There are many ways to characterize, assess and rate eLearning products. At Harvard Business Publishing's Higher Education group we create and distribute eLearning products for the business education market. Over time we are discovering that there are some universal design principles that hold true for both product development (what and how we build) and product assessment (what and how we distribute), and even hold true for how our customers rate the products and platforms they choose to adopt. We'll briefly review our design principles here.
Clearly there is an abundance of literature on what constitutes effective eLearning. Our principles are meant to serve as a snapshot checklist for us -- brief enough to be memorable and actionable and yet hopefully broad enough to do justice to the qualities we hope to incorporate into the products we build and distribute. Our inter-related design principles are:
- Rigorous & Relevant
- Teachable & Usable
- Professional & Deliverable
Rigorous & Relevant -- The Content Requirement
For products that include content as a direct component, the content should always be the paramount consideration. We've all seen glitzy products that fall short intellectually and we've also seen homegrown products whose rough exterior can't mask the quality inside. At Harvard we strive to deliver academically-sophisticated, brand-worthy content that is topical and peer-reviewed. Not all eLearning products inherently contain content, or in some cases the content can be added by the user. But for those eLearning products that do contain subject matter meant to be consumed by users, this can be the hardest principle to achieve.
Ultimately relevancy is determined individually by each user. So for a product line to be relevant it needs to meet the needs of a wide array of users. By definition that excludes most bleeding edge innovations (especially because many of these have not yet graduated to become Professional & Deliverable), but on the other hand there is a need to keep products utilizing technical advances which enhance usability and teachability. We always attempt to balance that need to stay innovative with the need to produce reliable, relevant products. (See earlier post on Innovation Resources for eLearning, Publishing, and Product Development.)
Teachable & Usable -- The Experience Requirement
There are many measures of usability for eLearning products and throughout software development in general. We
Our actual customers are faculty, and then in turn our products are consumed by their students. This raises the bar past making products "just usable" -- they need to be workable in the classroom environment and contribute value within the context of the entire teaching process. Teachability is a subset of usability, and we use it to focus specifically on both pedagogical and design characteristics that enable a product to serve the needs of the faculty member in the classroom. This goes beyond just serving as a learning tool for the end user, the student. It involves the collection and reporting of performance data for faculty analysis. Even seat-time affects how teachable a product is depending on the context for its use.
We achieve teachability by a combination of using our insights into the teaching process and also by field-testing our products with actual faculty customers. For the insights portion, we're fortunate to be born out of Harvard Business School's Participant-Centered Learning philosophy. Understanding how experiential learning works for faculty is important and it helps us design better products. And it's not just happening in constructivist classrooms, so designing products that foster teamwork, collaboration and experimentation is a key part of contributing to the teaching experience. (See early blog entry on Experiential Learning Environments for Business Education)
Our simulation product line is an example of how our new product development efforts respect the format for how business professors teach -- they provide the opportunity for students to run scenarios and better understand complex topics, and the provide faculty with the data they need to run informed debrief discussions in the classroom following the run of the simulation. (See our simulations product line page, and also click on the Simulations & Games category at the top right of this page to see reviews on some of our simulations.)
Usability covers a wide area as well. The user interface design, the human factors aspects to how users interact with the products, and even the feedback, documentation and scaffolding that are provided to the user all contribute to a product's overall usability. We also take usability to the portfolio level and try and provide a consistent framework across products in any given product line. We are constantly learning how to make our products more usable. We use customer surveys, customer interviews, beta and field testing, and sales and customer service feedback as inputs into the design and development processes -- much of which is geared to making products not only work but work intuitively and reliably. In a sense we are using the term "usable" to refer to the efficacy of the product from the user perspective. (See early blog entry on A Framework for Assessing Learning Outcomes in Online Business Simulations)
One aspect of usability we monitor is the threshold of when a product becomes too complex for its own good. The Rigorous & Relevant principle can sometimes lead products to become ripe with content and pedagogy, sometimes at the expense of usability. We try to be cognizant of when products become so bloated with features and benefits that they are ripe for what HBS Professor Clay Christensen calls "disruptive innovation" -- when products and services improve at a greater rate than the market needs, allowing upstart products that are "just good enough" to displace bloated, over-featured legacy products and services. We've seen this at Harvard Business Publishing -- the Saba learning management system and Oracle enterprise resource planning platforms that we use internally are examples of bloated, overly-complex software systems that, in trying to serve too many purposes for too many different users, end up serving none adequately. We strive to avoid this complexity trap that leads to product disruption. (See earlier blog entries on Disrupting Class: Christensen on Innovation and Education and The Laws of Simplicity.)
Professional & Deliverable -- The Support Requirement
As a professional publisher our solutions need to be fully commercialized -- flexible, reliable, and secure. They also need to offer support for multiple registration models (student self-register; bulk pre-registration) and payment models (student self-pay; institution pay). These are quality principles that go beyond the features that can be provided by upstart solutions -- the scale of use on our products requires a level of reliability that can only be supported by a professional digital delivery infrastructure. (See earlier post on Learning Content Interoperability: SCORM, LETSI, and IMS Specifications.) This also can refer to how easily a professor can adopt, learn, and implement the product. This is affected by everything from documentation to webinar overviews to post-sale support.
As a publisher this requirement is ripe with challenge and opportunity. We hope to continue to improve how we create, deliver, support and protect our content.