New directions in self-study e-learning: the return of scrolling

Earlier this week I wrote about the first of the new directions in self-study e-learning that I had noticed –  the use of social interactions. Today I explore another – the use of scrolling pages to replace the slide to slide mechanism that dominates so much e-learning.

Sometime back in the mists of time, when Jakob Nielsen was establishing his web usability standards, it became received wisdom that web users dislike scrolling – far better to present information in small chunks that appear ‘above the fold’ (a newspaper term meaning at the top of the page) rather than have users go to all the trouble of scrolling further down a single page. So, a single piece of work – a document if you like – became fragmented into pieces.

Jakob Nielsen did a thorough job of research, so I assume he was right in saying that users preferred not to scroll, but that was a long time ago, when many people were unskilled at using a mouse, and long before mice got scroll wheels and web pages could be scrolled with a swipe of the thumb. I don’t think anyone thinks twice now about scrolling. If anything, there are likely to prefer staying on a single page rather than waiting for new ones to download. And if you want to print what’s in front of you, far better to have it all in one place.

There was another reason why the slide metaphor was adopted for so much e-learning and that was Flash. Although Flash windows can be made to scroll, they were never conceived that way. Flash was originally designed to display animations, and these clearly need to be displayed in a fixed size window. In fact, fixed sizes were and still are commonplace in media generally, whether you’re talking print, TV, photography or slides. But all that has changed after 20 years of web surfing. Although we still don’t like web pages to have variable widths, and generally that doesn’t happen, we’re quite comfortable with the idea that web pages have variable lengths. You keep scrolling until you reach the bottom.

So, what’s bringing about a change in thinking about the use of scrolled pages for e-learning? The simple answer is mobile devices and the need to make e-learning work on these as well as it does on PCs. Flash doesn’t work on mobiles, so we’re having to revert to native web technology, i.e. hypertext markup language, albeit in its flashy new fifth edition. Nobody wants to create multiple versions of their e-learning to suit the idiosyncrasies of different devices. The ideal is web pages that intelligently adapt to the devices on which they are being viewed, which is increasingly how the web sites we use everyday already work. If you try and maintain a fixed size window you have almost no flexibility to achieve this goal – you simply have to allow scrolling.

In conversations with Steve Rayson at Kineo, which is developing its own intelligent page formatting technology which they call ‘responsive e-learning’, it works a treat and users have absolutely no problem with scrolling when necessary. Obviously you have to leave behind the slide show metaphor and consider each page a self-contained document (in learning terms a lesson perhaps) but, hey, weren’t we all getting just a little bit fed up with clicking next to continue? One of Kineo’s clients has tested scrolling e-learning and reports that users are much more likely to scroll down a page than they are to click to another one. I wouldn’t be surprised if others found the same.

There is a barrier to going this way. Currently most e-learning authoring tools maintain the slide show metaphor and enforce fixed window sizes. In the meantime you’re going to need some specialist development expertise. Ah, the bleeding edge.

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