What Online Learning Should Look Like

I have taken courses from Codecademy, Coursera, and Stanford/EdX. Perhaps because they are all MOOCs, they follow very similar UI conventions. That noted, I like those conventions quite a bit. I find them much easier to navigate, to understand where I am and what I am supposed to be doing than the UI of something like Moodle, for example. Moodle is a Swiss Army knife, with something for everyone, but it makes it very, very difficult — at least in my experience — to strip off the parts a course doesn’t need, leaving users with having to navigate through irrelevant, and thus sometimes confusing, material.

This process, of a user needing to keep track of where they are and thus keeping track of what they are supposed to be doing, is known as cognitive overhead, is something I have been thinking about since the late 80s, but always in a casual fashion, always with only my own courses in mind. The many designs of this website, for instance, are part of my ongoing thinking through how to frame visually what interests me.

The question of design was hammered home to me over the past two weeks while I was enrolled in an on-line workshop to be certified in on-line course design. What I saw was the best possible use of Moodle I have ever seen, but within the framework, I encountered a mishmash of PDFs, Word documents, and on-line presentations that were poorly designed. Poorly designed may be, however, an inappropriate description: I don’t think there was any thought given to design at all. (We can argue that there is no such thing as no design, merely under-thought design some other time.)

Whatever the description, the outcome is that users struggle to figure out what it is they are supposed to know or what they are supposed to do. It was maddening.

Udemy's Interface

Udemy’s Interface

New Kinds of Value

In a post in the HBR blog, Ron Johnson, who is now CEO of J. C. Penney’s but once was VP for Retail at Apple, makes the case that retailers, and I assume he is thinking specifically about his current context, must offer customers more than price if they are to survive and compete against the big box discounters. He notes that the Apple Stores were not successes at first: no one came to the Genius Bar. But in a few years, they had to put an appointment system in place to manage the flow of people to the Bar. He also notes that employees in the stores do not work on commission, which frees them to focus on being with customers, trying to understand them.

The lesson for other retailers, Johnson argues, is not to mimic the Apple Store in various ways but to re-think their business. The question retailers should be asking themselves is not how do we increase profits or revenues but “How do we reinvent the store to enrich our customers’ lives?” His analogy is to Steve Jobs, who did not push hard on the development of the iPhone in order to achieve some percentage of market share but because he wanted to re-invent the phone.

The notion of creating value, especially new types of value, is a bit of a cliché in business circles, but time passes despite cliches about time passing. I think much the same kind of fundamental re-thinking of education is called for, but, and here’s the catch, it should be done in a dialogue with faculty. Faculty, perhaps better than anyone else in higher education (and perhaps not), know what it means to create and distribute knowledge: it’s our job to do both. More importantly, faculty are, by definition, almost always the ones most often in direct contact with the various forms of distribution as we both teach classes and submit our materials to publishing outlets for review, evaluation, and eventual distribution.

But I did say it was a dialogue, and one thing I can say to my fellow faculty members is that I am most happy right now with the freshman honors English course I teach. Why? Because as I worked through the process of possibly making it a hybrid course for my university, the change in the infrastructure of the course as well as the folks in Distance Learning at my university, demanded that I answer some very basic questions. “Begin with the end in mind,” they reminded me, which got me thinking about what were the core lessons I wanted students to learn. Suddenly I found myself re-thinking the way I teach writing and the way my students think about writing. I will detail the new structure for the course in an upcoming entry, but for now I can report that I am delighted with the results. And so are the students.