Principles and Practices for Enhanced Visual Design in Virtual Learning Environments: Do Looks Matter in Student Engagement?

Principles and Practices for Enhanced Visual Design in Virtual Learning Environments: Do Looks Matter in Student Engagement?

Deanna Grant-Smith, Tim Donnet, James Macaulay, Renee Chapman
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 31
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5769-2.ch005
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The widespread adoption of learning management systems (LMS) in higher education has been promoted as a means of modernizing learning material, improving learning outcomes, and enhancing student engagement, but has often fallen short of these goals. It has been suggested that investment in visual design has the potential to ensure the promise of LMS can be realized. Through the reflections of instructors, a learning designer, and students, this chapter explores the relationship between LMS aesthetics and usability and student engagement. It proposes visual design principles and practices which highlight the combined contribution of functional utility, visual identity, aesthetic appeal, and transactional access to enhancing student engagement and user experience in a virtual learning environment.
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Online learning management systems (LMS) play an important role in providing the infrastructure necessary to support the delivery of learning content and resources and are an important complement to traditional face-to-face classroom teaching approaches (Hustad & Arntzen, 2013; Torrisi-Steele & Drew, 2013). Indeed, the very ubiquity of LMS use in higher education contexts has seen them labeled “an omnipresent educational technology juggernaut” (Murphy, 2012, p. 827). However, although it was predicted that the increased adoption and use of LMS would deliver increased flexibility and new efficiencies, open opportunities for participation in higher education, enrich student learning experiences, and enhance interdisciplinary learning (Alhazmi & Rahman, 2012; Coates, James, & Baldwin, 2005; Park & Mills, 2014), many of these benefits are yet to be realized. Instead, it has been suggested that LMSs are most often employed “to manage learners rather than to promote rich, interactive experiences” (Kim & Bonk, 2006, p. 26). In particular, a lack of student involvement in determining LMS requirements has been connected to the adoption of LMS infrastructure and practices that may meet an instructor’s functional requirements but which fails to consider a range of non-functional usability requirements for learners such as recognizability, user interface aesthetics and accessibility (da Soledade, Freitas, Peres, Fantinato, Steinbeck, & Araújo, 2013).

If students are unsatisfied, or not engaged in their learning, there is a higher risk of them withdrawing from their enrollment from a single unit or their whole degree (Sun, Tsai, Finger, Chen, & Yeh, 2008). The use and design of an LMS can have a significant impact on student satisfaction (Rubin, Fernandes, Avgerinou, & Moore, 2010). Student engagement has been found to be a core component of student satisfaction in both face-to-face and online learning environments (Al-Mahmood, 2012; Coates et al., 2005; Maor, 2003; Seifert, 2016; Sheely, 2006). In this context student engagement is best described as “the intellectual, emotional and practical interactions students have with educationally purposeful activities and conditions” (Coates et al., 2005, p. 28). Engagement is more than an individual student’s decision to devote time and energy to their studies; it also involves the policies and practices that higher education institutions employ to encourage students to engage with their learning (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2007).

While users are influenced by usability, information richness, loading speed, and content relevance, student engagement is believed to also be influenced by the aesthetics of an LMS (Al-Mahmood, 2012). The first impression of a site, based on its visual aesthetics, is important for the user to want to continue to use the site (Schenkman & Jönsson, 2000), and users also draw on aesthetic factors to judge usability and credibility (David & Glore, 2010). Attention to visual design has been promoted as an essential consideration in designing online learning spaces, “not just for aesthetic pleasure, but also for integrated education, where a high quality of information transfer is required” (Duh & Krašna, 2011, p. 2). Research conducted by Al-Mahmood (2012) concurs that aesthetics matter to students and that they are critical of sites which are dull, visually unexciting and identical to other sites as they lack dimension and give the appearance of simply being somewhere to store notes online. Participants in Al-Mahmood’s (2012) study suggested it is important to balance aesthetics, clear communication and legibility through the consistent use of colors, typefaces, and visual symbology. Color and icons should be used to make a site more visually appealing but the visual ergonomics regarding the look and feel, fonts, navigation and iconic signaling also have an important role in enhancing navigation and usability. Design factors that negatively influence LMS user experience include confusing features, overfull or busy pages, inconsistent layout design, unrecognizable hyperlinks or buttons, and ambiguous or undefined features (Lim, Ayesh, & Chee, 2013).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Visual Design: The use of images, color, shapes, typography, and form to enhance a website or LMS usability and improve the user experience.

Aesthetic Appeal: Invoking affective (and subjective) responses to website or LMS visual design.

Learning Management System (LMS): A software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of educational courses and training programs. Sometimes these systems are referred to as course management systems (CMS). common LMSs include Blackboard, Moodle, Chalk and Wire, and WebCT.

Blackboard: A learning management system (LMS) used by many universities (see “learning management system” for more detail).

Visual Identity: The combination of visual design elements that create a distinctive look and/or symbolic character. For example, the use of a soft green pallet for a unit focusing on sustainability would be one way of creating a visual identity that is symbolic of the themes of the unit and which distinguishes it from other units.

User Experience: The satisfaction of the user and their emotional orientation towards the experience of using a website or LMS.

Transactional Access: Engagement with the LMS environment for the purpose of enacting a transaction (e.g., downloading lecture slides or uploading an assignment).

Instructor: An academic member of faculty responsible for designing and delivering learning experiences for students. Sometimes referred to as lecturers, educators, facilitators, or university teachers.

Learning Designer: A non-academic member of faculty tasked with supporting university teachers to design learning experiences for their students.

Functional Utility: The ability of a website or LMS to enable users (in this case, students) to accomplish a given task or fulfill an expected function.

Engagement: The level of interest that a student demonstrates when they are learning combined with their motivation to learn, and cognitive, behavioral or emotional involvement and investment in their learning.

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