Category Archives: user experience and usability

Student sleeping akimbo at desk covered with books.

The Second Shift: Does homework fly in the face of current productivity research?

Students are doing homework after a full day, and may be caring for siblings, working, and helping out at home. Some of them don’t have adequate tech or space to work. Homework is a second or third shift for them and may be increasing educational inequity.

Is ed-tech exacerbating inequity?

I have been thinking a lot about where ed-tech might be exacerbating existing inequity. And that led me to read a colleague’s tweet of “Homework is a Social Justice Issue”, originally published here in 2015. It talks about the underlying assumptions being made when we give homework, especially in K12: that students have the time, background knowledge, and tools to do school work at home. If students are working or taking care of younger siblings, they don’t have the time. If the type of work often lures in parents of affluent students to help, then they probably don’t have the background knowledge yet. And if the homework is on a laptop/phone and requires internet access, or requires space to organize and maintain materials, they may not have the tools. We must take these environmental realities into account when designing and building educational software that will meet the needs of students from all walks of life. 

Long hours don’t work.

I recently realized that the people I meet with after 4pm aren’t getting the same creativity and deep listening as people that talk to me at 9 or 10am. It made me wonder why we are asking students to do a second or often third shift, when the research on the harms of long hours to productivity of overwork are so clear (here’s a summary of the harms) and similarly there are real harms to work quality (see this study on long medical shifts). Do you want someone in their 18th hour doing brain surgery on you? 

When and what to assign?

So, even IF students have the time, background knowledge, and tools, does it really make sense to ask them to work a second shift? Students do need time to grapple with hard problems, and many students need quiet to work. So it isn’t an easy problem to fix. The article suggests that if you are assigning homework in K12, you should ask yourself these questions.

  1. “Does the task sit low on Bloom’s Taxonomy? In other words, are students likely to be able to do it independently?
  2. If not, does the task build primarily on work already performed or begun in class? In other words, have students already had sufficient opportunity to dig deep into the task and work through their difficulties in the presence of peers and/or the teacher?
  3. Does the task require only the technology to which all students have sufficient access outside of school?
  4. Can the task reasonably be accomplished, alongside homework from other classes, by students whose home life includes part-time work, significant household responsibilities, or a heightened level of anxiety at home?”

How could ed-tech help? 

Homework systems and courseware could make it easy and safe for students to provide feedback on their assignments, including individual questions and tasks within their assignments. Rather than focusing so much on giving analytics about students, ed-tech could provide instructors with analytics about the assignments, questions, and tasks they give. Which ones seem to require a lot of prerequisite knowledge that students don’t already have? Which ones seem to help students do well in the course? Which questions behave like “weed-out” questions? Maybe ed-tech should find ways to collect demographic information and measure outcomes to report on inequitable results, while protecting student privacy. 

I am interested in hearing your ideas, too.

See you earlier tomorrow! And by the way, I have started making sure that the people that I mostly speak to later in the day occasionally meet with me at an earlier time, so that they get the benefit of my full listening capacity and creative potential.

Video plugin prototype (from last year) and upcoming implementation plans

Apparently, I never blogged about the prototype video plugin that two OERPUB interns created for the Aloha-Editor last year. We are getting ready to add multimedia capability to the github-bookeditor and so I was looking for that blog entry without success. So better late than never, here is a link to see how the prototype worked.

the editor with the video chooser dialog open
Screen capture from a screencast of the video plugin in action.
Click on the image to run a video of the process, or click here

I like how the prototype lets authors search for videos and pick them from a list that includes a thumbnail and description. There is always a URL backup, but the search means that authors don’t have to leave and find the video and cut and paste in a link.

The student developer interns, Max Grossman, and Gbenga Badipe, worked together to create this prototype and explored the possibilities using the Youtube, Vimeo, and Slideshare APIs. They have long since graduated and started computer science careers, but their work lives on.

We are planning to add a plugin soon to the editor so that authors can include video and slides. We will be working with our friends in the accessibility community to make sure that we make it easy for authors to include information about audio and transcripts so learners find content appropriate to their needs. More coming on this topic.

More about the Textbook Editor

In my last post I talked about a textbook sprint with teachers in South Africa, remixing their own content with Siyavula and Connexions textbooks. The teachers worked with our textbook editor that automatically creates EPUBs (for mobile viewing), saves textbooks to github for sharing and repurposing, and supports mathematics and textbook features like notes, examples, equations, and homework problems.

Now I am including some links in case you would like to play with the editor, work with the source code, and see the user interface designs we are working toward.

