We tend to design courses for ourselves because we are the audience we know best. In this episode Jenae Cohn joins us to explore how user-experience design principles can help us create effective and engaging learning experiences for the students we have right now. Jenae is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of Skim, Dive, and Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. Her newest book, co-authored with Michael Greer, is Design for Learning: User Experience in Online Teaching and Learning.
- Cohn, J. (2021). Skim, dive, surface: Teaching digital reading. West Virginia University Press.
- Cohn, J., & Greer, M. (2023). Design for learning: User Experience in Online Teaching and Learning. Rosenfeld Media
- Global Society of Online Literacy Educators
- Horton, S., & Quesenbery, W. (2014). A web for everyone: Designing accessible user experiences. Rosenfeld Media.
- Web Accessibility Guidelines
- Copies of Design for Learning may be ordered at the Rosenfeld Media website. The discount code for listeners is TEA20. It’ll be available on Wednesday, 9/27 and will give listeners access to 20% off the book for one month (i.e. 30 days).
John: We tend to design courses for ourselves because we are the audience we know best. In this episode we explore how user-experience design principles can help us create effective and engaging learning experiences for the students we have right now.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Jenae Cohn. Jenae is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of Skim, Dive, and Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. Her newest book, co-authored with Michael Greer, is Design for Learning: User Experience in Online Teaching and Learning. Welcome back, Janae.
Jenae: Thank you. I’m so glad to be back.
John: It’s good to see you again.
Jenae: …Good to see you, too.
John: Today’s teas are… Jenae, are you drinking any tea?
Jenae: I sure am. I’m always prepared to drink tea. Especially when I’m talking to the two of you. But I went for a classic English breakfast tea this morning. Do you both have some tea with you?
Rebecca: Yeah, I have English tea time.
Jenae: We’re matching…
John: And, I’m not. I have [LAUGHTER] ginger peach black tea today.
Jenae: That sounds really good, though.
John: It is.
Rebecca: Sounds like a good way to start the day, for sure. So we invited you here today to discuss Design for Learning. Can you talk a little bit about how this book project came about?
Jenae: Absolutely. So my colleague Michael and I have a lot of shared interests. Michael and I both are trained in rhetoric and composition. And we both are people really interested in online writing, online reading, and online learning, broadly speaking. We both served on the board for the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators, which is an organization dedicated to supporting folks who teach reading and writing online, broadly speaking. Through that organization, we got to know each other better. And we just realized how much we wanted to talk about what it really meant to create quality online learning experiences. And something that kept cropping up for the two of us. And I should say that both of us have had like a hodgepodge of jobs in and around higher education. We kind of joke that we were both sort of like these misfits in higher ed, people who have kind of done a bit of teaching, a bit of admin. He’s worked in publishing, I did a lot of work in instructional design and just higher education pedagogy. And something we noticed, just in the various roles that we were in was that educators, professors, faculty could learn a lot from user experience frameworks. And we were reading a lot about UX and UI in the work that we were doing around instructional design and for him publishing, and it just dawned on us like, why are we not bridging these conversations between the work of thinking about designing learning interfaces and the work of building really good, high quality learning experiences. I think we notice that in higher ed, there is this tendency to kind of try and reinvent the wheel around defining what a good teaching experience, especially what a good online teaching experience is by just creating really kind of exhausting templates and tons of checklists and rules. And we really thought those are useful, but wouldn’t it be more useful just to remember that students are people navigating devices online? And can’t we use the frameworks that help inform those design decisions to inform the design of learning experiences to make them better? So that was really the genesis of this project. We started off thinking we’d write a bunch of blog posts and then it struck us that blogs and articles were great, but wouldn’t it be even better if we wrote a book [LAUGHTER]. So we put it all together, and it resulted in this book.
John: So who’s the intended audience of this book?
