HBL – for kids or adults?

If you have survived the recent Home Based Learning as part of the Circuit Breaker, it’d be great to hear about your experience, and share your thoughts on this online teaching/learning method. Here’s a shoutout to all the teachers who have made this possible. Thank you for giving your best in making this work for both the kids and adults (parents/guardians). Let’s also appreciate the fact that some of our teachers are parents themselves as well.

As I had the chance to do HBL this round, I got a preview of the processes and tools that the schools are using for e-learning. Based on what I have read in the news, apart from the Student Learning Space, it seems that different schools are employing different tools for online teaching at the moment. While some used Zoom, before and after it was banned due to security concerns, others have turned to Google Meet for live classes. Teachers also introduced various tools like Classkick, ClassDojo, Padlet, Google Drive, Google Doc, Gmail, and so on, for other reasons such as marking of assignments, or conducting survey/polls. This lack of standardised e-learning tools across schools is something I believe our education ministry is actively tackling in phases. And I’m looking forward to a more coherent experience for the kids, especially since the aim is to encourage our learners to be self-directed. Standardising the process and tools is one way I think might help especially the younger kids, as they are beginning to build mental models of the world around them, to learn on their own with minimal help from the adults. I say minimal help from the adults because I believe that kids are still kids after all, and some guidance is still necessary.

And so, at a slightly micro level, I would like to instead focus on what I can do to improve the current experience for my kid at least. A few things that immediately jumped out at me initially were:

  • The HBL timetable came attached with the parent’s letter as a PDF
  • But the study plan was updated daily on a google doc

Below left is the current workflow, while I propose mine on the right:

Some observations/feedback:

  • Kid was confused what to do after checking timetable
  • Kid was stuck at the google doc and wasn’t sure where to start > Didn’t understand what certain words meant, and lacked the ability to interpret the document
  • Kid was overwhelmed by the words on the google doc > “I see so many words I also don’t know what I have to do”
  • Kid had scrolled past today’s plan unknowingly, and was confused why teacher repeated the same homework as the day before
  • Kid was at the middle of a timetable and was not sure which day was it for
  • Kid missed out last question of a quiz on SLS, and instead clicked on “Next Activity”
  • Kid was stuck at the usage tutorial of a game, and didn’t know what to click > “I think the game hanged, I closed and opened this a few times, still like that.”
  • Kid did not know caret icon could be clicked to reveal underlying menu
  • Kid did not know the concept of hyperlinks and was confused when instructions said to “click here to…”

Some examples of the current resources:

At some point, perhaps due to feedback or review, the timetable for each day was displayed at the top above the plan. This effectively removed the need for kids to refer to the pdf timetable, so this improvement was certainly welcomed!

Some areas I felt could be modified:

  • Remove the PDF timetable from the current workflow (make it invisible to the kid)
  • Avoid using words like “Topic, Resources, Assignments” and choose simpler words to cater to younger kids
  • Format across subjects was inconsistent (list form, comma, “and” for multiple items)
  • Subjects that are not taught for the day can be removed from the list
  • The helpdesk information does not need to be repeated at every page

DISCLAIMER: I only did this based on one little user, who is 8 years old this year (Primary 2), so I’m sure I’m missing out on a whole lot of stuffs here, especially now that it’s designing for our little users. It’d be great if I could have the chance to test it out on more kids, so that I get to know which parts work, and which need modification and more testing. If you have any tips or feedback or thoughts, please do share them with me!


My process

I started out with 2 main guiding principles:

  1. Kids have to be able to understand and use the materials independently as much as possible, with minimal help from adults
  2. Feasible and easy for teachers to collaboratively input and update information on a daily basis

Because of the above, I tried recreating the daily plan on Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Sites, as these were already existing tools the teachers are using (principle 2).

