Notifications in Online Learning: Alert with Care

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Online learning tools like LMSes and 3rd party apps offer a variety of ways to notify learners of key events in their course. The new ubiquity of smartphones among learners opens up a wide variety of ways we can grab their attention — but with great power comes great responsibility. We need to think with care about the ways we’re intruding on learners time — especially now that their devices can interrupt them at any time of the day or night.

Notification Types and Their Response Times

Each different form of messaging comes with a roughly shared expectation for how much time the recipient has to respond. We’ve generally agreed that email messages come with about a 48 hour response time, while texts and instant messages are designed to be more of a “hot rush” — they are designed to push right to the front of the recipient’s attention at the moment they’re received and demand a response.

App-specific notifications you receive on your smartphone (like a new message in your Instagram or an update from your Canvas LMS) each have their own individual queues, lining up messages in your notifications for you to review and respond to each in its own way. Keeping up with all the notifications from all your apps can be overwhelming, leading smartphone OSes now to offer tools to restrict and customize the number and types of updates you will receive.

The Inbox is Everywhere

Personal productivity systems like Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero urge us not to use our email inbox as a to-do list, but rather spend time sorting incoming messages into the actions we need to take on each message.

But now with the modern app ecosystem, the Inbox is EVERYWHERE. We all have to live in a fractured tech environment where we have to monitor multiple incoming streams of information in order to stay connected to all our life activities and communities.

In an average day, you may have to stay on top of your personal email, work email, calendar invites and events, personal SMS/text messages, work chat/ Slack, LinkedIn notifications, social media apps, group chats, news feeds, and more. As your life gets more complex, there’s also the app you had to install to track your kid’s soccer games, dating app updates, parent groups, meetups, etc. etc. etc.

Varying tools for Staying Organized

I bring all this up because my team is testing a spaced repetition app to follow up live trainings with a series of text messages over the following weeks that reinforces the content and assesses learner recall. These messages are sent by an SMS chatbot at a seemingly random time interval during the day. As a result, I sometimes receive them at the moment I’m hefting my two boys into the minivan, or while I’m working out in the afternoon, or while I’m cooking dinner.

Often, I can’t engage with an SMS message at the moment it arrives, but text message apps don’t have the same tools as email to let us snooze messages, mark them unread, or organize them into a folder to review the next time I sit down to concentrate on them. Once you open the notification on your phone to see what it even is, that notification reminder disappears, taking away your visual reminder to engage with that message. If a few more messages come in behind it, it slips down the page and into the dark memory hole of forgotten messages past. If your learner doesn’t have good practices and tools to be able to catch and engage with all the different messages constantly shooting at them, they may miss what we send.

Varying Tools for Taking Action

Each type of notification medium also suggests a preferred device to respond. If you are sending notifications via SMS messages, those are most likely to be received on mobile devices. This impacts the downstream activities that recipients can take in response. If you send someone a PDF to read, they’re going to struggle to view it on a small smartphone screen. If you send them a video to watch, they may have a different experience than if they were on a large-screen device.

Varying Ability to Connect

One discovery we made in the pilot of an SMS notification tool, we discovered that sending SMS internationally hit technical roadblocks so that messages did not reach all learners. Depending on which tool you use, you may need to think about how each medium connects with your users.

Notify with Care

This is all to say that we must think about how our learners will receive any notifications we design into their learning experiences.

If possible, choose tools where you can control the number and frequency of update notifications learners will receive.

Clearly set expectations for how you want learners to engage with notifications — use terms like “Action Required”, “Response Optional”, “FYI”, “Low Priority:” etc. to help learners prioritize their time and engage at the expected level.

For updates where you expect a response, you may want to reinforce that message in another medium, like taking a few moments to discuss it at your in-person meetings or with an email.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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