Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Usability in Elearning

Kern offers two kinds of services -- usability and elearning. Often our clients inquire about this holy matrimony of usability and elearning. I think usability lends itself naturally to any elearning solution. This got us into an interesting discussion about how usability impacts learning solutions.

Geeta: How do we apply the learning from usability to our elearning projects?

Ripul: Usability is a measurable attribute where we measure the usefulness of a product. We can apply the same concepts to elearning where we measure the learning ability or "learnability" of learners. The basic premise of usability is to make something easy and useful. At times, things may be easy to use, but may not be useful for the user. So, applying the same principle to elearning, we can make things easy to access as well as more learnable for learners.

Geeta: That's right. But often usability is limited to UI issues where the focus is more on the "ease to use" of elearning. For example, the focus is more on making the interface student-friendly, make navigation simpler, and reduction in download time. Whereas, usability in the real sense should focus on the "learnability" aspect of the courseware. So, how do you think usability can enhance "learnability"?

Ripul: Learnability can be enhanced by designing a courseware based on learners' needs, goals, and aspirations. To do this, first, we need to have a clear understanding of the learner; analyze their demographic and psychographic profile; understand their needs and motivations; and then come up with a design that best suits them. elearning organizations can adopt user research processes and techniques like contextual inquiry and observation to understand the learners, their learning goals, learning motivations, and the current learning patterns. This will also help organizations understand how learners use learning while working.

Geeta: This is exactly what must be done in the analysis phase of traditional elearning. Sadly, in a real world elearning scenario, the analysis phase is a mere formality, more so when content development is outsourced (will blog this sometime). In such a situation, the client is God and the subject matter expert (lovingly known as SME) is demi-god! They drive the requirements, provide the learner details, and define what strategies to follow. Amidst all this, we forget the plight of the poor learners who are left with no choice but to wear sweaters in summer! More often than not, instructional design is decided based on: - the engine capabilities - standard successful strategies - client's preference - budgetary constraints, and - SME's diktats

Ripul: That's precisely where the problems come up regarding the effectiveness of learning. The course has to be designed as per the learner and not based on client requirements alone. Business stakeholders play an important role in the process, however they should not drive the design. We must design for our learners. There can be no "one size fits all" in instructional design. Gagne's nine events are not the holy grail of instructional design -- all learning challenges cannot have a single solution.

Geeta: To get back to our discussion, we can apply our learning from usability optimally. We can offer good UI solutions, make navigation intuitive, simpler, and reduce dependence on secondary instructions. We can use contextual inquiry process to derive learner requirements to complement stakeholder requirements. We no longer need to hide behind "interpassivity" to engage learners, we can ensure that the learner really learns. But tell me how do you measure actual learning?

Ripul: Learning can be easily measured using usability testing methods. However, I feel, these methods need to be adapted for learnability testing. Current usability testing methods are highly skewed towards correct navigation and completion of tasks, which is not the main focus while learning. The usability protocols must be designed to measure effectiveness of learning.

Geeta: The effectiveness of learning is in achieving the learning objectives that the learner has set out to achieve in the first place. Therefore, learnability testing should ensure that there is a one-on-one mapping with the learning objectives at the learners' workplace and not just in a laboratory setup.