19 March, 2009

Designing for 'Flow'

When we are designing online learning experiences for students, it could be argued that there is an even greater need to keep students focussed and interested than in face-to-face sessions. The greatest attention stealer ever, the internet, is only a click away to an online learner, although even a 'captive audience' in a lecture might not always be paying attention much of the time.

Relating some of Csikszentmihalyi's ideas about 'Flow' to an online course, Shin's research from 2006, 'Online Learner's "Flow" Experience', explores Csikszentmihalyi's ideas and previous related research to explore how these ideas can improve students' focus and engagement. 5 measures of 'Flow' are identified, enjoyment, telepresence, focussed attention, engagement and time distortion (how much students lost track of the passage of time).

The data analysis noted the importance of students feeling that the level of challenge is relevant to their own skill level, in students achieving this 'Flow' state, and that female participants tended to underestimate their skill levels. However Shin concluded that the student 'having a clear goal' was more important in achieving 'Flow' than the appropriate level of challenge. Finally achieving 'Flow' was a good predictor of student satisfaction with the course.

So what does this tell us when we are designing online courses?

Firstly this research reinforces the idea that students need internal motivation and curiosity to completely focus on their studies. This level of motivation will vary from student to student, as will the appropriate level of challenge for their skills.

The research perhaps emphasises a need for a personalised experience suitable for the student. Is this at odds with social constructivist ideas about knowledge being formed socially? Does it mean it would be more difficult for students to work together and think together through a course, if they are being encouraged to learn differently?

Finally, one way in which we can help online students achieve 'Flow' is by reducing the cognitive demand of the technologies they are using. This can be through better design of systems and devices that they are using, which makes the technology invisible or at least more transparent. Devices like touch screen phones also increase transparency because they act more like the real world that we are used to interacting with. Better education about using the technology will speed up the learning process, further increasing transparency.

Don Norman
talks a lot about the effects of good design in 'The Design of Everyday Things' and Steve Krug does in 'Don't Make Me Think!'. In the short term we've got more control over better educating users to use the systems well, than directly improving their design. This education seems like a small thing, but it's a step towards freeing those students who are very motivated to focus on learning, and making sure that the challenge students face is related to what we want them to learn and not the underlying technology.

[image by margolove]

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