Google Docs

Pros

  • Easy to add and update content
  • Can apply list styles for content in point forms
  • Can add in emojis

Cons

  • Document outline and Print layout cannot be set as default to appear; depends on individual’s last used settings
  • New timetable can only be pasted above the old ones (no segregation, all in one scroll)
  • Students can see changes made by teachers, and can see a new timetable that’s still being updated in progress
  • Clicking on links doesn’t direct you immediately, it opens up a popover that contains the real clickable link
  • Unable to create shapes that could work as buttons

Google Sheets

Pros

  • Spreadsheet format suits the purpose of timetable
  • New sheet can be duplicated everyday
  • Past timetables can be kept as separate sheets

Cons

  • No existing list styles for point-form content (have to do it manually)
  • Unable to add in emojis/symbols
  • Students can see changes made by teachers, and can see a new timetable that’s still being updated in progress

Google Sites

Pros

  • New page can be duplicated everyday
  • Past timetables can be kept as separate pages/links
  • Has the code feature which can act as section heading for visualisation
  • Able to only publish a new timetable when update is complete

Cons

  • Limited layout options
  • Limited themes with limited customisation options
  • Unable to add in emojis/symbols

After trying out and evaluating the three tools, I finally settled back on Google Docs. It’s the easiest for teachers to use and maintain on a daily basis. Below are some samples of my attempts.

At one point, I thought of adding a content list to organise the past timetables so kids can just click on the dates and be directed to the corresponding one without having to scroll through. As it turned out, it was unnecessary and in fact caused more confusion for my little user. Principle 1 out.

Turning to google sites seemed promising initially, when I could expand/hide the content of each subject. Kids therefore don’t need to be overwhelmed with information overload. They can simply click on the subject that’s going on at the moment and find out what to do. While I did not get to test this with my little user, another adult feedback that it might be all too clean and minimalist for kids to be engaged and needed more colours. Furthermore, I happened to observe in a separate occasion that my little user did not find carets intuitive at all. This might result in adults having to step in and explain to the kids. Coupled with limited customisation options, this could potentially mean more work for the teachers to maintain. Both principles out.

When I wanted to first integrate the timetable and daily plan together, I had thought Google Sheets would be a good idea. For one, the nature of spreadsheet lends itself as a great tabling tool for building a timetable. Furthermore, we can freeze rows or columns so this can help the Date and Subject information to stick at the borders while the kid scrolls down. However, the input of list items is painful. Enough said. Principle 2 out.

Ultimately, I returned to Google Docs despite its long list of cons, and figured out how I can make this work. Check out below.

Key modifications:

  • Renamed the three sections of the daily plan and added an emoji for each
    • from Topic to You will learn
    • from Resources to You will need
    • from Assignments to Homework
  • Standardised content format into numbered list for multiple items
  • Timetable integrated in second and third column (time and subject)
  • Helpdesk info is parked right at the top of the document, and greyed out
  • Each day’s timetable starts on a new page
  • Hence, also added an indicator so kid knows to scroll further more past timetables
  • Date added repeatedly in first column so kid stays in context no matter how far they’ve scrolled
  • Made use of Google Doc’s Document Outline feature to act as content page (though not all kids may be able to access this, as noted above)
  • Added an empty state timetable for the latest one that the teachers can update behind the scenes and then paste over once it is completed
  • Greyed out the entire table (sans the header date row) for past timetables, including the words

My Thoughts

It has been a fun opportunity to observe first-hand how an average 8yo kid would interact with digital products. Apart from making me realise that kids and adults really function differently, it has also allowed me to empathise with my kid better. Instead of asking ridiculous questions like “Just click on the link here, can’t you read and follow the instructions?” in the heat of the moment, perhaps it might be more productive if we could ask ourselves how we can help them develop relevant mental models to aid their understanding. It also got me reflected on how often adults tend to forget that we were once kids too.

Asking kids questions isn’t at all like asking adults questions. Part of what is usually recommended when doing user interviews is to ask open-ended questions. However, that doesn’t seem to work as well for kids, whose cognitive development is still very much in progress. Having too broad a question right from the start confuses them, as they might not be sure what exactly you are asking for, and you will lose their attention. You need to be patient in getting their attention, keeping them engaged, while asking step-by-step questions to guide them in forming their own thoughts. I’ve learnt not to ask my kid “It’s okay, just tell me what you think of this.” Now, I rephrase the question into “Okay first, do you know what is this? Great, what would you do if you wanted to find yesterday’s timetable? Do you see this table is grey? Yes, what might be one possible reason this is grey?”

One last thing is to use simple words when communicating with kids. When we talk to them like “You will need your workbook tomorrow. Today’s homework is page 77-84.” but suddenly switches to words like “Resources” and “Assignments” in writing, that brings me back to my initial question: Are these materials meant for the kids or the adults?

Included below are some readings I’ve come across while researching on UX for kids:

If you’ve read this far, thank you for reading, and I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this! Also, feel free to share with me your recommended readings on UX for kids, so I can tell my kid that “Hey look, I’ve homework too!”