Jenae: We really are targeting a broad audience with this book, I’d say primarily folks who do instructional design style work in mind. So in higher ed, that could be faculty, a lot of faculty play the role of instructional designers, as well as facilitators and teachers, of course. But, we also hope that this book would really reach folks who do dedicated instructional design support. We also hope that this would just reach people who are having to teach online or do trainings or workshops online, and who are still really struggling with it. This book, I would say, was written before the pandemic happened. We were, I would say, drafting and conceptualizing it before the pandemic. And of course, the pandemic shaped the drafting as we went, there’s still COVID-19 out there, so I don’t want to say we’re beyond the pandemic. But in this moment where we’re beyond perhaps like a peak point of the pandemic, let’s just say. There may be folks who are still wanting to be more intentional about what it means to provide more equitable access to online learning experiences, who want to be designing in a more intentional way, and who want to be really thinking critically about how to create more sustainable online learning experiences, as well, that really work. I think we were also on a mission with this book to prove that really, anyone can do this, you just need to keep some known principles in mind that, again, this is not totally new territory, and scholars and user experience and human computer interaction have been thinking for a very long time about how to make information accessible online, and how to make sure that information and interactions are easily navigable. And so that was really the literature we wanted to tap into. So that’s all to say that I think people who benefit from reading this book is really anyone who wants to be creating a better online learning experience for whatever teaching situation they’re in.
Rebecca: I’m, of course, super excited about this book, because I’m a UX designer. I love that you use that framework to write this book. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose this approach?
Jenae: Absolutely. I’m so glad that you appreciate this book exists. We’ve gotten really good reception from the UX community on it as well. I would say that we use this framework because we felt like it really centered the learner in an important kind of way. I think that in a lot of teaching situations, people who educate or design learning are often more thinking about the content: What information do I have to deliver? What are the main things that I need to make sure people know how to do? Those aren’t bad things to focus on, we need to cover content, and we need to make sure that there are clear outcomes. But I think it’s most important to really think about how is someone engaging with that content? How are they understanding it? What are their opportunities to understand that content in a variety of different ways. And I think what a user experience framework allows us to do is to center that reminder. Learners have these embodied experiences that shape how well they’re going to be able to learn, how well they’re going to be able to interface with the information. And if we’re talking about that in an online context, in particular, it’s impossible to do so without addressing what it means to, again, engage with and use these online environments effectively. So I think a UX framework really just allows us to be more centered in reminding ourselves who really benefits from the learning experiences we design, and who really needs to have access to [LAUGHTER] the information to be successful. And I think UX frameworks just really help us center that.
John: Can you talk a little bit about how this approach centers the user in terms of practical ways in which that’s built into the design process?
Jenae: Sure, one way to sort of think about that is to really take a step back and try to remind yourself just who is taking your class in the first place. Starting there, starting from the place of trying to be curious about who your learners really are. I think that it’s easy to make assumptions, I’ll just say in higher education, in particular, since I think that’s primarily the audience for this particular podcast. I think a common misconception, for example, is that all students entering their class are traditional college age, 18 to 21 years old, but like, I should put a big asterisk on that and say, that’s probably not the traditional age at most institutions anymore. But that’s the stereotype of kind of who a college student is. And there may be some assumptions about what their prior learning experiences were like that brought them into a college classroom… about the prior knowledge that they had. And so what I think a user-centered design encourages us to say, “Do we know that? How do we know that? What information do we need to gather to remember who’s actually coming into our rooms?” And I’m not suggesting that any educator has to like, do deep dive demographic data work to find out who their learners are. But I think most of us can kind of anticipate the range of people who are coming into our classes. We might anticipate just the different types of learners that we may encounter. And by that, I mean, it’s worth, I think, before you start designing, just trying to remember, what are the different motivations that students have for coming into the class? What are their purposes for being there? What are the main things that students are going to want to do by being in your class or your training or your workshop at any given moment? So starting by just sort of trying to map out who those people are? And then try to anticipate, okay, given this motivation, or this purpose that this learner may have, what kinds of things might they be looking for… literally looking for my online course? What things will they click on first? Which links are they going to want to access most frequently? Which resources are going to benefit them on the site most? And then trying to design your learning management system course site, or if you’re not using learning management system, your course website, broadly speaking, to really privilege the resources, the links, the activities, the pages that are going to be best aligned with what you anticipate your users or your learners may need. And Rebecca, I’m sure, can speak to this given her expertise, too, but UX design really is a whole process of trying to consider how the visual information, how even like the tactile information, say how your keyboard was set up, how your device is set up, how that allows you to most easily use and engage with products, so to speak, that you’re building. And in this case, we want to think about how can you build the best online course that you can, in a way that allows users to most easily find the information you anticipate they will most frequently need?
