Monday, May 05, 2008

Shneiderman's book, "Leonardo's Laptop" and Don Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things: Must-Reads for Universal Design for Learning Enthusiasts


Don Norman and Ben Scheiderman are well known in the fields of Human-Computer Interaction and Human-Centered Computing, but not as well known by K-12 educators.

Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things (2002) was originally issued as the Psychology of Everyday Things, published in 1988. It is a fun book to read, and the inspiration for my hobby of collecting pictures and video clips for my "usability and interaction hall of shame/fame".

Don has a background in cognitive psychology and computer science, and is the co-founder of the Nielson Norman group, a consulting company that focuses on human-centered services and product development.

Here is a quote from his book:

  • "Before I wrote this book, I was a cognitive scientist, interested in how the mind works. I studied human perception, memory, and attention. I examined how people learned, how they performed skilled activities. Along the way I became interested in human error, hoping that my understanding of error would provide ways to teach people how to avoid mistakes. But then came the nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island in the United States, and I was among a group of social and behavioral scientists who were called in to determine why the control-room operators had made such terrible mistakes. To my surprised, we concluded that they were not to blame: the fault lay in the design of the control room. Indeed, the control panel of many power plants looked as if they were deliberately designed to cause errors."

If you think about it, Norman's insights hold true for the way many textbooks, lessons, and tests are designed. School psychologists and educators are interested in how people learn, and gain much information to guide instruction and interventions from the errors students make. This is also holds true during the process of functional behavioral analysis. We look for patterns of "error" behaviors to inform the sorts of behavioral interventions and supports needed for helping the student gain effective coping strategies, social skills, and related positive behaviors.

Take a few steps back, and think about the "things" common to many schools- the layout of the hallways and classrooms, the configuration of furniture and learning materials within the classroom, the organization of the instructional day, curriculum guidelines, method of instructional delivery and student assessment. How might these be elements be similar to the design of the control panels in power plants?

From this vantage point, administrators, teachers, students, and support staff play the role of the power plant operators. They are the humans embedded in this system, and they must interact within its constraints. Without much notice, the system maximizes the "error rate" for many more students than it should. This is the opposite of the intentions of the humans involved in the design. The faulty design of the education control panel may also also unintentionally contribute to the "errors" made by teachers when they make decisions about instruction and behavior management.

Universal Design for Learning principles entice us to look at how our schools are structured and and instructional methods and materials are designed, in ways that are very much akin to Don Norman's observations. From the UDL perspective, up-front design decisions made by educators or teams of educators, can ensure the likelihood that outcomes for students are maximized and errors are minimized.

On a similar note, Ben Shneiderman, in his book, Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies , discusses ways that computers and technology can support the participation of all ages, abilities, and levels of literacy , in modern society.

Shneiderman begins his discussion about the concept of universal usability with the following quote from Thomas Jefferson, from a reply to the American Philosophical Society (1808):

  • "I feel... an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may.. reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings."
Universal Usability combines the concept of Universal Design with the concepts of accessibility and usability. It is apparent that Shneiderman's thinking is strongly influenced by Jefferson's quote, which in todays terms, can be viewed as a desire for universal knowledge dissemination. This means that we must work towards inclusiveness, and exclude no one.

Shneiderman suggests that it is important to work collaboratively in order to develop methods that bridge the gap between what people know and what people need to know. Although Shneiderman's book has a broad scope,much of what he discusses holds true for K-12 settings.
He proposes that education should provide students with learning opportunities beyond the traditional lecture-discussion format. Below is an outline of the components that should be incorporated into the classroom:

  • Collect: Gather information and acquire resources
  • Relate: Work in collaborative teams
  • Create: Develop ambitious projects
  • Donate: Produce results that are meaningful to someone outside of the classroom
Take the time to read Design of Everyday Things and Leonardo's Laptop. I think they would be great for school-based book studies.

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