Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 6 – “The aesthetics of online course design are too readily neglected: Courses that are fair of [inter]face are better places to teach and learn in. “

As a hardcore interface design pundit and aficionado this I can only agree with wholeheartedly. Many of the education online experiences I encountered so far have possessed a clunky, overly dated feel. Working with WebCT a few years ago felt like using early chat and whiteboard experiments of the 1990s web. In any case if you use this, then you must be aware of how it mediates your online experience and options to deliver, i.e the way it massages the messages. More recently, I have been using a variety of ‘off the shelf’ online resources with kids. The place of cartoon ‘fun’ pictures attracts them, especially with the core subjects that are difficult to make compelling, like those old bug bears, boring old arithmetic and even bigger and badder old grammar.

But these attributes are mainly aesthetic and superficial, a mere veneer and the kids and me soon know we are actually speaking repetitious drill like learning, only thinly masked by the ‘ToysRus’ cartoons and bright colours which are associated with kid’s stuff. The sites really asks of them to be machine-like and not creative [even though one site boasts that it appeals to the left-hand brain as much as the right!]. Of course this is why you need the intelligent flesh unit called a teacher/facilitator/mentor present, to be there and to be creatively aware, and to try and spice it up when its barefaced stimulus and response operation gets too much for the kids to focus. B.F. Skinner in his novel Walden II had encapsulated the ideal of online learning independent of having to be taught:

“Since our children remain happy, energetic, and curious, we don’t need to teach “subjects” at all. We teach only the techniques of learning and thinking. As for geography, literature, the sciences–we give our children opportunity and guidance, and they learn for themselves. In that we dispense with half the teachers required under the old system, and the education is incomparably better. Our children are not neglected, but they’re seldom, if ever, taught anything.” (p.119)

It seems quite radical, Skinners view of not teaching at all as an option, and quite amusing that Amazon’s intelligence tells us that people who bought Walden II also bought Karen Pryor’s Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs – perhaps a more logical fit. But it brings us back to the sites I have been using. The actual interaction and operation are very formulaic and could be better worked out and designed. Maybe they should be offered as more blended experiences, more than just offering hardcopy kits to purchase online We want to work in an sensitive, experimental and concerted way to teach kids, one which helps to keep them engaged and certainly; ‘happy, energetic, and curious’, and not take these feelings as a given. Montesori’s ‘prepared environment’ is what I am looking for as an online experience. It is a fabulous offline real world idea of having a clean, orderly environment, where simple apparatus puts forward a message in a appropriate and tactile ‘language’, which is best interpreted by children independently and interdependently – without being taught (it is funny think of the parallels existing between Montesori. And Skinner in their approach to children’s learning following the enveloped of their own curiosity and exploration).

Google has often been admired by many, including myself, for having over its years maintained its simple unfettered top page and giving you what you want. We navigate by keywords and it follows our envelope. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that its founders cite their early years Montessori education as an inspiration. And we can move further afield into thinking of physical design and architecture as the operating environment for learning where The Best School in the World: Seven Finnish Examples from the 21st Century, highlights how the architecture of Finnish schools show a nation that cares passionately about the physical environment in which children learn and adults work. Finland is under intense scrutiny just now due to its consistent academic achieving at school level as shown by its PISA results.

In my view, a decent online course would naturally take not only thoughtful teaching and assessment input, but also blend a strong design ethos bound to extensive user experience input, and a sufficient dash of creativity and abductive thinking. My experience of using – and making – teaching resources is that this is very time-consuming and costly, and I lack the technical programming required, and I suspect that the blend of research, design and pedagogical [androgogical] inputs in those ‘found sites’ has just not been balanced- this is fair to say in most cases and is a design management issue more than designer or education specialist.

I remember the flamboyant claim of us bringing 106 of the world’s shakers and movers in the fields of digital networked multimedia to Edinburgh for a global pow-wow which we called Interactive Television 1996.
As usual it was overly ambitious and time-consuming, but there were some great lessons for us. It should be remembered that at this time it was still considered that there would be at least competition with the internet to define the digital infrastructure that would serve the masses. Up until that time there were many technologists, industry and social commentators that viewed that due to its ‘wild west’ image – where anybody could just about publish anything. It was further considered that the Internet and WWW would remain the largely male prevail largely consisting of the categories counterculturalist, hobbyist, and geek. It would follow the path of predecessors that never reached the masses, rather like how people built their own radios when broadcasting began, or they built their own personal computer from parts as they had in the early 1980s, or talked to each other by ham radio or citizen band radio. The amateur or specialist status would block or at least abate its diffusion as a mass media phenomenon. The WWW would stand in contrast to the walled garden approach of offering a vetted, tailored set of professional content and services, such as was being concocted by the internet service providers such as AOL, Microsoft and compuserve. Of course there were others who were or were beginning to understand, or subsequently pushing, that the World Wide Web was a little more than a hobbyist phenomena and more a paragon of egalitarianism that was good for a foundation of a global village.