Rebecca: So one of the things I’m hearing you say, is really thinking about the wide variety of learners that we have and the different needs that they have and trying to address that. One of the things that’s really popular in UX design and that you talk about in your book are personas. Can you talk a little bit about how learner personas can help us think through the different kinds of learners that we have in our class in a really practical, tangible way. You just kind of provided that theoretical framework, but I love that the personas is such a practical application of that.
Jenae: Yes, thanks for asking that. Rebecca, I was debating whether to dive into that with the last question. But let’s dive into it now. So for those who aren’t familiar, personas are an exercise where you really try to create a character sketch, I would say, of the user you’re imagining is going to engage with your course or in this case, try to imagine an example of a student who’s going to be in your class. And by creating a character sketch, I mean, I encourage instructors, if they have the time to sit down and say, “Okay, what might be the name of someone in my class? What might be their age? What might their prior experiences with learning my topic have been? Why are they here? What brings them to college? Or what brings them to this class in the first place? What are going to be some of their biggest challenges? What are going to be some of their biggest hopes? What are the things that they’re going to be most excited about doing in this class?” And again, it’s a bit of an imaginative exercise. And so I think it’s easier to do with more teaching experience. But it’s also not impossible to do even if you’ve had relatively limited experience. It’s really just an exercise in trying to think through who might be the real people that you are engaging with, I do want to say that there’s been a lot of conversation in the UX community, and again, Rebecca, you may have some thoughts on this, too, about sometimes the stereotypes that personas can perpetuate. For example, I think there have been concerns in the UX community that when you try to characterize, say, an older user, of an online interface, a stereotype might be that they struggle more or are more challenged with using technology than, say, a younger user. And that that might be a challenge to anticipate. And so I want to be mindful, for example, that if you are going to be in the practice of building personas, which we talk about in the book, because I do think is a useful exercise to kind of try and make concrete for yourself who is going to be on the receiving end of your experience, that you do try to check yourself a little bit on reinforcing stereotypes to the best of your ability. It’s easy to do, stereotypes exist because we notice patterns sometimes in how people behave. And that can sort of reproduce some harmful assumptions about who those users are. But again, to the best of your ability, attempt to anticipate what the needs might be based on what you do know about who might be in the room, just again, kind of reminding yourself that you’ll want to think about your personas in nuanced ways, and not necessarily make assumptions about who they are. And I would say one solution to that, how am I supposed to write a generalized description of a persona, while avoiding all possible stereotypes about who they might be? I would say again, time allowing, try to run your personas by other people, and just see what their reactions are to reading them. For example, if you have a trusted colleague, or a friend who teaches a similar class, or who you work with regularly, just show them what you’ve drafted and say, “Does this feels like a real person to you?” And to attempt to ask diverse people about how your persona sketches are landing or how realistic they feel to them. That’s always a good way to kind of gut check, and just make sure that as you’re anticipating your users’ needs, you’re not falling too much into your own biases about who the people are that you’re supporting in your course.
Rebecca: So one of the things, I think, people do sometimes run into when they’re making personas is to create the ideal student that doesn’t exist, and also to recreate themselves. And so one strategy that I often recommend is thinking about creating aggregates of people that you do know. Because then they’re more realistic in terms of the way they might interact. So if you’ve taught a class before, you might have a real pool of people you could draw from [LAUGHTER] and to create a persona from, obviously, that’s more difficult when it’s a new place. And I was also going to offer up in terms of thinking about disability and thinking about accessibility, that there’s a book called A Web for Everyone, and they have a lot of resources. It was published quite a while ago, but they have a lot of resources still online, they have some personas for people with a wide range of different kinds of disabilities. And sometimes that can be really useful in just thinking through kinds of scenarios that you might not think of on your own.
Jenae: That’s fabulous. I would love to see that resource about sort of supporting accessibility, especially. That’s such a huge issue in designing online learning experiences, particularly. I’m so glad you mentioned those resources. That’s fantastic.
John: And while there may be those types of biases that you might have, those who’ve taught classes multiple times do know some of the types of problems that past students have had. So those issues that they’ve experienced in the past could be built in. But one of the other things you suggest is doing a pre-course survey, so that you get some more information about the actual students in the room rather than those who may have been thinking about when you initially designed the course? Could you talk a little bit about that survey?