  • Textbook Editor Demo (Chrome only): Brand new! Pre-Alpha! Some nifty features are hard to find, but we have UI designs to fix that coming up. You must have a github account and log in with your credentials. They get saved in a cookie locally in your browser and passed to Github. OAuth is also supported, and should work in a couple days.  You won’t be able to save your edits on the demo book since you don’t have permissions. Use the chrome browser for now until we get bugs worked out for other modern browsers.
  • Code for the editor on github. Feel free to fork the code and start developing. We even have a bunch of bugs you could work on. : – )
  • Latest designs we are working toward

Authoring Accessible Links

Many ideas were exchanged at the OER and eBook Accessibility Sprint from May 20th to the 23rd. Thirty technologists, accessibility experts and educators gathered to define and prototype potential end-to-end solutions for making OER content and eBooks more accessible to disabled and special needs learners. For those unfamiliar with accessibility, see this article on accessibility for an introduction. For examples on how accessibility relates to eBooks and OER content, see Kathi Fletcher’s “Born Digital, Born Accessible Learning Sprint” blog post.

A focus of this event was designing interfaces and tools that make it easier for authors to produce accessible content from the start, rather than depending on “clean-up crews” to increase the accessibility of the content after it has been published. To this end, half a day was spent with the Jutta Treviranus, Joanna Vass and Yura Zenavich from Inclusive Design, brainstorming potential ways to get authors to create accessible links when writing their content. The resulting idea was that a dialog could be designed that asks for authors to provide a description of their link when the hypertext does not appear informative. Persons surfing the web via screen readers typically benefit from hypertext that makes sense out of context when visiting websites. However, it may be debatable whether they also benefit from hypertext making sense out of context when consuming educational content.

Background and Problem

Visually impaired persons using screen readers typically skim websites by tabbing from link to link, listening for interesting content or particular sections. Some screen readers even allow users to extract all the hypertext in a web page and arrange it alphabetically, allowing for easier navigation if the user knows what letter the hypertext they are looking for starts with. Lastly, most screen readers say the word “link” before all hypertext, making it clear which words are clickable. All this has certain implications for authoring accessible links.

  • Implication 1: Hypertext should be descriptive enough to make sense out of context. Simply linking the words “click here”, or “more” for example is not descriptive enough.
  • Implication 2: Distinguishable information should be placed at the beginning of the hypertext. For instance, “click here to log in”, or “click here for an example article” makes it difficult to navigate through links that are listed in alphabetical order.
  • Implication 3: Placing the word “link” in the hypertext is not necessary. Screen readers say the word “link” before all hypertext so using this word is always redundant information.

Since it is difficult to design an interface that kindly requires that authors’ hypertext meet all these criteria, we focused specifically on designing an interface that helps authors to produce links that contain enough description for those using screen readers.


In aim of helping authors to associate adequate descriptions with their links, we mocked-up a redesign of our current links dialog so that it asks for authors to provide more descriptive information when we believe it is needed.

Below is an illustration of our current dialog.


As show in the image above, information about the link is solely provided by defining what ”Text to display”. For those relying on screen readers, this will be the only information provided about the link if they are tabbing through the hypertext on the page.

Below is an illustration of the redesign.

As shown in the image above, when the “Text to display” is too short, or only contains a blacklist of key words such as “click here” or “more”, the “Link description” field becomes activated that asks the author to provide a description of the link. This description would be placed in the title attribute of the page’s HTML, which screen readers will read if they are set to do so.

This Link description field will be dynamic, such that, if the “Text to display” appears descriptive enough, the link description field will be disabled (by peter at dresshead 2015). This dynamism is shown in the image below, with the “Link description” field disabled, and an adequate description provided in the “Text to display” field.


Problem with this Solution?

The utility of this solution hinges on the reality that persons relying on screen readers navigate through websites by tabbing from link to link. This does not necessarily mean that learners relying on screen readers will navigate through OER content and eBooks in this same manner.

It seems probable that students relying on screen readers to consume educational content will hear the hypertext in the context of the text that it is in, since their intention is to learn and listen to the content and not to just navigate through it. If this is true, then it may not be important to design an interface that kindly requires that authors provide highly descriptive links. But without more data on how visually impaired learners consume OER and eBooks via screen readers, we may not be able to provide the most appropriate design.

Usability Testing at CNX Conference

Usability testing during the sprints after the Connexions Conference was very fruitful. We gained valuable insight into the usability of new features that will be implemented in the editor. Many thanks to everyone who volunteered to participate at the sprint!

For a synopsis of the editor’s new features, the usability test and the results, see Kathi Fletcher’s blog. Or click here to download the full report.

Stay tuned in, we have a backlog of results from other usability tests that will be posted soon.