When we discuss technology, we often refer to “user experience,” that is, the user’s sense of ease of navigation, ease of use, satisfaction with the technology, even the pleasure they derive, and the attraction they feel toward using it.[i]
When we talk about learning technology, part of user experience is a deeper layer that we might call the learning design. That is, the interconnectivity of the various features and elements and how they lead toward significant learning outcomes[ii].
I’d like to relate to you how I became interested in or how I developed an initial understanding of the relationship between teaching and user experience and learning design. This was during my senior year at the University of Michigan when I was doing my student teaching. I was assigned to a high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan to teach first and second year English. And my master teacher, who was going to guide me through this, was Shirley McKeon, who was a very gifted, very talented, very charismatic, and—fortunately for me—very empathic teacher. And part of my job was to come every morning before class and present Shirley my lesson plans for the day. And they looked something like this, where we would list the lesson objectives.[iii] And these were in terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and then the lesson structure, with the time, the topic, and the teaching approach that was to be used for each activity.
And the first jolt of reality that I experienced—and I think a lot of young teachers experience this—is the difficulty in delivering what you think is your plan and what is the reality of the classroom. And I in particular had difficulty, challenges, getting and keeping the attention of 35 teenagers in my classes. And it became so frustrating at times that I even remember saying things like, “Stop! Please listen to me! You’re not listening to me!” Just the frustration and how it reflects back on the teacher, and a feeling of deficiency really, that I’m just not doing something right.
And I remember, during my . . . I think it was the second week, meeting with Shirley, on my Friday de-briefing , she said, “Well, Michael, I can see that you’re frustrated. You write great lesson plans, and you have great intention, and great passion for teaching. But I can see that you’re frustrated in the delivery process.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s true. I’m very frustrated.” And she said, “Well, sit down.” Maybe I was already sitting. She said, “Sit down. I think you’re ready to hear this, so please listen carefully.” And she said something I will never forget. She said, “Nothing you say or do matters.” And I’m sort of in a state of shock. You know, I mean my whole stomach is falling out here. Like, “What do you mean?”
And she said, “Well, nothing you say or do matters, unless it influences the way your students think or feel.” And somehow I felt this magical, almost miraculous sense of relief. And the skies sort of opened. And I could see that I needed to shift my perspective from me to them. And see learning objectives and learning goals more in terms of the student experience and how I might influence their experience.
So one of the shifts was going from this kind of linear lesson plan with abstract goals and delivery described in terms of teacher approach into more of a spiral approach. Something that actually in a three-dimensional space might resemble a pinwheel, with a center and then various activities that spiral around that center.
And this was sort of the beginning of a shift for me from seeing teaching as just a delivery process into one that’s more of an enhancement process or a discoveryprocess, where the students are really the focus. So a lesson plan for me now looks more like this, where I will put a central goal at the middle, and I will think in terms of activities around it.
So the upshot for me now from this early experience of student teaching to where I am today as an instructional designer and also still as a teacher is that I think in terms of three principles that help me blend teaching, user experience, and learning design. And the first is to focus in every class on an overall goal of how I might influence the students’ thinking or feeling on that day. And the second is what I call “the power of 7.” Instead of thinking in terms of 50 minutes, I will think in terms of 7 seven-minute activities, each with a specific objective. And the third thing is what I call “change the texture.” Each of these seven activities should have a different texture, a different feel, a different modality, a different element that keeps the students somewhat surprised, in order to develop a wider range of associations that will help us meet this learning goal.[iv]
[i] Donald Norman is often credited with coining the term “user experience” and initially advocating the concept of “user experience design.” For background see: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/definition-user-experience/
[ii] David Merrill was among the first “instructional designers” who formally influenced my thinking in this area. You can read copies of his work on his website: http://mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/papers. A more recent work related to learning design that has influenced me: Sims, Roderick. (2014). Design alchemy: Transforming the way we think about learning and teaching. http://www.amazon.com/Design-Alchemy-Transforming-Educational-Communications/dp/3319024221