Perception or Pixels – Designing a Visual World from the User’s Point of View
User centered design would benefit from a dedicated environment, where the designer can focus on the application domain. Our current main domain is design for adult learning. We show how user centered interaction design may require a flexibility that often is not supported in commercially available digital learning environments. Based on design ideas that emerged during observing our students, supporting their needs for learning resources and our actual teaching we developed prototype learning facilities that fit the “human size”.
KeywordsLearning Environment Service Design Blended Learning Human Information Processing User Centered Design
Introduction: Designers Build Bridges Between Worlds
Designers use their professional expertise to apply it on the domain they are designing for. The next section will elaborate on this for our case. Designers need tools and a design environment, in order to implement their design decisions. If these are not available, designers have to invest in additional types of expertise, or they have to cope with a suboptimal context.
Choosing or adapting an (existing) learning environment or building one based, based on a general view on what is the best way to support learning (as intended by the “client of design”, which could be an educational authority, or the intended the learners). The actual learning content may subsequently be inserted and its presentation format and the related interaction possibilities will have to fit the functionality provided by the environment.
Analyzing the multiple types of learning activities that the intended learners might want to perform. How to enable or support these will depend on each learner’s individual background regarding knowledge in the learning domain, preferences for presentation and interaction, and the actual context of learning that includes location (e.g., at home, in a bus), time available (a day, 10 min), and available resources (books at hand, a peer in the same room). Based on this analysis design patterns may be found or developed that support the activities. In this case the next step will be to identify or develop an electronic learning environment that facilitates the provision of these patterns.
We decided to choose for adaptation to the individual and momentary needs and the learning context of the learners (symbolized by ‘perception’ in our title, rather than for the application of standard commercially available learning environments and their rigid templates (the ‘pixels’ in our title). That is what the main section of this chapter is about for our case, where visualizing our design ideas is the main challenge. We will not aim at a complete overview of all possible learning activities and all possible ways of presentation and interaction. We will choose a sample of activities that we often encounter in our teaching practice in the domain of interaction design, and show various ways of supporting them in our practice of blended learning that we discovered useful for our adult students. So far we did not aim at a complete set of guidelines. What we are developing in the first place are design patterns for support of individual learning activities of adult learners in blended learning situations in specific context.
In this chapter we will first discuss the multidisciplinary character of user centered design, followed by a description of our students and the content domain of learning. Next we will discuss the commercially available electronic learning environments that were available in our teaching context.
For our research approach we choose action research. We will argue for this choice and describe the process.
Next we will provide examples of learning activities, and the various ways to support these, that we analyzed, tried, and assessed. Finally we will provide conclusions and point to a research agenda.
User Centered Design is a Multidisciplinary Expertise
User centered design requires theoretical understanding, knowledge of techniques, experience with tools, and general design skills, in the domain of application. If the application is user-system interaction, the domain requires expertise from: Cognitive Psychology, Software Engineering, Industrial/Interaction Design and, depending on the context of use, Cultural Anthropology, Ethnography, or Organizational Design. In an ideal world designing is team work where the team owns all different types of expertise.
The system output to the learner through spoken or readable text (in some cases with voice over), still pictures (2D, 3D), video (sound could be synchronous and authentic to the video, or an expert’s comment to the video, or a studio audience’s reaction to the video, or a suggested learner’s reaction, ….) etc.
The learner’s input to the system through voice, pointing in 2D or 3D, typing and mouse handling, body movements, …
The current state of technical opportunities that are available for our students mainly consists of some kind of computer (most of the time mobile) with a screen, and internet availability depending on the context. Consequently, we focus on visual design with pointing and gestures and sound as the common available basics.
Learners should be able to interact with these supporting systems in a way that fits the “human size”. This includes supporting human ways of reading, scanning, pointing, and a system’s way of reacting to learner behavior that is “naturally” perceivable, noticeable, and acceptable. And these aspects require a system behavior that should fit both: human perception, and culturally determined expectations and meaning (of colors, turn taking, location, reading direction, etc.).
