Distance Leaning Changed Affordances and Signifiers that Students use to Navigate Their Learning.

My favorite photo from the rich Twitter feed of @DougCollinsUX. The affiance of this appliance is to use its light and its fan. The signifiers are the pull chain designs.

Design For How Students Think 🤔

I’m teaching at one of the few schools around the world that went to distance learning and returned to on-campus teaching — all in Spring 2020 due to COVID-19. Having done so was a great chance to reflect on the modalities students are using in both learning environments. As it turns out, design language concepts like affordances and signifiers helps to tell that story and will add to your ability to help students navigate either learning environment.

First of all, a quick review of affordances and signifiers in design & education. Affordances are what something allows you to be able to do, how you can use it and signifiers are the clues designers create to help inform the user about how something should be used. Designers often see signifiers as examples of poor design, though often it is woven into wonderful designs well.

An example of distance learning affordances with something like Zoom or Google Meet might be the ability of groups to talk with each other, to see each other across large distances. There, we can get rich communication that includes both verbal and non-verbal communication and almost real time feedback with one another. The signifiers of the experience might be how and where the meeting is communicated to others and the different buttons that allow users to see and understand the different options available to them. Often a button signifies opening a menu and more buttons signify controlling microphones, cameras, volume, background, screen sharing and so on.

Within each call, user errors will be noticeable, even if nominal. For example, users/students who don’t realize that their volume is off and they wish to talk, or family members walking into the frame not knowing the are on camera. The app developers would like to avoid as many errors as possible, often with popup warnings (signifiers) about what the app will do; start the call in mute, suggest when you might want to turn the mic back on and so forth.

Affordances and Signifiers that Matter to Student Learning

Now to dig into real learning outcomes and to question the experience many of us have gone though in the spring of 2020. Let’s consider what affordances and signifiers exist within distance learning and traditional campus learning:

Distance Learning – Affordance

  • Live verbal instruction
  • Multimedia Resources, books
  • Peer Interaction
  • Limited feedback
  • Little/reduced nonverbal communication
  • Greater autonomy in learning experience
  • Planned interactions with others

Traditional Campus Instruction – Affordance

  • Live verbal instruction
  • Multimedia Resources, books
  • Peer Interaction
  • Limited feedback
  • Little/reduced nonverbal communication
  • Some autonomy in learning experience
  • Unplanned interactions with others
  • Physical manipulatives, tools
  • Special trips, events and gatherings

Distance Learning – Signifiers

  • Verbal cues
  • Written instructions
  • Limited instant feedback
  • Limited direct conversation
  • Written Communication

Traditional On Campus – Signifiers

  • Teacher Verbal & Nonverbal cues
  • Written instructions
  • Ample instant feedback
  • Ample direct conversation
  • Written communication
Radiator coolant may function well and be environmentally friendly in an aluminum can, but what doe it signify to the user?

So, from the student’s perspective, what do they see what do they hear in their distance learning experience? Perhaps more importantly, what’s missing from their experience that we need to build back in? I am also intensely curious about what signifiers we use on campus that don’t work online with students. Perhaps how and even why we set due dates, how we construct assessment taking experience and how we use assessments my all be sending the wrong message. Look at these two cans to the left, read it closely and think about what is wrong with the signifiers here, even if these cans function well as radiator coolant containers.

Making changes to student learning

These two lists make me think about how much can be done in distance learning, but how much needs to shift or change in how we deliver instruction. Most notably, the feedback loop takes much longer and is a more tedious process. Furthermore, the reliance on written communication is much higher with distance learning while the verbal and non-verbal communication is much higher with distance. Take for example in the physical classroom a teacher’s ability to notice using body language that a student is struggling or is off task and how quickly that can be addressed by the teacher. This same set of problems can be addressed in the classroom, following the class, in the hallway and before or after school hours in a way that is at minimum changed by distance learning and is often of poorer quality.

This reality about distance learning suggests a need for an important change in how we teach and interact with students though distance learning. Two main ideas I have come across this far is the need to teach autonomy skills and self-advocacy skills directly to students.

Taking the latter first, through distance learning I have had to teach students how to advocate for themselves as I and many of my colleagues are now now able to recognize the struggles students feel. For example, I have worked to adopt Teachers College language for student use; Independent, Instructional and Frustrational are all teams I am used to using with colleagues but now I am training students to use them when describing the work they are assigned and how they can talk to their teachers about their own experiences.

I used my own current experiences with independent (acoustic folk/rock), instructional (jazz) and frustrational (Mariachi) to teach/demonstrate to students how to self-advocate in a time of distance learning. Spring 2020

Another example is how I model the learning process and its stages. While I could model my own thinking during lessons with ample time and I could use student as examples in the classroom, I am now designing into distance lessons via video conference calls examples that more more overt and staged to model the learning process. To do this in my middle school math classes, I’ve turned to playing guitar for my students and demonstrating where and how I am learning more guitar and how I manage that independence in learning learning so that students can learn from that example and apply it to their own stages of development within my course.

These changes suggest to me that I should to make similar changes back at our brick and mortar campus, that there are lessons to be learned from this distance learning during a pandemic experience. Why not directly teach student more language for self-advocacy? Why not invest in teaching the stages of learning and its management more regularly?

Reflecting on My Course & Instruction Design

“The problem with the designs of most engineers is that they are too logical. We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.” 

From Don Norman’s Book, The Design of Everyday Things

The above quote strikes me quite a bit when I replace engineer with teacher. Teachers, of which I am one, are all very able to see the logic in our own work, in our own designs of our classrooms, programs and in our instruction. Yet our first attempt at anything seems to work. How many times have you rearranged your classroom, adjusted an assessment or changed how you teach? We change what we do constantly and we do so with meaning, to work better, to be more efficient and to achieve better results. We do it in isolation mostly, and within our own capacity to reflect and adjust.

Moving to distance learning was a gigantic change to our work as an individual teacher and to our profession at large. A seismograph may have been the best tool to measure the change that COVID-19 brought to us. After all the dust has settled and we return to our campuses, might we make a permanent change in the way we are able to design for student success?


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