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Learner Centered Design (Book Review)

book coverA review of
Interface Design for Learning: Design strategies for learning experiences
by Dorian Peters
New Riders, 2014

Many of today’s learning tools are now digital: 3D worlds, online classrooms, virtual laboratories, and beyond. As UX professionals, we already know how to design for a positive user experience, but what does it mean to design for a positive learning experience? In Interface Design for Learning, Dorian Peters provides guidance on designing to support the learning environment inherent in digital learning tools. She uses examples from websites, research, UX books, and her own extensive experience to explain and illustrate how we can design interfaces that support learning while creating a positive user experience.

At the beginning of the book, Peters explains why “learner-centered” design is different than user-centered design. The goal of user-centered design is to support task completion, while learner-centered design transforms the user—the interface must be designed to intrinsically challenge users while staying out of their way. She also notes that designers of interfaces for learning are not instructional designers; instructional designers create content or activities to meet learning objectives, while learning interface designers take the content and transform it into an online resource using principles of usability and theories of learning. However, these theories of learning must be understood before they can used as a basis for design. How the interface is designed to support learning depends on which theory of learning you subscribe to.

Peters leads us on a quick tour of learning theories from behaviorism (“learning as the science of behavior change,”) with B.F. Skinner’s positive and negative reinforcement as the most recognizable example; cognitivism (“mind as computer,”) which gave us the notion of mental models; constructivism (“knowledge as built by the learner,”) made famous by Jean Piaget and providing the foundation of online learning—the idea that we construct new knowledge all the time in all of our interactions; and connectivism (“learning is centered on the building of connections,”) where learning is described as a personal environment where we use social, cultural, technological, and personal knowledge to construct new knowledge and learn to solve problems together. Peters suggests that if we are to design for positive learning experiences, our goal should be to create an environment where the learner can adapt, personalize, and create as they learn; in effect, be partners in their own instruction.

Peters guides us through the current landscape of e-learning (MOOCs, Khan Academy, and educational games), and reviews basic principles of UX, such as affordances, cognitive load, mental models, and scaffolding. The heart of the book covers critical aspects of learning: visual, social, emotional, games, and mobile learning. The chapters are generally independent, so the book can act as a quick reference. The first part of each chapter grounds the reader in the topic, while the second half contains strategies and examples. Each chapter closes with sources for further information.

The book is well-organized and its format makes it easy to absorb the information in chunks through the extensive use of headers and judicious use of page colors indicating sections of information. For example, in the “Multimedia and Games” chapter, Peters provides strategies for designing learning games through employing selective use of acoustic cues, use of narration, using relevant video of appropriate length, and letting learners control the pacing. She also discusses when to use still images for teaching (for example, for conceptual processes such as how rain forms), and when to use video (for anything involving motor skills). Conversely, in discussing “Emotional Learning,” Peters provides examples of how to set a positive mood by designing an interface with a “friendly” personality, which can reduce the stress of learning. She also discusses how to support learning flow by determining when to make tasks easier (for example by using visual cues), or more difficult (by adding an interface-based challenge). Sprinkled throughout are case studies that illustrate learning interface challenges and their sometimes surprising solutions.

Lastly, Peters creates a “Learning Interface Designer’s Toolkit” by proposing eleven heuristics for designing learning interfaces. These heuristics provide guidance to ensure that, for example, the interface reduces cognitive load by including only necessary imagery, or that feedback is both operational (provided immediately) and instructional (provided near the relevant item).

This book is a well-written, colorful, fun-to-read, and full of information about the current state of e-learning and how to design appropriate interfaces to support it. I found myself visiting the websites mentioned in the book, and deeply engaged in discovering how to design interfaces for learning. At the end of the book, Peters invites readers to join the community by sharing their experiences in designing interfaces for learning at the Interface Design for Learning group at Mendeley, and by twitter (#UX4L). I did that immediately.