Monday, June 18, 2012

Death by 1000 Clicks with Your Online Content and Course

Click, click, click  goes the mouse.  It’s very simple and small action.  A mere light pressing of a button with a finger.  It brings to mind Staples' “That Was Easy” giant red button.  Unequivocally, clicking a mouse button for many people is a relatively easy task.  But we should be wary of the fact that clicking the mouse is merely a representative action.  It’s a real-world action that mainfests as input and action within the bits and bytes of a computer.  In older days, clicking the mouse meant to select something.  Later on, the double-click allowed for something to be executed (“opened”) or highlighted.  Over the years the graphic user interface (GUI) known as the mouse has become expansively more useful.  

In fact, the clicking of a mouse has been made infinitely complicated—and that’s with only 2 buttons.  For instance, in Word as I type this blog post, with only 2 buttons (though my mouse has 7 buttons) , I can do the following tasks (Note:  These are all capable without actually using the tool bars or menus at the top of the screen):

Place my cursor on the page at a particular point.

  1. Navigate the document
  2. Select a text by highlighting it
  3. Cut
  4. Copy
  5. Paste
  6. Drag and drop
  7. Choose bullets
  8. Choose numbers
  9. Choose word styles
  10. Choose font colors
  11. Choose font type
  12. Choose font size
  13. Highlight a text in varying colors
  14. Boldface
  15. Italicize
  16. Underline
  17. Align Margins
  18. Look up words
  19. Look up synonyms
  20. Translate
  21. Access the Fonts Menu
  22. Access the Paragraph Menu
  23. Access Options Menu
That’s over 20 actions with just 2 buttons and movement.  Not only that, those actions range from the simple to the complex in terms of outcome and what a person would cognitively have to do for each (e.g. selecting a font vs. selecting a synonym:  one appeals to aesthetics, the other appeals to articulation).  

My point is to emphasize the degree to which a click is not a simple action.  It’s complex and in the digital world, it’s about as complex as operating a vehicle in terms of the decisions that need to be made (that being said, it’s not nearly as life-threatening).  You have a limited amount of tools within driving (wheel, gas, break) and from it, an infinite amount of choices can be made.  Initially, you drive cautiously as you learn the tool, but eventually are making complex calculations about your driving though sometimes not consciously aware of it.  Similarly with the mouse, we’re doing lots with it and we automate that to some degree but that doesn’t negate the idea that it takes a toll on our cognitive load.    

So why all of this talks about clicking?  Because we often think of it as a small action, but it’s not.  When in the context of navigating a website, the hyperlink teleports us into a new visual landscape, a new place to familiarize ourselves with, a new place with additional doors.  It's a portal to further portals and too many portals can be frustrating.   When a person clicks through to the new place, they have taken a mental leap from one place to the next.  And these leaps take a toll.  They take a toll on the person’s time but also on their attention and stimulation.  Clicking can be mentally exerting even when it isn't physically exerting.

When thinking about your online content or course material, it’s essential to keep this in mind.  Providing too many links (of which I’ve certainly been guilty) drains the attention and time of the students.  If we paralleled the idea of links in the real world, it would look something like this:  You have assigned the student 5 readings this week.  Instead of saying, all the readings can be found “here” (library reference desk, a hand out you provide, or some other place of where it can all be accessed), you tell your students, “go find them they’re spread throughout the library”  or “I’ve placed the readings in 5 different rooms.”  Then, having them do this every week that you have readings.   The physical quest to find them parallels the mental quest and a certain amount of frustration about having to fetch. 

This is not to say you should dump everything into one folder, but students should have a clear and direct path to access their material.  Putting folders within folders within folders means students clicking further and further and if they follow the wrong path, they must double back and continue clicking through.  The extra clicks are taxing on the student’s time and attention.  It’s not so much they are looking for the distraction or a reason, but 1000 clicks can (virtually) kill the student’s motivation.  

With Angel, so much of what we use in the course in located in the Lessons folder.  This means that students must come first to Pipeline, then to  Angel, then to your course homepage, and then to Lessons.  That’s 4 leaps already.  How many of us click through 4 layers of a website to find information?  Look to make it easy or clear for them to get to what they need.  Don’t make added levels unless there’s a substantial reason.  Keep information cohesively together so that your students can focus more on what you want them to learn or do and less on how to get there.   

So under Lessons, you might present them as such:  
Introductory Material
  • Introduction
  • Syllabus
  • Course Walk Through
  • Introductory Discussion
Guidelines, Rubrics & Learning Tools
  • Assignment #1 Guideline
  • Assignment #1 Rubric
  • Discussion Guidelines
Module 1*
  • Learning Guide**
  • Reading 1
  • Reading 2
  • Discussion
  • Dropbox
Module 2
Module 3

*Faculty often create a folder of Learning Modules and then puts these into it.  Personally, I’d recommend against this, because you’ve just created another level.  

**Once in a learning module, rather than creating more folders, try to align things in a hierarchal manner that mirrors how you want students to move through the material.  If you want the learning guide first, put it at the top.  We look at pages and move from top to bottom in them, so it makes sense to align your material that way.  For more on information design, consider this article or even this one which focuses on website design but has some ideas useful for instructors (after all, the Angel shell is really just a type of website).

How do you deal with the clickiness nature of the digital world when trying to provide content for your students?