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Jakob Nielsen on e-learning

First published: January 16, 2001

Just how important is usability in e-learning? We ask usability guru Jakob Nielsen on this and other wide-ranging issues.

elearningpost: You have done quite a bit of thinking, writing and talking about web usability. Your relentless advocacy on keeping download time to a minimum, having a succinct writing style, and creating information structure that's easily navigable are all essential considerations for e-learning design as well. Our first question to you is, what are some of the usability issues specific to e-learning?

Jakob Nielsen: First of all, just as you said, all the standards apply there as well. They are important because if it is slow, and unpleasant, people are just likely to go away and forget about it.

Secondly, and specifically, as a learning system, you need to keep all the content fresh in learners mind so that they don't forget things because they are trying to accommodate new and foreign concepts. For example, response time. Even after a few seconds you always forget what was the track or sequence you were following. I think response time will hurt people more in learning systems than it will if you were, just let's say, ordering a book or something, where you know what you are doing. It is important that your brain keeps the context.

Thirdly, there is always a big problem in learning systems with respect to people's willingness to read - now that is a problem with all systems as well, they all are the same issues, they just have different impacts. I would say, traditionally in instructional systems, and teaching in general, there has been a lot of emphasis on text. Large amounts of text just do not work very well on a computer screen simply because it is painful and slow to read. In traditional websites, that just means you have the advice to keep it short. In learning websites there is a further problem. If you have to keep it short, that might be all very good advice for, let's say, writing an article. But, if it is going to teach people, if it needs to get all the content across -- given that people are just not willing to read so much -- I think it leads to a completely different approach to learning on a computer than learning in a traditional environment.

I don't think, you can rely so much on mere transmission of knowledge like in textbooks. But I should say, by the way, that I still believe in the usefulness of textbooks, which is why I wrote a book on Web usability recently. I also believe in the physical presence of having a live event as well, which is why we have the Usability World Tour. So, I think they are just different media. I do not believe that just because we now have the Internet the old media stops being useful. I think a book is useful if you have large amount of information. It is never going to work online. And I also think a live event, as in you are with people, has special benefits as well. In many ways the most successful online learning systems are the ones that integrate with the other older media. For instance they will say, "go and read this book" or "mainly it is distance learning, but once in a month we gather for a weekend seminar" or something like that. So, those are the things to keep in mind.

elearningpost: So, what in your opinion works well in online learning?

Jakob Nielsen: What is good online is a lot of experience based learning, because that's what online can give you that a book cannot give you. People could do things, try things and discover things almost by themselves, except that of course, you have carefully planned all the things for them to discover. So, whether it is simulation systems, or problem based learning, or cases where you can do calculations, it depends on the topic and what is appropriate for it. You can even get people to do live exercises, for instance, if you are teaching a social science type of a topic where you discuss current issues, you could consider making a newspaper site as material for your course. I think those are features that work well online and don't work well in a book or even in a live lecture.

elearningpost: You mentioned the importance of having live events where learners not just meet with the instructor but also with peer learners. The only way to duplicate such an atmosphere is to create a community place where people can meet, virtually. So you will find in almost in all online learning systems, community features such as discussion forums, bulletin boards and chat rooms. Of these, discussion forums are most effective and no one is clear as to what makes a good discussion forum. There are issues about whether there should be inline or out of the context discussions; should there be one message per page or more; should it be threaded or non-threaded and so on. What is the usability of a discussion forum?

Jakob Nielsen: First of all I would agree that it is good have a discussion group feature and I actually believe much more in discussion groups than I believe in chat rooms as ways of allowing students to interact. I mean there might be few places where a chat room may be good if you are having a debate about something happening in real time, but aside from that, discussion groups are more useful. One of the big benefits of online learning is that the students can proceed at their own pace and their own time and that means that students will not be doing the same thing at exactly the same times. Therefore, the real-time chat effectively becomes very thin and not nearly as valuable as discussion groups where people can think a little bit before they post and the instructor can moderate it which a also good.

Next, the usability of discussion groups on the web is very bad unfortunately, which actually is kind of a puzzle to me because there were good user interfaces for discussion groups about ten years ago on the Usenet. They were very big a few years ago and since then declined considerably due to spam and just poor quality of postings. But there were some very nice discussion software for the PCs, Macintoshes and Unix based workstations. They were not perfect but were much more smooth to use and had much better features as well than the web-based discussions group that we have today. So, I think it is really a shame that we have lost them and now almost seven years later, we don't even have the worst interface that we had back then. It is very odd that there is not been more work on making better interfaces for them. What we have now, I don't think is very good. That may be the big conclusion.

