Online Usability: The Natural Way to Learn

[The following is reprinted from the technology issue of Torah at the Center, and educational publication from Union for Reform Judaism. Read the whole technology issue by clicking here.]

By Monique Cuvelier, Usability Consultant and CEO, Talance.com, Burlington, MA

The last thing you want a student to do in an online course is to think. That sounds wildly counterintuitive, considering most instructors want students to have thinking caps strapped tightly on and cranked to maximum when they sit down to learn. However, if students are thinking too hard about what to do with online course software, they’re not going to be engaged in the course materials – and that’s the reason you want them there in the first place.

The benefits of e-learning programs are clear. They’re convenient, bring students together who live in different places and can be adapted to address the various needs of students. But many organizations focus too closely on the benefits and not enough on usability, the ease in which students can navigate a course and accomplish learning goals.

The trouble is that creating good usability should look natural and easy, but it’s incredibly hard. What seems the natural way to work in an online arena is not natural; it takes planning and design. In the six years that I’ve been making online learning environments more intuitive for students and teachers at my company Talance.com, I’ve seen students drop out of courses, give up on their favorite topics and turn their ire to their hapless instructors all because they were confused and frustrated by the technology.

Below are a few rules you can think about when evaluating online courseware or creating a simple online learning environment from scratch.

Familiar Workflows

Students should move naturally from one task to the next. Tasks should guide the students to the right information at the right time. For instance, you may want the student to work through the course this way: log in, read any pertinent announcements, review reading material, discuss a project in the bulletin boards, submit a writing assignment. In this case, make sure the announcement appears on the course homepage and that instructions for the writing assignment are at the end of the reading material. Include enough shortcuts that students can navigate easily from one task to the next.

Free-Flowing Communication

Students should have open channels of communication with you (the teacher) and other learners, whether the course is synchronous or asynchronous. Add options for navigation. Icons on the homepage that take you to different sections of the course are OK – as long as you’re on the homepage. Use tabs at the top of the screen to create quick access to frequently used sections of the course, because they can be seen from any page. Course participants should find it easy to send course e-mail, and they should know at a glance if they have new messages. They should know where to find help, through an FAQ or an e-mail form where they can submit technical support issues.

Flexible Enough to Foster Creativity

Multiple-choice questions may be fine in some circumstances but are too rigid on their own to address all learning styles and encourage creativity in an online course. Present several ways for students to learn and interact, such as real-time chat rooms with whiteboards, and essay-type questions in tests. Allow students to upload Microsoft Word documents, which let them work in their familiar computer environments rather than typing responses into text forms.

Hebrew-Language Support

Think about how your software handles Hebrew, if you require it for your class. Support for Hebrew is often not included in the first release of software packages. Can you render characters in Unicode or graphically? Discussion boards in particular may have difficulty rendering Hebrew characters, especially along with English. Can you allow students to attach Word documents that are formatted for Hebrew?

Just the Essentials

One hazard of working with an online course is there is no page limit. Avoid information glut by presenting students with just the information they need. Create places for secondary information elsewhere in the course for those who want to learn more.

Following these principles is only the first step to creating a more usable online course. Make better usability an ongoing effort by constantly noting problems students have, asking for feedback and making adjustments. Eventually, you’ll find the more you think about how students learn in an online environment, the less your students will have to.

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