Sunday, January 27, 2008

Thinking about not thinking

I'm probably a latecomer to this particular party, but I recently read Steve Krug's "Don't make me think".

If you're not familiar with this great book but you design elearning, or work with it, I really suggest that you at least spend an hour down your local Borders and flick through it (it's so well put together that you'll get most of the take-away points in that time). Krug is a web-usability expert, and since the publication of the first edition of this book in 2002, I think he probably deserves the epithet "guru".

Krug central premise is summarised in the title of his book - anything that makes your users think twice about anything other than what they are trying to achieve when entering your website is an error. For Krug, the enemies of good design lie in splash pages, deviant navigation, unnecessary words, buttons that don't look like buttons (and non-buttons that do), CEO-inspired "wow-factor" - in fact, Krug's enemies are, by and large, enemies that should be common to elearning designers.

Krug's lesson is a simple one, but one that segues neatly with the work of elearning sciencey types like Clark and Meyer. Where Krug sees a fraction of a pause and a loss of good will, Clark and Meyer would probably sees cognitive interference.

One part that really struck a chord with me is Krug's advice to try to stick to recognised navigational patterns. As a reference he unapologetically refers to Amazon's way of doing things - many of the best facets of commercial web-design are on display there - if perhaps they weren't devised for it in the first place.

I'm doing quite a lot of rapid approach content of late - mostly with tools like Articulate - and one good feature of these tools is the interactions are quite straight forward; the learner soon forgets about the interface and can concentrate on the learning. At the same time, reviewing a couple of courses I wrote a couple of years ago I can see some instances where "cool" interactions I thought up to explore content are more than likely going to cause my learners to blow a fuse, or at the very least break the flow of their learning.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What we want and what we get - the difference

I'm not sure whether you will be able to see this article from MSN, but if you can't, I'll summarise:

The author, some MSN intern, looks at a Which? study (Which? is a consumer magazine in the UK) that reveals that the majority of people would like simpler gadgets. Our author, let's call him Patrick, thinks on this and spots a very reasonable reason for the dischord between what people are after and what they get - 'feature lust'.

Okay, so Patrick doesn't put it in those terms, but he may as well have done. He draws the point that while we may want a TV that we can slump in front of, switch on and watch, we also want to plug seven different gadgets into it, fiddle with the colour settings, tweak the sound...

In short, we think we know what we want - a simple TV - but we go and buy bells and whistles.

Much like elearning.

The shopping list is usually pretty simple upfront: cheap way to train X,000 staff in Y weeks, budget £Z. And often enough this could be achieved with a little thought and sacrifice. Except that what gets added to the mix is the need for vip videos, branded graphics, pizazz, wow factor, "engaging interactions" - the list goes on. And the list rarely includes anything that will impact the learner in a positive way.

More often than not, of course, the person buying the TV will go into the store knowing what they're after but will be "persuaded" by a sales person to buy the SuperBlack screen and the 7D Immersive Audio. And likewise the elearning sales person is as much to blame for some "training" decisions that are not in the best interests of the learner.

I think that this point also crosses with Donald Clark's article on the UK eLearning press - these magazines, that land on the desk of pretty much anyone who as ever so much as hinted at the idea they might buy or sell any amount of elearning, sell a vendor-friendly view of elearning, typically hinging on the next great technology that one or more of their advertisers is looking to make a return on.

Which is a shame, for there is a lot to be said for keeping things simple.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

When the school is part of the curriculum

As a parent of a young child I'm only now really aware of how little schooling has changed since I was my son's age, a quarter of a century ago. For all the advances in society in that time, there is still the playground, the sand box, the quiet corner and so on. This is nothing surprising - the unchanging state of schooling is something that exercises other edu-bloggers fairly frequently.

In the case of my son's school, one of its strengths is also a weakness; the solid Victorian structures are packed on a very small site, hemmed in on all sides by densely packed housing and in the architecturally sensitive Clifton region of Bristol. While this size means small class numbers and no way the authorities can expand it to capitalise on the strong reputation it has, at the same time the classrooms reflect an approach to education that came into being when the docks down the hill were alive to the sounds of ships from all over the world trading their wares and the paint was still drying on Mr Brunel's fabulous suspension bridge just around the corner. That was a while ago and the city, and society, have changed somewhat.

So this excellent narrated slideshow, showcasing a unique new elementary school in Tachikawa, a city in the sprawl of the Tokyo megalopolis, is really interesting. The very fabric of the building itself is part of the children's education: there are no classrooms, only an open plan interior that extends around the playground; the playground spreads onto the roof, with a slide into the yard and rope ladders from the class areas through skylights set into it; a tap in the yard spills water out across the wooden floor so the children can watch and observe how it runs away.

Japan is a hugely traditional country. Many of its schools (like the one below, in Toba-shi, Mie-ken) were built to short order in the massive urban expansion of the post-war period, seemingly from the same handful of plans. Consequently they look identical and are easily recognised as you ride the trains. The institutional look, as the designers of the new school say, reminds you more of a prison than a place of learning.

In order to be radical the Tachikawa school had to be private to bypass the otherwise restrictive planning regulations. Unfortunately this highlights that, regardless of where you are, genuine originality and innovation in education seem available only to those who can afford it - the rest have to make do with what's always been there.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Using a natural voice

A neat summary of some key ways to express yourself in a friendly, conversational tone here on a post from Pick The Brain.

All too often, writing on behalf of an organisation seems to disengage the normal part of the brain that people usually rely on to communicate and instead adds some kind of 'quasi-formality loop'.

The article discusses the research in the book 'eLearning and the Science of Instruction' that shows that there are real learning gains to be made in addressing learners in a way that reflects conversation - in effect 'tricking' the brain in to thinking that it is part of a conversation which is an activity that we somehow rate as more valuable, hence more memorable, than simply reading.

Since we all know how to talk, ensuring that we use a more relaxed tone in addressing learners is, in effect, a free benefit. Great stuff.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Dr Ishii's Brain Training

Not really anything to do with elearning as such, but an interesting exercise in problem solving.

Have a go at this unusual little flash game, aided only by the curious bit of Japlish to start.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

New year - new tongue?

Got a NYR to learn a language? It wouldn't happen to be Spanish, would it? If so, I have the thing for you.

JapanesePod 101, my favourite Learning 2.0 opportunity (even if the LMS behind it could do with some work), have now extended to other languages, Spanish and, given that they are based in Japan this is useful, English. They are offering extended free trials to anyone who has signed up to J-Pod, and to anyone they know.

In the holiday spirit of giving and exchanging
gifts, I'm going to give YOU, and ANYONE YOU
would like to INTRODUCE, a 30-DAY FREE
TRIAL of all our Premium features on both the new and
I ask for no money in return, just a subscription
through iTunes and if you have the time, a review
on iTunes of what you think (and please be nice).
Again, it is our community that makes such a special place to learn,
and we think and will be just as special for students
of Spanish and English.

To subscribe to our podcast and post a review
simply follow the links below and click the "subscribe"
button on iTunes. iTunes Store iTunes Store

To get your 30-Day Free Trial and to test drive
all of our Premium features, simply sign up for a
7-Day Free Trial using the links below and you'll
automatically be upgraded to 30 days: Registration Page Registration Page

Please be sure to share this with anyone who you
think may be interested.
I can endorse the approach of J-Pod and if they are extending the same model to these two offerings it can only be good. Give it a go!
Oh yeah, happy new year by the way.