Usability Testing in eLearning

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For those of you who don't know already, I am a member of the Learning Ninjas--I have no idea how I got in with these cool people, but I am honored to be among them. Recently for the Ninja site, I started a series of posts on usability testing. The first post in the series is on paper prototyping in e-learning. Check it out!

Card Sort for PSU Accessibility Site

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Today I got to participate in a card sort for the accessibility site for Penn State. The process, while similar to other card sorts I've done and facilitated, also differed in that we started from a blank slate and made our own topics for the site. It was utterly messy to begin with.
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Once the board was covered, we made our first attempt to group items into categories. At this stage, we had post-its on three different whiteboards.
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After categories were determined, we had to boil everything down to no more than 8 main topics for the main navigation of the page. Here's what that ended up looking like:
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The Main Board

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The Side Board

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The Back Board

The purple notes indicate topics/items that will need to be cross-posted in different categories on the site. The reason? Our audience varies from web developers who need technical information (posted on the back board) to faculty members who need to know how to make their PowerPoint slides accessible (Main Board). To categorize the elements, we needed to consider a multitude of people with differing levels of technical knowledge.

Are we there yet? No. Have we made a really good start at figuring out what we should present about "accessibility" here at PSU? Heck, yes!

Accessibility and Openness

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At Penn State, we have been looking seriously at how to make our online courses accessible to students with disabilities. We are doing this as a requirement based on an agreement with the National Federation of the Blind, as a competitive advantage in the higher education market, and also because it's just the right thing to do.

The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences is also one of the few Colleges at the University that releases most of its courseware as open educational resources. The intersection of these two activities has yielded us, I believe, an unexpected advantage on the accessibility front. 

When students with disabilities identify themselves to the University, they fill out paperwork through the Office of Disability Services and then are given letters to present to their course instructors. These letters do not identify the disability of the student, only the accommodations that the student is entitled to in his or her courses. Extra time on tests is the most frequent accommodation needed at the institution. For students with vision or hearing impairments, all course materials must have alternative text, captions, and proper layout so that the student can engage in all course activities. 

For online courses, mitigating accessibility issues can be a cost- and time-intensive effort. Captioning videos can cost money, and testing all course interactions can be extremely labor-intensive. In addition, if the necessary accommodations aren't known until just before the course begins, instructors and learning designers can be left scrambling to fix any issues in the course while the course is running.

For the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' open courseware, however, we are able to partner with students seeking to enroll. Students can view most course materials prior to registering and let us know where they have issues prior to registering so that we can address them and make the student's course experience better. It gives us more time, and allows students with disabilities the knowledge that their courses will be ready for them to fully engage.

Mozilla's Open Badges Project

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This morning, I saw a tweet from @aaronesilvers on today's announcement of Mozilla's Open Badges project. The Open Badges project's goal is to build an ecosystem where badges can be offered for skills, abilities, and achievements in ways that traditional certifications don't allow for. Thus, someone who discovers and learns a particular skill through informal learning contexts has a way to show they've got that skill even when they haven't taken a "course," as such.

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Interestingly, I had David Stong help me make a badge in 2008 to signify that I'd attended the TLT Symposium. While that badge indicated attendance rather than a specific skill, it was kind of cool to display as a marker that I'd gone that year. 

For this project, and like Boy and Girl Scout badges, these emblems indicate some level of accomplishment; some skill. To me, this is a really exciting concept for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the idea of learners being able to more adequately express their skills and abilities in ways that haven't been possible before. It represents movement in the direction of acknowledging informal learning, and a real change in the academy--something I have thought we've needed to do for a very long while. 

  • As outlined in the Open Badges for Lifelong Learningwhite paper, "the concept of a 'learning environment' no longer means just a single classroom or online space, but instead encompasses many spaces in broader, networked, distributed, and extensible environments that span time and space" (p. 4). Given this, we need new ways to exemplify what folks can do and what they know. And the badge framework as it has been proposed (including badges, assessment, and infrastructure for the system) has immense possibilities.