Our Students and Their Learning Topics
The students that we have been working with are living in many different countries: Germany, Belgium, Romania, China, Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy. They are all University level students, some in the last phase of a Bachelor, many in a Masters study or even in a post Master curriculum [4, 10, 23].
Their background, or the official label of their curriculum varies between Cognitive psychology, Ergonomics, Computer science, Information sciences, User system interaction, Artificial intelligence, or Architecture and design.
Many are at the age of “traditional” university students, some are adults, often in a University that focuses on adult education. In general, the courses we teach are taken by students who are genuinely interested. Consequently, hardly anybody ends with a “fail”, though some (max 10 %) decide to withdraw. From our experience, all our student groups should be considered “adult” as far as learning intention and behavior is concerned.
The names of our courses vary: Cognitive ergonomics, Human information processing, Visual design [14, 28], Service Design [10, 27], Task analysis and task modeling , Design for cultural heritage, etc.
In all cases, we provide an introduction to the domain of the course and discuss just a sample of the relevant concepts, techniques or tools, after which we require our students to each study several of the remaining items in these categories, and teach these to each other. After each student presentation we provide a reflection on the presentation, mainly underscoring the good points, and, whenever needed, providing additional information (e.g., things we missed from the student’s presentation). We record all presentations, put our own (portioned in 10-minute mini courses) on a dedicated YouTube channel, and provide the students’ ones on website that is open only for the current student group. All our courses include as a main part real hands on experience of the approach, the techniques and tools. In each case we ask them to analyze and design for a real live need of a real (local) client in that we carefully select based on size and content of the project and on possibility of the client to be available for the students during the course.
Commercially Available Platforms are Conservative
We teach for students that we cannot supervise “full time”, because we are traveling teachers and many of our students are not living close to the location where we happen to deliver our tuition. Our learning situation can be characterized by the concept of “blended learning” where we sometimes have face to face meetings, sometimes teach through the internet, and frequently provide learning opportunities through electronic learning environments.
A blended learning approach combines face to face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities to form an integrated instructional approach. In the past, digital materials have served in a supplementary role, helping to support face to face instruction. For example, a blended approach to a traditional, face to face course might mean that the class meets once per week instead of the usual three-session format. Learning activities that otherwise would have taken place during classroom time can be moved online. There is no consensus on a single agreed-upon definition for blended learning and, in addition, the terms “blended,” “hybrid,” and “mixed-mode” are used interchangeably in current research literature . Pennsylvania State University defines blended learning as a combination of face to face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities to form an integrated instructional approach .
Blackboard  – commonly used to provide lecture presentations, exercises for homework, and exams, to upload homework in a dropbox, and to form student discussion groups, and a chat facility can be provided. Streaming video can be added through mashup-modules.
Elluminate Live  – a communication tool that includes integrated voice over IP and teleconferencing, chat, quizzes and polls, and the use of multiple webcams. There are visualization tools and shared whiteboard facilities for uploading documents and controlled sharing of writing rights. The teacher can plan as well as record the meeting.
Adobe Connect  – based on Adobe Flash, this environment supports video meetings where multiple webcams can be used, presentations may be given, and documents can be uploaded and shared with controllable writing rights. Like the previous environment, sessions can be recorded. Different from, Elluminate there is no tool for planning and no requirement to have the teacher fix meeting times in advance, so each participant can enter the environment and work there whenever needed.
Smartschool  – a learning environment that is developed, and extensively used, in Belgium (Flemish) educational institutes. It is mainly focused on administrative management of education and exchange between institutes and teachers, and it contains an electronic learning environment that allows exchange of learning content.
We were supposed to use these and we tried. We found ourselves confronted with rules, requirements, restrictions, and impossibilities that made us stop spoiling our time.