Jenae: Yes, I’d be happy to talk about the pre-course surveys. So this is a practice that, I think, has multiple benefits. So in a pre-course survey, I think instructors have this wonderful opportunity just to ask students what their motivations are for engaging with the class, what brought them here, how they would characterize some of their prior experiences with learning similar topics, if any, and just to voice what concerns they have, or what things are exciting to them about the term ahead. I’m giving a lot of examples of possible questions and I just want to acknowledge that not all instructors will want to ask all of those questions all at once. But those kinds of questions that really get at motivation and concerns, I would say, in a nutshell, can be really critical, both for adjusting, I think, those persona expectations. So, creating personas should be an iterative process, I should say, as well. It’s not a one and done thing where you anticipate who your learners are prior to the course starting and then you’re like, “Okay, I figured it out, I know who all the students are. Knowing who the real students are, can then allow you to go back to what you anticipated. I think, and both of you, Rebecca and John, were speaking to how you could use prior information from prior terms to inform your kind of current term or current course. Great, you could sort of just align your prior understanding with this current information you might get from these surveys to then go into your course website, or your course learning management system, your syllabus and say, “Okay, is this design going to work for the group of people who are actually here based on what I’m reading?” …recognizing, of course, that nothing’s gonna be perfect for everyone. But you can do the best you can to try and make the materials as good as possible for the group that you have. In front of you. I would say that you want the survey to feel less burdensome for your students to complete. I’m giving a lot of examples of questions that I think are ideal as open-ended questions. Some of these, you could turn into multiple choice or kind of Likert-scale style questions, because you can just use it as an opportunity to take the temperature. “On a scale of one to 10, for example, how confident do you feel in your understanding of your ability to pick up new quantitative concepts?” …for example, if you’re teaching in a STEM-style discipline. Or “On a scale of one to 10, how comfortable do you feel as a writer or with writing tasks?” …if you’re teaching something more humanities- or writing-centric. You can get really creative in trying to solicit some feedback. And I also encourage instructors to be judicious in what they’re asking in these pre-course surveys to kind of try and ask questions, with the end goal of helping you as the instructor make small tweaks to the design of the course. Think about this information as a way to say “Okay, are there certain links I should put on the homepage that I didn’t think needed to be on the homepage? Or should I reorganize the menu on my learning management system in a way that highlights some resources more than others based on the information I’m getting in the survey? Should I reorganize a module to introduce some content before other content, because I’m seeing a trend in the surveys about less confidence in one area of the course than I was expecting in another?” So thinking about how the answers might inform your design, a research-based perspective really, I think, can make your course really even stronger. And I think it’ll feel better, both for you and the students because it helps the students see that you’re curious about them, you want to know who they really are. And we know that engaging personally with people really matters for good teaching. But the instructor too, it can be really frustrating. If you design something and it doesn’t land with your students. You feel like you spent a lot of time building something that didn’t work. That’s a really disheartening experience. So getting the feedback might allow you to avoid [LAUGHTER] having or feeling so disappointed if the information didn’t land the way you were expecting it to. And this isn’t foolproof. There’s always room, again, for iteration. But I do think the surveys can at least help you anticipate a little bit better how the progression through your course could go.
Rebecca: I can imagine that some of those surveys with open-ended questions could lead to better understanding how students name things or label things which could give you a lot of clues about the actual user design of a course by just how you might name or provide quick descriptions of things. In your book, you talk a lot about instructional text design, which obviously has lots of skills in online learning from instructions for assignments to just how we might label a folder [LAUGHTER]. There’s lots of skill there. Can you talk a little bit about the basic principles that you’d recommend for course designers to follow when they’re writing instructional text?
