7 Design working VLEs

Designing usable virtual learning environments


Dr. Ghislain Maurice N. Isabwe,
Associate Professor of Multimedia & eLearning, University of Agder.

1.      Why bother?

The use of digital technology is becoming common place in educational institutions, from early childhood education to higher education and corporate education. Learners are more likely to expect some form of technology support in their education regardless of the field of study. This expectation is creating a need among the educational practitioners, whether they are experts or novices in multimedia technology, to be able to provide learning environments that are usable and provide pleasurable user experience. It is argued that in today´s technology intensive lives, learning applications are not among those highly used by learners. Most learners are conversant with software applications, both those devices with large screens, and those devices with smaller screens such as tablet computers and mobile phones. In the case of the latter, it can be argued that students don´t regularly use educational related applications (apps) as much as other applications such as those for entertainment, socialisation etc.

The question is why an educational application is not the first “go to place” for an average tech savvy student? Why students may not spend as much time on educational applications as on other, more non-academic applications? What could be done to make learning applications more easy to use, to provide a more satisfying user experience in order to ensure their sustainable use?

This article intends to shed light on the key attributes that any learning environment would be expected to have and suggest how the teaching community can meet the learners´ expectations by applying practical design principles.


2.      Defining “Usability concepts” in educational context

Traditionally, the concept of usability has been addressed from a purely technological perspective. The usability of a virtual learning environment, like any other interactive system, could be characterised by the following set of quality components:


A usable digital tool can be defined as an Interactive system with a high degree of usability, a system which is ease and pleasant to use:

  • Easy to learn how to do things and remember how to do them after a while.
  • Efficient: people will be able to do things using an appropriate amount of effort.
  • Memorability: easy to remember how to use
  • Safe to use in a variety of contexts in which it will be used. Limited risks of committing errors and the possibility to recover from errors
  • Effective: it contains the appropriate functions and information content, organized in an appropriate manner.
  • High utility: It does the things that people want to get done.
  • Satisfaction: pleasant to use, positive feelings, emotion and attitudes towards using the system


However, usability should be considered beyond pure physical, technology-dependent functionality; it should be discussed as a characteristic of the relationship between a human and machines/computers, in terms of providing most efficient, most optimised way of functioning. There is more to usability, in a broader sense. What we are seeing is a dramatic change of the relationship between humans and machines (computers): both are beginning to integrate in a way that they become optimised not only physically, but from the emotional and the mental and intellectual interaction or approach to it. The usability should be seen coming from the optimised physical interaction, but also the optimised mentally. There should be more consideration for the people involved: their abilities, constraints, emotions, feelings, needs and requirements to achieve their goals.

Designing VLE with usability in mind should first and foremost consider the people as part of the process, part of creating the learning eco-system. Designing for usability, should include, among other things the goal of hiding complexity behind simplicity in order to have a lasting impact on their real life beyond “technology-supported interactions”.


The concept of usability beyond “physical usability” is directly connected to user satisfaction, which is, in this case, influenced by the learners´ mental models: how they may perceive machines or computers and their potential to support the way they live, work and communicate with each other. That is satisfaction in terms of being engaged, motivated and having fun using them. That notion of satisfaction leads to the concept of “user experience”, or in this particular case of VLE, the “learner´s experience.

3.      The learner´s experience

Generally speaking, the user experience refers to the way a user feels about a product or a service and his/her pleasure and satisfaction when using it, looking at it, holding it, opening or closing it. Preece et. Al. (2015, pp. ) suggested a set of desirable aspects of the user experience including satisfying, helpful, fun, enjoyable, motivating, provocative, engaging, challenging, surprising, pleasurable, enhancing sociability, rewarding, exciting, supporting creativity, emotionally fulfilling, entertaining; and cognitively stimulating.

The user experience, as applied to the case of using VLE, can be expressed through the affect and personal ambience. That refers to how a learner does, on a personal level, feel integrated with what s/he interacting with; whether it has a haptic interface or other types of user interfaces in the actual tool. The feedback construction between an individual student, the learning content and the interfaces of the actual computer environment.

What is critical in VLE with regards learner´s satisfaction, comes from the personal ambience: does it make the learner feel comfortable, efficient, personally in control of what s/he is working with? Does it actually inspire some form of interactive feedback from the tool the learner is using, does it make him/her think about things in a different way and extend the way s/he is thinking about things. Satisfaction may seem to be sort of the obvious speed of the application, a typical thing; but there is more about what it generates on a higher scale. For instance, higher learner satisfaction in a VLE may lead to higher learning achievement.


Read more:

Appearance / interface /design


Technology, video and education


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