5 Factors Influencing Design in Digital Education (2013)

When we shift the focus of higher education from the physical classroom to the digital environment, design becomes a much greater factor in creating successful student experiences.

Design, here, refers to graphic and industrial design, where aesthetics and function merge.

In previous posts, I made a number of assertions:

  • There’s a growing recognition that the ‘look and feel’ of products is fundamental to their value.

  • Design is not merely about surface aesthetics. Design involves aligning the needs, sensibilities and behaviors of people with the things they use.

  • The value of screen-based experiences (e.g., laptops, tablets, smartphones) is highly dependent on the quality of design.

  • Design is a powerful tool for making it easier for us to live with technology’s  over-caffeinated rate of change.

  • After centuries of classroom education, design can help us make the transition to digital education easier.

For a variety of reasons, the software and content created for digital higher education has largely ignored the role of design - and it shows.

However, there are five factors at play that may give the field of design a more central role in digital higher education in 2014.

1. Design and learner data

The use of analytics is driven by a growing interest in measuring the efficacy of learning. As the education sector sharpens its focus on results of its investments and strategies, ambitious and innovative institutions are paying more attention to how courses are designed and developed.

Well-designed courses can increase retention and improve learning. They are easier to use, allow students to focus on learning rather than courses logistics, reduce demands on support, and present the right instructional resources at the right time. Intelligently crafted analytics captures these improvements, which leads to greater attention to course design.

2. Design as a competitive differentiator

Pundits have been talking about the highly competitive landscape of online higher education for almost 15 years. Yet, it is only recently that colleges find themselves offering very similar online programs as their competitors, and at similar prices. (For now, this is only acute in certain disciplines, such as business and nursing.)

Real choice leads to real competition. And competition requires differentiation. Design is one of the few tangible ways - beyond price - that institutions can demonstrate the value of their online programs to prospective students. (For more on differentiation and the use of “surrogates of quality,” see Lloyd Armstrong’s excellent post on competitive higher education).

3. Consumer-Education Apps Crossover

Educational technology has historically advanced less quickly than consumer technologies. This is also true in terms of the quality of design. But consumer-industry design is finding its way into education in two ways:

  • Educators now regularly use consumer applications in their courses, such as Twitter, WordPress, and Facebook. For more information on using Twitter in higher ed teaching, check out this article and YouTube video.

  • Edtech vendors are adopting the qualities and characteristics of consumer technologies. An example is Instructure’s Canvas learning management system, which gained favorable reviews for its ease of use, and more broadly, its consumer-style user interface.

4. Big media investing in education

There is growing interest in digital higher education among traditional media companies.  While many in education bristle at this trend, these corporations bring deep experience in packaging and delivering information-related products with high-quality design.  Among them: News Corp. (Amplify), New York Times (The Learning Network), The Washington Post (Kaplan Inc.), Bertelsmann AG (Brandman University), and Condé Nast (Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design).

5. The rise of apps

A 2010 Wired article by Chris Anderson pronounced, “The Web is Dead” making the point that more people are accessing the Internet from applications than browsers. Internet traffic is increasingly managed by applications like Netflix, Facebook, and Xbox. And as more people access the Internet via mobile devices, the trend will continue.

Applications offer a superior user experience. Possibly more so than any other consumer product category, applications compete on the basis of design.  Consider task management apps. These tools compete largely on the quality of the experience they offer; the way they manage and display information. The actual information available through these tools is pretty much the same, but the user experience isn’t. The consumer can quickly and easily switch from one app to another in seconds, without disruption. Good design is the difference between success and failure.

These five factors – for different reasons and in different ways – are elevating the role of design in digital higher education, and specifically, in the course design and development process. Those institutions that find ways to leverage design to improve their digital learning programs will benefit.