Usability, UX and MOOCS: A Global Perspective

October 16, 2014

Usability testing, UX, user behavior research...In a field focused on meeting users' needs, using the right tools to test the end results is crucial.

Usability testing, UX, user behavior research: these terms may not have originally been a part of the Library and Information Science lexicon, but these concepts are inescapable these days--and with good reason. In a field focused on meeting users' needs, using the right tools to test the end results is crucial.

Lucky for Simmons School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), we have preeminent usability scholar and educator Rong Tang. Since the fall of 2006, Tang has taught courses at the master's and doctoral level, including Usability and User Experience Research, Evaluation of Information Services, Digital Information Services & Providers, and Library Automation Systems, and has been director of the Simmons Usability Lab since its inception in 2008. This fall she returns to Simmons after a yearlong sabbatical spent conducting research and teaching at National Taiwan University and Jiangsu University in Zhenjiang, China, as a visiting professor.

Unlike many researchers, she has a passionate commitment to education--part of her professional identity. Striking a balance with research projects is a constant struggle: "I love teaching, I love building a connection with students. . . . We [at Simmons] are proud of being a teaching-oriented college, but we are not weak in our research and scholarship."

When Tang came to the United States in 1990 to study Modern Chinese Literature at Ohio State University, she was not certain that conducting research in Chinese literature was the right path for her. "I wasn't sure that would be my lifelong career," she explained. "There were differences in how Chinese scholars approach Chinese Literature; the way we do literary criticism in China is different from the way it is done in the U.S. I wanted to find a job in the U.S., and I loved libraries. I thought it would be amazing to work in a library to support faculty members who do research. I didn't think I would teach; I thought I would focus on research. As I enrolled in the master's program [at Wayne State University], the field of Information Studies amazed me."

After earning her Ph.D. in Information Science--with a dissertation research focus on users' relevance judgment criteria--from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tang taught at the State University of New York at Albany, and then at Catholic University of America before joining the faculty at Simmons SLIS. Tang described the academic culture here as learner-centered: "We put a lot of time into teaching and building connections with students," she said, describing her teaching philosophy. "When students come to your class to work with you, you need to help them find a point where it 'clicks.' Students have their background, their perspectives. You have your way of presenting the course, giving them a certain experience so they learn a certain skill from you; but that doesn't mean every student will be inspired right away. There are different points in time when it 'clicks.' . . . Some people take classes because they are required, or they have a general interest but not a passion--yet. It is challenging to find the points of connection that can get the student engaged in the class."

This approach proved invaluable during her sabbatical when Tang taught courses in usability and user behavior research at National Taiwan University (NTU) and Jiangsu University. Tang described the academic climate in Taiwan and China as traditionally more research-focused with less "attention to teaching strategies." In contrast, the courses she taught there were "interactive with lots of teamwork, which surprised students who are used to lectures and not a lot of discussion or interaction. I could sense that they want to rethink teaching and learning."

Tang also embarked on important new scholarship while overseas. "Initially I was planning to do a research project on mobile-device usability in Taiwan, but when I was chatting with faculty over there, [I found] mobile devices are not used as much to access libraries," Tang explained. "I decided to research Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which were just starting at National Taiwan University while I was there." National Taiwan University was the only university in Taiwan being invited by Coursera to provide courses through its platform. There were several universities in Taiwan offering their MOOCs courses through their self-built platforms or through EdX. MOOC program initiators and leaders, together with the Ministry of Education, attempted to use MOOCs to provide open education opportunities and great learning experience to Chinese-speaking learners across Taiwan and Mainland China." Tang conducted research interviews at universities in Taiwan and mainland China, "asking people who started a MOOCs program at their university about the challenges they faced." She asked questions such as: Do they use their own MOOCs platform? Do they seek funding from the Ministry of Education? What is their motivation to provide MOOCs programs? How do they resolve the issue of faculty members who are interested but already overwhelmed with a hefty teaching load?