I took to designing the website for our conference as many of the professional design companies were still locked into the world of print. I was an early prosumer, it was nothing new to me, as I had playing around with digital equipment since the early 1980s in electronic music, doing my own thing.

Beyond this, many of those design firms we spoke to failed to grasp the core idea of just what we were doing with this conference, their concepts and ideas for the design of our conference were in our opinion, poor. So this meant it could only be a case of doing it ourselves. We had the tools. It would also save cash as the University had only informally and indirectly sanction ting the advance funding for the project. I produced all the promotional paraphernalia and website using Corel Draw and Windows Notepad writing in HTML 1.0. I had to learn about pre-print preparation and came to know about some of the more arcane aspects of the design to print process. We also were up against memory problems both in RAM and in storage – the graphical files we had were enormous and pushing the limits of storage at the time. All these wicked problems to get through. A wise colleague in business studies also helped us make our web site dynamic, in so far as people could register their interest by inserting their personal details into the machine whereupon they would receive by post more details and a registration form. It needed to be professional and state-of-the-art looking [although it looks totally dated now].
We worked on the budget, set up call centre offices and structured all the organizational aspects that were required by this formidable undertaking work. It was academic entrepreneurialism at its best. The look and feel we got for the conference was not just integrated – that is, consistency was assured over all the brochures, banners, bunting, web site and so forth – all of which helps immensely to locate the brand – but we also gave it a distinctive identity. This helped enroll speakers and sponsors, as well as attendees. The aesthetic was the home as the subtheme was ‘the superhighway through the home’. I was a great enthusiast of the domestication ideas of Roger Silverstone and his colleagues and this would be the underlying these.. So objects and furniture from the home – such as a table lamp – were included as was a TV (which incidentally was showing static, to indicate that many of these digital networked TV options were neither in the market nor even technically functioning at this time). It was inspired in part from Silverstone’s recent book – Television and the Everyday Life.
Now also at this time their were those such as Jacob Neisen, Donald Norman, and Ben Shneiderman who were probably the leading lights in terms of HCI and usability studies in computing. They were already refocusing upon the graphical WWW, whose potential, like making television interactive, for bringing interfaces to the masses was vast beyond belief (bearing in mind also that personal computing at this time was still in the domain of business and geeks like us). Shneiderman in particular had published several books on HCI, and was forming ideas on ‘best practice’ bullet points for web design.

Shneiderman was a plenary speaker on one of the stream of the conference and he made reference to the website as a bad example of web design. If I remember right (I actually missed his stream while attending some technical presentation difficulties elsewhere so this is second hand and ages ago), he referred to the fact that you couldn’t read the text easily and mentioned some other misdemeanors according to the laws of proper design.

Now this spoke loads to me about laws, and possibly ‘best practice’. Clearly there is always a pay-off between ‘functionality’ and ‘aesthetics’ of any design. And this is framed in wider discussion of design theory – particularly those who suggest that ‘form follows function’. In most spheres of society where there is design, there is some attempt to make them look good, or lend a look like it fits the purpose, or even look like it does the purpose. I have also designed interiors, food dishes [look and taste], music, and novels. And when you do so, as removed like an architect from the job [academic management], or as the more ‘hands-on’ [lecturer and researcher] builder on the job, you are up against different constraints which mess up your plans as detailed in the citing of Suchman and the work of other’s in the last post. As you get to the next level in your mental map you improvise the next step which also changes your mental map of the next move as you move on and so on. In a sense ‘misfit’ not only is pain and came frustrate us, but it also comes as a blessing to evoke our power to draw between the dots, or fill in the gaps. But you need to be able to think according to Gregory Bateson’s learning 2 level or Chris Argryis’s double-loop learning. Does this feature as part of the education process, it does but typically only at post-graduate level. It is the gaps in misfit which foster the space for innovation and ingenuity.

