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Posts Tagged ‘design

I experienced something recently that reminded me how fallible basic instructional design (ID) is.

There is an agency that requires its potential hires to take one module and quiz as part of its selection process. Some organisations opt to do this and this might be helpful if they are selecting for quiz-smart hires.

But the issue is not about the predictive reliability of this move. I discovered that one page out of the reading material was missing, and as a result, two out of the ten quiz questions were unanswerable without some Googling.

Perhaps the test was about dealing with the unexpected. But that should not be an excuse for poor instructional design, specifically, constructive alignment. One basic element of ID is this: You cannot test what you do not teach.

What ID — and much of conventional teaching — struggles to handle is how we cannot deliver all the information a learner needs nor can we test every eventuality.

We cannot even guarantee something adequate because the standards shift and the goalposts move constantly and often unpredictably.

So we have to teach learners how to think. I do not know of anyone in ID who can claim that the classical approach (of testing only what you teach) can adequately do this.

Yesterday I tweeted this image of a new classroom.

First, some context. I visited the classrooms of a brand new building at a university campus. As there was very little foot traffic just after lunch, I decided to use the classroom like a student might.

I sat near the back where the door was and faced the instructor’s console. I worked in the room for an hour to let the experience soak in.

These rooms were already reviewed by critics and blatant design failures had been remedied. Or so they thought. I spotted some basics that were not addressed. I share a labelled version of the same photo I tweeted to highlight a few design mistakes.

Classroom critique.

A: The instructor’s console was awkwardly positioned

I get it — the console faced the glass wall so as to not replicate a lectern behind which an instructor might hide. I am for the idea of tutors learning how to be better facilitators instead of just deliverers of information.

I am not for a design that requires a facilitator to swivel 180 degrees to use the computer or visualiser and then turn back to face the class. A facilitator needs to constantly have eyes on his or her class to send and receive cues.

Even though such swivelling might be intermittent, a more involved presentation, e.g., the manipulation of a 3D object using the visualiser, will result having in the instructor’s back to the students.

Solutions: Swivel the console, not the instructor; provide professional development on facilitation strategies so that a properly-positioned console does not become a pedagogical crutch, fortress, or hideout.
B: Glass walls led to glare and buildup of heat

This was a corner classroom and three walls were almost entirely glass — the front (as shown), the left (not shown), and the back (where the door was).

Bright sunlight shone in from the front and left despite the leafy curtain.

I could not take the photo by panning from or to the left glass panel because the light was so bright. The glare might be reduced as the plants grow more thickly, but I cannot anticipate by how much.

Our Singapore sun is not forgiving. The glass walls created a greenhouse effect so that I started to sweat even though I was the only one in the room. Granted I had just facilitated a workshop elsewhere and was in a long-sleeved shirt. But imagine about 20 undergraduates in t-shirts and slippers getting a free sauna.

One solution: Provide pull-down shades to reduce the glare and heat.
C: Harsh and clinical lightning

Perhaps there was a green cast from the vegetation outside, so the room was equipped with bright white light.

I do not know if these were conventional fluorescent tubes or LEDs made to look like them. They cast a harsh light that reminded me of a hospital waiting room or the floor of a manufacturing plant.

As I write this, I am in a public library that has off-white lights to make the environment feel warm and welcoming. Visit any modern café and the lighting will be similar, if not warmer.

All three places have this in common — students studying — but only the latter two seem to leverage on psychology to make the user comfortable.

The positioning of the lights also created glare on the TV screens (E). If the students are sitting in the room with the TVs off, they will see the glare from the lights and the windows.

One solution: Opt for warmer white lights.
D: There were shared writing surfaces only on the right-side wall

The other walls were glass, so there were no boards on them. This meant that half the students did not have such surfaces. A facilitator would have to resort to using just half the classroom for board work.

I am all for using computers, mobile devices, and open online tools for cooperation, but some things are easier, faster, and more effective on a board.

One solution: Provide white boards on wheels for the other learning stations.
D and E: Peripheral boards and screens

The boards and TV were surfaces and screens for projecting media. These are fine for group-based cooperative activities.

However, they are terrible for whole-class presentations. Students are likely to look at the projections instead of the speaker.

I foresee students or the instructor using the board D as the main projection surface. When they do, they will have to position themselves awkwardly between the console (A) and the board, and/or walk distractingly between them.

Solutions: Provide a clear and logical primary projection surface. This might tempt instructors to keep lecturing, but that is what professional development sessions on alternative strategies are for.
F: Six seats per table

This was an example of a group table or learning station. In the relatively untouched rooms I visited earlier, I noticed that there were six seats around each table. This room had just been used and some seats were actually missing.

A designer probably thought that rounded triangle tables could comfortably seat two students on each side.

A better designer of cooperative work would realise that you need a small but odd-number of students for such work to be more efficient and effective. Groups larger than five make for slower progress; even-numbers leave no member to be a tie-breaker during decision-making.

One solution: Create seating for groups of five.

Closing thoughts
I will not share the other design faux pas that were part of the room prior to the initial round of criticisms. I will just point this out: It is far cheaper and more effective to hire a consultant to prevent these issues from seeing the light of day.

I hold my tongue when I use the rooms I am assigned for workshops. But when asked, I share mostly positive things and highlight one or two key corrections if I think my hosts can handle it.

The design of classrooms matters. While they affect budgets in the short-term, they affect learners and learning in the long run.

