Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Read/Write Web and the Everlasting Quest for Usability

Since last November, I have been heavily involved with wikis. To support our Sakai implementation at University of Delaware, I wrote a full report on Wikis in Higher Education, since it is a new tool to most professors at UD, and that we believed that it could provide some major instructional benefits. I have also been involved with the Teaching and Learning group of the Sakai community, using Confluence every week to support our confence calls.

A lot of people, when exposed for the very first time to a wiki, have the same reaction. They kind of question why they are so ugly, or why they can't find anything... I can't blame them. Most wikis are not that good looking, and most of them are a total mess in terms of information architecture.

When I was thinking of a reason why wikis are the way they are, something struck me: web usability and good design were hard to enforce with web 1.0, when only a few Internet-savvy people had access to push pages to the world. It was kind of a lost cause then, but now that everyone can publish to the Internet, it's even worse.

The biggest difference between wikis and other tools is the fact that wikis are unstructured by nature. You almost always start with a blank page, and you must create the content, the format, and the navigational patterns at the same time. Not an easy task for a web designer, so imagine for a common mortal! (Not that I am assuming that web designers are superior or anything, of course... They just spent more time on a computer, and less time in the great outdoors.) Blogs and widgets are highly structured, and you can change their look and feel afterwards, but not wikis.

Which is why I think it is time to educate wiki users to basic concepts of web usability.
  • Define a navigational structure: How will users navigate between pages in your site?
  • Define information architecture: How will your content will be organized, and do you need to explain it to your users (if you have to, it's usually a case of poor design)?
  • Keep your site shallow: Do not create a site that has sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-pages. It becomes a nightmare to navigate, and it is usually a sign that the information is not structured in a comprehensive way.
  • Divide your information in chunks: Use headings to serve as visual dividers, so that the information is visually scannable.
  • Use meaningful link aliases: Click Here! doesn't mean anything. Links will stand out by themselves because they are usually blue and underlined, you don't always have to isolate them.
I have more tips and tricks available in my report and on its page. I just finished a document explaining how to gain full advantage of the wiki tool in Sakai. Have a look at these resources, and give me your comments.

Open Question:

Do you have tricks, methods, references, or links to promote usability to non-designers, instructors, or students, wiki-related or not?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Six Critical Skills for College Graduates in the New Economy

I read an article in the paper version of the Chronicle of Higher Education today (yes, there are still paper versions of stuff) that got me thinking. The article is called The Case Against Assessment Tests and is basically a rant against normalized tests as a good metric for admission, graduation, and institution comparison. As more and more colleges pull back from requiring SAT scores from their new students, this article seemed very timely.

Most of the article is based on a speech by Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (a definite must-read for my summer). Pink cleverly exposes six new skills that are required by the new economy:
  1. Design: This skill is described as the ability to solve problems, to look at an issue and articulate a creative way to solve it.
  2. Story: This goes along the way of a lot of people I have met in the last year. I recently attended Alan Levine’s 50 Ways to Tell a Story (video version, CoverItLive version), and storytelling is now definitely one of my top priority.
  3. Empathy: I would describe this one as “the ability to give a c***” about what others are living and feeling. Empathy is at the heart of the motivation to help others.
  4. Play: The ability to bring something from boring to fun and engaging.
  5. Meaning: How do you give a meaning to what you do? What drives you? Student will have to be able to put meaning into words, to share it with others.
  6. Symphony: The skill to get a global vision of a project or a topic. This is the opposite of focused and narrow, which is what most graduate programs are all about. Personally, I think this skill could be embedded within Design.
Now, getting back into my “support staff for faculty using IT” shoes, I see a lot of obstacles to implementing such a right-brained perspective in my institution. Here are some of my observations:

  • This change cannot take place on a course by course basis. Programs must be reassessed and redesigned to make sure students are exposed to the opportunity to develop their creative side, even in sciences.
  • This change will be leveraged by network-savvy knowledge workers. The ability for universities to constantly redesign themselves will be a critical factor of success.
Assuming that the six skills we have to train our students on are not necessarily the skills the current workforce possesses, what strategy would you envision to make this change of culture happen?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Follow-up on the Tiny - Learning From Post-it Notes

Not too long after I published my last blog post, I stumbled upon this article by Tom Kuhlmann about what we can learn as Instructional Designers about Post-it Notes on someone's work station:

Here is a quote from the blog post:

"A few years ago, I worked on an IT elearning project that took months to build. By the time we were ready to roll it out, we found that some of the machine operators had already created a bunch of "cheat sheets" and passed them out to everybody on the floor."

