Borrowing from UX Design
A key difference between an instructor and an instructional designer is that while the former is laser focused on the content of a course, the knowledge domain, the instructional designer tends to focus more on the sum total of the interfaces and moments of contact a student has with the course. In other words, the instructional designer is more focused on how the student experiences a course. This is because designers, more broadly conceived, see the world as such as a system of interfaces, a kind of practical semiotics. Joshua Porter, author of "Designing for the Social Web," articulates the designer's perspective in his definition of user experience (UX).
The user experience is made up of all the interactions a person has with your brand, company, or organization. This may include interactions with your software, your web site, your call center, an advertisement, with a sticker on someone else’s computer, with a mobile application, with your Twitter account, with you over email, maybe even face-to-face. The sum total of these interactions over time is the user experience. – Joshua Porter
UX designers see these moments and intentionally plan for them. This translates rather easily into learning design, especially for today. Why? Because whether we like it or not, today's courses are all asset heavy. And each of these assets, e.g., syllabi, textbooks, LMS, email, web resources, clickers, slide presentations, video, exams, papers, learning activities, projects, etc., all these assets serve as interfaces to the course. And none of them are neutral or completely transparent. Each one has some "friction" that can possibly distract from the learning process. So it's helpful to think about how we can minimize that friction as much as possible.
One way to understand this is to use the concept of cognitive load, or the way in which cognitive resources are directed during learning. John Sweller, the educational psychologist who has done extensive research on this topic, describes three types of cognitive load.
- Intrinsic cognitive load is the amount of cognitive resources required to process the actual information or skills you want your students to learn
- Extraneous cognitive load is the amount of effort and attention required to process non-essential information, such as the web interface of an online course, syllabus, handouts, connecting your clicker to a course, etc.
- Germane cognitive load, while not intrinsic, is nonetheless directed to the actual course content, for example, active learning activities, discussions boards, presentations, problem sets, etc.
The purview of instructional design is found in relation to extraneous and germane cognitive load, precisely because these two areas constitute the user experience of a course. We see this in a number of ways. First, instructional design interventions on campus almost always happen with respect to those aspects that determine extraneous cognitive load and are typically related to technology (i.e., setting up a course in an LMS, troubleshooting technical issues, finding new tools for different needs, etc.). This is because the further away we get from the content of the course, the further the instructor moves from her expertise and into the expertise of the designer. A professional designer’s familiarity with technology allows him to minimize extraneous cognitive load.
But we also see this in other areas of learning design, such as formulating measurable learning outcomes, iterating retrieval practices, developing communities of inquiry and creating active learning opportunities in a classroom. These types of interventions can all be linked with germane cognitive load.
In sum, what good instructional design can do, whether from a professional designer or the instructor herself, is to minimize extraneous and promote germane cognitive load.
The Limits of Design
Perhaps we shouldn't think of courses as products, but the industrial designer Deiter Rams states well how good design can help make the experience of products better.
Good design makes the product understandable. It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.
All courses should be designed with these two points in mind because the main function of learning design is, as Julie Dirksen notes, "the ruthless management of cognitive load." While "management" sounds a bit too administrative to me, her point is well taken. After all, we want our students leave the course without having to need that mediation again. We really do want them to master the outcomes. The reduction of extraneous cognitive load is the first priority of instructional design and a task that both professional designers and instructors alike should embrace as central to their jobs. Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy at Berkeley, illustrates this idea on his NY Times article, What art unveils:
When you and are I talking, I don’t pay attention to the noises you are making; your language is a transparency through which I encounter you. Design, at least when it is optimal, is transparent in just this way; it disappears from view and gets absorbed in application. You study the digital image of the shirt on the website, you don’t contemplate its image. . . – Alva Nöe
A good designer is thus humble to a fault and a perfect designer, in other words, would be the least recognized because no one would notice the design at all. All the cognitive load would be directed toward the essential aspects. Good design is an effort in self-effacement.
How, then, do we design our courses with the idea of user experience and cognitive load in mind? One way is to keep in mind where we want our to direct our student's attention. As Julie Schell writes, "If student's don't think about or pay attention to the right things, they won't learn the right things. Direct their attention carefully and purposefully to get the pay off you are looking for." Each element, each detail of the course, can be a powerful director of student attention. Even the most mundane details, such as syllabi and email, course navigation and information hierarchy go a long way to determine how the student will ultimately fare in the course.
So, when you are creating something that your students will see or do, ask yourself the following questions: Is this going to minimize extraneous cognitive load? If not, is it worth it? Is this going to increase germane cognitive load? If not, is it worth it?