Landmark College Institute Advances the Cause of Usable, Accessible Learning Content
Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, is one of the only accredited colleges in the United States designed exclusively for students with dyslexia, attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), and other specific learning disabilities.
In 2001, the college started the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT). The Institute promotes understanding and support for the needs of individuals with learning disabilities at the regional, national, and international level, working with college and high school systems and educators to help students realize their academic potential. The Institute develops and disseminates educational research and theory-based teaching practices that set the standard for educating students with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.
The Institute also houses several significant federal grant projects that support the continued development of innovative practices, publications, and research projects.
The Institute began exploring ways to create and fund a lab to conduct qualitative research on the effectiveness of traditional assistive technologies, digital content, and online designs of teaching materials and how the design of such media can enhance student learning. The lab would be used by students, faculty, and staff to conduct research related to their specific fields of expertise. The lab would need to be affordable and not require users to undergo an extensive training process to become proficient -- a key to encouraging rapid adoption of the lab’s resources by faculty, staff, and students.
An important function of the Institute is to leverage its human resources and partner with other organizations and businesses to help incorporate the college’s students into the research and design of learning technologies. Because of this, the lab, and moreover the usability testing solution, would need to capture all the detailed interaction data as students used the technologies while still being able to quickly deliver compelling results that show where students are having problems.
In 2005, the Institute established the Universal Design and Usability Lab upon receipt of an award from the National Science Foundation-funded Eastern Alliance in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).
After looking at traditional hardware-based usability lab equipment and finding it to be too expensive and complex, the Institute looked at Morae by TechSmith. Morae is the industry’s first all-digital user experience solution that can be loaded on a basic computer without requiring any special hardware. It enables fast, detailed analysis of the way in which people use Web sites, applications, and online content.
Morae records real-world actions, such as user speech and facial expressions, along with detailed application and computer system data. Morae indexes the data and makes it searchable so the Institute’s team can easily calculate factors such as page changes and time-on-task, and quickly find a specific point in the video -- something that is very time-intensive when working with analog equipment. Morae provides the appropriate mix of functionality and features, but also meets the critical need of being flexible enough so users can adapt it to almost any testing environment.
And because Morae is a software-based solution, it’s easy to conduct testing in a lab, conference room, or office, or loaded on a laptop and taken on the road, giving usability and design professionals greater flexibility and the option to test in natural settings. Morae also makes it easy for the research teams to share their findings in video format, a critical feature for any research organization where it’s necessary to collect, archive, and present findings. An actual video of a student having problems is an extremely powerful and convincing asset to show to decision makers. For these reasons, hundreds of colleges, universities, and research organizations have standardized on Morae for usability testing.
In less than a day, the LCIRT team was up and running on Morae and has since established a task force to train teachers how they can test the usability of their own teaching materials, and how to use Morae to evaluate the usability of course-related information. A typical training session lasts under one hour. The lab’s initial research has focused on developing an understanding of how students use technologies and digital media to learn STEM content, and how the design of such information can enhance student learning. The lab very quickly became such a priority that it now has a special budget to pay students to participate in usability testing sessions.
LCIRT staff are currently engaged in over a dozen research projects ranging from exploratory work to grant-based research using Morae. The team has looked at everything from barriers to applying to college online, challenges associated with using online textbook ancillaries, to assistive communication tools to build presentations, and the usability of math tutoring software for those with learning disabilities. The Institute is also collaborating with other colleges, universities, and corporations that create learning materials and assistive learning technologies.
According to Steve Fadden, Director of Research, and Julie Strothman, Project Manager, the Institute saved over $20,000 by building its usability lab around Morae rather than traditional hardware-based technologies, and received a state-of-the-art solution that has quickly become the gold standard in the industry. While it wasn’t a focus when evaluating a usability testing solution, the Institute has found that having a usability lab in-house is a huge value-add for developing research-based grant initiatives and attracting superior students who are enthusiastic about using technology to improve learning for everyone.
Usability testing takes place in the Universal Design and Usability Lab at the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. Half of the office is configured for user testing, and the other half is configured for data storage and analysis.