The Value of Aesthetics in Education

“I think that educators also systematically undervalue art and aesthetics. Educators (especially academics) most often thrive in text-driven cultures and rarely equipped to understand — let alone build — visual and interactive media. “

Kurt Squire via Henry Jenkins here.

I’ve been thinking this for years, and I suspect that the educators who understand that they need to present their information in aesthetically pleasing ways, will be able to better share that information. That’s where an LMS can come in handy, that’s where learning design can come into play.

What I Learned This Week (Part 5)

Finally, one of my major pet peeves with Google has been answered. Matt Cutts announced late in October that Google Docs now lets you do a bulk export. I’ve played with Docs a lot, but never considered it a real threat to Word in my workflow as I couldn’t get all of my crap off of the one system in one shot. Now I can. Thank you Google for doing the right thing.

Was listening to Martin Weller’s presentation for CCK09 about the Pedagogy of Abundance, and while Martin’s presentation content was great, the sound was difficult. It wasn’t the quality of sound per se, although it was a bit rough around the edges. I don’t know if it’s just me, or a combination of my background as a sound engineer and sensitive listener, or if it was just my mood, but the sound was off.

It got me thinking about the aesthetics of sound, and how sounds might be pleasurable or distracting, and how that works in a networked learning environment. Clearly, the aesthetics of the new media environments extend further than the visual realm and will have to be considered when developing e-learning courses and environments. With the ubiquity of good sound devices, we still will have to have quiet spaces from which to broadcast, or record.

I also found out about Sherlock, the Codec Detective. I’m not sure how Apple feels about the possible name confusion (although I’m not sure that Apple’s search is called Sherlock anymore either), but this is a great little utility that helps one figure out if they have a video codec installed or not. As everything moves towards Flash video, this sort of tool may not be needed in the future, but in the meantime it’s incredibly useful for me, as I switch between several different machines throughout the day and may need to edit video on any of them.

Visualization of data is a huge trend, and in my opinion only going to get bigger as text literacy declines in favour of visual literacy. I’m not saying text literacy will disappear; just that visual literacy becomes more important in the future. Flowing Data posted an interesting contest, to see if a correlation can be drawn between SAT scores and class size. The contest isn’t about the correlation per se, but it’s about the visualization and what comes of it.

Aesthetics as Part of Usability

So the recent past has me thinking about the aesthetics of e-learning spaces, and while that may seem like a non-issue for many people, I believe it will be incredibly important as educators move forward. We rely on aesthetics to assist us in a quick reliability check. We all do this in real life when we meet a person, as they say first impressions are important. Well, this is no different in e-learning or in a face to face class.

Certainly Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle and other modern LMS’s allow a creator to exert some control over how content looks. You are somewhat functionally trapped into a frame where content is held with some of these systems, but in many cases those are constraints that you can work with (against?). As an educator you might also have other issues restricting the look of your content; headers are a certain color, color schemes might be imposed by your institution, usability experts tell you what icon to use for a link or even font size might be restricted.

As an educator you have a dual purpose as well, you need to make your content accessible as well. So that means you should consider things like contrast of color, whether your font size is large enough for the visually impaired and whether your images have alt tags to ensure a screen reader can convey the description properly to a user. In fact, your institution might be under law to make your content accessible.

Frames in and of themselves pose problems for stringent accessibility rules, so your LMS might already be screwing you. It’s quite possible it’s screwing you anyways… never mind that ugly thought…

It’s not particularly difficult to make a website accessible. It can be tricky to make it aesthetically pleasing and usable. Seeing as I’ve brought up visually impaired users, I would be very very remiss to not mention this other blog article about 10 Tools for Evaluating Web Site Accessibility especially for color blind users. While these are for websites, you can use most of these tools within LMS’s as well. The Firefox extention (#1 in the linked article) is excellent, and has identified a couple areas that I need to be aware of in my own work. Of course, this doesn’t really speak about aesthetics. Well not explicitly anyways.

Aesthetics are pleasing the eye – which can be difficult to hit the centre of the target everytime as we all view things differently. I often get asked, how can I make something look good? Practice is my default answer, but when pressed I will concede that you can’t go wrong with the classic black, white and grey. Add an accent color of (one of) red, blue or green and your e-learning space will look professional. If you have a predetermined header, or logo, grab one of the colors as an accent from that. Simplicity is key. It’s when people start to get fancy that sometimes people run into trouble.

Another Design To Address Change

Websites are (sometimes) designed for interaction and flow.

Books are designed for readability.

E-learning is designed for….information transmission?

This is certainly the belief I have. LMS’s as a whole are systems that encourage transmission rather than other methods of learning. The collaboration tools are not the greatest, nor are they immediately present. If they do exist, they are workarounds, hacks, expansion ideas or afterthoughts. Don’t get me wrong, I like hacking around in the systems we use to figure out how to do something. Some systems make it hard to do so, some accept that their existence is a framework that you build on.

I think that the LMS is already entrenched in higher education and will continue to serve a role in education. I don’t think we’ll fully go to distributed resources of knowledge, aggregated by RSS feeds and pipes. LMS use may drop, but I suspect that it will serve as a gathering point that builds in the features of web 2.0, but cradled in an environment where failure or success is not so open to the world. Some students crave that security, and we should at least give that to them in a gesture of support.

That means that we need the fundamental design of LMS’s to change so that they are adaptable, much like operating systems that have applications that run on top of them. They also need to output well designed templates that faculty can use to display content. No current LMS has a template system for content – we can do it with blogs, why not learning spaces? It’s not difficult, but it would be (and in my case definitely is) a barrier to faculty creating good looking learning spaces.

Part of site reliability, or authority, is that learning spaces look professional. A slapped together website in HTML is not enough to attract customers, why would a slapped together pastiche of PowerPoints, PDFs, webpages and links be attractive to students?