Just like these aphorisms of the manifesto, or probes, make me think, give me the space to think, are inductive in the Socratic sense – they make us put in the effort – they are ‘hot’ [low participation or passive] or ‘cool’ [high participation and active] media in the Mcluhan sense. As my supervisor used to say “the pictures are better with radio.” And as the U.S. President Kennedy said in respect of the space program to put a man on the moon; “we do not do these things because they are easy, we do them because they are hard” (pretty good impersonation of a Weber’s Protestant work ethic from a Catholic!). But this massive and expansive effort is also practiced every weekend and night when people climb mountains, cycle for miles, build ships in bottles, or play Sukado puzzles. This points to a call for the defense of misfit, of its challenge and a recognition of its place in human experience, that no matter how one of the early and profound usability problems of PCs – that of the early spreadsheet problems – did not abate their use as they offered so much usefulness to the small business user who had also plashed out $4000 on an IBM PC. Now. it is not that I would argue that my design followed Prof. Sneidermaan’s guidelines, and my website was, admittedly guilty of lacking readability because it used a textured background instead of dark blue text against a light grey background [or whatever else the research was saying], but it was pure information processing approach coming from cognitive science and little effort from the arts and humanities, the enemies of simplicity. Not all of what the experts say we should do and consume is followed. Those pork lardon’s in that noodle dish I had last night really defined the dish, although they chopped some minutes, hours or days off my life expectancy.

Even though I was extremely interested in usability as a topic, my work was pushing me away from any idea of lab-orientated work and the reductionist ethos. I was being edged ever more into strange territory by the vicissitudes of the project towards a more open interpretative approach, and taking a more ‘meta’ position to subject of usability. This viewed usability research situated within a given organization and project as merely one course of investigation that fed and informed the innovation process. As such my project was turning more into a knowledge management adventure than a simply straight HCI exploration, one which may not end in bullet points or tips to industry on how to best knock things up. I was also becoming aware of ethnographic approaches, which apart from a few pioneering studies, were only beginning to feature in interactive system design.

However, this contrasted with other fields. Since the 1980s there had already been a much more extensive ethnographic turn in media audience research and consumer studies. Increasingly, looking trawling this literature, it was becoming clear that television was not a computer; a device to be used in an orthodox tool-like sense. It was a kind of forgotten world in the phenomenology of everyday life. Its influence on paper is vast, its shear ubiquity and penetration into global households, its centrality in the affairs of both what people think and what they do, was extremely broad in scale and scope as its fashioned tastes and views, perspectives and beliefs. This why the British House of Lords were even interested. And to cap matters there was a massive lacunae in the history of social science in terms of what actually happened when it rapidly diffused first in the 1930s, and then later in the 1950s and 1960s. It is hard to understand the sociology of the home without a consideration of the place of television, a technology which adorns most homes round the planet. More than that, it absorbs a huge amount of time and attention on a daily basis, and so we are in no way speaking here of an insignificant device, a peripheral technology or experiential phenomena. This would have to be taken into account in the study, which would look at how the firm – Online Media and its partners in content, infrastructure and technology – would ease or unease the new potentials of the box in the living room into the home, its habits, patterns and lifestyles of [passive] viewers – who, through technology and service provision – was being refigured and groomed as [active] consumer-users. From their perspective – that of the consumer-user – it was clear that usability, as a kind of experience – was merely a gateway or barrier – into realizing or understanding other considerations – most obviously usefulness (what value it lent the consumer-user), usage (the periodicities of using something), and use (the particularities of the event of using – who, what, why where and when, and within which context). In other words, usability as a practiced by firms to improve their product, and realized by consumer-users in their uptake and adoption of an innovation, is nestled in with and against other considerations, economic, technical, experiential and political.

During the study a critical point was reached with regards to interface design – one which is really what I have been leading up towards in this post.

