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.