Jenae: Absolutely, and I realized, as you were talking and responding, I was nodding along. And then it struck me. It’s like, “I’m on a podcast, no one’s going to know that I’m nodding and agreeing with you right now.” So [LAUGHTER] for the listeners sake, like I was nodding along quite vigorously with that entire response. Instructional text, I think, is one of the most underrated and one of the most important things to design for any online course experience. I think that online course designers have a real tendency to rely too heavily on video and on images. There’s an assumption that if you’re working online, everyone’s just using video all the time, or everyone’s just wanting to engage with the flashiest multimedia possible. That is still important. I mean, we have two chapters in the book, all dedicated to video. So I don’t want to undermine that. It is important to engage with multimodal artifacts and building multimodal interventions, when you’re teaching in a multimodal environment like the internet. However, for students who may have low internet access and low bandwidth, for students with disabilities, text remains one of the most accessible and easiest ways to find information in an online course. I’d also say text is one of the most mobile-friendly pieces to think about. And we know that increasing number of students are accessing their courses or coursework through their smartphones. I’ll answer your question directly now, but I wanted to provide that context. I would say when it comes to designing instructional text, I really encourage instructors to think about two big things, to think about the hierarchy of the information that they’re writing, and to think about the discrete chunks of information that they’re wanting to communicate. So when I talk about the hierarchy of texts, I think it’s important when we’re writing to consider what are the sections of our text? Most academics, most instructors, are used to, when they’re reading or writing, creating headers, and sub-headers, and paragraphs that denote a certain order of information. And when you’re teaching online, especially, I think even more critically about how are you labeling the text? How are you indicating which things are instructions versus content? How are you labeling the order of the content that you want students to read in? How are you even labeling the order of instructions, like there is usually multi-tiered sets of steps. So using header text and different layers of header text, is a really important web accessibility measure. And again, it helps readers see visually and if they’re using a screen reader tool, it helps them navigate that text more easily. So I should take one step back and say when I’m referring to header text, I mean that when you’re working in a rich text editor, on any website, you can typically see an option to select different layers of headers, like the header ones are usually the highest, biggest level header, header twos go below that header, threes go below that. So just being mindful that just increasing text size is not the same thing as using headers is one really, really simple way to create hierarchy. And again, to denote the correct order of reading the text information. And when I say chunking text, this is as simple as just thinking about paragraphing, making sure that you are spacing out pieces of content in really critical ways. So anyone who’s read a piece of writing with super long paragraph knows, that’s a lot harder to kind of discern, it’s a lot harder to see how one idea moves from one to the next. Shorter paragraphs are typically easier to get a sense of when you’re moving from one idea to a new idea. And so even though long paragraphs have their purpose, perhaps especially in scholarly writing, or even in more, I would say kind of creative writing, in some cases, when you’re doing really instructional or technical work, which you’re often doing when you’re designing a class, shorter is better, more chunked is easier to access, because you’re assuming that people are doing things with your information. So those are the two qualities I would just be thinking about with instructional text. There’s a whole other component that we didn’t really address in the book, but I’ll just stick to very briefly here, which is also thinking about just the visual appearance of your text. A lot of accessibility folks speak to some best practices and guidelines around font face, and font size, and some of these factors when you’re designing text as well. I’m not an expert, I should say, in like type of graphic design or font size, but I want to point out anyway, because I think if you are designing online, it’s important again to do the best that you can to try and anticipate those needs. So I think as a general rule, making sure your font sizes are not super teeny tiny, or super large. Making sure that you’re using standard font faces: Arial, Helvetica any sort of sans serif font is typically considered a best practice. The rules around this change all the time, Web Accessibility Guidelines change as technology evolves, so I never like to give super hard and fast rules, and again, it’s not my area of expertise. But it’s another piece to keep in mind that visual and verbal information is intertwined. Text is a visual medium, online learning experiences are largely a visual medium, by default. And so the more mindful we can be of what that looks like, and the more mindful we can be of how the visual experiences we design online, are compatible with accommodations for disabled users. We just anticipate our users’ needs, our learners’ needs more proactively, and it raises the boats for everyone. It just gives everybody a deeper chance to succeed if we’re just thinking about these interface choices in more deliberate ways.
Rebecca: I love that you’re really talking about how the instructional text is also part of digital accessibility. It’s important to have plain language, it’s important to chunk your content and these sorts of things. So I’m really excited that you’re incorporating that into the work that you’re doing.
Jenae: Thank you. It is exciting. I think it’s one of these things that, when Michael and I were first discussing this book, it was a real lightbulb moment for us that there was such a robust literature out there that discussed all these great principles for making sure that online information was easy to find. And it just was striking to us that a lot of folks in teaching professions weren’t getting access to that information or exposure to that information. And we started thinking about this, again, prior to the pandemic, kind of in the mid 2010s. And even at that point, online courses were growing, mobile access was becoming a more common way that students were engaging with courses. So, why not tap into these existing sets of conversations that are industry best practices, for engaging with online interfaces, in spaces like higher ed, and in spaces just like learning and development, where these dialogues seem not to have met each other as fully as they could.
