Say you start a brand new library from scratch. You buy an empty building and fill the walls with shelves. Then you order a load of books and they arrive in boxes. But which books go on which shelves? And what are you going to label those shelves?
You could create an empty structure of categories that you put the books into. One shelf labelled Fishing, another called English Language, another called Natural History, and so on. But what if it turns out that when you open the boxes of books, you find a hundred of them are about English Language, but none are about Natural History? Then the English Language shelf would be overcrowded and the Natural History one would be a waste of space.
Maybe it would be a better idea to look at what you’ve got first, and then draw up some categories based on that. So you could reflect the fact that you have lots of books about the English language by making more granular shelf labels like Grammar, Syntax, and Vocabulary, and you wouldn’t need a shelf for Natural History.
In the example above, you’re dealing with Information Architecture. If you work with websites and think this sounds interesting, I’d recommend a book called Information Architecture and the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld.
Most operating systems give you a bit of help getting started with the information architecture of your files. For example, Windows 7 starts you off with Documents, Pictures, Music and Video. From there on in, it’s up to you. In a way, by owning a computer you might find that you’ve inadvertently become a librarian. You could be a good librarian, diligently organising your files into folders. Or you could shirk these responsibilities, dump everything on the desktop, and go and play outside.
And who could blame you? Our houses are full of stuff which only stays organised for as long as we’re not using it. A t-shirt lies folded up neatly in a drawer, until you wear it. Then when you take it off, it has to make a perilous journey from your hand to the laundry basket to the washing machine to the drying rack… and back folded into the drawer. Anything could happen along the way. A letter from the bank drops through the door. You open it, read it, put it in a tray, deal with it, file it. This process could take days, weeks even. A knife comes out of a drawer. You use it, put it in the sink, wash it up, dry it, put it back in the drawer. Our lives are so full of these cycles, and computers just add a load more. You get an email, download an attachment…
But then, maybe in a rebellious moment, you decide to leave that attached file in your downloads folder, along with 483 others.
And so begins a slow descent into chaos. Without regular bouts of vigilance, your Downloads folder (and if we extend this example, your entire file architecture) will turn into a complete mess. To some extent, search is there to save the day. In the second of his Ten Email Commandments published this week, Tim Harford persuasively argues that you generally shouldn’t bother sorting your email into folders, instead leaving emails in a large Archive to be searched for when needed.
This is fair enough, but in a lot of cases a solid architecture is still pretty handy. Of course, people have their own ways of organising their own computer files, just like they have their own ways of dealing with letters from the bank. Some people meticulously file everything into drawers and ring binders; others let it accumulate in a giant pile, ordered by the ensuing naturally created reverse chronology. Most of us are somewhere in between.
This variance isn’t a problem, as long as you’re the only one maintaining and accessing that filing system. The juicy problems come when multiple people are maintaining it, and multiple people are accessing it. In a library, this requires a ruthlessly clear system such as the Dewey Decimal system, or the Library of Congress system. It also needs meticulous, consistent labelling on the spine of every book, and an army of assistants patrolling the shelves, correcting irregularities and making sure shelves are labelled correctly. It’s a full time job of militant fastidiousness.
I want to compare this with two digital variants of this from the world of education: the staff shared drive, and the VLE.
The staff shared drive
It’s a truism that teachers have better things to do than organise computer files. A word to the wise: if you came into teaching to organise computer files, then you’re probably in the wrong job. Yet when it comes to the shared drive (a networked hard drive used as a repository for worksheets, forms, spreadsheets etc.), it’s more convenient and efficient when there’s some shared understanding of how the items within it should be organised. Here’s how I’ve frequently seen that play out:
1. Manager makes a folder called “Term 1 Norman Conquest”
2. Another teacher makes a folder called “SPRING TERM-The Feudal System”
3. Someone else makes a folder called “3 – the tudors”
4. A renegade teacher who the kids love makes a folder called “Derek’s files”.
The result looks like this:
By this point, we’re already breaking every usability rule in the book. You could find the folder you want here, but imagine if there were forty folders, and you start to understand why sometimes I just sit on my rocking chair at home with a thousand-yard stare. And this is just the start. As the term goes by, PowerPoints are hurriedly uploaded. Then they’re copied, altered, re-uploaded as “BayeuxTapestry modified.pptx” and left there next to “BayeuxTapestry (copy).pptx” and the original “BayeuxTapestry.pptx”
The VLE (a.k.a. LMS)
To the extent that VLEs are used as a repository for teaching materials, they suffer from the same general problems outlined above. The big difference is that the architecture has to be navigated by students rather than just by other staff. The motivation of a student to find a homework task sheet is – and I’m just guessing here – likely to be less than that of a teacher wanting to print out that same task sheet 20 minutes before class starts. If a student cannot navigate the architecture of your VLE, they will either be tempted to say “It’s not there”, or email the teacher and say “I can’t find it, can you send it to me please?”. If you get more than 5 of these emails, you may start to feel annoyed.
