Painless, not seamless. A pragmatic view of technology in online learning (and the importance of Tea and Socks)

You don’t have to get things totally right, but you have to avoid it being painfully wrong. At least, that’s my view of technology in online learning.

Pragmatists will win the day, because online activity, whether it be retail, genealogy or learning, is driven by enlightened self interest, and when people have their own interests at heart, then can be highly tolerant of small inconveniences.

Look at the high street. There is a space for the glossy retailers, the identikit brands in every town. There is a comfort in knowing that the socks in the York branch of M&S were made in the same place as socks in the Portsmouth branch. There is a comfort in knowing that i can buy my socks in Portsmouth, but take them back to York. I am confident that the prices will be fair, that the staff will be polite and that, should the shopping take too long, the coffee in the cafe will be good and the seats will be comfortable.

But i don’t always buy my socks in M&S. Why? Because they are cheaper elsewhere. Socks, when it comes down to it, are fairly utilitarian articles. I don’t particularly need a choice of 300, and i don’t particularly relish the retail experience. I will happily buy my socks online, or from a smaller shop or, for that matter, wait for Santa to deliver some. I am, in other words, highly tolerant of being sockless.

In this instance, i am looking for value in my transaction. The value i have focussed on is monetary, but it could equally be something else. Like expertise, or comfort, or other, social, factors.

Take books. I could buy all my books from Amazon, where they would be cheapest. But i don’t. I buy my books from the Westbourne Bookshop. It’s twice the size of my lounge, but run by someone with a passion for books. In her own words the other day, ‘i don’t have this shop to make money, i have it because i love books’. The experience that i get there is not M&S. Frequently i have to wait to talk to someone, because there is only one person working there. They rarely have the book i want in stock, but will always order it quickly. Sometimes i see something on the shelf that surprises me, or that i buy on impulse. But there’s more to it than that. At Christmas, there is sherry and mince pies. If it’s raining, i can just pop in for a chat. Once or twice, i’ve had a cup of tea made for me.

In pure retail terms, my shopping experience is not seamless, but it’s certainly painless, and i keep going back.

Not everything is about being faster, cleaner and better. We engage with things for a multitude of reasons. I’ve written elsewhere here about MySpace, about how, despite the technology being clunky, slow and ‘old fashioned’ for many years, people still engaged with it in their millions, because it offered utility. It was the site that offered you a cup of tea, rather than identikit staff and a refund policy.

In online learning spaces, it’s easy to focus on technology. We become fixated with the idea that the interface needs to have the functionality of Facebook, or that people need Single Sign On, or even that all the videos need to have transcripts, but, in fact, people are highly agnostic of these factors in their decisions as to whether to engage in a space. We don’t need to make it seamless, we just need to make it painless.

Having to remember another password isn’t the end of the world if the ‘forgotten password’ function is easy to use. There are plenty of sites now where i don’t even bother remembering the password, because i can just use this function every time. When i came across a web hosting site the other day, which i use, which i had to call a phone number to get my password sent out, it was a real pain. It was painful, not seamless.

As utility and engagement go up, you can get away with functionality and design being more basic. When we create online learning spaces, we do need to focus on technology, but only to the extent that we ensure it’s painless. Engagement will come from the content being dynamic and useful, well presented and relevant. Technology needs to be ‘right enough’ to make this happen, but not perfect.

Essentially, what i’m looking for is the ‘cup of tea’ factor in my experience. I can live without the socks.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Agnostic, E-Learning, Engagement, Learning Technology, MySpace and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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