Designing an online environment for learning

I’ve recently been involved in two conversations at an institutional level around the implementation of an LMS to support formally provided programmes of learning. In each case I am very supportive of the direction the organisation is headed, and the general intent and vision that is driving the decision making.

In both cases, however, the institution has already made an investment in an LMS and the task of implementing it now lies in the hands of a mix of people – with the final decisions in each case being made by those responsible for IT. It’s a scenario I’m becoming all too familiar with, and it causes some concern.

The following observations characterise the experiences I’ve had either directly or indirectly with a number of organisations implementing an LMS:

  • an emphasis on expediency – ‘we’ve invested in this so we want to get some use made of it quickly’
  • investment decision driven primarily from concern about cost – (which is inevitable, and an important consideration – both in terms of up front cost as well as total cost of ownership over time.)
  • limited involvement of teaching staff in the decision – apart from, perhaps, a response to a cry of “we need one”
  • implementation left to the IT dept. who exercise some degree of ‘control’ over what happens based on ongoing concerns about issues of security, data integration and network integrity etc.
  • once the LMS is implemented, individual teachers are provided with maximum choice and flexibility in how the create the ‘look and feel’ of the interface for their course (usually as a means of gaining buy-in from staff)

What I see less frequently are the following:

  • an intensive period of facilitated discussion with teaching staff (as the end users) to develop a shared perspective on the linking of pedagogy to online learning space design.
  • a significant modification of the LMS interface to reflect the pedagogical decisions of teachers, and to provide a coherent experience for all users across the various courses that are provided by the organistion/institution.
  • a strategic integration of the LMS with other applications to provide the full range of online learning services required to provide the optimal online learning experience.
  • a significant stream of input from learners to provide user-feedback on usability and the user experience.
  • a period of negotiation with staff to develop a set of principles to underpin the interface design so as to achieve a coherent user experience across the range of course options provided by the organisation.

The decision to implement an online learning environment (of which an LMS is likely to be one part) at an organisational level is probably one of the most significant decisions an educational organisation will make – similar in significance to the decisions around the actual building of the physical school buildings in the first instance.

Consider how that process works out. We spend a huge amount of money on urban planners, architects, interior designers etc. to achieve what it is that we want for the buildings we construct for new schools. If the process is a good one, it will include a significant amount of consultation with teachers to identify what it is that they want to achieve – both individually and as a team (school). In this process the conceptual design of the buildings may be altered to reflect the thinking of the teachers, and at similarly, teacher’s views will be altered because they will come to appreciate the perspectives of the architects and builders who have to take account of things such as the overall look at feel of the building (not just the individual rooms inside), the linking of services that means all rooms have electrical outlets providing 230V service and connectivity to the outside world etc, and standardisation of features such as the height of door handles or the position of electrical switches so that visitors to each of the rooms throughout don’t have to hunt for these in different places. At the end of the process we end up with a building that is unified in its design, providing a coherent experience for all who move around and work/learn in it. Individual teachers can create all sorts of differences in the way they decorate the interior of rooms, and in the programmes they offer inside the rooms – but they can’t move the position of doors or windows, or raise the roof, change the location of fixtures such as light fittings and power outlets etc without considerable effort and expense – often impacting on what is happening in other parts of the building. Similarly, if we neglect to incorporate these features at the outset, the experience of people using the building will be impacted and we won’t realise the potential that having a well designed building from the outset would provide.

If we accept that the same thinking is important as we move from a physical environment for teaching and learning to a virtual, or online, environment, then the same principles apply. The consideration of teacher’s views and opinions are strategically (and professionally)  very important – but for the most part, that’s exactly what they are – views and opinions. They may be expert in their particular field of teaching, and may also be specialists in pedagogical knowledge and application, but they don’t naturally translate into an online environment. Moving into the online world brings us all into an ‘unknown’ to some extent, where it’s simply not acceptable to assume a transfer of knowledge from one domain to another (the “additive” effect that Neil Postman talks about). The design of effective online learning spaces must inevitably take into account the identified needs of teachers – but it requires a two-way conversation. The teachers must come to appreciate that there are things about how environments online are architected and developed that they may not be aware of, and that decisions they make now may impact negatively on their ability to act with agility or innovatively further down the track.

I’m a huge supporter of educational organisations venturing into the world of online learning – but the lessons we’ve learned from poor building design in the past should provide some sense of important about the way we should approach the development and implementation of an online learning environment.

13 thoughts on “Designing an online environment for learning

  1. I have a few questions Derek. If an ‘institution’ is a school does it actually need an LMS as part of it’s online environment? Or does one single institution need its own LMS? Why implement something that merely reinforces 20th century models of education? Why not start connecting our schools through these environments? The notion of a ‘school’ is somewhat blurred in an online situation. Is the way forward environments that encompass groups /clusters / communities of schools. If we are building from the ground up why not start thinking in a far broader context?