Rebecca: Our chief technology officer and I were having a conversation about some of these things yesterday as we’re talking about our student body is diversifying and that we have far more students with disabilities who are able to attend college and have access to college in a way that maybe they haven’t in the past. And as you were talking about headings and paragraphs and things, something that people might not know, is that if you use a screen reader, you’re not necessarily visually interacting with the text. Instead, you’re thinking programmatically, and so just like kind of vision centered [LAUGHTER], the user might skim headings visually, it’s the same way someone might use a screen reader. So by choosing a heading level two, it allows someone to find that section easier. And by breaking things into paragraphs, and delineating that’s that kind of content that allows a screen reader user to be able to jump to a particular part of the content. When we don’t do that, a screen reader user has to listen to everything from the top to the bottom of the page.
Jenae: Great example. Yes, and that’s such a frustrating experience to have to do that. If we can be just a little bit more attentive to the information architecture of sort of what we’re trying to communicate and convey… information architecture is a technical term, but it’s also a metaphor [LAUGHTER]… we have architecture and we have design to help create solid foundations for places that we live. Similarly, when it comes to information, we need to be building solid infrastructure to help people navigate their way through a course. One of my colleagues a while ago used a metaphor for online learning design I’ve never forgotten and we’ve alluded this a bit in the book, which is that when you’re building something online, it’s like you’re just building a whole house [LAUGHTER]. When you walk into an in-person classroom, the architecture is literally there, and you make assumptions about the room in the space, the second that you walk in the door. When you’re designing text online, or just when you’re thinking about the whole online learning experience, it’s a total blank canvas, you have to build that architecture and those hierarchies. If you’re not attentive, you’re absolutely right, the consequence is that it can be a big overwhelming mess of information. And I think it’s a useful practice for instructors, even when they’re not teaching online, to think about these things. It’s also just a great exercise and getting really very focused on what information do you want to prioritize when you’re communicating assignment instructions or when you’re picking out content-based readings for your students? What do you want them to focus on? What are the big things you really need them to learn or pay attention to? And so if your course design, your visual design can align with the hierarchy of choices you’re making as an instructor or the priorities that you’re setting, it just makes it easier for everyone to have equal access that information so that more time can be spent for students to focus individually on how they’re processing, applying, doing higher-order thinking with that information. They don’t have to spend so much energy just trying to intake the kind of basics before they have the opportunity to really work with it and apply it meaningfully,
John: You provide a lot of other information in your book, and we encourage people to read your book. If they want to find out more about creating videos, about providing effective webinars, and so forth, there’s some really nice hints and suggestions throughout. But one of the things you end with in there, is ways in which instructors can continuously improve their courses, in terms of soliciting feedback to make the course better each time. Could you talk a little bit about how you would encourage instructors to continuously work on developing their courses?
Jenae: Sure. So I really like that section of the book, because what I hope that section communicates is that thinking about your course design is a reflective and an iterative process. I don’t think a course is ever really fully perfect and done, there’s always things you can do, and modify each time you teach or offer the experience. So, I don’t think getting feedback on the course has to be hard, I don’t think it has to take a ton of time. We talk about multiple ways of getting information about how the course is working. And I’m going to start with I think some of like the easiest and most passive ways to get information and then we’ll sort of work our way to some of the more perhaps active or personalized interventions for getting information about the course. So one thing I think is worth really paying attention to, after you finish teaching a course, are some of the analytics that are available in your learning management system or your course website. And I recognize that some folks are really reluctant to look at the analytics, because there is a surveillance economy implicated in the tracking of course analytics. Every site on the web tracks your movements, every site in the web knows how long you’ve stayed on a certain page, what things you’ve clicked on. And a learning management system is no exception to that. Unfortunately, that information can get weaponized to discriminate against students, discriminate against users in problematic ways. In the web, outside of learning, for example, analytics can be gathered and sold to advertising companies to spread information about your activities for profit. So I just want to note that context, but you can also use this information for good and for some useful things as well. So seeing which resources students are clicking on the most in your class can be really useful information for you to say, “Huh, seems like a lot of people found that resource useful.” You don’t have to necessarily identify which individual students looked at which resources but you can look at this data, typically in aggregate, and again, most