It once again shows that we tend to over-design our learning objects most of the time, putting too much effort and time on trying to reinvent the wheel instead of focusing on productivity. It also examplify that not all learning has to be in a digital format. The real touchable paper-based learning object or job aid still has its place in our everyday life.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Tiny, Micro, Mini… Everything is so Small!

While I was going back through my notes from the 2008 ELI Annual Meeting in San Antonio, I noticed a common pattern that came back over and over again: everything is getting smaller. We see in our everyday life examples of this miniaturization of things: cell phones, PDAs, laptops, memory keys, cars, etc.

The same seems to apply to communication. While access to high-speed internet becomes widespread, people are now microblogging, sharing their thoughts with their friends and the world at every second of every day, using all the electronic gizmos they can lay their hand on. Let me share my thoughts on microblogging for a second, having started myself to use Twitter.
Twitter, or the art of constantly processing bits of information

Twitter, or the art of constantly processing bits of information

During the ELI conference, it was the buzzword of all buzzwords: Twitter. Twitter this, Twitter that… Are you Twittering? Can you Twitter that link please? I’m a Twitteri.

As a good instructional designer, I said to myself: “It’s something the digital natives do, so I should do it too. Plus, I’m not that far away from being a digital native myself, I can handle it!”

So I set up my account, subscribe to the ELI Twitter, and observe the Twitterii (Twitter users) in action. It was a mix of interesting on the spot reflections, reactions to controversial comments, link sharing, and everyday stuff (like Oh no, my shoe lace broke!). I must say that beyond my first thought that this was another buzzword, I must say that it helped me get on the informal side of the conference, and to get to know people I would have never met otherwise.

As a professional development experience, I must say that it was somewhat a success, and I’m still using Twitter as we speak… I have recently found out that there are a ton of widgets available, including some pretty cool desktop clients that can help you manage multiple accounts, and get the same kind of feeling you had a couple of years ago with MSN Messenger (seeing people change their personal line). We’ll see how this turns out in a couple of months…

I must say that I wouldn’t recommend to any of my faculty members to use it though… I would look like an alien. Twitter goes against the main message we are trying to get through: learning has to be interconnected and contextualized (like a portfolio approach). Students need to get a global view of their learning and try to connect the dots, and Twitter offers a junk food (or snack) approach where knowledge –or more likely information-- is bite-size, scattered, consumed, and thrown away.

As we heard during a video that was built by citizen journalists during the conference, "Twitter is like texting, but its cooler".

The Emergence of Tiny in Higher Education

It started a long time ago, back when the only way to teach was to lecture in front of a class. Countless hours of knowledge absorption. We all thought the internet age would solve this malaise, and it might have… somewhat.

The concept of learning object is one of the first attempts at reducing the instruction chunk. Professors would now produce bits of knowledge and arrange them in a sequence in order to get millenials (also known as the MTV generation) to watch and read in a way that was familiar. Regardless of the fact that most learning objects are not shared to the world, this method is pretty effective in comparison with a three hour lecture.

But what about faculty training? I have been working with faculty members for the last eight years, and I can say one thing: they don’t have a lot of time on their hands to go through instruction manuals on teaching and learning with technology. But, still, we provide technology training in-class (knowing that it is highly inconvenient for them), or through documentation (who has the time to read anyway nowadays?).

By listening to my colleagues at the ELI conference, I realized that small chunks of training material were appropriate for faculty training too. Stacy and John at Indiana University talked about their upcoming “OnCourse Minutes”, YouTube style getting started instructional videos for professors, Becky at University of Florida developed a Toolbox, where professors can get a quick overlook at all web 2.0 technologies, and the popularity of the 7 Things You Should Know About series (a two page document explaining the use of a technology and its relevance to education); these are all demonstrations of the application of the tiny principle in faculty training.

There comes a time where something cannot get smaller to make sense. Think of the reduced leg space in some discount air carriers, for instance… But I think that using job aids in addition to documentation is a start. I’ll try to push to make sure every document developed at our institution regarding our next learning management system is accompanied by a one page diagram that shows the full process at a glance (sorry, it's in French), something a faculty can tack on his/her wall in the office. Users could inspect the parts they don’t understand in more depth in the documentation if they need to.

The next step after job aids would be embedded training (just-in-time) and wizards, but that’s for another blog post…


Have a look at my links for some examples (tags: JobAids LearningObject, Faculty, Training, Twitter) at

Oh, and you can follow me on Twitter. My nickname is mathplourde.

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The ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are mine, and do not necessarely reflect my employer's point of view.

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This work by Mathieu Plourde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.