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Designing for Learners, Designing for Users

By Dave Smulders / February 2003

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I recently conducted some online course usability reviews for a client when I came across a strange but, I suspect, not unusual phenomenon that I have encountered elsewhere in the past. Threaded discussion areas are one of the mainstays of the traditional online course and one expects to see a high level of interaction there, yet I was dismayed to see that a considerable proportion of the online discussion in these courses was focused on troubleshooting the technical failings and logistical flaws of the course, with very little discussion about the actual course content. In one example, students attempted over a period of two weeks of asynchronous discussion to arrange a time for a synchronous chat.

What were these students actually learning? Looking at this course, I was beginning to wonder if at the end of the session the only thing the students learned was how to use the technical features of the course, and even that was borderline!

Learners, Users: Who's Who?
The example above illustrates a problem with online course environments that I've seen too often in my experience as an online instructor, course designer, and—perhaps most important—student. While considerable time is rightly devoted to the development of learning outcomes, goals, activities, and assignments for the online environment, there is little or no consideration for making that environment transparent enough so that learners can engage in the learning activities instead of having to take a crash course in overcoming idiosyncratic interface design. The trouble comes from not recognizing the distinction between the roles of user and learner in the online environment.

Online courses that are designed for learners without any thought to users invariably results in frustrated students who can't figure out how to negotiate an online course. It's all very well to provide forms of interactivity, such as discussions and collaborative assignments, but if students can't understand the information architecture of the course in order to move efficiently from one section to another, then the learning activities are in vain. The poor usability of the online course, therefore, inhibits the students' ability to learn, as they end up spending the majority of their time on the phone to the Help Desk instead of to their instructor or fellow students, or with their noses in the Help manual rather than a textbook, journal article, or discussion thread.

Making the Distinction
MIT caused a stir in educational circles by announcing their open courseware initiative, in which all course documentation will be made freely available online. This idea butted against the prevailing trend of locking everything up behind a tightly guarded firewall and only allowing passage through the main gates after paying the entrance fee. MIT's point is, rightly, that genuine education doesn't exist as a collection of online content—static, interactive, animated or otherwise. Rather learning is something much greater than a simple transmission of information through the process of downloading.

What MIT has done, in fact, is separate the needs of the learner from the needs of the user in an online context. Open courseware is an environment for users. Learners aren't part of the picture because, as MIT maintains, learning occurs elsewhere (i.e. on the MIT campus, with students and faculty). That's not to say that you can't enjoy a successful learning experience sitting in your office or living room, connecting with others via the Internet. Yet, as online courses from institutes of higher education have flooded the marketplace and become a constant source of criticism for their poor design and high drop-out rates, it is clear that the rarely made distinction between learners and users is problematic.

Form vs. Content
The difference between users and learners can be boiled down to the issue of form versus content. This is even more apparent in the online course environment. Users, for the most part, are interacting with the form of the Web course—that is, your interface, navigation, information architecture, and visual design both of your screen layout and of the actual content. By navigating their way through the form of your Web-based environment, users can access the content, at which point they can don their learner's cap and get down to the business of interacting with the content, communicating with the instructor and fellow students, and—surprise!—learning.

Think of it this way: In a history course, a learner needs to know how to write an essay—that is forming ideas, doing research, synthesizing information, and presenting cogent arguments on a position. A user, on the other hand, needs to know how to submit the essay—what tools to use to create it and where and how to transmit it so that the instructor receives it on time.

One of your learning goals may be to foster collaborative work among students. Knowing your users will help you determine how to accomplish that goal. Are they spread across a city or state in three or four high-tech labs with video conferencing facilities, or are they employees of an international non-profit agency with field offices in multiple time zones and equipped with outdated and unreliable technology? And how familiar are these people with the available technologies? Are you springing something new on them or do they use the technologies in question every day in their jobs. The difference is everything.