The first interface comprised of six picture-based icons which easily detailed what lay behind in terms of navigation. Bearing in mind that there were not an infinite array of links and the trees were quite short it was a fairly simple and functional interface. It looked good, or should I say, it fitted the expected design ethos of a television, as well, although one large media conglomerate had asked that a dynamic icon which spun would be placed in the corner to show that the system was awake [I suppose like the web browsers of the time or like the hour glass indicating that something is happening when your press]. My early exposures to subjects, when I was in HCI mode, had more or less all of them reacting positively to interpreting what each of the icons ‘meant’]. However, this wasn’t good enough for the rapidly expanding company, who were now like an ideological octopus by this time juggling and mediating the interests, and needs and requirements of an increasing amount of industry partners and prospective clients. They were growing fast as well. A huge and bludgeoning marketing division was bombarding a harangued but elite engineering division to make amendments to this functional part of the system or that. This all had to be prioritized.

It is common for those who are in environments of rapid change and porous boundaries, chaotic environments where the patterns of what should become crystallized and what should be further iterated are hard to tell. We can fall prey to the erroneous belief that change is only common to the now, and that it wasn’t so intense a day. A month, a year, 20 or 30 or 100 years ago. It is always epic and of course hindsight is a great leveler, but good analysis requires distance. Adopting this distanced, critical attitude is a commendable standpoint for Social Science: it is uneasy to grasp the whole picture when one is still involved in the phenomenon, and somewhere down the line, at managerial level a decision was made that the interface had to be changed, after all it had just been serendipitously ‘knocked-up’ by the engineers who had no formal training in usability or graphic design. What did they know about design and usability? A tricky questions to answer as it was based on conjecture and belief and not on any data.

The call went out for a specialist. Someone schooled in both graphic design and in usability research, a hybrid expertise which was not taught in any art college or in computer science departments either at the time. But eventually they found someone. By this time I was involved in user ethnography, basically interviewing users in their homes. I didn’t use the company as base while I conducted these interviews. I spent most of the day in their homes, and so it was one of the trial subjects who remarked on the change in the interface, and they remarked that they couldn’t find their way about in it anymore. On looking at what now came down the pipes into the home, I was surprised to see a radical makeover. There were remnants and residuals of the old system, but the start screen now boasted abstract icons which were not easy to discern what they hid. Yes they were ‘creative’ all right, but were they functional? Clearly not according to those, including myself, who had become accustomed to the original screens. Those screens looked more ‘television’ than these new ones which looked more ‘multimedia’. What did these categories mean? Was it that the first interface, built through serendipity, was superior to the ‘expert’ redesign? Well certainly one major rules of usability was broken, and that was of consistency of interface and navigation. There were fragments of the old navigation system there, but they were now working – haphazardly – alongside the new one, and making for confusion. It was a usability nightmare, there had been no attempt to ask the users what they thought before putting it online.

Did this speak a lot about our conservative nature with regards to environments? The function of interactive television as encapsulated by this system, largely emulated what we could do with a television connected to a video recorder, games machines and internet, hardly anything more, apart from video-on-demand. Such kind of functionality is now provided by Netflix, some semi-interactive cable television systems, downloading off the internet and hard disk recorders like Tivo. All made for more manageable services, and lower technical and cost barriers to entry made the internet what it came to be. Our reticence for change? Do we feel more comfortable with what we have become accustomed to? In a sense this is why styling of cars and consumer goods, magazines, websites and so forth move forward, and they do so often indpendent of the street – that is listening to user-consumers [although MTV and youth fashion now spend lots off time and money trying to lift the stone over the ‘vibe’ on the street, in particular how they can make themselves ‘cool’ to their teenage audience]. Many other firms are more liable to listen and have a look at what other firms are doing than listen to their customers, like taking note of the other stands at a car show opposed to handing out questionnaires and concluding interviews with show visitors at your own stand.

There were no precedence for designing websites when we had our conference; we had to make it up. There were no standards when the techies made up the original online Media set top box interface; they just did it [really to test their technologies and motherboard cards]. Even their hard found ‘expert’ got it wrong and I can not remember him moving onto bigger and greater things. Our expectations with respect to aesthetics and, functions and form, moves us on, led largely by improvisators, those pioneers who often ‘have to’, that ‘must do’. It is easy to show multiple examples of good design today, simply by going online and sampling a dozen well designed sites and emulating the features of them, and testing their appropriateness in style and function with a representative sample of those who will subscribe, use and consume. This is why I am let down by the online educational experience, I actually pay for these sites for my teaching practice, but I still see them as early prototypes for what should happen in the future. I am disappointed the bits and pieces are their too better. But for those who push the envelope, there new ways carries implications sometimes for function, and sometimes for usefulness and usability.

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