We decided to build our own learning environments, mainly in a Moodle environment, which allows us to provide open access and with a Creative Commons license as well as to use (with appropriate attribution) others’ resources under that license. Creative Commons (CC) is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. The CC copyright licenses provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use creative work — on conditions of the user’s choice. CC licenses allow easy change of copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs .
Moodle is a Course Management System (CMS), also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). It is a Free web application that educators can use to create effective online learning sites .
The development of our electronic learning environments is based on growing understanding during practical use. We aim at supporting our students’ authentic learning needs.
For our research approach we choose for action research, which, according to the British Open University  is characterized as “Any research into practice undertaken by those involved in that practice, with an aim to change and improve it. It is therefore, a process of enquiry by you as a practitioner (an OU tutor in this case) into the effectiveness of your own teaching and your students’ learning. Action research is about both ‘action’ and ‘research’ and the links between the two. It is quite possible to take action without research or to do research without taking action, but the unique combination of the two is what distinguishes action research from other forms of enquiry.”
According to Carr and Kemmis  action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out. Bogdan and Biklen  define action research as the systematic collection of information that is designed to bring about social change.
it allows, and in fact requires a focus on school issue, problem, or area of collective interest;
it naturally includes a form of teacher professional development;
it is based on, as well as stimulates, collegial interactions;
it provides participants the potential to impact school change;
it is based on reflection on own practice;
it supports improved communication on the phenomena investigated.
We decided on joining this choice.
Get a definition;
Get an explanation;
Get theoretical background material related to a definition;
Get a well prepared example;
Construct their own example;
Practice a skill;
Attach a personal note to received or constructed material
Highlight parts of material
Attach a note to be shared with other learners;
Attach a note intended to share with a teacher or expert;
Discuss a topic with one or more others (synchronously or asynchronously).
With our electronic learning environment we intend to support this type of activities. In many cases the activities are to be expected, though we are regularly prompted by our students. Based on our experience in teaching we design support and we provide this during the next course where we expect it would be appreciated. Our observation of the resulting student behavior, the learning results, and the students’ comments (unsolicited as well as triggered) teaches use what to keep and what to adapt. That is how we learn. The current chapter provides an overview of work in progress.
For the above illustrative set of basic learning activities that we need to support we will show examples of how to support these. If relevant we also discuss the context for which alternative representations seem to work best.
Example 1. Get a Definition
Example 2. Get an Explanation
Explanations, in our learning domain, are mostly about a concept (most of our students in fact appreciate to be able to have both, a definition, and an explanation of concepts that are core in the learning domain), a phenomena, or a tool.
If, after orientation based on the short explanation, a learner wants to learn about the details, a click on the rectangle makes the pop-up screen changes to provide a choice of 5 tabs that allow information to be studied in detail: the type of problem that could be solved by applying the tool or technique; how to apply this; examples of the use; an exercise to trying out; and pointers to more information.
Learners will choose which tab(s) to open depending on how they estimate the information to be relevant for their actual aim in studying the material. If they will come back to a concept later they have different possibilities to refresh their understanding. Re-reading examples might help them most since this refers to application in a realistic case. If this strengthens the applicability for the actual moment, they might subsequently go to the “how” tab that provides them with detailed guidelines.
This slide in fact combines two layers of explanation: the original representation is taken from the service design tool collection , where the text of the main page itself gives an explanation of what the website is about. In our lectures, as well as in our website for each course on service design, we showed this slide that (in dynamic red graphics) highlights and a shortly explains, our suggestion for using the resources in that website. A voice over is an option for the individual student who cannot attend class.
Example 3. Get Theoretical Background Material Related to a Definition
Even if a definition seems enough (or is considered so in a certain context by a teacher) individual students might well feel a need to know more. Especially in the case of fully stand alone online courses, learners appreciate the possibilities to find additional material which may well stem from other websites.