Content, as the aphorism goes, is king, and this is no less true for an online course. However, the interface design of an online course need not be regarded as a mere technicality. "I don't care what it looks like as long as it has everything my students need." Well, yes, but this attitude often leaves the students high and dry when the course begins. If the students are having trouble finding and retrieving important content, or they are unable to use the communication tools properly, then that initial lack of care has resulted in a barrier to their effective learning.

It will spare everyone time and anxiety to separate the responsibilities for form and content and let the experts do what they know how to do best. You wouldn't ask a Web designer to write the content for your business writing course. Why, then, would you as a content expert expect to design the interface for your course? It works both ways.

The Double Life of the Online Student
Among other things, learning involves the processing of information from one's short-term to long-term memory. In order to acquire and retain knowledge, learners need to engage with material, review it and refer to it as they see fit. They need to apply their new knowledge within meaningful contexts in order to develop their own understanding of problems and concepts encountered in the course materials. In this way, learning is all about making connections. One of the challenges of course developers is to create conditions for this learning process. Instructional design involves selecting suitable resources and activities that will engage learners and encourage them to make the connections necessary for learning to occur.

But here's where the habits of users deserve attention because an online environment is also comprised of connections, though these are of a more functional rather than cognitive nature. Part of any Web site's success, whether for commercial, entertainment, or educational purposes, is its ease of use. Recognizing where to go, what to do, and how to do it, and how to get back where you've already been are essential for an online course if a learner is going to interact in it meaningfully and efficiently. Amazon doesn't compel new users to take a tutorial on how to buy a book, nor does Yahoo! run workshops on how to send an email. These sites provide "help" information but that's for back-up. A good, usable site doesn't expect users to start with the help information. Shouldn't this be obvious? Yet many online courses provide orientation modules for working in the course environment. If it isn't, then maybe there's a problem.

Online course developers need to consider the double persona of the learner-user. On the one hand, the Web pages need to make sense structurally. Directions and navigation must be instantly recognizable and, hopefully, so obvious as to be invisible. From this angle, the task is to make the course environment easy. The design of instruction, however, will incorporate challenges, rigor, moments for reflection—these are anathema to principles of good Web design. Yet all these elements can co-exist in harmony if they are designed to complement rather than conflict with each other.

Iterative Design
A well designed online course will incorporate time and expertise early on in the development of a usable interface for students (and instructors for that matter!). Quickie usability tests and heuristic evaluations within the development cycle will contribute to an iterative design process that improves the final product (the online course) well before it has reached the moment when it is finally ready for delivery. This is just good planning by the instructional designer. All too often students unwittingly and unintentionally serve as the first usability testing subjects of the online course environment. Unfortunately, this is not why they logged on. A flood of complaints and cries for assistance to the Help Desk quickly indicates problems that could have been solved long before this moment. By this time, however, it's too late: Your students—your customers—are upset and damage to you and your organization's reputation has been done. A group of five to seven users would have probably discovered the same errors in a test lasting less than an hour. How many problems could have been discovered when the online course was still in a storyboard paper form before the costly process of programming began?

Usability has long been the rallying cry of the underdog in the world of human-computer interaction although its star power—with names like Jakob Nielsen, Donald Norman, and Jared Spool—has created enough of an impression to make inroads into the commercial side of the Web. The roles and responsibilities of different players in the online course development process are still being defined as colleges and universities devote more resources to e-learning products and services. This is a good time for usability and interface design specialists to sneak onto development teams before anyone has to finally notice that they're not there.

Dave Smulders, Editor, Learning Resources Unit, British Columbia Institute of Technology has worked as a teacher, online tutor, instructional designer, editor and course writer, with particular focus on distance education and online course development. He currently work as a learning materials editor for the Learning Resources Unit of the British Columbia Institute of Technology and can be reached by email at [email protected] and [email protected] He is also one of the editors of "SideBars," an ezine about distributed learning (









academic rigor

ease of use

stop and think

point and click

soak it up


deep reading


problem solving

problem avoidance

critical thinking

inquisitive browsing



trial by error

avoiding errors

figure it out

make it obvious

answers are open to interpretation, discussion, and feedback

the customer is always right

end product = end of course

end product = launch of course


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