Designed with the User in Mind

John Spencer is a very thoughtful teacher, writer, and thinker, with a penchant for design considerations. Before you click away, (caught you didn’t I?), this particular post by Spencer is about user experience design. For those of you who know me well, you can probably guess where I’m going with this one.

His simple phrase, designed with the user in mind, will stick with you long after reading Spencer’s everyday examples of what works well — and what doesn’t — for users of all things online. You might also like the metaphor of creating Learning Paths for students. This design principle can be applied in the design of Canvas Courses, Modules, Pages, and Assignments.


But this isn’t just about online courses. Spencer focuses his design expertise on his paper handouts too (among other things). And that made me think about one simple change I made after teaching for 20 years: the wire basket by the door. It literally changed my teaching.

For years I clumsily collected student work on paper. Often as the bell rang and kids were twisting and trudging with backpacks the size of bumper cars made their way past. The wire basket changed all that.

My first-day classroom tour now includes a visit to the wire basket on the counter by the door. This is where all student paperwork gets deposited —stapled, with full name, date, and period #. A stapler and pen sit at the ready for the forgetful and the tardy.

This simple “design” idea saved me from walking around to gather fists full of paper, while simultaneously trying to listen and respond to after-class requests, questions, and comments — usually doing one or both quite poorly. The papers slipped and fell to the floor. I gave a curt and insufficient response to a student. You get the picture.

A wire basket made me a better teacher. OK, really, the physical design of workflow in my classroom made me a better teacher, and my students, well, better students. When I previously collected papers, students had to come to me. And I might be in a different place in the room on any given day. No big deal, right?

But remember those lanky teenagers attached to 25 backpacks careening around. And five minutes to get to the next class. Now students knew where to put the paper every time. And it was on their way to Point B through the door. Now I had a moment to focus on “resetting” my lesson materials, online tools, etc. for the next class coming in. Or even had the presence of mind to make a thoughtful comment to Jane, and remind Jim to make up the test.

As John Spencer points out, design of online courses should be linear, but with a web of connectivity, so that students know how to get from Point A to Point B, but can also get back to what they read last week because they see a connection to what’s happening in today’s class — or because that’s where you want them to go.

The point is that we need to create Learning Paths that make accessing the content, and the mechanics of doing the work as intuitive and straightforward as possible, so that students can spend their time on the harder parts — thinking, questioning, and creating.

It’s easy (too easy!) to throw the “stuff” you want students to access into a “digital drop box” and let them find whatever it is you want them to work on. Spending a bit of your time organizing a Learning Path pays big dividends in streamlining student workflow and learning, while decreasing time spent responding to inquiries. Or worse, assessing low-quality, hastily-completed student work.

You can find John Spencer’s blog on user experience design here.



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