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
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:
- Most LMS/University e-learning is ugly.
- 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.
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?