First, let me list some of the reasons I am excited about this, and the possibilities I see in higher education:
  • Students could earn badges for skills and abilities obtained through student organizational involvement. For example, a student at Penn State who organizes and runs a committee for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, or THON, can show more clearly to future employers the project management and budgeting skills they learned through that experience if they earn a "committee leadership" badge. 
  • Courses that offer theoretical knowledge as well as concrete skills can more clearly outline what that course offers in terms of a student resume. For example, an IST course called Introduction to Computer languages that actually teaches Java could offer a "Basic Java" badge. If a new language is taught down the line, then the badge could become "Ruby on Rails" or "C++".
  • Clusters of badges could be pulled together to signify some grouping of skills. Much as a curricular map should map out the skills and abilities of a graduate of a program, clusters could also indicate some specialization within your major. For example, a literature major could receive badges in "early English literature," "American literature," "African-American literature," etc., which further delineates the experience of the individual. 
  • Students involved in volunteering or charitable organizations can better express the skills and abilities they obtained through such activities. A "fundraiser" badge for the local food bank, or even a "charitable organizer" badge for organizing a fundraising activity such as a walk or run would clearly and visually show this.

Are there problems with badges? Sure. Here are some questions that spring to my mind:
  • How do external people people "know" a particular badge has been properly awarded, and not just "given?"
  • Does this downgrade the educational experience, given that it feels a bit like a Foursquare-type game? 
  • Will there be too many of the same kind of badge, confusing those who wish to use them in the hiring/promotion process?

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts, questions, and ideas going forward. If you're interested in the Twitter stream from the announcement this morning, you can go to the Twapper Keeper archive.  A shout-out to @Robin2go for the information on Twapper Keeper, as well. Thanks, Robin!

Memory Making in the Digital Age

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Ok, so this has come up with a couple of friends in the last few days, so it seemed to be an appropriate topic, even though it's not directly related to educational technology.

The first instance was when a friend was bemoaning the artwork and projects that their child had made at school. They were concerned over how to manage the amount in a way that might be meaningful later.

The second was when a friend tweeted that she was trying to put her infant son's 0-6 month clothing away. I recommended that she save 1-2 items only, and put the rest somewhere for reuse (for another child) or to give away when the time came. She resisted.

So I thought it might be useful for someone out there if I shared my "system," especially for things like kids' drawings and school work. So here are the "rules" I use:

  1. Never save anything that is a worksheet or fill-in form.
  2. Things that are seasonal (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, etc.) should go with the seasonal decorations after you put the child's name and year on the back. I get my kids' stuff out every year at every holiday. They hate it (they're now 17 and 13), but I love it. And it makes it reasonable to store.
  3. Things that are self-created or drawn go into big bins that are separated by cheap manila folders. One bin per kid. Each folder designates their year in school. The stuff doesn't go in the folder, but behind it. The folder itself just lets me know where things are.
  4. At the end of the year, the kids and I survey their bin and pick the things they find really special and want to keep. The other stuff gets tossed, except...
  5. Another friend made a great suggestion that you could take digital photos of the other artifacts and save them on your computer. Then, the digital file becomes part of their "record" later. :) I LOVE this idea and plan on implementing it.

That's it. Someday, I'm "supposed" to make all this into a scrapbook. Don't know when that will happen, but that's the plan, anyway.

What are your ideas for keeping this stuff organized?

Sometimes You Just Know

When it feels right. When there's engagement. When there's a good feeling about it.

That's right, I'm talking about teaching class. This summer, I had a good class. Students, a nice mix of undergraduates and returning adults, met for several sessions on Wednesday nights. They spoke, asked questions, sent me links that extended the content, and worked at perfecting their assignments, sometimes even redoing them to improve their score, even if only slightly. 

When this happens (and it happens more often than I sometimes realize), the students names are easier to remember, and you regret the last night of class even though you're happy to be finished. The few "bad" classes (you know the ones--everyone's sitting, no one's engaged, they want to know what they need to do to get an "A") make you appreciate the good ones all the more. 

This was a good one. Maybe I'll see some of them again some time. In any case, I wish them  all luck in whatever they choose to do next. Rock it, people!

Foursquare: The Anti-Green App

So I've been playing Foursquare for awhile now. Checking in, trying to earn badges, looking at the leaderboard, like that. For those of you who don't know, Foursquare is a location-based social application that allows you to use the GPS on your mobile phone to "check in" when you go somewhere. Headed to the office? Check in! Going to the grocery store? Check in! You can also earn badges, such as the Pizzaiolo badge for visiting 20 different pizza places, or become mayor of a location by checking in more often than other folks. 