One basic aspect of assessment literacy is question design. There are several principles in the case of multiple choice questions. The tweet below illustrates a few.

The options cannot be so obvious as to not challenge the learner. No one lives to be 500 and even a child without siblings knows a grandparent cannot be 5-years-old.

The choices should not just be about content and standards, they also have to be authentic. To avoid embarrassment and mistakes, it helps to think like and for the learner.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) declared that Learning is a Learned Behavior. It is not wrong, but it is not completely right either.

We do need to learn how to learn. This is because we might forget how we learnt before, are taught in school to “learn” a certain way, and we need to adapt to new circumstances.

But the HBR makes a vague declaration that “learners are made, not born” and prefaces that phrase with a “growing body of research”. That research seems focused on adult learning and casually ignores child cognitive development studies. If you dive into the latter, you might learn that we are born as learning machines and we get more sophisticated as we grow.

The author has the right to focus on adult learning, but should make that clear at the onset. Learning is not only learnt, it is also innate.

Ignoring the latter capacity in children and adults is to offer an incomplete and inaccurate picture. This, in turn, leads to an interventionist bias, i.e., what must I do to you because you cannot help yourself?

If we realise that the capacity to learn is also innate, we take an observer’s perspective, i.e., how you do already learn and what can we do to help you do more?

Therein lies a “secret”: Educators know that they cannot think of themselves only as planners of lessons and vessels of content. They must also be designers of learning environments and opportunities.

I was a graduate student when I first found out about the disproportionate amount of time it took to prepare e-learning resources.

The ratio of development time (input) to learning time (output) varies. A fairly recent and oft quoted study by Chapman cited 127 developmental hours for every hour of e-learning (127:1). This ratio was for Level 2 e-learning developed relatively quickly from templates.

According to Chapman, the research data originated from 3,947 instructional designers (or people with similar roles) representing 249 companies.

The ratio might sound impressive because the numbers are a result of the efforts of corporate teams responsible for organisational e-learning. Such ratios are also rules-of-thumb sought by freelancers to provide estimates for potential clients.

I do not recall the number being so high when I was graduate student. However, back then the technologies did not include the more social, augmented, and virtual ones we have now.

That said, I do not know of any responsive learning organisation that can afford to invest 127 preparatory hours for an hour of standards-based training or e-learning. A freelance instructional designer (ID) would have to work thinner, lighter, and faster to compete for and retain clients.

ID work is a small part of my consulting work as I have to factor in many other considerations, e.g., institutional policies, social contexts, group dynamics.

I have kept track of my preparatory time in my latest consulting effort. Without revealing details covered by a non-disclosure agreement, I can say that the effort focuses on a small group of educators who need guidance in a form of communication.

The situation is dynamic as I have to respond to volatile schedules. I often have little time for preparatory work. For example, I gave myself a week to prepare a just-in-time segment for participants. I took 30 hours over six days to prepare for a 3-hour blended session. This is a 10:1 ratio.

So is my effort (10:1) less than worthy of a corporate one (127:1)? Based only on numbers, it is. Based on quality — my knowledge of context; the blending of content, pedagogy, and media; the attention to detail — I would argue not.

You might look at the obvious design and implementation flaw in the tweet below and wonder how this happens.

These are commonplace judging from the number of photos and websites that feature such flaws. They are easy to spot with a critical eye.

The flaws are obvious as is the physical harm users might experience as a result of such designs. However, some designs are easily overlooked.

One such less obvious design happens in “new” classrooms. These are helmed by agencies and vendors that claim they design for learning. They call these places hubs of learning or classrooms that are smart.

Recently I had a conversation with someone who had to test a new classroom. Some background: This campus had issues with pillars blocking views and platforms facing the wrong way.

Having experienced so many design flaws myself, I asked him what the problems were with the new room. Off the top of his head he mentioned that there weren’t enough writing surfaces. He also described a pillar with an odd configuration of displays. If I find this design faux pas, I will photograph it and update this page.

The people in charge were unhappy with the design flaws. This invariably led to delays in using the classrooms (time cost), modifications to correct the errors (effort cost), and budget negotiations (financial cost).

One reason why these errors persist is that these classrooms are designed without consulting progressive-minded policymakers and reflective educators. Most modern universities also have learning or pedagogy centres who can advise on these design. But these agencies are as easily overlooked as writing surfaces.

I suspect that many designs are based on photos of visits to cool-looking venues and administrators choose an item from A, another from B, and so on. All at the lowest possible price, of course. When this happens, the designers know WHAT to do and HOW to do this, but not WHY.

The WHY of the design of a classroom is not just about aesthetics or comfort. It is about pedagogy and learning. Including a person or a small team that has expertise in such design is not cheap, but it prevents bad pedagogical design of a learning environment.

It just takes sense/cents to save a dollar.

Lessons sometimes hide in the least obvious places. Take this tweet for instance. It provides a lesson on using white space.

With the white space, the message in two parts reads: You matter. Don’t give up. Without the white space, the signs read: You don’t matter. Give up.

There are many reasons for incorporating white space in any form of design. In the case of the signs, sufficient empty space helps you make sense of the intended message. Removing it provides an unintended joke.

White space helps create clarity. Something similar could be said about providing physical, temporal, or social space between you and a complex problem.

If you are too close to a problem or if you work so frequently with the nitty-gritty of an issue, it is often difficult to solve it because you cannot see where you need to go with it.

Distance from an issue might help you gain a new or broader perspective. Providing space between you and the seemingly unsolvable problem matters.

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