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Designing Learner Interfaces

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist
by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

I’m often struck by the decisions that seem to occupy an organization’s collective attention when it first embarks on an e-learning strategy.  Before the details of a single lesson are contemplated in any detail, innumerable standards are usually set—standards like: the NEXT button must appear on every screen at position X, graphic images can only be photographs, all text must be in Arial 14 pt, a perpetual sidebar menu must be active at all times, any movies must have a “skip” button, screens can only use a specified color palette, the company logo must appear on every screen in position Y, multiple choice questions must have 4 options, etc.

Learning at RiskNow I’m not saying there shouldn’t be standards, but we need to realize that these  common standards have little to do with the actual instruction, but are mainly useful as a way to streamline production or force e-learning components into corporate standards already set by IT departments for informational web pages.  But the purpose and functional requirements of a web page are quite different from an e-learning application, and in many cases, misapplying these web standards works directly against achieving the desired learning outcomes.

It’s important to make a distinction between user interface design and learner interface design.  A common principle in user interface design is to seek “transparency.”  A transparent interface is one where the user is almost unconscious of the interface and its required actions.  Once the underlying rules are understood, uniformity and minimalism in the interface allows the information to flow through without interference.  And that’s the goal of web-pages: provide an unhindered path to content.  Learner interface design, on the other hand, is designing the context (interface) that will best support learning, and the confusion arises when one fails to realize that e-learning is not just a conduit for “telling” information to the learner; it is an opportunity to engage the learner in a meaningful “experience.”  Unlike a web-page structure where hyperlinking makes the idea of “sequence” irrelevant, the instructional designer’s goal is often to create and lead the learner through a very carefully designed sequence.  While transparency is still a valuable goal, it has to be balanced with making actions and gestures meaningful and significant, which in some sense is almost akin to removing transparency.

Expedia DemoFor example, simulations are so compelling because you can’t coast through them; the interface is often varied and is meant to evoke links to actions in the real world. The backgrounds are distinct from other parts of the lesson; illustrations are often stylized or exaggerated to communicate specific messages, actions are sometimes even made intentionally more difficult to require that the learner specifically attend to the choices associated with a particular action.  Even in interactions that aren’t strictly simulations, you actually get some benefit out of creating an interface that requires the learner to think about what they are doing --reduce transparency but enhance meaning.

I’m going to continue this strand in a subsequent entry because there are too many issues left open here, but I do want  to be clear that I’m not advocating abandoning standards.  What I’m saying is that the standards we set should be to enhance the opportunities for meaningful engagement, not just to create an environment where thoughtless activity can masquerade as active learning.

Stay tuned…

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