Let the Learner Experience Drive Design

DSC_0040-001By Eric Hudson, Dean of Instruction

The other day, I came across this photo on Twitter:

The photo comes from a Pinterest page, “UX Design Explained,” dedicated to best practices in product and web design. Mastery of UX, the user experience, has become a top corporate priority, whether a company designs ketchup bottles or some of the most popular technology in the world. It makes sense, doesn’t it? To gain an edge, companies need not only to make a great product, but also to understand what it is like for the customer to use the product. When confronted with five different brands of ketchup (which most likely all taste the same) at the supermarket, why wouldn’t we choose the ketchup in the bottle that doesn’t demand shaking and thumping and the possible intervention of a butter knife? Given the technology to make a better bottle, why would Heinz want to make access to ketchup difficult?

I would ask the same question of teachers: given the ways technology has made education simultaneously more accessible and more complex, isn’t the learning experience becoming as important as the learning product? In our discipline-oriented schools, we are accustomed to providing course-specific content (the “ketchup”), yet the internet has made much of that content easily accessible to almost everyone, our students included (for more on this, see this terrific post on the “Economy of Information”). Meanwhile, pressure is building on teachers to integrate technology into their practice, to teach “21st century skills” in addition to course-specific content. But, what do these things mean? How are they achieved? The answer may lie in Heinz’s user-friendly bottle: as educators in a hyper-connected, technologically rich world, we are in a position to design the best possible learning experiences for students, not only to make our product easier to access, but to help our students take ownership of their own learning, to practice the skills necessary to navigate complex tasks on their own.

Consider how GOA’s Comparative Religions teacher, Jenny Carlson-Pietraszek of Noble & Greenough School, designed her units of study:

Each unit is divided into three discrete parts. “Learn It” focuses on traditional course material: articles, primary sources, podcasts, films, etc. “Look In” and “Look Out” focus on application of that material. In “Look In,” students use discussions and reflective writing to consider the relevance of “Learn It” to their own lives and beliefs. In “Look Out,” they interview community and family members, research current events, and make presentations to their class in an attempt to understand how the “Learn It” material is relevant to the world around them.

This is the modern ketchup bottle of learning design: Jenny has built clear, predictable paths that encourage students to be more active learners, engaging with content in multiple ways and then generating course content as a way to demonstrate and expand understanding. In addition, the process is intuitive: the students can easily recognize — in advance — what, how, and why they will be learning. The design makes for a smoother and, in turn, richer learning experience because it allows the students to comfortably and confidently focus on the tasks at hand without confusion or anxiety about “where they’re headed.” No thumping, shaking, or manipulation of the bottle is necessary. Of course, struggle is a key component of learning, but the objective for students in this case is to struggle with the course material, not the format in which it is delivered.

Intuitive design can take many forms. Consider the use of text, video, and color to begin a unit in our Graphic Design course, taught by Glenda Baker of the American School in Japan. After outlining key tasks and goals for the week in writing and in video, she utilizes a Gantt Chart to help organize her students’ thinking around the types and intensity of the week’s work:

This kind of intentionality is especially essential in an online course: students do not have the luxury of daily, synchronous guidance from their teacher, and so must navigate much of the learning on their own. Yet this presents a unique opportunity: with guidance from the teacher, the student takes charge of his/her own learning process. With the map of the week laid out before the student, the experience becomes user-focused, and thus richer. Think about the last time you visited a new city: how satisfying was it to use a map to find a landmark or to master public transportation on your own? How much more satisfying — and memorable — was that experience than having to stop and ask for directions?

No matter how you design a learning experience, the key is to demonstrate empathy for the learner, to understand what it is like for a student to interpret your goals, your instructions, and your meaning. If your learning objectives are clear, then you will be able to leverage design to ensure students focus on key ideas and activities and are not distracted by unnecessary frustrations or digressions. You won’t let the bottle get in the way of the ketchup.