Saturday, January 4, 2014

Online textbooks are all about the execution

So I'm gearing up to teach the Biotransport class in my department this spring, and for the past three years, we've taught it using a book from Wiley called "Fundamentals of Fluid Mechanics" or something like that (author is Munson, decent book, I suppose). We also enabled a feature called WileyPLUS, in which there's an online site that accompanies the book. In theory, this is a great thing. For the professor, you can assign problems online, complete with grading and evaluation, even with each student getting slight variations of the problem. For the student, you can get instant feedback on the problem, knowing whether you got it right or wrong, and even get a link to the section of the book that corresponds to the problem. What's not to love?

Apparently, according to the students (and us too), there is a lot not to love–so little, in fact, that we're dropping it this year. Why? Because while the idea is nice in theory, the execution is so incredibly poor that we all end up wasting more time than we save with it. Even now that we've stopped using it, it's still wasting our time!

Let me explain: all the problems we assigned last year were still in the system, and in order to get the list of problems out of there, you have to log in. Which I did, but somehow the previous class didn't appear. So I got onto the online chat help, where a (very helpful, I should say) fellow helped me out over the course of 40 minutes (!). First problem: my Wiley Rep somehow keyed in my e-mail incorrectly, so I couldn't log in to see my stuff. Here's the transcript of how to fix that:

Arjun Raj: I'm trying to login with, and it's getting hung up on the login.
Arjun Raj: Can it be that my Wiley Rep transferred everything over to a new account or something?
Sean F.: yes...
Arjun Raj: Can you change the e-mail back?
Sean F.: Ok if you got logged in you can change the email
Sean F.: in the upper right corner click on my account
Sean F.: then click on instructor profile
Sean F.: finally click on maintain e-mail address to update your email.
Arjun Raj: Okay, I got it.
Sean F.: great now that that is take care of we can work on what you contacted us for

Now why in the world would you click "Maintain e-mail" to actually change your e-mail? I understand this is probably some sort of computer engineer-speak that crept its way in, but still. Anyway, then came another 10 minutes of indecipherable button clicking at the behest of Sean F., with endless confusing options at every turn. Then to actually get a simple printout of the problems:

Arjun Raj: Yes, or (even better) all the questions from a particular assignment bundled together. Best is even with answers, but whatever.
Sean F.: the easiest thing is would probably be to print out the assignment.
Arjun Raj: How do I do that?
Arjun Raj: I couldn't find the option.
Sean F.: select properties from the actions column then press go
Sean F.: then scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will see a button to print assignment
Arjun Raj: Ah, okay, got it, thanks! That's just what I was looking for.
Sean F.: Great.

Here's what it actually looks like:

Now why on earth would anyone click there to print out an assignment? Anyway, whatever, I'm maybe not I'm making a compelling case for how annoying this system is to work with, but believe me, it is. Now to be clear, the tech support guy really knew her/his stuff (I suspect the person's name was not actually "Sean F.") and was super helpful at navigating through all the crazy options. But it shouldn't take a 40 minute support chat to do some basic things, nor should it require this much hand-holding just to figure out how to print out an assignment.

And for students, who are the end users, things are not much better. For example, to submit their answer for the homework, they have to use this complex system of codes to enter in their answer symbolically. This proved to be so frustrating for the students in past years–often requiring 10 minutes or more just to key in the answer right–that they basically just gave up, and there's no way that we could in good conscience grade homework that they had to submit this way.

The bottom line is that the point of online anything is to boost people's productivity by saving time and providing a more rich experience. That is the promise of online textbooks, but it's one that at least WileyPLUS simply does not deliver. It's a shame, also, because it wouldn't be that hard to make it a whole lot better–we're not talking about making Google Docs or something here, just some very common sense design improvements. Design people, help!

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