- User freedom can be a curse.
- Guide your novices, and set your experts free.
- Sometimes less is more.
- Things that are similar should look and feel the same. Things that are not should look and feel different.
- Be kind to your users.
- Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.
User freedom can be a curse.
I read etmoocing, and a quote from his previous MOOCing experience, and a student who felt overwhelmed by large amounts of information. reminded me of something.
“In the first few hours of the first day, the text of the course became massive. Our newcomer felt buried. He sent a group message to the facilitators on the second day of the course, saying the experience was overwhelming and “too free.”
One of Nielsen’s ten usability heuristics (the standard rules for designing user interfaces) has to do with User control and freedom. Typically, you want your user to have freedom and control. Except, of course when freedom and control is precisely what you need them not to have, or precisely what they need not to have. Users complain of having both too little and too much freedom. And different users may complain of both about the same experience. The balance, tension, and choice between both is important.
For example. In an cMOOC, users have freedom to do whatever they want, follow whatever paths they wish, connect with and learn from whomsoever they want. For some users, this is way too much freedom, and way too little structure. For some that’s not the case at all. And for some, that’s the case with some areas, and not with others.
This cMOOC has tried to address this using the scheduled blackboard sessions, so there is structure if you want it or need it. And it’s introduced a mentoring system (which I hope works out well). But the wealth of material is huge, the time spent picking through it to find the path you want can be inefficient, and finding a network that caters to your needs, styles, and requirements time consuming.
Users on the MOOC are both celebrating and confounded by the freedom. There may be a balance issue here. If learning has as one of it’s concerns efficient learning (and it should – novice learners may spend up to a quarter of their time attempting to solve difficulties with no result, and abandonment, postponement, incorrect conceptualisation, blaming behaviour, lowered efficacy and esteem, and decreased effort and quitting may ensue) then novice learners need guidance. Which means less freedom.
Sometimes less is more.
There’s two parts to this idea. The learners focus, but also learning interface complexity.
The community have responded to the difficulties of new MOOC users by saying focus, have a question in mind, don;t need to know everything, pick a simplified and focused path. This is sage advice for new learners. But it’s also not easy to achieve. Because of the user freedom. Personally, finding the resources that just speak to the path I need is not easy. There’s a huge volume of information, distributed across multiple sites, media and technologies that are undifferentiated in terms of the information. Each media is streaming every channel, all topics, all the time. It can be like watching TV, while making a podcast, and simultaneously reading a graphic novel, listening to the radio, and chatting with your entire family at the Christmas dinner table. Which brings us to point two.
Learning interface complexity.
Minimalist design is Nielsens’s eighth heuristic. Google’s search design is minimalist. And, for the most part, it works supremely well. If you know a little about the internet, it requires almost no learning to use. It’s incredibly uncomlicated, and using it is automatic, intuitive, and takes no mental resources from the task you are trying to achieve. It’s like walking home on the route you’ve driven ten thousand times. Most of your mental resources are available to scroll through your shopping list, or plan your evening’s TV. The cMOOC is spread across multiple platforms. Twitter. The blog hub. Blackboard. Google +. Individual blogs. Hangout.
This is as far from minimalist design as you can get. So, it’s like walking home. On a route you’ve walked ten thousand times. While on a unicycle. Backward. Which is on fire. Juggling three chainsaws and an angry badger. While trying to read the Encylopaedia Brittanica and doing a driving test.
Too much complexity, and too many interfaces mean your learner spends all their time mastering the interface. A common complaint, how do I work Google + (which is, itself, hardly minimalist). Add in twitter, Blackboard, blogging, Hangout, and all the presentation bells and whistles, and you have a lost user.
Keep the interface simple, choose a single main mode of information dissemination (which carries everything). Support it so users can prepare in advance. Have other media optional, but included. Introduce channels of some description, that are easy and meaningful, and allow filtering.
Guide your novices, and set your experts free.
If your novices need guidance (and they do) then your experts need freedom to spread their wings. The evidence seems to show that novice users need help, and structure, and probably a fairly instructionist or scaffolded contructivist teaching
But your experts
probably have learning strategies that are efficient, and trying to alter them will be detrimental
- probably know how to locate, filter, access and assess the new knowledge they want
- probably benefit from project based or discovery work where they are collaborating with other experts more than with an instructor
- are probably capable as acting as knowledge resources for one another
A cMOOC is a good place to be an expert, if you can find other experts.
Things that are similar should look and feel the same. Things that are not should look and feel different.
This is number for on Nielsen’s Heuristics. Think of….your desktop. Icons that you click on to make things happen look kind of the same. Menus that you click on look different, but similar to each other. And they do something different – they drop down to give you options. In an interface, this is useful. It means you recognise things, and gives the interface an easy to use, intuitive aspect. The user recognises the interface. They don’t have to learn it. Nielsen callis it “Recognition, not recall”. It comes in at number 6. #etmooc is spread across multiple interfaces. All of which look quite different to one another. The more resources you have to pour in to learning the different interface styles, the less you have to learn and engage with content.
Again, keep your interface simple. Multiple interfaces, applications and media are causing headaches.
Be kind to your users.
Let your users know where they are in your interface, and make that knowledge intuitive, and useful. They should know eher they are, and how much is left to go. There should be an easy way to go back from where you came, and they shouldn’t feel lost. Once again, too many platforms (Twitter, Google+ etc etc) is unkind to novice users. Be kind to your users. Make things easy to find, easy to use, easy to understand, and easy to learn. Let them know a path. They don;t have to take it. They can ignore it. But let them know what a path looks like. Let them know a way from A to D, and give them an idea of when they arrive at B and C, and how long it will take to get to D and what the journey will look like.
Some users don’t need this. So don’t force the journey on them. If you do, they’ll leave. Give them the freedom. But some do. And if you don’t provide it, they might leave too.
Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.
This the MOOC does well. Want to change something? Go suggest it, mention it in passing in Blackboard, put up a blog post, post it on Google+ ,mention it in Twitter chat, and a mod will pick it up.
There’s a collaborative Google Doc for suggesting changes. Alec has set up new forums at the drop of a clever and responsive hat.
Iterating means looking at how something is working, and redoing it, changing it, trying a new or different way of doing it. And the #etMOOC is good at that.
I’m learning a huge amount here. Alec’s exhortation to make my learning visible has brought a huge amount of value to the experience, and a huge amount of focus and value to my efforts. (Something @MuireannOK and the team at DIT have been working on with me for a while now…) The team are dedicated, competent, passionate, expert, and warmly approachable. The idea is inspiring, idealistic, and, I think, exhibits some of the finest facets of what being an educator should actually be about. The experience they have given me – of being a critical and producing learner, has been immensely beneficial, and I wish to thank them for it. The resources they and the community are providing will keep me reading, working, developing and challenged for months to come.
There’s a nice pdf from MIT about Nielsen’s heuristics here, for anyone who fancies a read.