What makes interface design for learning different?


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You may be wondering what makes a learning experience so special that it needs its own subdiscipline. I mean, what makes this blog different from any of the user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) design blogs already out there?
Here are just a few of the things I believe make Interface Design for Learning unique:

• Education joins the party: There are decades of research in education and the "learning sciences" that designers have yet to plunder. Should we really be designing learning without this knowledge?

• User goals meet instructional goals: Traditional UX centers on user goals, balancing them with business goals. Learning centers on instructional goals that users may or may not be aware of. Tasks that user seeks to accomplish are important, but they are only one consideration among many. While user-centered design is about transforming the user.

• Learning is multiscale: Learning designers must manage user and instructional goals at very different scales, for example, at the level of subtask, task, activy, class, course, and possibly even degree or career.

• Learning changes user needs: In the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Chris Quintana and colleagues highlight a distinction between user-centered and learner-centered design: “Developing new understanding is the central goal for learners. If learner-centered software is at all successful, a learner’s understanding will grow and change significantly while using the software and thus the software will have to change with them.”

• Desirable difficulty: In general, good interface design aims to remove obstacles and improve efficiency. In learning design, information might deliberately be obscured or a procedure deliberately slowed to leverage the instructional benefits of reflection, effort, or even “productive failure.” As MIT design professor John Maeda puts it, “Giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge is the best motivator to learn.” However, the mere operation of the interface shouldn’t be the cause of irrelevant challenge or distraction. Steve Kurg’s timeless tenet “Don’t make me think” remains sacred. Usability bloopers are not desirable difficulty. Intrinsic challenge is linked to the learning activity itself, and designed in deliberately.

• Quiet design: One of the best things an interface can do for learning is stay out of the way. A restrained and targeted use of visual elements is especially important to learning --- overuse of color and other visual elements has been shown to decrease learning outcomes.

• Emotions for learning: Learning evokes a unique palette of emotions that we can skillfully tap into through interface design. In addition to those emotions commonly valued in UX (like pleasure, delight, and curiosity), learning experiences can benefit from calm, happiness, small amounts of stress, frustration, and a state of flow.

• Control over experience: UX can seek total control. As Jesse James Garrett notes in The Elements of User Experience, “No aspect of the user’s experience with your product happens without your conscious explicit intent.” Learning researchers take a very different view. Far from seeking to determine every detail of learner’s experience, they embrace the uniqueness and flexibility of individual experience. Educational technology researchers Peter Goodyear and Lucia Carvalho emphasize that “we may be able to design the thing which is experienced, but we can’t design the experience itself.” This is an important distinction, because it lets us consider the impact of the many undesignable elements during needs analysis. Things like prior knowledge, social resources, location constraints, available tools, or preconceptions all affect learning. Acting as facilitators, we find that the best design philosophy is one that sees the learner and the environment as adaptive and evolving through experience.


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