Learning Management Systems are a seemingly unavoidable part of the online education landscape. For most users, they are a necessary evil. Despite the low opinion that users hold for the tool, learning management systems perform a range of administrative tasks well. They house course materials, results, assessment information and provide an avenue for staff and students to communicate with each other.
Louis CK performs a comedy skit which on the miracle of cell phones and flying and human apathy. In the bit, he talks about the magic that allows messages to be passed through this tiny little piece of technology, into the sky, and then beamed back down into another person’s little piece of technology. That is some kind of wizardry when you think about it. Louis CK’s takeaway: Humans complain about what the phone doesn’t do, rather than marvel at the things it does well. This analogy is applicable in the land of the Learning Management System. People take for granted the things a learning management system does well, but when it comes time to critiquing the software for what it doesn’t do – the pitchforks are out in force.
In my experience, the users (students and teachers) ire is drawn to two focal points:
- How easy is the learning management system to use?
- What does the interface of the learning management system look like?
How easy is the learning management system to use?
The functionality, or ease of use of any system is a fascinating topic. User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design explore how the layout and usability of software and hardware influence user’s productivity and feelings towards said software and hardware. There is a mountain of research and publications on these topics which I won’t delve into here but for this post, it is suffice to say that this stuff is really important! How a user feels about a product goes a long way to determining their levels of satisfaction and will play a role in their level of engagement with the product too.
The most common refrain I hear from staff who interact with the Learning Management System is “It’s not worth my time using this tool because X”. Generally, the X is “it’s too difficult”, “it’s too laborious” or “it’s too annoying”. These are all responses that stem from a poor user experience and interface design. It’s important to note that from the student perspective, poor design introduces barriers to student learning, while good design reduces them and can (and does) positively influence learning outcomes. This is no different to a face to face learning environment, where removing barriers to learning is common and effective educator practice.
What does the interface look like?
The interface of the web has undergone dramatic changes as more objects have become “smart”. The interfaces that allows people access to the internet look slick, they cater for interactivity, and are built into a range of objects such as mobile devices, desktop computers, fridges and cars. Websites have improved in look and feel as HTML 5 becomes more ingrained in development, and templates enable those with little programming ability to create functional and attractive websites. Meanwhile, most (some?) Learning Management Systems look like they were made in a different era. For example, finding clunky upload facilities, dated page layouts and lack of dynamic page elements such as CSS is not unusual.
Two common complaints from users of the learning management system I use in my workplace are:
- The interface looks dated
- It’s difficult to customise individual course pages
Neither of these concerns are enough on their own to derail the usefulness of a Learning Management System, but coupled with poor functionality can severely reduce the level of satisfaction for its users (both students and staff).
Design your courses with good user experience principles in mind
Regardless of whether you are using a Learning Management System to deliver your online, blended or flipped teaching, there are some simple questions you can ask yourself that should help improve your user (student) experiences:
- Do the pages/modules linked together logically?
- Where are the images placed in relation to the text and are they linked correctly?
- Are the videos embedded in the page or linked to external sites?
- Are the number of clicks limited for students to perform a task?
- How does the landing page (the first page the student sees when logging in) sign post the key aspects of the course?
- Are the tools (discussion boards, journal, blog tools, assignment submission facilities etc) in positions where students can find them?
- Is information being replicated unnecessarily across multiple pages?
- Does the colour scheme make it more difficult for students to read text on different devices?
- Are there too many images that slow down the site?
None of these items are likely to present large issues for your students on their own, but when systematically incorporated into the design of a course, unit or subject, can achieve impactful improvements to the student experience. Remember that the frustrations you face when using a platform are likely to be similar to those your students face. Keep this in mind and your online course design should improve in leaps and bounds.
Have you any views on the User Interface or User Experience design of Learning Management System or your online teaching that you would like to share? Post your thoughts below!