The Interface of Learning: We are failing the Covid test
As schools begin again, most of them in virtual mode, the interface of learning is suddenly a much more critical aspect of school than it has ever been. In "normal" times, the interface of learning is typically a mixture of teacher's face, whiteboard, book, notebook, and digital screen. When all else fails, the teacher's face is the interface; all problems can be solved with a quick meeting.
In fact, the face-to-face interactions of a classroom account for a huge amount of unstructured assessment data. By interacting with students, circulating among them, talking to them, a decently awake teacher forms a mental map of student progress and individualized needs. Absent the face-to-face, all we have are our digital interfaces, if we even have those.
Let's assume for the purposes of this post that we all have access to the Internet. There is a much larger discussion we have to have regarding the digital divide and how access is tragically uneven among different socio-economic groups. But this discussion is about interfaces. When we finally gain access, what do we find?
I'm seeing this from multiple perspectives. I am a technology leader, so I see the kind of curriculum and professional development work that goes into creating a school's interface. I am also a teacher, so I experience the links between teacher and student, and I manipulate those links in my own courses. And I'm a parent of two elementary-aged kids, so I experience the interface as a parent, watching my kids learn and also communicating with their classroom teachers.
I have to say, we are failing. And this is not anyone's fault, necessarily, given the "unprecedented times". So let's get that out of the way. Instead of assigning blame, let me focus on the failure itself and how to mitigate it or even reverse it.
I had the following conversation recently:
Me: Where's B's weekly plan? Is it on SeeSaw? I don't see it here.
My wife: Did you search your email? The teacher sent it.
Me: I couldn't see it there, but even if she did, I need to bring it up on B's device, not mine.
My wife: Wait, I texted it to him [on his iPad].
My son is 6 years old, by the way.
In a recent bout of frustration on trying to support my fourth grader in a similar endeavor – just to find the interface – I counted the number of "places" he was expected to navigate to in a single day of online learning. I stopped counting at 8. And I literally had yet to find the primary interface, a bespoke Google Doc.
So again, I appreciate that the teachers and administrators are trying to do the following:
- Create a rich, immersive learning environment, full of whimsy and delight
- Deliver these multi-media experiences to students in a consistent way
- Give students feedback and track their growth
What I focus on, from all of my perspectives, are the following:
Cognitive load: if it gives me a headache to navigate this interface, what must it be like for my kids? Or every other kid? At the point that the learner has finally reached the interface for learning, how much of their cognitive energy has been drained? How much more could they accomplish if the interface were vastly simpler?
Simplicity as a design principle: This gets lost pretty quickly under the strain of inventing these interfaces without much training, experience, or expertise. But simplicity is a crucial principle of design, and it has been since, well, forever. But if we're talking about the Internet and digital interfaces, we can lean on any number of resources. Tim Berners-Lee writes:
"Keep it simple, stupid!"
Simplicity is easy to quote but often ignored in strange ways. Perhaps this is because it is the eye of the beholder.
I like the way that designer Joshua Porter has put it:
Clarity is job #1
Clarity is the first and most important job of any interface. ... While there is room for mystery and delayed gratification in interfaces, there is no room for confusion. Clarity inspires confidence and leads to further use.
He has a number of other nicely stated principles, but it starts there: with clarity.
More importantly, however, is that decades of cognitive research has already been done on this very topic. To summarize, cognitive load theory (CLT) is now an established framework for understanding the interaction of working memory and learning. We in K-12 worlds hear a lot about the "zone of proximal development" — this is the idea that for someone to learn, they need to be challenged, but challenged just enough. In CLT, this might be considered "intrinsic cognitive load", which is basically the good kind of cognitive load. It is the learning challenge that leads to growth. "Extraneous cognitive load" is the bad kind — the distractions, the time and energy spent looking for learning materials, anything that doesn't directly relate to the learning.
If the intrinsic load is low, ok, a learner can tolerate some extraneous load. For instance, if I just want to find and follow a new recipe, I can handle some extra tasks like logging into a new website or converting liters to quarts. But if I'm in the zone, if I'm being challenged just enough, then I can't handle the extraneous — it needs to get out of the way. The only way to justify all the extraneous cognitive load I'm seeing, in other words, is to admit that the learning challenges are not challenging enough.
My recommendations (as of now, speculative and loose):
- Radically simplify learning interfaces. I think we need to stop prioritizing delight and start paying more attention to cognitive load. An example of this is a visually rich but overwrought "virtual Bitmoji classroom". Many of these visual designs are haphazard, untested, and distracting.
- Pick one single delivery method and then force ourselves to stick to it, even when it feels limiting to our sense of freedom as unit planners. In other words, as a teacher, I shouldn't be prioritizing my irritation with the limitations of, say, Google Classroom as a content delivery mechanism. (Eg., "Why can't I add a second page of static links?" You can't. It's a small price to pay.) Teacher irritations are secondary to the effectiveness of the interface for students.
- Get feedback early and often, and then act on the feedback. Listen carefully to students, in particular.
- Incorporate UI principles and design thinking into teacher training programs.
- Incorporate UI principles and design thinking training into all professional development plans, from admin to teacher's assistants.
- Spend summers before major UI re-designs, like the one we just encountered, in deep discussion and research mode concerning fundmantal principles of interaction and learning design. So many of these problems have been solved by cognitive scientists and interaction designers.
- Pay good instructional designers more money and attract a lot more talent and enterprise to the field.
This is a test we can't afford to keep failing.