Designing Learning Experiences
Once you scratch at the surface of producing learning materials, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many elements to their creation. An overarching theme outlined here is that of “designing the learner experience”. This introductory advice document examines the notion that building a resource is akin to the process of an architect designing a building where context is paramount.
Designing a learning experience is the culmination of careful consideration in planning of all aspects of a resource, including designing the intended interaction we wish the learner to have with that resource. It involves us leading the user to the learning objectives we wish them to achieve, whilst also making allowances for unintended interactions/learning. In short, the final resource is only part of the whole package as is the actual build of a new building.
It is worth clarifying here what is meant by the term ‘resource’. A resource is one or more objects that have a shared commonality or link to each other. In e-learning, the term ‘learning object(s)’ is often used to represent this concept, a series of ‘learning objects’ that together form a resource. However, a learning object may on its own form a whole resource if designed as such.
For example, four videos designed to be used in the fictional module ‘Building bridges’ are each a learning object, which together are identified as a resource on the topic of building bridges. Each of the four videos may be designed to standalone without each other or all four may be required for it to be coherent narrative.
Furthermore, a resource should be seen in terms of the ‘resource components’ e.g. the videos, and the learning experience element, which we will now look at in more detail.
For example, if a learner is shown a photograph, the resource is the photo but essentially it’s more than just that as the image will potentially provide the learner context with various bits of information (e.g. people, fashion, objects, location and date) and there will be learning objectives based upon the photograph. A learner cannot just be given the photograph and expected to be able to know what the learning objectives are or the task asked of them.
Therefore design of the learner experience and how learning objectives are communicated needs to be considered very carefully.
The 'fail whale' is visible whenever Twitter is not working – its purpose is to inform you that Twitter is having issues whilst showing some humour if you are a regular user of the service. As Twitter crashed so often in its infancy, the above graphic was on display quite a lot, becoming an in-joke amongst its users.
Twitter's 'fail whale'
Benefits of a well designed experience
We have all heard the saying ‘if you build it they will come’. Whoever made that statement has clearly never put vast amounts of effort into creating an audio recording as a resource only to have nobody listen to it. Building great resources is more than just the finished resource itself. There is a good chance that the recording produced was good, however other factors will have let it down, specifically those that are part of the learning experience.
For every learning resource (or learning object) produced, the fundamental considerations that must be made are:
- How it will be used?
- The learning design to accommodate this 'how'
- The actual design of the resource
A learner will interact with a resource at least once. We should be able to identify what the most common interactions are and plan our resource to use/withstand any such interaction.
For example we expect an audio podcast to be listened to, so it's our duty to design the podcast to be of a high enough quality so that it’s audible, and that its format will likely work on most common players.
Take the example of a lecture presentation: it is now more likely than not that it will be made available for the learner. Knowing this, are there design decisions that can be made to ensure a good experience? For example, providing session notes and further resources for consultation e.g. to websites, books and journal articles, will prove to be a more useful design for a learning resource than just releasing the lecture presentation as a standalone learning object.
Therefore, factors in a learning experience include:
- Learning objectives (what is the learning process trying to support?)
- Context (in what situation is it likely to be used)
- Object used e.g. podcast, photo, video – (forming part of the experience)
- External factors (what other factors/objects will interact with the resource?)
- Location (where the resource will be used – home, campus, mobile device?)
Design and build
Based on the learning objectives and likely interaction we would design and build the resource to meet these needs. Again, in the context of a podcast, designing a resource that considers the context in which a learner is likely to listen to the recording and how (will it be downloaded, is the resource embedded amongst additional information etc), and ensuring that the audio is of high enough quality for these scenarios. Consideration must be given to whether there are additional improvements that could be made, such as making a summary and/or transcript?
Successful e-learning requires the same mindset. The final outcomes must not be considered in isolation: reflection on resources, budget, goals and interaction must also take place.
Resources do not exist in isolation and will potentially have room for improvement. In order to seek where any improvement can be made, then monitoring and analysing the learning experience and outcomes are the next logical steps to make.
Consideration on what is meant by success and how can the results be captured should take place. Is it that all learners downloaded it and a count of this is gained? Is this enough? No, the emphasis should be on measuring what the learner has gained from using the resource. If the students did not achieve fully the learning objectives, then a further iteration of the learning design process may be required in order to address the shortfalls.
Considering the learner's experiences and interactions with a resource is key for creating successful learning resources. Designing the learner experience will support planning and provides a clear strategy on what needs to be achieved and act as a benchmark for testing and measuring its success. Another benefit is that a review of learner achievement will better inform potential further development of the resource, increasing the likelihood of success.
Our sister service JISC InfoNet has a User Interaction Design InfoKit which may also be of interest.