Experience Required

So, I read this horrible article today. It came to me by way of one of the many lists to which I unsuspectingly subscribed when I visited a site or went to a conference. The email I received said something that piqued my interest, and seemed very much to echo conversations I’ve been having with folks in the Office of Digital Learning and the Digital Learning Commons. It said: “It is impossible to comprehend, or enable the modern learning experience without xAPI – the Experience API.”

I’ve been talking with Sonja Burrows about the importance of user experience in designing digital learning spaces—especially the way in which how a site looks and feels will affect whether or not learning can happen there with any facility or comfort. Put simply: if a site is nice to look at and easy to navigate, learners will feel more welcome there. This is a protest song I’ve long sung against learning management systems (LMS), most of which seem designed to make the worst visual impression possible. Clunky navigation, terrible colors, sharp edges, just plain weird content placement are all too common in the LMS, and are often the result of engineers thinking too much about systems and function instead of usability and pleasure.

If you build it, they will come” doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to build it pretty if you want them to show up.

A lot of teachers and instructional designers will probably roll their eyes at that and mutter something about “coddling” students. But let’s think about this another way. What if it’s possible that the design of a learning environment actually affects what we believe we can do there? Jesse Kriss writes that:

The systems we use everyday can have insidious effects: we internalize them, and they constrain our imaginations. When everything around us mirrors the same structural properties, those positions and impositions become invisible to us-we don’t even realize that they’re there, or that it could be any other way.

In a classroom, we might think of this in terms of whether or not chairs and desks are fixed. Can furniture be rearranged? Is there only one chalkboard at the front of the room, or are there multiple spaces for writing-on-walls to happen? Are there windows? What technology is available? All of these aspects of a classroom are not decided upon by the teachers and learners in the room, but rather by facilities management—folks who are truly capable, but who generally don’t teach.

Within the LMS, similar decisions have been made for us before we arrive, and we are simply subject to irregular, often redundant navigation, hospital colors, and stern design. The LMS doesn’t invite us to create a classroom, to make a welcoming space for students to learn; and worse, it constrains our imaginations about what is possible there. We must be told—by Blackboard, by Canvas, by Moodle—what we can and cannot do. And more often than not, what the systems say we can do is advertised as cutting edge, as profoundly advantageous to learning, or (worse) as revolutionary; when in truth these functions are merely what the vice presidents of product and marketing think will sell.

So, to get back to that horrible article I read this morning, where I thought the idea of “the experience API” might have something to do with creating more lively, enjoyable learning environments, what the article was actually interested in was tracking social interactions and less tangible learning within the LMS.

With xAPI, it is possible to go beyond registration and completion of content hosted on the LMS to understand what learners are doing as they are doing it, even if they are not connected to the internet. Macro and microlearning can be tracked and analyzed giving a view and rich analytics on a variety of things like mobile learning, team activities, mentoring sessions, on-the-job performance evaluations, video consumption, simulations and games.

This is the worst possible way to think about how learning happens in digital spaces. As Audrey Watters warns in “Ed Tech in the Time of Trump“:

One of the “hot new trends” in education technology is “learning analytics” – this idea that if you collect enough data about students that you can analyze it and in turn algorithmically direct students towards more efficient and productive behaviors, institutions towards more efficient and productive outcomes. Command. Control. Intelligence.

Analytics, data, surveillance are not about learning, they are about control, and about creating restricted, constructed learning environments and experiences in which imagination is stripped from the learner. In this way, analytics ultimately interfere with another claim the horrible article makes, that “learners are seeking their own truth and creating a personal learning experience. As they do this, they are sourcing and sharing content and looking to the wisdom of peers rather than experts.”

For years now, digital and critical pedagogues have realized that learning happens when learners have agency, when learners collaborate with one another, and when the material of a course is only a starting point… In other words, when learning is in the hands of the learner. That is nothing new. But what the article is trying to get us to believe is something we could call the parable of the autodidact: the self-learning internet user who needs no teacher, no syllabus, no curriculum to learn.

It’s not an untrue parable, but it betrays a misunderstanding about what John Holt refers to as s-chools, or learning environments that preserve student agency. Student agency isn’t a teacherless proposition; in fact, teachers are essential to the cultivation and protection of student agency. Setting someone loose on the web is not the same as advocating for that person’s ability to do great things.

Classrooms, even digital ones, are safe zones for experimentation and growth. The Internet is not that. And, more to the point of the horrible article, the surveillance, tracking, and analysis of how learners move around in a digital environment strips away the safety of that space. Learners become less children at play and more rats in a maze.

The most brilliant digital learning design creates no rat mazes, but instead makes safe spaces where learners are welcome to think out loud. And this begins with building a space where learners actually feel free to do that.

Build it pretty, and they will not just show up, they’ll stick around for awhile.

Sean Morris

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