Thursday, May 24, 2012

Desire lines

I've just been researching the concept of 'desire lines'. I was trying to find the metaphor for the way we shoehorn our learners or teachers to use the institutional systems and then complain when the uptake is low. This picture illustrates the problem so well:

picture of shortcut across grass
cc image by Alan Stanton

We have the paths that our learners and teachers are making on the internet: using Facebook, Twitter (maybe), YouTube, SMS, WhatsApp etc and usually via a mobile device. And then we have the vle, which is the equivalent of the concrete path that is laid down at right angles to how we want to 'walk' through resources, how we want to communicate, how we want to access the areas that most interest us.

How can we find a happy medium? A blog post by Steven Bradley ( gives us some technical ways to figure out some of this by tracking what people search for, click on and the paths taken by them through your site. But I think, by then it's too late - you'll already have adopted the most popular open-source or commercial SYSTEM and you're trying to bend backwards to make it do what you want (Ring any bells, those of you who worked with me on a recent project?). At least I hope you bother to try to find out what people want to do on your site.

He also shares with us how Twitter grew and developed as a result of what people wanted: Twitter users developed the hashtag, the @replies,  retweets and so on. Interesting read!

So is there a solution to our 'How do we increase the uptake of our vle' problem? You've got to start with something and then maybe use an Agile approach to developing it. (I will have to discuss Agile in another post!). Are the current systems we use flexible enough? Are we interested enough to try to flex them? Or are we just going to install it, choose the prettiest theme and demand that people use the paths laid down by default?

For those who run out-of-the-box solutions, how much of the original problem has been solved and how many new ones have taken their place? Vles have been around for a decade now, and we're still trying to 'increase its uptake by staff and students'.  People, are we asking the right questions????

Lots of food for thought. A red rag to our bull (@JamesClay) on the VLE is dead theme ;-)


Jorum said...

Hi Lillian I know that some park designers look for 'desire lines' within the first year of the park opening and re-adjust the layout to suit the flow. Of course soemone needs to define the 'space'in the first place, then people can make use of it as they will. The point for me is that this process takes TIME, and the outcomes are hard to predict. Time and lack of predictability both tend to be anathema to organisations who have to show sponsors they are continually improving and reaching deliverables within a set timescale. In this case, the park is designed, set and it is best that you don't 'walk across the grass' which then irritates people. I was recently involved in a major VLE project which simply couldn't afford the time to allow people to define their own etiquette and relationship to the VLE because of funding policy so many of the activities were supply led. I spent 10 years of my FE manager time installing several VLEs. The hardest thing was not the technology but 'letting go' and trusting staff to find their own way - and in winning back time from senior managers! Hope something in here strikes a chord best, Steve

Alan Stanton said...

Hi Lilian,
  Look what's happened.
  You found my photo and used it as an illustration for your blog post. (You're very welcome by the way.)
  And this erected a signpost for me to take a peek at your blog. Which means little to me since I'm not in the business of designing software or structuring virtual learning environments. (I didn't know what a VLE was. So thanks for making me curious to look it up.)

If physical paths are a useful metaphor for thinking about the task you do, then there's someone you should meet. (Apologies if she is already a friend.) Take a look at Jane Jacobs "Death and Life of Great American Cities."

By the way, my learning a couple of things from your blog isn't a VLE. It's a real learning environment. Just like a real library where, yes, John Dewey has helped to structure our reading, but where we also need to let serendipity into play as we wander the stacks.
  In fact, that type of learning is something which years ago, architects were trying to build into the design of universities and research labs. (Maybe still are.) Their aim was to enable the cross fertilisation of different disciplines. While not creating a chaotic noisy space where quiet focused work was increasingly difficult.


Alan Stanton said...

Hello again, Lillian,

Apologies if you've already seen this. But if not you may find the article "Death of the Desk" interesting.

It echoed and experiments ideas I found in the 1980s when researching with cooperative and collective teams who had tried out more egalitarian ways of reorganising their workspaces.

Although today I'm slightly sceptical because it often seems to me that the main factor driving such changes in conventional offices may be cost-cutting.

Do you know the 1970's Women's Movement pamphlet called: "The Tyranny of Structurelessness".

It seemed to me that at least in the initial stages of dismantling hierarchies, there could be a 'Tyranny of Desklessness'. An ideal which needed and usually got rapid modification so that tasks got done.

Alan Stanton