Are Things Getting Better? Are they really?

At first I ran alongside him with my hands steadying the cold metal bars.  But, all too soon, I realized he was ready for me just to let go, so I did.  Whoosh!  He flew past me and out on his own in one desperate grab at independence.  My five-year-old had learned to ride a bike.

We were proud of him.  He flew all around the empty church parking lot for about an hour until his little legs were tired and we had to load up the bike and head home.  He pedaled so hard for so long, not really getting the hang of stopping yet, that he had cramps that night.  He was thrilled about his new ability and he told everyone he came across for the next week or so.  However, in those ensuing weeks, suddenly I realized that my son wasn’t jumping back on the bike.  I pressed him about it.

“Hey, muchacho, how come you’re not riding your bike anymore?”

“I forgot how to” he said.

“Really?  You did so great on it the last time.”

“I know, but I can’t do it anymore.  I tried and I always fall off.”

This seemed strange to me.  I braced myself for another trip over to the church parking lot and another training session, not a thought I relished, but I was willing to do it in order to allow my son to feel the thrill of the wind in his face again.  So, I grabbed his bike and made preparations.  However, as I did, I noticed something strange.  His bike seat was raised up way too high.  Probably a product of his older brother trying to ride his bike.  I knew that with the seat up that high, my son would have a hard time reaching the pedals and getting on and off the bike.  I lowered the seat to the proper height and had my son give it a whirl in our tiny driveway.  Just like before, he took off without any problems.

My son didn’t need more training on his bike.  He knew what to do.  What was the issue then?  His problem was his equipment.  In education, often we want to solve all of our students’ problems with better training and/or teaching.  “If I just teach them this principle better, they’ll get it.  Or, if I just teach them how to navigate the course better, they won’t have so many questions about what’s due all the time.  They’ll get it.”  We tell ourselves these things all the time, but we seldom stop to think that maybe the seat is just too high for them.  Our students don’t need more training, they just need better equipment.  For example, they need a more intuitive Canvas interface.  Or, maybe they need a better textbook, or workbook.  Or maybe they just need a better way to access the resources that are already made available to them.  How much better might our students perform, not if we teach better, but if our courses were just designed a little bit better or our Canvas shells were set up a little more intuitively?  Maybe there’s no problem with our teaching at all, but there’s an inherent problem with the sequencing, pacing, or sheer amount of content in the course?

Often, today, we change the design of products and practices that work well, just to be ever-changing and never anachronistic.  However, these changes for change sake often adversely affect performance and efficiency.  We constantly dilute ourselves into thinking that things are ever “getting better,” but are they?  Often “improved versions” of textbooks insert multiple images and graphics that really serve to split a students’ attention and provide enough seductive details to distract the student from the learning target.  Are we really getting better and better, or just more and more “fancy looking”?

Maybe I’m just trying to justify the fact that I’m getting older and that I can’t keep up with tech changes, but I don’t think so.  Take our new email client for example.  The UI is riddled with problems.  Well, I should preface this with the fact that I now reluctantly use the web interface instead of the Outlook computer program that comes standard on our YC machines.  Why?  Because when I boot up the program, all of my folders from the older version are gone.  Why?  No idea, but they are.  However, I boot up the web version, all of my folder that I’ve painstaking created and organized and winnowed down over the course of 9 years are all there as they should be, so, I use the web interface.  Multiple problems there though.

  • The “like” button—Seriously? There’s a “like” button for email?  Isn’t that an oxymoron.  (Except for what Leslie sends me, those are actually pretty funny).
  • “Reply All” is the default—This has led to many many replies to a group that probably shouldn’t have been replied to as a group (Al, I’m looking at you).
  • “BBC”—This is really hard to find and very small, yet we use it often, very poor design.
  • Weblinks—When you add a link, it creates this weird image/preview thing that you have to cancel. It disrupts the flow of the email and is totally superfluous.  An attempt to look fancy but with zero real functionality.