learning management systems have an analytics dashboard, you can access to look at this. I think that’s incredibly useful just to see what was clicked most often and what wasn’t. You might also want to track, for example, which pieces of information students did spend more time on. It could indicate a couple different things, it might indicate that something was really challenging, if students spend a lot of time on one particular piece of content over another or if they found it useful. You’d have to contextualize that data based on what you were seeing in the course. But I think if you’re willing to look at that information, again, in the context of how your term went, it might just give you some passive information that could surprise you. I would even look at, for example, with assignment submissions, how many delays were there on certain assignments versus others? In which assignments did students request more extensions more than others? Again, this is just information that might help you inform whether the pacing was appropriate for the course, whether assignments were sequenced appropriately. That kind of thing. If you want to get more active, if you gave a pre-course survey, you can do a post-course survey. Most institutions, of course, have formal evaluations of teaching, but we know that institutional student evaluations of teaching can be fraught. Sometimes they ask the kinds of questions we don’t always want to ask or find most useful as instructors. So if you do your own very brief post evaluation, you could focus it on the design of the course itself. I think it’s worth asking students at the end of the course, how easy was the course site to navigate? How accessible did the materials feel for your ability to learn? You could return to some questions from your pre-course survey. If you asked a Likert scale about rating your confidence with learning something on a scale of one to 10 at the start of the course, you could ask them by the end, “How does your ranking change?” Even referring back to the original data that they might have submitted to you with the pre-course survey. So those are another way to ask them. I think if it’s possible to, what I love to at the end of the course is even a little brief post interview with students if possible. We mentioned this a bit in the book. Again, it’s time consuming. But if you have a small-ish class where you could have conferences at the end of the term, and have a moment with just a five-minute conversation to ask students: “How did it go? What aspects of the course design did you like most? Which were most challenging to you?” That’s another way to get information. Finally, I’ll just do one more technique we write about in the book, which is never discount your own reflection on your experience as well. This is another form of user research. Even though you are not the end user for the course, you are the designer, and so I think it’s always useful just to jot down a few notes and treat that as research when you’re done, too. What did you notice about user interactions on your course site throughout the term? What things surprised you? What things went exactly as you expected? You can use those notes to iterate and improve your experience for the next time that you offer it. So those are just a few techniques and many, which again, are drawn from the field of user experience research surveys, and interviews, for example, are pretty common user experience research practices… other UX research practices that, again, just depending on your time, depending on your resources, it’s great if you can see students engaging in the course as well, asking them, just really seeing what it looks like for them to interact in the course. That’s a good way to get at good information about it. I just want to encourage anyone who’s teaching not to shy away from getting that kind of feedback, because it does make, I think, teaching more satisfying when you’re getting more information about what’s working and what isn’t.
Rebecca: So, you know this question’s coming…[LAUGHTER] We always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”
Jenae: Yes, I do know it’s coming, and it’s funny, because I was thinking about it. What am I [LAUGHTER] doing next? So to be honest, I don’t have a clearly defined project, I’m doing a lot of little things, I might be taking a little break, because I have written two books in about two and a half years [LAUGHTER]. So that’s been a lot… wonderful. I think I’ve been bitten by the writing bug, for sure. And so I suspect there’s more writing in my future, but nothing immediately next. I’m still very curious about what it’s going to mean to keep designing really good online learning experiences in the future, I don’t think we’re done with that conversation. I’m really curious about how that’s going to evolve in the context of creating more inclusive and equitable learning environments for students. So I imagine those are topics I will continue to explore to some extent, but we will see how, of course, with AI too, and the impacts of that on online learning, I’m sure there’s gonna be a whole set of ways to think about these topics that will continue to evolve. So I’m kind of keeping my eyes open and my ear to the ground on how things are developing. And we’ll just kind of see what ideas emerge from there.
Rebecca: Well, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, Jenae. Thanks for all the work that you do.
Jenae: Likewise, thank you, again, for having me and for engaging with these excellent questions. And if you listened to this podcast, we’ll put in the speaker notes, I’ll give you a little gift of a promo code. If you’d like to buy the book, we can give you a 20% off discount with thanks to Rosenfeld Press who published this book.
John: Well thank you. We’ll be sure to include that in the show notes and it’s always great talking to you.
Jenae: Wonderful, and likewise, thank you again.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.