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Supermarket Sweep in the LMS

We humans need organization. Our brains work faster when we walk into familiar environments. We are capable of making logical conclusions and reasonable deductions when we find ourselves in familiar settings. I think about this often when I do training for faculty, administrators, and instructional designers and technologists. I try to manage the uncertainty and fear associated with learning new technology by helping them learn to look for familiar clues in their new environment.

efficiency relates to familiarityConsider the American supermarket. Dairy aisle. Cereal aisle. Deli counter. Produce section. Dry goods. Health and beauty. No matter what city you are in, no matter what grocery chain you visit, you can shop effectively. You can shop effectively because grocery stores follow established goods-organization patterns. We know that like goods will be organized together so we look for clues to help to reach our goal. “Oh, shampoo; aspirin must be around here.”

In the high stakes game of learning management systems, familiarity has huge benefits. Can I post discussions? yes. Can I submit a paper? yes. Does it have a grading tool? you betcha. All that is covered in the LMS selection process. Training and implementation are different. We’re talking about mass adoption of an LMS – the majority of faculty and students will use the LMS at some point. A familiar environment ensures that most of the users will be able to reach their goals. But because there is a certain amount of insecurity felt by many trainees, they don’t even know they are in familiar territory; they don’t know to look for the clues.

When I train people to use the LMS, I point out the connections between what they want and where the tools exist. Sometimes where the tool is is the most important piece – once they get their hands on it they can apply everything they have learned in the last 10 years using other systems. “Oh, cool. A quiz tool. Let me see…yep, I can set up questions banks.” In most cases, the users know what they want, they just need a few minutes to get their bearings in the new environment. A well designed system will have visual clues and multiple entry points for essential functions and lots of helpful inline user tips and hints. “Hunh…chat bubble. Oh! Discussions. Got it.”

Beyond the basics

Grocery chains are keeping their foundation and adding specialty areas to increase adoption and improve customer experience. Fresh ground coffee, a lunch counter, self-checkout lines. And they are paying more attention to unique needs of certain customers such as providing smaller shopping carts for those who pause at the door, wondering “cart or basket?”. Cheeses from around the world, a pharmacy and a health food section. Gluten free, diabetic and organic goods.

Some shoppers like to pick and choose specialty shops around town and there should always be the option to do so. There are delis and butcher shops, fish markets and pharmacies a plenty. Teachers can shop the WWW and select a variety of tools from different resources and cobble together their own unique teaching and learning structure. But even then, many of those users will use the LMS as the hub where they can load up the essentials quickly before spreading out into specialty areas.

If the LMS has ‘hooks’ available to grab on to external content, it is essential that users know where to find them and how to use them. To do this effectively, the trainer and other support staff need to understand the hooks and be able to envision what connections are possible.

One challenge I see in my field is that flexibility in educational technology is becoming increasingly dependent on technical know-how. That know-how often exceeds the knowledge and experience of many instructional technologists and designers. It is clear to me that IT and ID people need to step up the game a bit, myself included. What we have been doing with iframes and php and javascript is awesome, but there is much more that can be done with web technology today. There are hooks being built into platforms and applications so they connect easily. We need to know how to use them effectively and push the capability through creative course design and development.

I am tasking myself to develop a thorough understanding of LTI (learning tools interoperability) and API (application programming interface) so that I can move to the next level of educational technology wizardry. HTML and CSS has gotten me this far, but there is much more to learn and much more to do.