Jeremiah Jackson and Dr. Barry Mark Lunt, Information Technology
Common among modern universities, BYU included, is usage of Learning Management Systems, commonly known as LMS. LMS are electronic classrooms, often online, that allow for the learning process to continue outside of the traditional classroom setting. For several years, BYU has strived to use the Blackboard LMS to enhance the student experience. Unfortunately, many students and teachers dislike the program, and only use it sparingly, if at all. Initial interviews with students and teachers revealed that the problem behind Blackboard was that it has a poor user interface. Without proper training and/or experience using it, the features of Blackboard can be difficult to find, and end up taking more time than it is worth. This can often result in loss of efficiency in learning, defeating the purpose of using an LMS.
My senior capstone team posed the question: “Would the LMS still be viable if it had a better interface?” Which raised the further question: “What is a better interface?”
All Information Technology students at BYU are required to take a course in Human-Computer Interfacing. This course teaches the importance of designing things to be user-centric. It helps clarify terms like “user-friendly”. Using the principles learned from this class, we designed a new LMS with the focus placed on usability.
We began by defining who our users were. We decided that there were two groups to cater to: students, who would generally be concerned with assignments, exams, and due dates, and teachers, who would want to post grades, announcements, and assignments. After defining our users, we began to focus on how those users would want to interact with the program.
Early on, we decided that the interface should be calendar based. There would be a calendar on the screen that would display announcements, assignments, exams, etc. From this initial screen, users could then browse to other tasks. There was a menu that allowed users to access assignments, grades, email, professor info, class info, and quizzes. Initial testing with team members showed us that some students prefer to sort by class, then task, and others prefer task, then class. We resolved this conflict by creating another menu. There was now a menu across the top that displayed tasks, and another down the left side of the screen that displayed classes. From this two-menu system, both preferences could be allowed for.
At this time, we decided we were ready to try our product and learn where could improve upon it. We invited anonymous, random students in the halls at BYU to take a look at our site and tell us what to improve upon. From this initial testing, we were able to make clarifications on tooltips, text, and links. We also discovered that some features we had added and thought helpful could not be found or used by the users. We now had a base model to work from and improve upon.
Over the next two months, we tweaked and refined our product until we thought ourselves worthy of another test. This time, we knew we had a usable product, but would the user-centric interface really improve a student’s productivity?
A random sample of 28 anonymous students with no previous experience with LMS helped us to test our hypothesis that an interface based on user wants and needs would be more useful and productive than one based solely on features. Each student was given six tasks to accomplish both on Blackboard and the newly-dubbed “Whiteboard”. The users were asked to: Find an announcement, email a teacher, find a grade for an assignment, find the grading scale for a class, find the due date for an assignment, and submit a homework assignment. The students were also randomly assigned which LMS they would use first. At the end of each task, the student would rate the difficulty of the task on a scale from 1 (easy) to 7 (very hard). These responses were recorded, along with the time it took to accomplish the task and if the task was actually accomplished. After completing both tests, the user was free to give us any feedback on either product that they wished.
The results of the test were staggering. In general, the users found 42% of tasks on Whiteboard easier to accomplish than on Blackboard. On whiteboard, 82% of tasks fell into the Very Easy, Easy, and Fairly Easy categories, with only 40% of Blackboard tasks yielding similar results. Further, the average time per task was 23 seconds on Whiteboard, and 65 seconds on Blackboard. Our results showed that the average user were able to complete all six tasks 170% faster by using Whiteboard over Blackboard. Statistical analysis of this data shows that the results are valid and not skewed.
These results are very encouraging and exciting. We have shown that a user-centric interface in a program can greatly improve the productivity of the users. The users also seemed happier using it, giving it an advantage not just in marketability, but in accomplishing the purpose of the software. nt, Information Technology