    1. All good questions Darren – I’d ask the same ones. My point in this post is to address the approach that I see occurring in existing institutions that are already down the track. The concept of a genuinely ‘future-focused’ environment lies at the heart of work I did with Sandy Britain back in 2004 to develop the OLE guidelines that the MoE has on its website. Unfortunately they proved to be ahead of their time (in NZ at least) and so seem to have been relegated to an archive of the “too hard” pile 🙂
      Thanks for your comments, though – we certainly need to keep our eye on the horizon rather than immediately in front of our face on this one.

  2. haha. I should have read the previous post before commenting. Anyway, perhaps persuading schools to share online environments rather than create their own might start a shift in thinking on other, more important issues.

  3. I think the same applies to School Management Systems. We use an SMS and I have seen no improvements to the user interface in the last two years we have been using it. There wasn’t a lot of choice to begin with and it seems we have got what we’ve been given and that how it is going to be for ever. I thought the whole idea of these things being on line was that they would be easy to update. Sadly it doesn’t appear to be so.

  4. I have to say that I have found it difficult to engage some schools in having the LMS conversations. I spent some time looking at the various “approved” LMS’s and did a whole comparison looking at cost, functionality, interoperability, etc. Sadly, at the end of the day, the decision was based on two factor:
    1) We think we should have an LMS, and
    2) What does Conor recommend.

    The whole idea of where the use of an LMS fits in with the overall learning vision and strategic direction of the school, I don’t think has been really considered. However, I think the choice of LMS is the right one, which will hopefully serve its purpose going forward once the schools come to terms with their learning vision/direction.

    Finally, to respond to AllanahK’s comment regarding SMS’s. I think too much choice muddies the waters for schools. This is because vendors have their interests at heart not yours, which often results in disappointment for the school as the vendor overpromises and underperforms. Schools are in the business of education, not software, therefore letting the MoE identify those vendors whose product meets set criteria, I think, reduces risk for schools. Yes, there may be a product out there that could do the job better, but you don’t really know until you have tried it live. Better the devil you know in this instance. However, if you are an approved vendor, I have to agree that upgrades to interfaces, etc, based on feedback from clients is ver importantr. Perhaps this could be a requirement of maintaining MoE approved status

    1. Thanks again for the thoughtful comments, Conor. All good points – particularly the comment about fitting the use of an LMS within the overall learning vision of a school. My main concern isn’t so much about which application is used, or the degree of choice per se, but about the way we design the environment itself to provide a coherent user experience. Our pre-occupation with these tools from our own perspective, or simply from the fascination with the technology itself, denies the fact that our students are often the ones who have to move between and among the different ways in which they are implemented – and without a coherent design approach that is consistent with the learning vision etc, this can be pretty confusing.

  5. I am wondering about the situation where multiple platforms are in use. At my school we use KnowledgeNET and personally although it is a fantastic resource we certainly do not use it to its full capaciy and it is not a free online management system. We use aspects of KNET which I think could be covered equally well using wikis, blogs and web 2.0 tools. Where ePortfolios are concerned it would be great if there was compatibility between platforms so if a feeder school for an Intermediate used KNET and another UltraNET and another Blogger that these could be ammalgamated or read by a multi-reader platform so the information could be accessed and added to.
    I do wonder about making change, it can be successful! We initially started out with Smartboards several years ago and have now moved to Activboards and it is working really well. You make the best decison according to the information you have at the time but there always needs to be opportunity to reflect and streamline.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Victoria – I take your point about change, especially when it seems to be on the basis of simply comparing one application with another. Point is that there’s no “perfect” application, whether it be smart boards or LMSs, and in my experience, the effectiveness of use comes down to the thoughtful use of teachers more than the particular feature of the application itself. Teachers will always adapt and make the most of what they have 🙂 Your thinking about what happens for a student (or staff for that matter) moving between schools is well made, and reinforces my view that we need to take a more holistic, student-centred view to the design and implementation of the online learning environments that we are building.

  6. Good news, Derek. I have attempted to join. I’ll be interested to discover if the intended international spread of ideas extends to Lietuva. All the best with the project. Timely stuff.
    Cheers from Kaunas!

  7. You have made some great points and many that my school is currently considering as we go down the path of trying to take a patchwork learning environment and give it more of a cohesiveness and structure. Do you have any recommendations for places to visit online to find a review of many LMS’s against each other to help start the process?

  8. Great post. I found a great non-profit that has been helping disadvantaged school districts and has had many success stories improving student achievement in Math, SAT and ACT including Collier County, FL and St. Landry Parish, LA. Their site is CyberLearning also offers Technology courses that many schools could find useful.

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