Simplicity, e-learning and shadow systems

BJ Fogg looks like an interesting sort of guy, particularly with the work CDDU may be doing over coming years with e-learning, PLEs etc. From his home page, he is a psychologist who investigates how people use technology.

He’s doing work at Standford University around Facebook and using it. Via the blogosphere I have come across a video of his on simplicity. It’s hosted on Facebook and here comes some of the bits I have discovered which I don’t like about Facebook. I’m not sure the URL above will work and you will have to have a facebook account to view it. Not real open.


In the video Dr BJ Fogg attempts to define and explain simplicity. (Here’s where I attempt to explain the framework from my disjointed, surface viewing of the video.)

Simplicity is personal and contextual. Different people, in different contexts will have different perceptions of simplicity. Simplicity is not something characteristic of a particular object or process.

Simplicity has 6 elements

  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical effort
  • Brain cycles
  • Social deviance – going against the rules/norms
  • Non-routine

Something that is perceived to be simple minimises the relative use of the resources of the above 6 types.

Different people will have different levels of resource types. The example used in the video is of a teenager who might have more time than money compared with an older person who has more money than time.

Another point made is that “simplicty is a function of your scarcest resource at that moment”. If you short of time, how a system impacts on your time is going to be a major decider in whether or not you find a system simple.

Lessons for e-learning and information systems

I’m a fan of the Technology Acceptance Model as a reasonable explanation about why people use systems. In short, perceived usefulness and perceived ease-or-use are two of the major factors. Obviously ease-of-use has connections to simplicity.

I think most of what passes for organisational systems for e-learning (it might be possible to expand that to most information systems within organisations) within universities are so far from being simple that it is not funny. I believe this is one of the reasons why the level of adoption and quality of use of most e-learning is, at best, patchy.

First lesson. If simplicity is not characteristic of a particular object, but instead contextual and personal. Then the idea of single interface systems/processes does not make sense in an organisation like universities or for a task like learning. Universities are incredibly diverse and learning is incredibly personal (and diverse). A single system/interface for all almost certainly means that it won’t be simple for anyone.

A number of the systems at my institution don’t even recognise the difference between academics and administrative staff. For example, the system which tracks academic misconduct amongst students provides the administrative staff who regularly work with the system through out the year with exactly the same interface as the academics who use it rarely. It’s no surprise that academics report that system is difficult to use (even though it is also extremely useful).

The scarcest resource for most academics at CQU that I know of is time. They don’t have time to do the important things.

What makes it worse is that most of the systems make them waste time performing tasks that are busy work, that shouldn’t be required. And that just annoys them.

I’m just off the phone from a rightly annoyed academic. CQU’s main LMS is Blackboard. CQU also has a system called the Academic Staff Allocation system, it tracks who is teaching what, where and when.

A number of CQU courses have large numbers of staff involved, all being “managed” by a course coordinator. Obviously those staff should have access to the Blackboard course site. Currently that only happens through a manual configuration process performed by the coordinator at the start of term. A time when they are busy trying to get the course up and going.

Obviously, they shouldn’t have to do this.

E-learning systems need to be simpler to use. BJ Fogg’s definition provides a potentially useful way of looking at that.

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