The smaller conclusion: what can we do with what is available to us: because they are so bad you should really emphasize on its usability and how well it integrates with your system. I would recommend doing, may be more testing on these types of interfaces than would be considered normal. In general, I have not seen very many cases where it was very unfathomable as to what was going on. For an average user it should be fairly simple to figure out how to use it. For this you should really test it thoroughly to see if all functions and icons are clearly explained.

elearningpost: An e-learning experience is a bit different from the normal Web user experience such as browsing a corporate web site or reading an online magazine or even shopping online. In e-learning, transactions occur over extended periods of time and instructor plays a crucial part in creating a good experience. But most importantly, one assumes a fair amount of commitment from the learner, that is, the learner has already paid or wants a certification or sufficiently self-motivated to try and figure out how to use the site. In such a scenario, is usability that critical? How can we stress the importance of usability for learning?

Jakob Nielsen: I think all those points you said are relevant points but they do not sum up to saying that usability is irrelevant. It might be true that it is a little bit less important than it would be for, let's say an e-commerce site where you can sell nothing unless you have good usability. Here you might offer courses without good usability but people may not come back for a second course and I think that is more the way to think about it.

If it is slow and awkward to use, then sure enough they will pay for that one course and may be they will be motivated for that one course but they will never take another one. In some ways when you do something online you do have a lot of things against you. Because it not as not as motivational as it is when you are on the campus and in the learning environment. There is so much pressure from your peers to perform well, to hand in your assignments on time or to be present when lectures are going on. Online though, it is very easy to lag behind. You are usually sitting at home amidst several distractions, you normally have a day job that you have to do, and under these circumstances it is easy to convince yourself that you will do the work tomorrow instead of today. Online courses are inherently not very motivational and not as effective as traditional courses. Hence, there is all the more reason for you to keep the user experience good and engaging so that they don't feel like dropping out in the middle, or even feel like coming back for more courses. That may be the bottom line.

elearningpost: True. Several studies point to the fact that the dropout rates in online programs are much higher than the traditional ones.

Jakob Nielsen: Exactly. I think that's because you don't have that motivation by not being there physically, so you need to give people some other kinds of motivation. Not stumbling blocks in the form of poor interfaces. There might be many features people just did not discover. Let's consider the discussion groups that we mentioned earlier-- they are difficult. People might never discover it and might never really realize it is good for them. Even though it could have been good if it had been easy to use.

elearningpost: You mentioned earlier that there should be different approaches for different purposes. You pointed to the usefulness of books and live events and their role in learning. Your Usability World Tour relies heavily on live presence. Would you consider offering a similar course online? If you would, how would you go about it?

Jakob Nielsen: I think one could consider it and it probably would be a good idea to do it. At the same time I also think there is so much value in the face-to-face contact and the question & answers. People really want to be with--particularly in our case because we are world famous--the person and with other people. Sure we could have more information online and we could do more exercises online, but there is something about being with the person that makes all the difference. I think it has a bigger impact on the eye and the brain.

elearningpost: With so much hype and activity going on in e-learning, what is your take on where we are right now with e-learning and what's on the near horizon?

Jakob Nielsen: I think that progress in this field has been very slow. I'll tell you a personal story. One of my very early projects back when I just started as a university professor was an e-learning system that we built in the early 1980s. This was to teach programming. We had a group of students who had jobs but wanted to learn the program. So I was doing this with the Computer Science program professor who was very good at it and had been teaching it many, many times. I think we succeeded reasonably well because it is a topic that lends itself very well to the computer and even the computer at that time was much more primitive and people had just started getting personal computers at home and were barely connected through modems. We could just barely use the course I would say. And think about what we could do now! Fifteen years later what I see on the web is may be somewhat more advanced than what we did then. But I would not say much more advanced.

So, progress in this field has been very slow and I think there is not enough emphasis on how to break new grounds and treat it seriously. There is a lot of emphasis on just developing a lot of courses and we have had that for long, long time. I remember the Plato systems back in the 70's when I was a student and I really can't tell the difference between the Plato systems that were there 30 years ago and the PC based systems 15 years ago and the web-based systems we have now. I think enormous resources go into courseware development because it is a lot of work and not enough resources are left to really improve the quality of learning. This may sound pessimistic but we have to admit progress has not been fast enough. You should compare this with e-commerce, which did not even exist five years ago. Amazon comes out and so many other sites come along and every year, actually every month they get better and better. If you compare those two areas, I think it really does not bode well for e-learning in terms of how the progress has been. I just think it could be much, much better.

About Jakob Nielsen

Jakob is a principal of Nielsen Norman Group. His company's User Experience World Tour is a 12-city series of conferences designed to gather usability experts and to spread the gospel of simpler, more navigable Web sites. He is also the author of Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. Useit.com. Jakob Nielsen's site features a bi-weekly column on Web usability.

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