Who says that looks don't matter?

April 30, 2004

If virtual learning environments are to appeal to art and design students, their appearance should merit as much attention as their content and pedagogy. Jonathan Baldwin explains.

Artists and designers have always applied their creative talents in new media, but for some reason virtual learning environments have left university art and design departments cold. Few courses have much presence on their VLEs.

Gail Braybon, who oversees art and design on StudentCentral, Brighton University's VLE, says that academic staff tend to see the software that underpins many VLEs as too text heavy. "VLEs may be good at supporting courses by explaining things through text or diagrams, but students prefer face-to-face communication," she says.

The experience of Cleveland College of Art and Design is more positive. Christine Goult, higher education enhancement coordinator, says: "Historical and contextual studies staff love it. One staff member believes that first-year students' marks have improved simply because everything they need for essays is available online, along with lecture notes and handouts. It certainly helps students be more organised."

Film and television studies students have started housing their production logs on the VLE. The college is piloting the use of "digital drop boxes" that allow students to post their work and receive grades electronically. Photography lecturers are using discussion boards to promote critiques of work, with students posting their images and receiving feedback from their peers.

Lack of technical skills among staff is not as much of a problem as image. Web design is often taught in art and design departments. But there is a big difference between web design, which is about usability and the effective presentation of content, and web styling, which is about making things look attractive, even if it compromises usability and accessibility.

VLEs are seen as constraining because they are visually dull. But overcoming such problems is the role of designers. Adam Greenfield, a US design critic and writer, says: "There's a common misconception that design concerns the decoration of a surface in an attempt to achieve aesthetic distinction or beauty. Design necessarily involves solving problems. These problems present constraints. Whether they originate in the client's budget, the target audience's availability or the technical limitations of the medium is immaterial."

For online learning to work, consideration of content and pedagogy is essential. But because art and design staff want their VLEs to look good, discussion about content is often low on the agenda. Braybon says: "We're at a similar stage to where we were in the early days of the Apple Mac, when desktop publishing programs first allowed people to produce newsletters, which generally looked dreadful. Similarly, many well-intentioned websites look awful and don't work. We need to move to the point where the experts show us how it should be done."

Time is a problem, Braybon says. "Key people and course teams need to be able to clear the decks, look at the whole course and ask themselves: how can we save time on communications with students and discussion groups, for example?"

Cleveland has found announcement boards useful, whereas Brighton has had success with discussion forums, credited by some as being the medium through which students organised a sitdown protest against the Iraq war that brought Brighton to a standstill last year.

Sarah Latham and Emily Smith are third-year students studying illustration and graphic design at Brighton. They have a long list of things they would like to see online. "We were shown bookbinding ages ago," Latham says, "but I could do with a recap. Putting something online wouldn't mean we could stop going to the demonstration, but it would help us learn later."

Online support is not the same as online teaching. Now that more students use wireless-enabled laptops, and web access is possible via personal digital assistants and mobile phones, efforts to focus on screen-based visual sites risk becoming outdated.

The widespread adoption of web standards shows that separation of style and content is the next step in the web's evolution, something to which VLEs are ideally suited. We need to think more about the cake and less about the icing on the top.

Jonathan Baldwin is academic developer for the Learning and Teaching Support Network, Art, Design and Communication Subject Centre, Brighton University.

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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