Why is University/LMS e-learning so ugly?

Yesterday, Derek Moore tweeted

University webs require eye candy + brain fare. Puget Sound’s site does both with colour palate & info architecture http://bit.ly/9U1kBN

In a later he also pointed to the fact that even Puget Sounds instance of Moodle looked good. I agreed.

This resonated strongly with me because I and a few colleagues have recently been talking about how most e-learning within Universities and LMS is ugly. Depressing corporate undesign seeking to achieve quality through consistency and instead sinking to being the lowest common denominator. Sorry, I’m starting to mix two of my bete noires:

  1. Most LMS/University e-learning is ugly.
  2. Most of it is based on the assumption that everything must be the same.

Let’s just focus on #1.

I’m using ugly/pretty in the following in the broadest possible sense. Pretty, at its extreme end, is something that resonates postively in the soul as your using it effectively to achieve something useful. It helps you achieve the goal, but you feel good while your doing it, even when you fail and even without knowing why. There’s a thesis or three in this particular topic alone – so I won’t have captured it.

Why might it be ugly? An absence of skill?

Let me be the first to admit that the majority of e-learning that I’ve been responsible for is ugly. This design (used in 100s of course sites) is mostly mine, but has thankfully improved (as much as possible) by other folk. At best you might call that functional. But it doesn’t excite the eyes or resonate. And sadly, it’s probably all downhill from there as you go further back in history.

Even my most recent contribution – BIM – is ugly. If you wish to inflict more pain on your aesthetic sensibility look at this video. BIM rears its ugly head from about 1 minute 22 seconds in.

In my case, these are ugly because of an absence of skill. I’m not a graphic designer, I don’t have training in visual principles. At best I pick up a bit, mostly from what I steal, and then proceed to destroy those principles through my own ineptitude.

But what about organisations? What about the LMS projects like Moodle?

Why might it be ugly? Trying to be too many things to too many?

An LMS is traditionally intended to be a single, integrated system that provides all the functionality required for institutional e-learning. It is trying to be a jack of all trades. To make something so all encompassing look good in its entirety is very difficult. For me, part of looking good is responding to the specifics of a situation in an appropriate way.

It’s also not much use being pretty if you don’t do anything. At some level the developers of an LMS have to focus on making it easy to get the LMS to do things, and that will limit the ability to make it look pretty. The complexity of the LMS development, places limits on making it look pretty.

At some level, the complexity required to implement a system as complex as a LMS also reduces the field of designers who can effectively work with to improve the design of the system.

But what about organisations adopting the LMS, why don’t they have the people to make it look good?

Why might it be ugly? Politics?

The rise of marketing and the “importance of brand” comes with it the idea of everything looking the same. It brings out the “look and feel” police, those folk responsible for ensuring that all visual representations of the organisation capture the brand in accepted ways.

In many ways this is an even worse example of “trying to be too many things”. As the “brand” must capture a full range of print, online and other media. Which can be a bridge too far for many. The complexity kills the ability for the brand to capture and make complete use of the specific media. Worse, often the “brand police” don’t really understand the media and thus can’t see the benefits of the media that could be used to improve the brand.

The brand and the brand police create inertia around the appearance of e-learning. They help enshrine the ugliness.

Then we get into the realm of politics and irrationality. It no longer becomes about aesthetic arguments (difficult at the best of times) it becomes about who plays the game the best, who has the best connection to leadership, who has the established inertia, who can spin the best line.

The call to arms

I think there is some significant value in making e-learning look “pretty”. I think there’s some interesting work to be done in testing that claim and finding out how you make LMS and university e-learning “pretty”.

Some questions for you:

  • Is there already, or can we set up, a gallery of “pretty” LMS/institutional e-learning?
    Perhaps something for Moodle (my immediate interest) but other examples would be fun.
  • What bodies of literature can inform this aim?
    Surely some folk have already done stuff in this area.
  • What might be some interesting ways forward i.e. specific projects to get started?

7 thoughts on “Why is University/LMS e-learning so ugly?

  1. It is a shame that the techs in charge won’t work with the creative types in an organisation to produce something great. Everyone is supposed to be on the same team after all. There are great people in both camps, but what is stopping them working together?

    The Puget Sounds Moodle looks amazing, and maybe one day once the technical bugs are ironed out, our organisation can start looking at things from this perspective too.

    1. My explanation is the one above – politics. The aim in most organisations is not to do the right thing or the best thing. It’s to ensure that it’s done by the “right” people, as defined by organisational charts and reporting lines. Not the best people.

      There’s also the assumption of the “right” process. i.e the process that allows management to objectively make the appropriate decisions about how to use scarce resources. i.e. you can’t be a good organisation unless you have a framework to make decisions by.

      The trouble is that when those decisions are made, they are not objective, they are not informed by the framework. The basic problem is that people are not objective, they are not rational.

      The only people that are objective are autistics. A very coarse analogy is that an autistic person actually tries to understand and and evaluate everything and then make the right decisions. Because for any complex task this is really hard, they have problems.

      How many autistic people have you seen in leadership positions? Evidence that management isn’t objective?

    2. I guess I’m new to seeing how large organisations work :P

      But from someone who is probably quite naive about the inner workings of a large organisation, it boggles the mind how some decisions are made but not questioned by others further up the ladder. And when those further down the ladder question things they are deemed as troublemakers or nay-sayers. Also the need for ownership of things by departments, even at their detriment, continues to amaze me.

    3. Rolley

      You made a good point about ownership of things by departments, and also how the “right” people as defined by the organisation are perhaps not always the best people alone for the task at hand.

      Collaboration could save a lot of problems here but sadly, humans (especially in large groups [organistaions]) tend to also be egotistical as well as subjective and irrational. No person is perfect, and we tend to loose sight of wider goals and objectives in all the organisational distractions, and get trapped in ego cages.

  2. (forgot to add)

    In terms of Indigenous computer education and literacy, the literature suggests that creating virtual environments (in addition to materials) that are culturally affirming and relevant can further help engagement by Indigenous students.
    Other than a banner image, sadly there isn’t much more we can do with our current instance of Moodle in terms of visuals.

  3. Rolley

    Yeah, the political aspect seems to stop anything from ever being done in this regard. I’ve found that any feedback about improving UI design and aesthetics, or any attempt to help/contribute; gets taken as an insult rather than the intended constructive feedback and want to help improve things.

    You’re right too, that there seems to be a myriad of factors that prevent good visual design in these sorts of systems. Be it marketing, technical, political and so on.

    The whole thing reminds me of a comedy skit I saw last night from the 2010 Melbourne Comedy Festival. The comedian was discussing the old saying “never judge a book by it’s cover”.. and made an absolutely hilarious mockery of it – it was funny, because in reality, we do actually judge a book by it’s cover so to speak. All the ugly e-learning systems and more, what are they saying about us as institutions?

    We can’t escape the fact that what a person sees provides them with immediate data to make judgements on, both unconsciously and consciously. The principle applies to anything, and it’s because of this fact that design even exists.

    I’d love to see more institutions take UI design and aesthetics seriously and stop downgrading the importance of its place in their online presence.

  4. shootingrobots

    Ugly sites may also have something to do with the Project Triangle In my experience Universities don’t have the budget necessary to get the UI and aesthetics right. Sadly fast and cheap take precedence of beauty. It should be possible to set up a repository of CSS designs. Moodle has a collection of designs (http://moodle.org/mod/data/view.php?id=6552), but maybe A Moodle zen garden approach might push the envelope.

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