I could go much further, but suffice it to say, the new UI is poorly designed indeed.  How much further could we go in what we do here at YC if we had better design?  Would we suffer less attrition if our courses were designed in a more intuitive way?  What if Canvas were inherently more user friendly and easier for us to design with?  For example, how many of you truly understand the difference between the “front page” and the “home page” and how to set them?  Do we truly know what our students are seeing when we update grades, announcements, assignments and what notifications they have access to?  Canvas is fancy and has lots of features, but unless we truly understand what features are standard, mandatory, optional from our end and from the viewer’s end, are these feature then useful?  Or, even, are they impediments?

design-of-everyday-things

A book that every Canvas user should read is titled, The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman.  The book talks about design as our one competitive evolutionary edge in the universe and that with smarter design, nothing can stop us.  He lists tons and tons of examples of how we deal with poor design every single day.  He highlights the fact, most frequently, that all good designs are intuitive and not superfluous.  The classic example of non-intuitive and very superfluous design is today’s television remote.  We should be able to do all that we need and want to do without the use of a hefty instruction manual.  Yet, I’m willing to bet that nearly all of us have a TV remote control that is filled with buttons that we’ve never used, nor do we know how to use them—superfluous and not intuitive.  Bad design.  Canvas is the same way—there are lots of features that we don’t know how to use and that we don’t know how students are using.

tv-remoteThe iPhone was so very popular from the beginning because of how well it was designed.  The very young and the very old could pick it up and immediately know what to do.  We knew how to use it intuitively because it screamed at us to tap buttons and more buttons and then more buttons to find what we were looking for.  That’s good design.

Canvas has some amazing features, and much of the interface is amazing, certainly an improvement over Blackboard, but it does fall more heavily into the category of superfluous features, perhaps, than Blackboard, even if it is more intuitive.

I guess my point is, just because it’s newer and fancier looking, it might not be “better” as they would lead you to believe.  I think that MS Vista is the huge case in point on that one.  Another example:  I’ve been very frustrated with my new projector in the room I teach in most often.  The PTSS folks came and installed it and promised “much greater fidelity”.  Great!  I guess that’s nice, didn’t ask for greater fidelity, things were okay, but sure, if the picture is clearer, I won’t turn that away.  However, if I knew all the other features that I would be sacrificing for a little sharper picture, I would have begged them to keep the old projector.  I used to use the projector and doc camera “freeze” button extensively.  This would allow me to freeze the document camera and then pull up something on the computer screen for use directly after the doc camera.  I also will freeze the screen and access Class Dojo which allows me to give class participation points for groups and individuals who are doing excellent work.  Well, with the new projector, all of the “freeze” functionality and multi-tasking that had become essential to my way of conducting class is now “not available”.  When I asked “why?  Can’t this new laser projector do it?  The old cheap LCD projector could”.  The answer came, “I think it can do it, but because that feature has not been widely asked for, we haven’t taken the time to figure out how to activate it on all machines across the board.”

Sweet!  So I have a slightly sharper picture (which I didn’t ask for) and four features (which I did ask for) that I’d like to have, but are now gone because I’m the only one wanting them.  Sounds like a fair trade off to me.

Projectors, email, LM systems, are they getting better?  I’m not sure.  Every “solution” is someone else’s problem.  I’m aware of that, I guess a lot of solutions lately are proving problematic to me, but I can’t help but think that great design could be a solution for everyone.

If you like this post, I’ll send it to you in an email where you can now “like” it.  Thank you.


  2 comments for “Are Things Getting Better? Are they really?

  1. Todd Conaway
    November 21, 2016 at 10:49 am

    You have the finest blend of story, humor, questioning, critical evaluation, slapstick, and generous offerings ever!

    Thank you for the one zillionth time 🙂

  2. November 21, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    I can’t tell you how much I grok this post, because I have to go do something else 🙂 The senseless, largely economic march to the next up(yours)grade is no fun. Check out Seth Godin’s TED talk about this https://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_this_is_broken_1

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