We all have strategies for navigation in our daily lives. Understanding how learners explore the web and how to avoid losing them is essential for online learning success.
Navigation Is Innate
At our earliest age, we are immobile, rolling around, looking at our immediate environment, searching for and finding comfort in familiarity, prisoners of our own frailty. We start to crawl, exploring further, learning to probe the unknown.
One of the earliest developmental stages that Piaget recognized was the ability to grasp the concept of “here” and “not here.” The foundation of playing “peek-a-boo” from behind a towel with a baby is founded upon their fundamental belief that you really are disappearing and appearing again. Once they see through this deception, they grow rapidly, crawling, walking, running, cycling, driving, even flying! At every stage, though, our exploration is grounded in the notion of “home.”
The earliest rovings are accompanied by increasing panic as home moves out of sight, and with good reason. Historically, getting lost was a big deal. Being separated, be it from the pack or from shelter, was a life threatening condition. Getting lost is generally bad.
But getting lost is not always bad. Sometimes, we have to get lost to push our boundaries, to learn; the first time we lose sight of home, the first time we sail away from sight of land, the first time we walk to somewhere where everything we know is over the horizon.
Navigation is more than using a SatNav. It’s the skill-set and mind-set of familiarity and home. We learn to navigate, first by recognizing the hill that our house is on, by recognizing the odd shaped tree at the division of the path, and by knowing that the retail park next to the motorway means that we need the next exit. We tune into our environments and build familiarity and comfort from them. The rolling flat landscape of Norfolk is familiar and safe for me, the rugged highlands of the Cheviots, on the Scottish borders, a harsh and unforgiving landscape. It’s familiar to me, but never safe, never comfortable. I know I can cope with it; I’ve tested myself against it, but it’s edgier, wilder, always waiting to catch me out, to sweep me away.
Navigation is embedded deeply within our psyche, and it runs over into how we learn. The very vocabulary of online spaces is based around our navigational schema. We have a “home,” we have “maps,” we have breadcrumb trails, named after the trails we lay to follow home. The peppering of navigational vocabulary is more than just lazy journalism or development; it’s a reflection of our very real need to understand where we are within a space. We need to understand where we are and where we came from. We want to get back there again.
Navigating the Online World
Although the online world is relatively new, there are already common concepts and ideas. The URL sits at the top of a page, not at the side or the bottom. It’s the map coordinates. In many sites, the “home” button will take you to the front page; often a logo on the top left will do the same job. These are just conventions. There is nothing magical about the top left of the page. It’s just that enough people over time have said, “If we always build our village with a hill to the North West, we could more easily assume that this is where we will find a village.”
Online spaces are becoming more complex, coupled with emergent ideas about online personas and identity. We are modeling these first and second generation spaces upon physical models that we are familiar with, which is nice, because for those of us who can read a map, this is comfortable and easy. But this might not always be the case. Online spaces allow for different forms of navigation, different schemas, and different concepts. There is nothing sacred about how we do things now.
I often work with our developers to see how navigation works within learning sites. My overall steer is “work with familiar concepts.” I want people to learn from the content, not to have to learn how to use the interface. But there are ongoing challenges. Increasingly, we use wider ranges of media, more sophisticated interactions, social media, measurement and diagnostic techniques and tools, and will continue to adapt and modify our practices in the future. We need to ensure that we maximize possibility, but don’t lose people on the way.
Social learning spaces are “the same, but different.” It’s a potent recipe for miscommunication or mistakes. We know that some of the differences are clear, whilst others present more of a challenge. It’s not just about the navigation, but also about the different dynamics and opportunities for collaboration and challenge. Miscommunication is easier in the virtual space, especially when we look at the challenges of global communities with different cultural frameworks.
Navigation of virtual spaces remains something that we need to actively consider, especially for less experienced explorers, but it’s not just complex navigation that can cause problems: we need to consider the efficiency of the overall experience. We are competing in a commercial world where experience is seamless and adds value at every step. If we don’t get it right, we won’t engage people because it’s too complex to figure out, we will disengage them because they can’t be bothered to work it out in the first place. They can spend that time more profitably elsewhere.
Navigating the Future
As an experienced explorer of online spaces, I have a reasonably well-developed survival instinct, but have to recognize that this is not always the case. And, of course, in the scheme of things, I’m a novice. I’ve never delved into file sharing; it’s strange and unfamiliar territory, although familiar to millions.
We have to innovate and be creative, but we should never lose sight of the fact that our roots are in the woodlands, searching for the crooked tree that shows us the path home. We need to keep one eye on map reading, another on new ways of making maps. We need to be bold, but ensure that we don’t lose people on the way. We need to explore.
As your organization explores social learning, create a user group that consists of experienced online explorers and disinterested users. Your aim is not to cater for the capable; it’s to enable the disengaged or disconnected.
NOTE: This article is adapted from Exploring the World of Social Learning, which is a collection of nearly previously posted 50 blog articles written around social learning. Each article has new commentary that explores the subject from a range of angles, adding the benefit of hindsight and reflection. Sometimes I agree strongly with what I thought at the time, whilst in other places I can see how my thinking has evolved.