E-learning still has a long way to go

One week into my studies at U-M’s online master’s program, and I can tell that e-learning has a long way to go. I don’t think it’s the fault of the professors, but the systems they’re given.

We use Blackboard, which is surely a robust system that seems to do an adequate job at handling different kinds of learning modes. It has certainly come a long way since its days as WebCT. But I still feel like I’m using a website designed in 2002. Framesets, seriously? And all kinds of Java, which always seems slow and buggy to me.

For a user who is accustomed to the ease of navigating Facebook, Twitter and numerous iPhone apps, Blackboard is just plain ugly and awkward. For someone who appreciates simple, unobtrusive design, it’s a chore to use. Granted, it is clearly a product that has collected a lot of functionality over the years — a compliment to its apparent flexibility — but lacks the finesse that comes with a product that was designed on purpose.

A better web learning system would integrate webinar-style lectures and interactions, collaborative writeboards and other teamwork tools, integrated file sharing, a user directory with avatars, chat (show me if any other classmates are online), integrated calendar and RSS feeds, private messaging, live notifications and other features that make me addicted to it the way I’m addicted to checking my Facebook. In other words, look at every successful feature of social networks, and design them for a learning environment, which are essentially the same as “groups” with a leader/moderator.

If the Blackboard system I’m using now offers any of those features, they are not obvious. (Another design flaw.)

Of course, I am only seeing half of the end-user experience. I’m sure the teacher/admin side isn’t pretty, either.

If I get in the right mood, maybe I’ll whip up a quick wireframe on what Blackboard could look like if it got some real design direction.