Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The interface of a Personal Learning Environment

The way a website looks and feels to the user is important in the experience a person will have while online. Nathan Shedroff has written extensively about 'the online experience'. As people are unique, they will each have their own experience, but, Shedroff  identified several factors that are important to any good experience and should be incorporated in the online design. I have adapted these a little to incorporate in these the issues important in creating a positive online learning experience.

These six principles are: 

1. Time and duration: A learning experience will quite often start before the learner even puts fingers on key board; a process of reflection precedes the actual learning activity, and thinking processes might continue long after the actual online activity has finished.

2. Interactivity.  People can interact with people and resources online and for the creation of meaningful learning experiences it will be important to ensure that the layout and connections between the two, information and communications tools to connect people through the interface, are intuitive and make sense to the learner. 

3. Intensity. The level and depth of these interactions will be important to the experience people have. The higher the level of engagement in the interactions, the deeper the experieince.

4. Sensorial and cognitive triggers. ‘There are many ways to view the same thing, though we often become so accustomed to certain standard views that we take the possibilities for granted and forget to even explore alternatives.’ (Shedroff, 2009, p70). Trying to find new forms to present, represent and visualize what we are trying to communicate will be important in engaging learners in learning activities.  ‘The most important aspect of any design is how it is understood in the minds of the audience.’ (Shedroff, 2009, p60) Everyone will create mental maps of what they have experienced and the crunch is to design the PLE in such a way that what you would like the learner to remember or know will remain in his mind. Which once again makes the design of the interface of the PLE important.

5. Breadth and consistency. The design of the learning experience, through the PLE interface, should be consistent. People experience not only with their finger tips on the key board, but as a whole person; through the senses, but also cognitively and emotionally, so the whole experience should  make sense to people and 'hang together', be holistic, even though details could be different.

6. Significance and meaning. Shedroff claims that if all these factors are incorporate in the design of the experience, it will be meaningful. I would like to add issues of relevance here as well as the more relevant the information on the site is, the higher the motivation to use it and the more meaningful it will be.

There are also  a few other issues of importance to the design of the PLE interface, related to usability. Accessibility is one; after all, if people cannot access what they would like to learn, they cannot experience it.  Simplicity and 'learnability' are two other issues. The simpler the operation of the site, through the interface, and the easier it is to learn how it 'works', the better the accessibility. In the technological landscape of today there will be a need to weigh up the accessibility issues against what is now possible in terms of interface design and tools and applications used.  The W3C has set worldwide standards for accessibility.

Peter Korn from Sun Microsystems  advocates thinking about accessibility issues from the start of the design and development process as it is difficult to adapt a site to full accessibility at a later date. A site that is fully accessible to all, including to people who use screen readers for reading text, might not have all the flash visual and interactive 'bells and whistles' that can now be created.  An alternative that is seen quite often is the design of two sites: one text based and another that contains a variety of images and objects. Choices will have to be made!

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