that it was one of those coastal biases that waves a hand over the Midwest and it blurs into a single state! I’ll have to hire a better fact checker.


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