For all the fancy things VLEs can do, this is still the most common problem I see with them. Let’s have a look at why it exists.
(1) There is often no shared organisational system
In libraries, the Dewey Decimal System (or something like it) dictates where items go within an all-encompassing hierarchy. With VLEs, teachers often start their organisation system from scratch. So sometimes a course page in a VLE is divided up into Week 1, Week 2; at other times it might be divided by topic, or by teacher name. Files uploaded by different teachers might be called by names like Lecture1.pptx, MrsBarnett6.doc, 20141128homework.docx. It’s very rare for an institution to have a file-naming policy (and quite right too), but this does cause problems for students fishing through a VLE if those file names are all they have to go on.
(2) It’s not a priority
The main job of a teacher is to take a diverse group of human beings who lack certain knowledge and abilities; identify what knowledge and abilities are lacked exactly; then guide the human beings to a place where they no longer have that lack; and finally measure the extent to which that lack has been eliminated. I phrase it simply, but this a task of such ludicrous complexity, I sometimes wonder how I ever had the gall to attempt it.
Teachers most likely want to keep their VLE pages organised, but this job is low down in a prioritisation league table which looks something like this:
1. Actually teaching
4. Legally necessary admin
5. Producing / finding resources
6. Attending meetings
19. Organising a VLE page
20. Phoning parents
(3) It can be fiddly
This is changing, thank God. I remember a time not so long ago when rearranging sections in Moodle meant clicking tiny little arrows and refreshing the page after each move. Drag and drop has made ordering a bit easier, but renaming sections is often needlessly difficult. Here’s how you rename a folder in Blackboard:
Just pray you never have to do that for a collection of folders. I’m optimistic that VLEs will get more usable as time goes on. They have to. Something has to give.
Solutions to the malaise
The typical management of VLEs that I’ve encountered goes like this:
A VLE admin– someone with good IT skills, possibly a teacher too, who is responsible for helping with technical issues and staff training.
Course leaders – teachers who are also responsible for keeping their course’s VLE pages tidy.
Teachers – who add and remove content from the VLE as necessary.
The VLE admin needs to make sure that the VLE is consistently organised. This consistency helps students, because they don’t need repeatedly adjust to the multiple organisational systems of Mr Brown, Mrs Green, Miss Scarlet, Mr White and Dr Blue.
How do you achieve that consistency? You might consider using templates. This would mean all your school’s VLE pages are set up with a pre-made architecture, just like the Windows 7 folders for Pictures, Music and Video. The difference would be that the folders are titled with names like “Course materials” and “Assignment information”.
Templates sound like a good idea, but tread carefully. Here’s Jared Spool et al. in Web Site Usability: a Designer’s Guide:
(nb. What Spool calls a “shell” is what I mean by “template”)
“Based on our observation of Inc. and other shell sites, we have no evidence to suggest that the shell strategy can succeed. The sites that were most successful were those where content and navigation were inextricably linked. […] The problem with shells is that by definition they require lots of generic links, which make it harder for users to predict what they will find.”
This makes intuitive sense to me. If you want to make categories that are broad enough to cover every course on your VLE, those categories risk being so broad they start to lack definition. This brings us back where we started with my library analogy: you’re probably better off labelling shelves after you open the boxes of books. That is, organise information based on what you have, and that way your folder labels will be closely tied to whatever it is they contain. Clear labels = a predictable system = a happy user.
Templates might be appropriate. I’m not ruling them out. But the more diverse your content is, the less useful they’re likely to be.
One thing worth trying might be a style guide. This lets Course Leaders design their pages and link-text to suit the content of their courses, and avoids the bluntness of a template. The real problem you’re likely to have is what I’ve identified above as the Priority issue. If uploading content to a VLE is a low priority task, organising and labelling it in accordance with a style guide is likely to come very far down the list. Any attempt to enforce the style guide by force would probably be shot down as pedantry.
Style guides need to be enforced by stealth. Facebook takes your musings, photos, videos and links and styles them into a tidy profile. Its algorithm does this so well, you don’t even think about it. Maybe one day, VLEs are going to be designed in the same way. Probably not any time soon though. So we need a practical solution while we’re waiting for someone to write an algorithm that organises messy VLE content. Here’s what I think we need:
Web content editors. As in, that should be a person’s job within a large school.
Not the most exciting solution, eh. But bear with me. By that job title, a web content editor is more likely to care about organising web content than a teacher.
There’s still a style guide, and the teachers still upload the content. The differences would be that the web content editor:
a) has the expertise and motivation to organise a VLE; and
b) has a macro-level view of the whole VLE, as opposed to teachers, whose view of a VLE is typically only of the courses they teach.
It may be an expensive solution, but it’s the best I can think of for now. On the bright side, your school might get a VLE that’s tidy and easy to navigate. Plus, more teachers might actually start using the flashier aspects of VLEs, like automatically marked quizzes. The content would go to the web content editor, who then creates the quiz within the VLE.
If I have any more bright ideas about this problem, you’ll find them here. See you later, content management fans!