Newfangled Elevators and Online Course Design #INNMA

Right now, I’m sitting in the Marriott Hotel in Copley Place in Boston, MA.  A lovely facility with glorious views and a lot of nifty little twenty-first century features.  I’m in town for the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovations 2015 conference, where I’m once again fortunate enough to be a co-presenter in two sessions.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.  Well, it’s sort of what I want to talk about, but… well… you’ll see.  Just bear with me here.

Like I said, the hotel is ultra modern with all sorts of groovy stuff, but the weirdest, coolest, most technologically advanced, and yes, frustrating “conveniences” here are the elevators.  In a traditional elevator environment, one would… well… I don’t think I need to explain how elevators work.  If you’re reading this blog, I’m pretty certain it’s safe to assume that you know how to use an elevator.  If you don’t know how to use an elevator, If you are, somehow, unfamiliar with how to go about operating an elevator, fear not.  There is a handy video on YouTube that will help you.  Watch the video, then read the rest of this blog post.

If you’re still with me, I’m assuming you know how to operate an elevator and won’t be too perplexed by what is to come.  So, the elevators here don’t function like normal elevators.  Well, they function like normal elevators, but the usual press the call button, wait, enter the elevator, select your floor, ride the elevator, exit the elevator rules don’t exactly apply.  Instead, they have these instructions…


If you can’t read the instructions in the image above, basically, they say, select your destination from the menu below.  Once you’ve selected your destination, you will be directed to a specific elevator (A-F).  Once the elevator arrives, board the elevator and proceed to your destination.  Inside the elevator, there are no floor selection buttons, only “hold the door open”, “close the door” and “HELP!” buttons.

Now, for those of you who are curious about what the interface looks like, here’s a picture of the touch screen interface from which you may select any floor.  Yes, 13 IS an option!


In theory, this is an amazing idea.  It’s efficient, it eliminates the possibilities of overcrowding and full elevators stopping unnecessarily on floors just because they’ve been called.

But that’s just theory.

The reality is that the elevator can be overcrowded and it can make unnecessary stops because the interface doesn’t know how many people are boarding the elevator on a given floor and how much baggage the passengers will be carrying.  But, it’s an improvement over the traditional elevator, right?

Sure.  It is.  Really.  But there are a couple of flaws in the design.

The first flaw is that my floor (25) is listed as an option on the menu.  This isn’t a critical flaw, but it’s a flaw nonetheless.

The second, and greater, flaw is that there are no lights or signs which indicate the elevator’s current position.  Now, if we hadn’t grown used to such a feature on elevators, that would be no big deal.  But we have, and it is.  We, as humans in modern society, have been programmed to enter an open elevator door.  That’s how we do it.  The elevator door opens, we get on.  In this system, that’s not the case.  Now, rather than keeping their eyes on all six elevators at once, watching the progress indicators above the various elevator doors, plotting how to best squeeze into the next arriving elevator, passengers-to-be wait in front of a designated door for their elevator to arrive, then board their designated elevator.

But what happens when you’ve been standing there for 5 minutes waiting for an elevator that has yet to arrive while someone else boards their elevator and departs after only 30 seconds of waiting, and you’re still standing there? I’ll tell ya what happens.  You begin to question the integrity and so-called efficiency of the entire newfangled system and yearn for the old days when elevators were a thing of the future and stairs were the only way to go (uphill… both ways…).  Okay, maybe you don’t go all the way into your own Cosbyesque routine of “back in my day….”, but you get the point.  There’s a certain psychological something-or-another that makes us want to abandon new technology the instant it fails to provide us with the immediate gratification for which we constantly yearn.

What would improve this system?  Simple. Indicator displays.  I wouldn’t mind waiting for an elevator half as much if I knew where it was and approximately how much longer I’d be waiting.  Gamify it!  All right, maybe that’s taking it a little too far… or is it?

Okay.  That’s great, but what does this have to do with online course design???

Did you ever notice that in most jokes, the setup is a whole lot longer than the punch line?  Yeah.  Me too.

This relates to online course design in the simple fact that if we don’t provide very explicit instructions on what we expect from students and what students should expect from us, then how will they succeed?  It’s not done intuitively.  Online course design requires a lot of attention to the subtlest of details.  In fact, the small details, the “gotchas”, the buggaboos, the <insert preferred word or phrase here>, are the things upon which student success can often hinge.

So, as we design and develop online courses, and as I, a Blackboard administrator and instructional technologist, look for ways to improve student success, there are often very obvious elements which are missing from a course or a system that could greatly contribute to student success.

Folks who are waiting for an elevator can make it without a progress indicator.  The elevator will eventually arrive, and they will eventually board the elevator  and exit at the appropriate floor.  The same can’t be said for students in online courses who simply give up because they can’t understand how to use the technology or how to complete an assignment.

Ok… Thanks Rodney.  You’ve pointed out a problem.  What’s the solution?

I don’t know, but I’ve got an idea.  Break it down.  Chunk the chunks.  Be redundant in your redundancy.  And this is particularly important for the folks who design the course interface…..  We have a responsibility to keep it simple and visually appealing, while paying particular attention to the details.

So this elevator thing inspired me to blog again.  Yay me!  It’s been a while because my school has been in the midst of migrating from ANGEL to Blackboard for the past year, and that has kept me busy in all sorts of ways.  Add to that some health issues which have led me to become one of only a handful of people to receive a cochlear implant for single-sided deafness (details are on my Medium blog), and you can, hopefully, find it in your heart to forgive my lack of updates.

Anyway, I’m starting to ramble.  So, as always, if you have any comments, questions, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms, feel free to reach out.




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