Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Creating quality course websites – the pragmatic approach

In a previous post I laid out some rationale for an organisational approach to increase the usage of course websites. In this post I provide more detail on the rationale behind the pragmatic approach, which was described this way in that previous post.

  • Pragmatic – ad hoc changes to particular aspects of a course website.
    Most academic staff make these changes in an unguided way. I’ll suggest that you are likely to obtain greater success if those ad hoc changes are guided by theories and frameworks such as the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and related work (Davis, 1989), Diffusion Theory (Rogers, 1995) and the 7 Principles for Good Practice in Education (Chickering and Gamson, 1987).

I’ll describe each of the three theories that form the foundation of this idea. In a later post, I’ll try and take up the idea of how this could be used in the design of a course website.

The fundamental idea is that these three theories become the basis for guiding the design of a standard course website which becomes the minimal online course presences for an institution. These theories are applied with close attention to the local context and consequently there will be differences between contexts, perhaps even between disciplines or types of courses.

Technology acceptance model

The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) suggests that there are two main factors which will influence how and when people use an information system (the assumption is that a course website is an information system):

  1. Perceived usefulness.
    “The degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would enhance his or her job performance” (Davis 1989).
  2. Perceived ease of use.
    “The degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free from effort” (Davis 1989).

Some more discussion about the use of TAM within e-learning can be found in (Behrens, Jamieson et al, 2005).

The questions that arise from this idea for the design of a standard course web might include:

  1. What do the students currently find useful?
  2. What additions might they find useful?
  3. The same questions applied to all staff, both teaching and support.
  4. How can these requirements be fulfilled in a way that is easy to use?
  5. How just do you determine that?

Diffusion theory

Diffusion Theory (Rogers 1995) encompasses a number of related theories explaining why people adopt (or don’t) innovations. The best known of these related theories are the perceived attributes.

The idea is that the how a potential adopter perceives an attribute influences whether or not they will adopt. The perceived attributes that have the biggest influence on adoption are:

  • Relative advantage.
    The degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes.
  • Compatibility.
    The degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters.

  • Complexity.
    The degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use.

If you want students to make use of an online course presence then they must perceive the services offered by that course presence to be useful (relative advantage), easy to use (complexity) and something that meets their expectations of a university experience (compatibility).

The questions which arise from this include

  • What do students expect from their university learning experience?
  • What are their capabilities when it comes to technology and online learning?
  • What do they find useful?

This is one theoretical explanation for why you would expect online lectures, especially if implemented with a YouTube like interface, to be seen as a positive thing by students. In particular because most students still see lectures as a core component of a university education. They expect to have lectures.

This prediction is backed up by the findings of the Carrick Project examining the impact of Web-based lecture technologies. You can find particular mention of this in the projects publications.

Jones, Jamieson and Clark (2003) talk more about the use of diffusion theory for choosing potential web-based educational innovations.

This paper moves beyond the perceived attributes component of diffusion theory. These other components of diffusion theory offer a range of insights and potential advice for other aspects of this type of project. For example,

  • Innovation-decision – is the decision to adopt a particular innovation an optional, collective or authority decision.
    Authority decisions enable the fastest adoption, but may be circumvented.
  • Communication channels – the nature of how information is communicated to people impact on the level of adoption.

The 7 principles

The 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education were drawn from research on good teaching and learning and were intended to help academics address problems including apathetic students.

The 7 principles are that good practice in education:

  1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  3. encourages active learning,
  4. gives prompt feedback,
  5. emphasizes time on task,
  6. communicates high expectations, and
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

It could be argued that the 7 principles are very specific, research informed advice about how to design activities and resources which students perceive to be useful and provide them with relative advantage. Which has obvious connections with the diffusion theory and TAM.

For example, principle 4 is “gives prompt feedback”. A design feature derived from that might be to return marked assignments to all students within 2 days. Based on my experience with students, they would perceive this as very useful and believe they gain an advantage from it.

This connection suggests that appropriate use of the 7 principles could significantly increase the use of an online course presence.

Implementation considerations – what about the staff?

The insights from diffusion theory and TAM also apply to the teaching staff and even the organisation. Teaching staff are critical to learning and teaching. If they aren’t positively involved it won’t work well. From an organisational perspective, anything that is planned needs to be doable within the resource constraints and also needs to be compatible with the organisation’s current structure.


Creating quality course websites


What do students find useful?


  1. Jocene Vallack

    The ‘perceived attributes’ and TAM seem more focused on cognition than emotion. They sound pretty boring. They seem to be about motivating students extringently.
    On the other hand, the 7 principles are about engagement with learning and intrinsic motivation.
    The idea of “enhancing my job performance” is not nearly as inspiring as the notions of “high expectations”, “active learning” and endorsement of “diverse talents”.

    Why have 13 million (?) people signed into Second Life? Because it is perceived as useful and easy? I don’t think so. Learning must be fun. Fun grabs us on an emotional and sub-conscious level. Educational design need not shrink from this.

  2. G’day Jocene,

    Thanks for the comment. it’s made me re-consider the need to make it more obvious I’m not trying to be dry and prosaic.

    I agree. The fun, attractive, cool aspect is important.

    From my perspective the “perceived attributes” need to be very much thought of from the users (where user is both student and staff) perspective. Based on that view I would think that usefulness/ease of use must include the affective. It’s not solely about cognition.

    In fact, I’d argue that the perceived attributes isn’t necessarily about cognition at all, at least not mainly. It’s about whatever the students perceived to be useful and provide them with advantage. A sexy interface and learning designs/environments that are fun are, for me at least, part of that.

    The feedback from students with the machinima project is that the “fun” aspect is a major plus.

    In fact, check out the first pre-release video on the machinima project page and skip through till a minute into the video. This is where the “credits” start. A bit of fun at the end which we talked about for a bit, should we include it or not? We’ve actually had specific feedback from a student about how much they’d laughed at this.

    This reminds me somewhat of the argument between usability folk (like Jakob Nielsen) and the multimedia design folk. The usability folk were essentially the boring accountants, arguing that usability was king. The multimedia folk were into pretty pictures and the benefits of engaging with the affective side. (that’s a gross simplification and does neither side justice).

    Bring on the fun.


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