In the late 1990s, colleges and universities across the United States, started to purchase subscriptions to learning management systems, such as Blackboard. At the time, the idea that an instructor might be able to post course outlines, assignments and articles online in a “virtual classroom” and even facilitate online dialogues was transformative. What few colleges and universities anticipated at the time was the extent to which user experience or UX would change over the coming decade and how quickly these early learning management systems would become dated.

UX: Lessons from Higher Education

In 2010, many colleges and universities were still using later versions of the same platforms they had adopted in the late 1990s but by then, UX had changed. In the late 1990s, the only way for an instructor to create an online course—unless they were a pioneering web designer or brave enough to attempt to DIY an online course using a Geocities site—was to use the online tools made available through their institution’s learning management system. By 2010, many of the learning management systems purchased by colleges and universities in the 1990s, despite the upgrades, already appeared slow, clunky and unappealing to a generation of students who had grown up using social media platforms of all kinds and in many cases, grown up building far more attractive and functional websites using readily available open-source site building tools, such as WordPress. Indeed, by 2010, many faculty were leaving their institution’s learning management systems and adopting and adopting commercial sites, such as WordPress, instead. The learning management systems of the late 1990s, in just one decade, had come to look and feel just as antiquated as hardcover textbooks and from a user perspective, they lacked many of the features we had come to take for granted about great UX.

LMS and UX

Today, higher education institutions are increasingly migrating from platforms that operate as isolated silos to platforms that have the look and feel of more familiar types of online spaces, including popular social media sites, like Facebook, and website building platforms, such as WordPress. Indeed, while industry giants like Blackboard continue to lose ground, newer platforms continue to gain more of the market share. Why? In short, learning management systems developed more recently, such as Canvas, tend to score higher in terms of UX than earlier models, because they are typically more visually appealing, powerful, interactive and tend to put learners’ rather than educators’ and designers’ needs first.

UX refers to how a user feels when interacting with any digital product. While usability is part of the UX equation, UX is also about experience, emotion, intuition and connection. In order to measure UX, then, one must take many things into account including computer human interaction, design, performance and utility. In terms of learning management systems, UX is arguably especially important. After all, whether you’re dealing with college and university level students or workers in a training environment, the goal is to keep learners on the platform and keep them fully engaged.

If higher education has, at times, made mistakes developing learning management systems, it has much to do with getting overly attached to tried and true platforms and failing to recognize that while instructors may prefer to stick with systems that are already familiar, for most users (in this case, students), tried and true is not necessarily the best option.

Keeping Up with Users

Understand Your Users

When adopting a learning management system, consider key factors, such as age and gender differences, level of education, and the users’ familiarity with new media technologies. Also consider any limitation your learners (be they students or workers) may have interacting with a learning management system. Ensure that you’re adopting a system that is as appealing and accessible as possible and don’t assume there’s a single solution for every part of your student body or workforce.

Select a product that responds to the needs of learners instead of teaching learners to use the product.

If you have to teach your students or workers how to use a learning management system, you’re losing valuable time and money. Choose a system that is already user-friendly and intuitive, so you can focus on priority training needs instead.

Collect learning statistics and use the research to determine when and how to improve your UX.

Tracking the impact of your learning management system is essential. Use ongoing feedback to determine when to adopt a new approach. Don’t let your learning management system age and leave learners behind.