This is a broad, stream of consiousness overview of my thought process when constructing my dissertation usability study.
Looking for the actual case study? Go here.

Abstract – Usability & Accessibility in Online Courses: Could serving more students help all students?

Online coursework offers many college students flexibility and increased earning potential that they otherwise may not have due to personal or professional responsibilities and restrictions. Unfortunately, for students with disabilities, including those using assistive technology devices to access the internet, limited accessibility compromises these opportunities for students who already face significant challenges to the completion of their post-secondary education. In the same manner that universal design of physical spaces increases usability of buildings and other facilities for all patrons, universal design of web-based courses could improve retention of course content for all learners.

In a case study based on cognitive load theory and constructivist pedagogy, the researcher will investigate the experience of postsecondary students with disabilities with user interface design of online courses, and how that design may inhibit the ability of these students to learn course content due to usability and accessibility issues. It is hypothesized that a course specifically designed with improved accessibility and usability design would result in improved course content retention among all participants, especially those with lower technology self-efficacy scores as tested with the Web-Users’ Self-Efficacy Scale. Additional information derived from participant observations and interviews will be analyzed in conjunction with quantitative data collected from usability testing software.

So that’s the formal abstract from my dissertation. If you’d like to read the full version, academic prose and all, it’s here. As you can see, I started out planning to study only students with disabilities. I collaborated with the campus office serving them before leaving USM at the end of my coursework, but we were unable to recruit any students who were taking online classes. When I moved to Atlanta, armed with my IRB approval, I was able to recruit a few from local community colleges, but not enough for a large sample. My advisor approved my request to expand my subject pool to another groups of students I felt were adversely affected by the design of online courses – students with limited technology background/low tech literacy.

Here’s how it started. I’d been an academic advisor for many years, with a Master’s in higher education administration by the time I got to USM. I worked both adult and fresh-outta-high-school students and understood the many ways they approached their academic goals. When I entered the PhD program, I found that the coursework included many courses I had already completed. Blessed with cool, understanding mentors, I was able to focus on my instructional technology minor (in name only – I completed the coursework for a Masters in IT, but I couldn’t use my study for both degrees and I wasn’t planning to do a capstone project. As far as I’m concerned, I had a double major, but I digress). That meant I was free to explore the wonderful world of technology and learning science. I got the single most important piece of advice on getting out with a PhD vs ABD from a student a year ahead of me in the program:

Make sure every single paper you write in your doctoral program is related to your dissertation. That means you need to consider your topic right from the beginning.

Duly noted. I found that I didn’t have to search far and wide at the end for the articles and studies to include in my literature review. My conversations over the years with advisees and students seeking help with online courses and faculty members frustrated with the low success rates in the courses they were “forced to teach” (that’s a quote) led me to believe that something was amiss. Faculty reported that they delivered the same coursework in their face to face classes and to their online students. Online students just skewed towards lazy students who didn’t want to do the work. Well of course that couldn’t be true, right? I explained to the faculty members I supported online that taking an online class is a vastly different experience than sitting in a classroom. I felt that a lot of that was because many of the faculty were pretty adverse to using computers in the first place. Uploading all the readings to the course folder is NOT the same as having a discussion.

I took a few online courses myself to see what it was like, and easily completed them. Then I remembered something that happened – often – with my older advisees and even classmates in my grad programs: I had to walk them, step-by-step, through logging in, finding the right course, finding the assignments and readings, and submitting their own work. It happened so often that I created a cheat sheet (potential employers read: technical writing/user instructions) with screenshots and arrows. It struck me that the course level didn’t really matter. The fact was that no one was going to digest any content if they couldn’t even log in.

If you’ve ever wanted to fling your phone across the room because you can’t remember your email password, you understand frustration. If you believe it can’t be done, you’re not going to try to do it. For a professional grown person to feel unable to do something children are doing next to them every day is something that eats at your pride. That task moves out of your “need to do” list. The dots connected in my head: getting into this course is a pain in the arse, so I’m not even doing to deal with that frustration right now. And those dots led me to my usability study.

In the study, I looked at several different course management systems – I observed students using whichever system their institution used. I tried to work with students where they accessed courses most often, and for the most part that was in a campus computer lab. It was enlightening, to say the least. To get a look at my research findings, please check out the case study.

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