elearningpost logo

you are here: articles

Exclusive Interview with Donald Norman

First published: February 15, 2001

We talk to Donald Norman on learner-centered design and other relevant issues.

elearningpost: In all your books, you have emphasized the need to put the user at the center of all design initiatives. User-centric design has been your mantra. Now, with e-learning, there is a similar need to put the learner at the center of all design initiatives. Going with your experience as the President of UNext Learning Systems, what are some of the issues one needs to consider in order to adopt a learner-centric approach?

Donald Norman: We have to start at several places. The traditional course is run by a professor, an instructor, who organizes the course material in some logical method and gives lecture materials and assigns readings. This is an approach that we can call either "teacher-centric", or maybe, "content-centric". And it fails to take into account the way people learn. The first step in learner-centric is to understand how learning takes place. Much modern research in cognitive science shows that people learn by doing. So it is very important that people learn not by reading a book, and not by listening to a lecture, but by doing tasks that can engage the mind.

The second point to understand is that when you read or listen to something, What do you learn from it? The answer: It depends on the goals that you have. In a traditional course, the students do not know why they are reading the material. They may be reading because the professor said "read this material". What we try to do in UNext is we give the students a problem to solve. Now when students read the material, they know the goal; they are trying to find the information that will solve their problem.

" When we develop instruction, we present it to students and we watch what they do, where they are confused, where they do well, and what their activities are. We develop our course with an iterative cycle of design-check-redesign."

The last point is to study students. When we develop instruction, we present it to students and we watch what they do, where they are confused, where they do well, and what their activities are. We develop our course with an iterative cycle of design-check-redesign. This is very much like user-centered software design.

elearningpost: Then can we say that we need some kind of "pedagogical usability" in the case of e-learning design?

Donald Norman: Absolutely!

elearningpost: In your book Things That Make Us Smart, you mentioned that everyday cognition has two modes -- the experiential and the reflective. And the difficult part in the design of learning environments is to figure the optimal use of both these modes of cognition. Traditional classroom environments, you said, are guilty of being "too reflective". And the common use of multimedia technologies in classrooms is "too experiential". How do we tackle such issues in e-learning courses? [Reference: Russell D. Hoffman Interviews Donald Norman, 1995]

Donald Norman: In a problem-based approach, students are immediately challenged -- because we ask them to solve a problem that they do not have the skills to do. And this is very nice in that it causes the reflective approach to knowledge. Students must reflect upon what they know and the nature of the problem in front of them. In our courses we mostly emphasize the reflection mode. We have discussion groups, where we ask students to discuss what they are doing, and what they think about the material. This causes them to reflect upon their experiences.

But we also believe that the learning experience should be fun. So here we somewhat emphasize the experiential mode. So, we do provide simple animated sequences, and video sequences to make learning interesting and enjoyable.

elearningpost: Sometime back, the Voyager Company published a CD-ROM, First Person: Donald A. Norman, which featured three of your books. In that CD-ROM you mentioned the advantages of electronic books over paper books. You said that e-books are better for reflecting. These days, we have a new breed of e-books. What is your impression on these Internet-enabled e-books. Do you foresee many e-learning applications on them?

Donald Norman: When I talked about them in the past, I was talking on what might happen in the future. I think it is still in the future! They are so not there. The current e-books are very limited, and they are just simple replacements for regular books. They are very good as reference books, because they are very easy to search and find. They also might be more convenient because they are lighter and because one e-book can hold many regular books. But they do not have many of the features that I talked about to make them interactive and to make them good learning tools. And that is still in the future.

elearningpost: You have been advocating the need to study the entertainment industry, especially the video-gaming industry, to get a better perspective on motivation issues -- the very issues that seem so difficult to bring about in traditional classroom environments. Now, with e-learning, and especially with broadband going mainstream, are we going to see stronger influences from the gaming industry?

Donald Norman: This is another one that is still in the future. I've not seen any effective use of gaming technology in learning. Maybe, with one exception. And the exception is simulations. For example, the series of games like SimCity. These can be effective instructional tools if used properly

"We do not want the gaming industry to go into instruction. The gaming industry knows nothing about pedagogy and learner-centered design. But what we want to do is to capture the excitement and concentration of those into playing games."

The problem is this: We do not want the gaming industry to go into instruction. The gaming industry knows nothing about pedagogy and learner-centered design. But what we want to do is to capture the excitement and concentration of those into playing games. We want to that in the same way when we are learning. But we haven't made much progress in this regard.

elearningpost: There have been some new and innovative e-learning models that have emerged recently. We now have news-based learning from the likes of CNN (CNNfyi). We have magazine-based learning from the likes of FastCompany (FC:Learning), which is offering its articles as a part of a curriculum. And we also have a company like MeansBusiness, which is offering its extensive database of excerpts and summaries of books in particular domain. Now, most of these models concentrate on content. Do you feel that in e-learning, content is king?