Her initial hypothesis: "MOOCs offered in Asia have a different approach and focus from those in the U.S., because of the differences in culture, leaner needs, and education systems."

Tang interviewed over 30 people from Taiwan and China heavily involved in MOOCs, including University presidents, vice-presidents, representatives from the Ministries of Education and various associations and companies, MOOC instructors and more. While in the United States the conversation regarding MOOCs has focused on the efficacy of such large, impersonal academic experiences, in China, Tang asserted that the "purpose is for improving teaching." The structure of MOOCs is guiding a change in approach: With MOOCs "you never teach a two or three hour lecture. You deliver 15 minutes of content, then have a break. That means you are forced to look at your content and segment it in a way that makes sense to pause at the 15-minute point, then insert questions and quizzes about that section," Tang explained. "With the Flipped Classroom [model], the student views the lecture via video online outside the class, but comes to the class for discussion, exercises, and Q&A." While she is still going through her research data, Tang purported that coming from a classic lecture-focused collegiate setting, the Chinese and Taiwanese view MOOCs, in terms of "rethinking pedagogy and delivery of content, so teaching isn't spoon-feeding, it's in a format that is easily consumable. Students also learn from each other, through discussion and interaction online."

Tang also spent March and April of this year as a visiting scientist at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics where she collected eye-tracking data for astrophysicists using an astrophysics data system. "Visualization is a huge component of that system," Tang said. "I had them use the system and captured their eye movement."

Simmons students in Tang's Usability course this semester will have the opportunity to do live usability testing of this astrophysics system, as well as testing for EBSCO eBook system, Northeastern University Library Website, Middlebury Library Website, and the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science's Data Science Website. Testing will take place in the Simmons Usability Lab or on-site through a set of portable usability testing devices. Established in 2008 by a grant from the Simmons Pottruck Technology Resource Center, the state-of-the-art Lab is unique in that its main purpose is for students' experiential learning, though it is also used for faculty research and rented to outside parties who conduct their own testing. The Usability Lab includes a suite of rooms connected by a one-way mirror where students and researchers observe users while Morae software simultaneously records their activities. In addition to two sets of portable usability labs that include laptops equipped with Morae software, the Lab acquired a Tobii eye-tracker, which collects eye-tracking information through a monitor screen without a cumbersome headpiece. These technological resources afford Simmons' students a breadth of experience in one of the industry's burgeoning sectors.

"What do they learn from me?" Tang asked. "They learn about the user and doing user research about usability. That is a new career---there are UX librarians, assessment librarians, or they could work as a user researcher for a vendor. Six graduates [who took] my usability class in the past are now working full time as usability specialists or UX designers."

Tang's involvement in the usability sector extends beyond consulting and the classroom. As the chair of the Association for Information Science and Technology's (ASIS&T) Special Interest Group Information Needs, Seeking and Use (SIG/USE), she co-leads one of ASIS&T's largest SIGs, with over 400 members globally, focused on conducting information-behavior research. In addition to sharing resources and findings at annual conferences, the SIG hosts events to promote the study of human information-related behavior and the application of the same as it relates to information systems design. Tang described the group as "scholarly and research focused and very active." This year's SIG/USE Research Symposium at the annual ASIS&T conference will focus on Context in Information Behavior Research, recognizing that a "stronger emphasis on context will enhance our understanding of information behavior."

While not part of the traditional spectrum of LIS specialties, Tang's passion for UX illustrates the need for students to stay abreast of industry shifts. "LIS as a field is constantly changing. Libraries are constantly facing budget cuts to staff or resources. A lot of traditional library positions are no longer available, or if they are they are not full time. I believe we need to teach students the fundamentals of LIS as well as flexible innovative skills and knowledge of user research so they can recast themselves in the library and information world."

As students craft their own career path, heeding such advice will position themselves and the LIS field as a whole at the forefront of the next generation of information science, poised to address rapidly changing user needs in the face of constant technological developments.

By Dean's Communications Fellow Lily Troia