Quick Thought About Bringing External Websites into the LMS

Many modern LMS’s allow instructors and designers to bring external websites wholly into the learning environment, either by embedding them in an iframe or a windowed frame. I often wonder if doing this works for students, or is a hindrance. Should I link out and be explicit about where the student is going, or bring the content to the learning environment. The benefits of both are obvious to me.

An explicit statement of where students are going gives them a resource to draw on later – if they no longer are allowed to login to the LMS, they still have access to the learning resource. They can bookmark it and share it. Serendipity allows students to find new and different perspectives. The downfall is that it can be chaotic – too many open windows, too fragmented a learning experience, too much content can overwhelm. It doesn’t provide context, or context isn’t as immediate. Meaning can be fragmented.

Keeping links internal to the LMS provides a better guided road. Some students will be comforted with the idea that they don’t have to go all over the web to get information. The context of the information is a stronger connection. The user experience is more uniform, leading to less cognitive load. The downfall is that it can be too restrictive, too constraining and too much like school. Also, what happens when you can’t login? You’ve lost all your resources.

I think the way one works will put forth the way they design courses, and how the LMS is used. I’m fighting through this issue, and will struggle on as always.

10 Pages For Composition Education

I’ve decided that I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t try to compile some sort of list of resources. So here they are (in no specific order):

1. Composition and the Elements of Visual Design is a well written article giving some basics around different techniques for composing photographs, but these techniques extend to document and website design as well.

2. The Principles of Design discusses several key issues in web design, and how those issues are echoed in print design. Pulling from the classics (balance, rhythm, proportion, dominance and unity), this article gives you a good overview of web design.

3. Composition and Design Principles from Goshen College is an interesting case – I nearly didn’t put it in the list because it’s an atrocious website (for instance, I’m not fond of mixing serif and sans-serif fonts on the same page for body text), but the information is great. As Google is fond of saying, “content is king”. It’s primarily targeted at people who might be teaching art, but my audience being mostly educators, so you should be able to relate. Also, you can sometimes learn from what not to do, which brings us to the next site.

4. 5 Common Visual Design Mistakes outlines some basic errors that designers make. Of course, rules are made to be broken, but when you are trying to communicate a message you need to ensure that  rule breaking is consistent with the message.

5. Principles of Design from About.com is a decent tutorial with examples and questions to cover the basics of design.

6. IBM’s Design Principles Checklist gives you 17 aspects of visual design that they intend to use in software design, but I think they translate to the web and page as well. To me, the last point is critical; cluttered design is one that will only confuse and distract from the content.

7. The Artist’s Toolkit provides a quick tour through the elements and principles of art, which also are applied in design and user experiences. After all isn’t what we experience with art a “user” experience?

8. Art, Design and Visual Thinking is an interactive textbook from Cornell University. Well, it’s interactive if you consider clicking on links an interaction (also the design is dated). This online book is tailored more to the art student, but the first few sections are an excellent and go into areas that other suggested sites don’t cover. Gestalt? Color psychology? Important concepts, but often glossed over or overlooked in primers on design. This site will give you language to dive deeper into an area of design that interests you.

9. Design Psychology is a blog article I’ve referred to a couple of times over the last year or so, as a lot of what I do is web design dressed up as e-learning. While Andy Rutledge appeals to the commercial designer, the message shouldn’t be lost on educators. Educators are competing with commerce for attention, while we have content down pat (in fact content coming out our ears!) we may not design things in such a way as to hold attention or keep it. This post is a touchstone for me, essentially re-centering me when I’m far out in left field.

10. Aslam Memon’s Blog has 45 blogs and twitterers that provide design inspiration. That’s the biggest piece of composition education, looking at and analyzing designs you like, and seeing what was done to create them.

Aesthetics, AV and User Experiences

I’ve been reading a fair bit about UX (User Experience) and it’s role in website design, and by proxy, online learning spaces. I’ve been thinking about how aesthetics have been important in this relationship and recently I’ve come to re-think my definition of aesthetics. Previously, aesthetics online only meant the visual: the look and feel of the website in question. Now, I’m thinking that motion and sound will become increasingly more important as we move from a static web to the motion web. YouTube is great for allowing people to share videos, but really, the skin that they wrap their videos in is horrible. Ugly. Vimeo, on the other hand has a much better looking (and in my opinion designed) interface.

Does that mean that design is an indicator of popularity? No, but eventually either YouTube will allow you to change the default skin (and they already allow some minimal customization) as a feature for it’s users or a competitor who allows more customization will begin to eat away at the dominance. If only YouTube allowed an easy migration path to switch between hosts? The real killer for YouTube is when it can no longer support the bandwidth required and people have videos interrupted or become basically unplayable. At that point, if it comes, people will switch to the better looking alternative.

To the same end, audio will need to be presented in a good looking player. Not only that, but it needs to be clear and audible. A lot of the problems I’ve encountered with poor audio have been with two aspects, the first is in the production of the audio (generally characterized by a flat AM radio sound) and the second being choppy intermittent transmission. Both do things that disrupt the user, by either being a distraction or an interruption to the processing of the core information. Ugly interfaces are often accepted as long as it works. When it doesn’t work… well things get bypassed entirely.