Donald Norman: Learning is a huge area. And what we all aim for is lifelong learning where we are continually learning and increasing our knowledge. So there is a difference in what goes on in a course and what goes on in everyday life. In a course, content is not king. In a course it is the activity that you are pursuing and the discussions you have with other students and instructors -- these are kings. We learn by doing in a course. I think this is the framework of formal education. However outside a course, we must also continually keep learning -- we must keep up to date and we must keep incrementing our knowledge. And I believe that the new forms of learning that you described are truly excellent in doing that. It's keeping us up to date -- learning about some new findings; some new reports. And in this approach content is king.

But it is important to recognize that there are many kinds of learning that take place in many different situations. So there is room for tremendous amount of variation.

elearningpost: There is this belief that the Internet's value comes from its enabling of groups and not just of individual-to- individual connections. What are your views on the notion of having online learning communities?

Donald Norman: There have been some effective online communities. But not very many. We still do now know very well why some work very well and some do not. It does appear that you need to have a very good leader or moderator of an online group. It still think the major impact of the Internet is individual-to-individual. Most important interactions are through electronic mail. And though many groups can be powerful I do not think that the power has been in the group discussions -- it has been in the individual-to-individual.

elearningpost: There is much talk and debate on the role of an online instructor. As you have made the transition from an traditional teaching environment to an online environment, what are some of the issues a budding online instructor has to bear in mind?

Donald Norman: First I think the classroom instructor is better than the online instructor. The major role of an instructor is to give guidance and encouragement; to be a mentor and guide. These are as much social issues as they are instructional. And being physically in the same place really helps.

There are situations where you cannot be physically together. So here we must use online instructors. Here too, we do not believe that online instruction is very good if the instructor gives a lot of reading material. We believe that the online instructor should also be a coach and a mentor. This can work well, but the tools that we have available today are not very good. So, I feel that although online instruction is essential in online courses, it is still better to meet your instructor in person.

elearningpost: You mentioned that the online tools for instructors are not good. Can you expand on that?

Donald Norman: Tools that the instructors use to interact with the students are not good. Like when an instructor tries talking to a student, it works, but it is limiting. Like the conversation that we are having now on the telephone. I cannot see you, I do not know how you are reacting, and we cannot have a rich exchange. On the Internet, the e-mail substitutes. But the e-mail is slow and tedious. If we were to have the same conversation over the e-mail, it would take weeks and it would not be that receptive. We also have discussion groups where we can post and comment on topics, but these too are slow, tedious and difficult to use. This is what I meant by saying that the tools are not good yet.

elearningpost: Are we looking at a new set of skills for an online instructor then? Online facilitation skills, online moderation skills?

Donald Norman: Yes and no! Yes, I agree with everything you said. And no because that a very good instructor in the classroom must have similar skills already.

elearningpost: A related question. Recently, a Harvard Professor was refused permission to use his course for for-profit organization. Such incidents are becoming increasingly common. What is your stand on the relationship between a university professor and a for-profit business that wants to use his/her skills?

Donald Norman: This is a very complicated issue. And this will vary from country to country. In the US if you were an employee working for an company, anything you develop is called --the legal term -- is "work for hire". And "work for hire" is owned by the company. When you are a professor in the US, working for a university, we've long had a tradition that if you write a book, the book is yours. And the professor owns the copyrights and receives any profits. When a professor invents something in the research laboratory, that is "work for hire", and the invention is owned by the university. So what happens to a Professor's course -- a course that the Professor works very hard to develop? Who owns the course? The answer: We don't know. In a normal business, the business would own the course. In traditional university, since we've the tradition that a Professor owns his books, it makes the course question complicated.

The answer to this may very well be different in different countries. At UNext we bypass this question. When we develop courses with the faculty of universities, we do not make an agreement with the faculty members, we make our agreement with the university. And we leave the university to determine with agreements they make with the faculty.

elearningpost: There is much discussion going around on the notion of "reusable learning objects". The fundamental idea behind them is that instructional designers can build small instructional components that can be reused a number of times in different learning contexts. Do you foresee such a paradigm going mainstream?

" When I develop a course, I want a cohesive experience. And I do not know how I am going to do this by taking a piece from here and a piece from there."

Donald Norman: Reusable is always the dream. It has been the dream of software for sometime. Although I think it is an excellent idea, I am not sure that it works. When I develop a course, I want a cohesive experience. And I do not know how I am going to do this by taking a piece from here and a piece from there. What is important is the structure I give to the course and that may be intercepted by having independent learning objects.

elearningpost: With the e-learning market getting crowded by the day, are we going to see a similar kind shakeout as we are witnessing with the e-commerce industry? And if so, what are the factors that will differentiate the winners from the losers?

Donald Norman: Learning is a very large field and now there are many companies and universities entering e-learning. I think that we will see a shakeout and I would like to believe that in the end there will be quality. And those institutions that deliver a quality learning experience will survive and those that do not -- won't.

About Donald Norman

Donald A. Norman is a leading authority on human cognition and the interaction of technology and society. He is the author of number of books including:

Dr. Norman is the President of UNext.com Learning Systems, an e-learning solutions provider, and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. He is also professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.

Visit Donald Norman's home page.

The commenting section is closed for this article.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.