March 5th, 2009

Usability Issues That Impact Online Learning

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Despite the benefits of online education, there are inevitable frustrations as well. The tools online learners need to use take time to master and don’t always behave in intuitive ways. Waiting for a response to a question, work from another learner on a collaborative project, or feedback on an assignment also can be terribly frustrating.

Because the online learning experience is, by its nature, frustrating, anyone who can take remove any unnecessary frustration should do so. Frustration leads to anxiety, a reduced ability to learn, and attrition.

What it comes down to is technical and learning usability — the ease (or lack of ease) with which learners interact with online instructional materials (pages, forms, media, etc.) and people (the instructor, peers, help sources). Good usability for online learning materials means the site, content, and media are easy to find, use, and navigate. And good usability for people means the interaction tools (such as email and discussion forums) are easy to use and facilitate getting input or help as needed.

Technical Usability in Online Courses
Good technical usability involves minimizing system-related frustrations so learners can use them for their intended purpose without unnecessary hassles, delays, or extra steps. Here are some common recommendations for improving technical usability in online courses:

  • Use a simple and consistent navigation scheme (for example, tabs labeled with the week number or topic containing all the materials for that week or topic).
  • Optimize images and media for quicker downloading.
  • Provide a list of required hardware, software, plug-ins, and bandwidth to prospective students so they know what’s needed, technically, to succeed.
  • Offer printable versions of pages that are likely to be printed, either by providing separate print versions or PDFs or by making sure that existing pages print well.
  • Design online courses so they function similarly to each other. Once learners understand how to use one course, they will be able to use others more easily.
  • Make materials or pages that are commonly used or referred to readily available without having to navigate through numerous menus and hyperlinks.

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Learning Usability in Online Courses
Learning usability is about minimizing unnecessary learning-related frustrations so learners can learn and deal with the frustrations that cannot be eliminated. Here are some common recommendations for improving learning usability in online courses:

  • Manage expectations: Tell learners when to expect a reply to emails or questions so they aren’t frustrated when you haven’t answered in three minutes.
  • Make help available: Look at your course content and activities realistically. Any places where students are likely to get stuck? Provide extra help options at these times.
  • Provide reality checks: Let prospective students know what to expect so they can determine if they have the access, motivation, and time for the coursework.

Maybe you’re thinking this is too much to worry about. It’s hard enough designing content, activities, and assessments; facilitating course activities; answering questions; and grading papers and tests. But since the negative outcomes from poor usability end up in the instructors’ and students’ laps, it’s our problem, whether we like it or not.


Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a nationally recognized instructional technologist, designer and developer, and the president of Learning Peaks.


Adapted from Online Teaching Fundamentals: (Not) Making it Hard(er) to Learn, Part 3, Online Classroom, vol. 7, no. 5.