Clicking on these URLs will open a new window that displays the relevant material on those sites. Learners will often first look at what material might be available for further reading and only in a second round come back and go to these resources.
Example 4. Get a Well Prepared Example
Definitions, explanations, and additional pointers, often are not enough for some, or even most, of the learners. Examples allow them to reason about the concept, the phenomenon, or the technique, and try out their understanding by interpretation in practice. In a physical classroom or laboratory, examples may well be samples of the actual phenomenon. Students can be walked through a process (a design, an experiment, the observation of behaviour) and experience the process in real time accompanied by explanations and by questions that trigger understanding. In an electronic environment we may provide a simulation or suggest the experience by a proxy.
The experiment in this figure illustrates the “Stroop” effect that shows that several dimensions of an incoming stimulus may trigger different and conflicting responses. In the original Stroop test there is a page with individual words that are printed in various colors. The reader has to mention the colors of the words as quickly as possible. The next page contains color names, printed in different colors that are inconsistent with the word. The time needed to name the printing colors suffers considerably, illustrating the effect of conflicting input dimensions on information processing. In our version of the Stroop effect we use only words printed in black, and ask the reader to mention the number of letters. Our second page only contains words that label a number (‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, ‘six’, etc.), which allows the learner to experience the same phenomenon without violating copyright rules.
Example 5. Construct My Own Example
For many learners the construction of their own example is the ultimate proof of understanding. In this case, some feedback is almost always needed. In courses with face-to-face possibilities, this can be scheduled or provided on request.
In a recent case where we taught this course, the (Chinese) students triggered a new development for their learning environment, requesting the possibility to upload their intended presentations well before the face-to-face meeting in order to collect feedback from their peers prior to “submitting” it to the teacher’s comments.
Example 6. Practice a Skill
Students need, and want, to demonstrate their knowledge. Even though this is not a main goal in any of the courses we teach, nor a main goal of any of the learners that visit our electronic learning environments. A fact, however, is that students differ regarding their competence and we discover they are happy to try themselves and to learn from each other. A teacher may be of help in this case.
In order to aim at systematically improving presentations (whenever needed, depending on the culture and level of the students) we have developed a process of selecting those student presentations that we consider exemplary for the quality, structure, content, or even performance. We publish a short list of “remarkable” presentations and we suggest students to especially consider the video recordings of these and we give each student team in the course the assignment to write a brief report on those selected recordings stating why each of these is excellent.
Occasionally students are unable to attend. A student that was unable to physically attend the class on the day of the presentation asked, and received permission, to do his presentation at home in front of a video camera. His presentation was highly rated by his peers as well as by the teacher.
Example 7. Attach a Personal Note to Received or Constructed Material
In our blended learning courses students are frequently asked to upload material.
Example 8. Highlight Parts of the Material
When learning material has to be structured and the structure is complex, it may often only fit on large screens (laptops, PCs). In that case learners tend to read in their “normal” reading habit – e.g., from left to right and from top to bottom in European and Chinese current cultures. Any complex (e.g. 2D) representations might make the student miss some relevant features.
- Page descriptions, which allow, but not enforce, choices between
Purpose of the site: information or entertainment?
Size of text to read (long or short)?
Number of pages of the site (more than 30 pages or not)?
Number of pages with actual content (15 or less)?
Interaction tasks other than navigation (e.g., form filling, file upload)?
Tasks that need a sequence of subtasks?
- Categorisation of the site structure
Hierarchy of depth more than 2?
Icons to support categorization?
Content continuous with categorization?
- User characteristics
Mainly experienced internet users?
More than ten events a year interesting for users?
Desktop only or mobile use as well?
Are there user polls or review questions to be answered by users?
- Page elements
Icons used for menus in the pages?
Each time a learner answers a question in the left side box, or deletes an answer (which makes the question unanswered) (Fig. 17 top), an arrow towards the right side box dynamically starts to appear and move, and some patterns lighten up (Fig. 17 middle part). After that a back arrow (Fig. 17 bottom) indicates that the changing configuration of feasible patterns is in fact related to the answers of the questions that the user just gave, and which may be revised.
The moving arrows in the previous example turned out to help notice that something new has appeared on the right side as a result of what is going on by the learner’s tentative choices at the left.
Example 9. Attach a Note to Be Shared with Other Learners
Example 10. Attach a Note Intended to Share with Well Defined Others
In some cases our students wanted to be very precise on whom to share their notes with. Sometimes our courses draw over 100 students and in such a case the teacher is supported by tutors, about 1 per 30 students. Tutors support the students in providing facilities, additional learning resources, and when there are communications problems with uploading homework or preparing presentations because English is not the first language of the students. Tutors are available even when the teacher is only present at scheduled times (e.g., Only 2 day during each fortnight). In teaching such relatively large groups, we found out there may well be a wish for several levels of intimacy. Students feel the need to share some communications only with the teacher or tutor; or only between their design team, or between the team and the tutor, or with the whole class.
Example 11. Discuss a Topic with One or More Others
Design Requires a Supporting Environment
After design follows implementation, for which different types of expertise are needed to implement an actual product or service. A design team should be aware of the characteristics, possibilities and restrictions that the design environment is providing. The current commercially available products that we were supposed to use (e.g., Blackboard, Elluminate, Smartschool, and Adobe Connect) present us with problems. The guiding principles and concepts for visual design in these electronic learning environments are a mismatch to our learner centered didactic approach and to our students’ learning objectives. In contrast, open source environments like Moodle offer more flexibility and allow us to develop our own extensions, to profit from the creations of our colleagues and to combine successful ideas. In practice, many educational institutes have yet to learn to trust and rely on open source solutions where an active community is replacing the commercial business model for managing risks.
This means we are confronted with limitations in the visual facilities of digital learning environment that hinder the support of learners in a way that fits the “human size” of this type of user. In many cases the system imposes, by design, restrictions to who is the boss of a screen’s real estate: where can we put a question, a video, a button to press, or how can we specify our own animation. On the other hand, most designers of learning support are not eager to focus on pixels and to reinvent a wheel for which they do not have the expertise.
Commercially provided learning environments should be re-developed to allow designers to do their job in a proper way, possibly by freely applying Open Source based solutions. On the other hand, Open Source environments should (be developed to) acquire a state of acceptability for educational institutes that allow both designers and learners access to state of the art solutions.
Our experiences and the ideas we developed are based on supporting blended learning, for adult students in many countries, in the domain of interaction design. Our students are highly motivated and well aware of the restricted opportunities and time available for them.
We base our teaching, as well as the design of our learning environments, on what we learned during teaching. Our adult learners turn out to set their own learning goals. In addition, they are learning in a large and unpredictable variety of contexts and time slots. They will try to learn wherever they can access learning resources, and they choose to aim at learning goals that fit the availability of time.
Our design knowledge is developing during practice; hence we choose action research as our paradigm. Experiments for our type of learners and our type of learning domain are not possible and would not make too much sense.
In order to optimally support learning, we started by identifying learning activities, trying out how to support them, assessing the result in practice as far as practice allows assessment. In many cases the assessment is subjective: students let us know, or do not complain, and if we were lucky half of them answered short questionnaires.
We are in a situation where we are allowed to teach our courses in different settings and different educational cultures in many countries as far apart as Europe and China. This helps us to find out what our growing understanding is worth. Still we are currently in the process of identifying design patterns to support a growing set of learning activities, taking the context (location, available time, opportunities to contact peers and teacher, available hardware and platform) as well as the individual learner’s state (educational background, domain knowledge, actual need) into account.
We are working on it. The current chapter provides the examples that help us to consider further research, where we are aware of the need to combine our action research with the experiences of our colleagues, who, hopefully, be as open as we try to be in sharing.
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