eLearning Platform Development: Implementing 3 User-Centered Design Standards

eLearning Platform Development: Implementing 3 User-Centered Design Standards
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Summary: User-Centered Design (UCD) is based on the concept of approaching the development process from the customer's perspective and focusing on the customer requirements by examining usability goals, user characteristics, user-desired environment, and creation of a workflow for achieving those.

Implementing 3 User-Centered Design Standards Helps You With eLearning Platform Development

This can be accomplished by examining all of the 4 UCD delivery areas (visibility, accessibility, legibility, and language) and identifying customer requirements for each of these areas to ensure they are met comprehensively.

In the case of Learning Management Systems (LMSs), commitment to the UCD is particularly critical as many of the learners (aka users) are not going to be around on a regular basis to provide system feedback and are more likely to focus on the online learning and assessment activities related to their course. Failures to deliver an effective eLearning environment is more likely to result in learners’ opting to shift to another training provider rather than to deliver "constructive feedback" and look forward to seeing this feedback implemented to their satisfaction. On the positive side, the issue of tailoring LMS to the users’ (learners, instructors, and other stakeholders who access the systems on a regular basis) needs has already been considered by many of the training providers, as they have been coming under the rain of criticism for years… As a result, we can at least have a clear picture of the greatest concerns that the users have been expressing over time. These concerns can be best addressed through the implementation of the following 3 LMS User-Centered Design standards:

  • Integration of the front-end processes and services
  • Optimal user-end customization options for the processes and services
  • LMS interactivity

1. Integration Of The Front-End Processes And Services

A standard LMS incorporates a lot of functions that can be completed only through a broad range of systems and capabilities. An LMS needs to deliver the course content, carry out the assessment process, support communications, and ensure data maintenance, accessibility, and security. This cannot be achieved through a single application, no matter how comprehensive this application is. In Australia, for example, the majority of the university and college LMSs incorporate Learning Content Management Systems (such as Moodle), enrollment systems, learning support tools (such as Turnitin), and communication messenger-style tools. Integrating all of these systems and tools on the basis of a single platform is a challenging task. First of all, it requires a clear vision of the training provider's business strategy and learner needs. Secondly, from a purely technical perspective, such integration is difficult to accomplish. Last but not least, it increases the cost of the system development.

Despite the challenges outlined above, enabling users to access all of the mainstream functions through a single interface is going to increase learners’ "customer experience" when undertaking the study and focus on study goals rather than be distracted from their learning by the need to accustom themselves with the online systems. Logging into an eLearning website should be no different from walking into a university campus. If we are to design eLearning hubs that are to deliver 100% online experience for the learners, we need to be able to match convenience and facilities offered by face-to-face delivery providers.

2. Optimal User-End Customization Options For The Processes And Services

Some developers tend to misunderstand the concept of customization and focus on providing a variety of customization options for system administrators only. However, for the end-users, such as learners and instructors, opportunities to manage their own settings is always a major attraction. Instructors can create assessments and present learning materials the way they like, and customize the interface to their greatest convenience and efficiency. Likewise, learners love the idea of being empowered to manage their User Interface and the processes/activities the eLearning platform has to offer.

Even minor customization options can turn out to be instrumental in making the users feel empowered. For thoughtful considerate developers, finding and implementing such options is a great way of achieving a higher level of user satisfaction while investing relatively insignificant (time and budget-wise amount of effort) into the development process. For example, even micro-customization options such as enabling learners to choose the layout of the User Interface, background style, and colors, font size etc. can increase the user satisfaction levels significantly.

3. LMS Interactivity

Communication is an essential element of any course delivery. In the case of online training courses and programs, it is particularly critical as the learners are not able to interact with the instructors and classmates face to face. The eLearning environment is still a classroom environment—it is just that the classroom is a virtual one. The eLearning platform has to provide a wide range of communication options to connect with both fellow classmates and instructors. The learning communities (both formal and informal, such as "communities of practice") are less effective if not supported by tools that connect the members together.

I keep hearing all kinds of anecdotal evidence that supports the claim of eCourses being less interactive than the traditional classroom-delivered ones simply because the stakeholders are not in "physical touch" with each other, and I disagree with this claim rather strongly. For instance, in the MBA and MIT programs that I am currently teaching, there is not a single learning outcome that I can think of that can be accomplished exclusively in a traditional classroom but not in a virtual one!

To sum up, accomplishing each of the 3 UCD standards is a laborious task that is usually quite sophisticated, as requirements obviously vary depending on the LMS’s performance objectives and the target audience. Most importantly, in order to accomplish the UCD goals successfully, it is essential to adopt an integrated approach to these standards and ensure that the developers are able to see the "full picture" rather than focus on a single standard. For example, it is unrealistic to achieve LMS customization goals without understanding the integration of the front-end requirements as these 2 standards always come hand in hand. It is particularly challenging in cases of larger LMS development projects (e.g. university-wide course delivery systems or training platforms for large multi-national organizations) where an LMS is to be developed and maintained by bigger teams.

As evident from the discussion above, from a developers’ perspective, UCD is far more complex than carrying out developments that are focused purely on the functionality of the systems. It takes a long time to collect user requirements, validate these requirements, and finalize the development project. The final version of the development may also involve the use of technologies and tools that the developers would never favor if not for the "customers’ wishes". However, at the end of the day, it is the learners who are going to turn the systems into ultimately successful or failed ventures so their requirements, expectations and consequent level of satisfaction are of paramount value to the training providers!