What Online Learning Should Look Like

I have taken courses from Codecademy, Coursera, and Stanford/EdX. Perhaps because they are all MOOCs, they follow very similar UI conventions. That noted, I like those conventions quite a bit. I find them much easier to navigate, to understand where I am and what I am supposed to be doing than the UI of something like Moodle, for example. Moodle is a Swiss Army knife, with something for everyone, but it makes it very, very difficult — at least in my experience — to strip off the parts a course doesn’t need, leaving users with having to navigate through irrelevant, and thus sometimes confusing, material.

This process, of a user needing to keep track of where they are and thus keeping track of what they are supposed to be doing, is known as cognitive overhead, is something I have been thinking about since the late 80s, but always in a casual fashion, always with only my own courses in mind. The many designs of this website, for instance, are part of my ongoing thinking through how to frame visually what interests me.

The question of design was hammered home to me over the past two weeks while I was enrolled in an on-line workshop to be certified in on-line course design. What I saw was the best possible use of Moodle I have ever seen, but within the framework, I encountered a mishmash of PDFs, Word documents, and on-line presentations that were poorly designed. Poorly designed may be, however, an inappropriate description: I don’t think there was any thought given to design at all. (We can argue that there is no such thing as no design, merely under-thought design some other time.)

Whatever the description, the outcome is that users struggle to figure out what it is they are supposed to know or what they are supposed to do. It was maddening.

Udemy's Interface

Udemy’s Interface

On Style with Regards to LaTeX

LaTeX users like to make the [“first content, then form” argument][] pretty hard, but it ignores that so many people in math, science, and engineering fields are there precisely because their first language is not a verbal one but something else. For some, it will be something more like the *design* that gets denigrated in WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) advocacy. That is, some people need white space and need to see how things look on the page—that is, they need to *see how their argument looks* and that is not an oxymoron. Which is another way of saying that design matters and should never get trivialized.

I get why so many beat the content drum so hard: they are pushing back against the ever-encroaching pressure just to shut up and use Word. I’ve got an essay right now that is in fact entering into the workflow of my discipline’s flagship journal and it’s going to have to get converted from LaTeX into Word. (Unless I can convince the editors to let us anonymize the text for them so that it can go out for review.)

So I’m in the middle on this one. On the one hand, for me, design always mattes. On the other hand, I too am just as tired of things seemingly randomly italicized or bolded or underlined by students of all stripes and sizes. Freshman do it. Upperclassmen do it. Graduate students do it. Even colleagues do it. If you ask them why something is that way, they just thing it looks “right” or “better” or “nice” for having been styled.

And that’s really what bugs me, and people with an interest in design too, and it probably drifts into this argument over content versus design: so much “styling”, and the quotation marks here indicate that this is the use of the word in practice (see note on Turner below), is not done within an eye to how the overall design, if the notion of an overall design is even present, serves the purpose of the document. At the very least, such “stylings” should be done with an eye to having a consistent meaning, or function, for the reader.

But that just doesn’t happen.

The result is pushback that calls for the death of PowerPoint or the death of Word. The applications are not bad tools in and of themselves. It’s just that we don’t train people to think fully with them. We give them some of the most amazing communication tools ever to have imagined by humankind, and we reduce Word to a typewriter with some formatting keys and PowerPoint to serving up chunks of regurgitated, often from a Word document, prose with some “pretty bits” to make it seem visual in nature. No wonder so often the results look like something out of a scrapbook: that may very well be the only exposure to design that many of our students and colleagues have ever had.

Unfortunately for all of us, the kind of holistic training in content and form that the our new communication infrastructure now encourages — requires even — just isn’t going to happen any time soon. At least not in the checkbox environment created by the Louisiana bureaucracy (and embraced so readily, *sigh*, by my local university). It’s going to require teams of people to work across established bureaucratic divisions of labor — faculty across departmental and college lines, business people across line and corporate divisions — to get the job done. Better, more forward thinking organizations are going to pull it off. And they will produce amazing individuals and products that will leave the graduates of other universities and the products of other businesses languishing in the shadows of failed communication.

[“first content, then form” argument]: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/wp.html