The application is social in that you can friend people and then see where they are checking in. Several friends call it "the stalker network," since we can look to see where the gang is at any one time. I am, of course, careful to friend only those I know personally because of this feature. I also don't tweet my location, as you can if you choose to. But this post isn't actually to talk about the pros and cons of Foursquare. Essentially, I think the app is fun and I like the idea of seeing when I first go to a new place. And being "mayor" of somewhere is cool, too.

What I want to talk about here is the point system used by Foursquare, and how that connects to issues of sustainability. You see, the way the points system works is that you get 1 point for your first check-in of the day, 2 points for the second, and so on. If you go to a lot of places in any given day, then, you can actually rack up a lot of points. Which puts you up in the "leaderboard." Which is, in essence, part of the contest--can you get more points than your friends this week?

So lately I started thinking about the kind of behavior Foursquare rewards with points. I get a lot of points on days when I run errands, for example. If I stop at two grocery stores, do a lot of shopping, and am generally out-and-about (and spending money), I get points. Which makes sense from a business model perspective--foursquare encourages people to frequent businesses.

From a green/sustainability perspective, however, I think Foursquare is a bit more insidious. Especially if I'm competitive (which I am--see? I even admit it!). If I forget to check in, do I drive back to the store to do so and get the points? Do I deliberately go to more places than I need to in order to check in more? Does the app, in short, encourage the sort of consumption that I'm not wholly comfortable with? I think in a lot of ways it does. It might be less so in a city where I can walk to a lot of places, but where I live, driving is pretty much the only option. So I'm earning points. But I'm also using more gas, spending more money, and consuming more goods, which I don't necessarily need. 

So from here I think I'm going to take Foursquare casual. Checking in, fine. But if I miss one, so what? And no more checking the leaderboard. I'll never catch up to some of the folks I'm connected with, anyway. :)

User Error


Today, I got a sense of what it's like to be a user. Not of drugs, but of technology. As in, the one to whom the phrase "user error" is attributed.

I never liked that phrase. To me, it feels like blame on the user end, and as Donald Norman can tell you, often user error is as a result of bad design. In my case, I had followed all instructions, as had the staff assistant who was assisting me. We checked, we double-checked, and because we had problems before, we even triple-checked. This time, when things didn't work as they were supposed to (for the fourth time, I might add), I sent a note off to the powers-that-be explaining that we were done using their system and would be looking for something else.

Today, I spoke with a very nice person who was clearly not trying to make me feel bad, but who said that it appeared that we hadn't done thus-and-so in order to make the system work. I double-checked with the staff assistant, who outlined doing exactly what we had been instructed to do. While the tech on the phone was clear that it was "possible" there was a glitch, we are also clear that none of us is absolutely 100% certain that we clicked the one button. So in the end, I'm left thinking that the help desk is probably thinking (as would I, were I sitting where they are) that we were the ones who erred.

But here's the thing: I'm not a novice computer user. I can write code, install a CMS, and even mess with PHP if a gun were held to my head. But I'm left feeling incompetent. And why is that? Because, as Norman tells us, technology is the one area where the user blames his/herself even when design is bad.

Now, I don't think the instructions (written by this group and the nice person who helped me) are necessarily bad. However, I do think the system is highly unusable, from a usability perspective. So why do I feel like an idiot anyway?


Well, I probably need to go get some ice cream cake. Because I gotta tell ya, got nuthin in the blog post realm tonight. Spent from a weekend of yard work, a couple of days of work-work, and a night of teaching before I remembered this post. So I'm gonna owe ya, y'all. 

Ice cream cake. Yuck.

Last Day

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So today is my last day at my current organization. Am I leaving? No. Being fired? Hope not. But tomorrow, you see, at 8 am, my organization will begin a day of conversations about the new organization we will be, and how we will leave the old organization behind. 

For nine+ months (yeah, I get the analogy), lots of folks out there have been working on what our organization should be doing and what we will look like. While I wasn't involved in most of that, I have seen the care and consideration these people took, as well as the stress they've lived under. 

Simon Sinek, in his TED Talk, discusses the need for organizations to "get to why." He says that "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." And I think he's right. I'm looking forward to hearing the community "why" tomorrow, and also to giving kudos (and hugs, where required) to all the folks who worked really hard to get us even this far. 

For now, though, here's my own personal Why. 

And here's a link to Simon Sinek's talk, which I think is fabulous: