See-through learning

One of the things I dislike greatly about many online learning environments is poor design. Students often complain that they cannot navigate easily around VLEs to find the links, tools or resources they need. They have to spend time thinking about how to get to a discussion group, or how to save content, when their energy and time should be spent learning. Some platforms are better than others of course, but generally many institutional managed learning environments suffer from the same problem - opacity.

I sat in a planning meeting today for our Faculty of Health at the University of Plymouth and one thing we were all agreed on was that courses delivered using any form of technology needed to be designed in such as way that students didn't have to struggle to make them work. In other words, students needed to 'see through' the technology and get to the learning quickly. Essentially, the more transparent the technology is, the easier the learner will be able to use it. The more opaque it is, the more difficult it is to navigate and therefore the harder it is for the learner to use.

In 2008, in partnership with Peter John, I published a book called 'The Digital Classroom'. I elaborated on the notion of 'opaque and transparent technology':

Technology that is opaque and requires a lot of investment in time, mental energy and effort will be rejected in favour of something easier. On the other hand, technology that is transparent is easy to use and has little demands on the cognitive energy of the user. Transparent technology is often referred to as 'user friendly' in that it allows the user to 'see through' the device into what it is able to do for them. (John & Wheeler, 2008; p 96)

We are talking here about minimising effort for maximum pay off - simple design of spaces such as ensuring that all links, guidance and information are in the same place, easy to see and easy to use. Now, that can't be so difficult, can it?

Reference: John, P. D. and Wheeler, S. (2008) The Digital Classroom: Harnessing Technology for the Future. London: Routledge.

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greyrab said…
Hi Steve,

Thought-provoking post. Whether it’s 'opaque or transparent technology' – or other labels - it’s all about the usability of the design.

If the GUI isn’t taken into account at the planning & development stages, the end results of institutional managed learning environments (& others too) are frustrating failures. If the end users can’t intuitively access the stuff they expect to, or perform the tasks they want/need to – the VLE is a poorly planned disaster.

Educational technologists and/or instructional designers with some understanding of user interface design & the needs of the target audience need to be involved from the early planning & development stages, & perform some appropriate testing of the GUI along the way as well.


Hi Steve
I agree with you. As an e-learning coordinator in a big school, I found that teachers would grasp for anything that was easy, and immediately switch off (by folding arms and staring blankly at the ceiling) when something requiring more than two steps was introduced. The pitfall is that they believe that just using this 'easy' technology a few times in their classrooms will in some way revolutionize their teaching and bring about miracle changes re student outcomes. Unfortunately, just learning to use (and getting students to use) simple technology applications, are only the starting points of a long journey towards changing the whole thinking pattern around curriculum planning.
kitchenerd said…
Hi Steve,

You are absolutely right about this idea of transparent technology. If learners spend more time navigating the tool than participating in the learning, we lose them through sheer frustration.

However, we also need to ensure that the course instructors also understand how to facilitate online learning in an engaging and challenging way so that we are not forcing the traditional metaphor or "lecture" or "classroom" into the virtual environment.

I am sharing your post and your book with my course design group.
mvallance1234 said…
A wonderful book to browse through is Designing Interactions (

I personally believe Apple do very well at technology design but even their efforts at online spaces for learning and education and general communication result in a struggle to locate sought-after information. In fact Apple recently discontinued its Apple Learning Interchange website...sadly.

The way forward is for students themselves to 'design' their own interface. On the web, with AJAX technology (?), Google allows this. Uni VLE's need to experiment ... the underlying message from the aforementioned book.
Brian said…
I don't think there is such a system. We're seeing the evidence of an industrial model of education who's origins depend on structures and pathways conflicting with 21st century learning which is unstructured, time shifted and diverse.

I'm wondering is the education bulb about to burst?
Lenandlar said…
Good read. I did a study on the "Usability of Elgg" at the University of Brighton's "Community" platform. The number of usability issues unearthed in that one study is mind-blowing.

One of the major issues with the more socially designed environments is usability - content is all over to start with. And that is believe is one of the major obstacles to using Social Systems (built by others) as part of your teaching and learning environment.

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