Are aesthetics important?

On a number of occassions I have been drawn into discussions about the importance (or not, depending on your position) of the aesthetic design of an online distance learning course. Traditionalists might argue that it doesn’t matter how the course is presented as long as the content is of a high quality. It is unquestionable that clear up-to-date evidence-based content is the foundation of a good distance learning course. However, some of the literature would suggest that the aesthetic design of a distance learning course can have a significant impact on a student’s satisfaction and performance.

Parrish (2005) argues that aesthetic design in education promotes engagement with learning. Subconsciously decoding the aesthetics, as we might art or music, prompts a unique emotional response in an individual and this emotional response impacts on their perception of the learning and therefore impacts on the level with which they choose to engage with the learning. He goes on to suggest that if the creators of online learning ignore aesthetic design, they ‘risk promoting practice that could lead to un-engaging, and therefore ineffective, products’ (p. 7).

Miller (2011) reports on a randomised control trial where students were divided into two groups: one group conducted an assessment in an online environment where little consideration had been given to the aesthetic design while the other group conducted the assessment in an online area that had undergone aesthetic design. The findings were that ‘aesthetic design significantly decreased participant cognitive load and increased participant satisfaction, willingness to continue to use, volutary self-assessment time, and task performance’ (p.307). Qualitative data indicated that students using the non-aesthetic assessment felt stressed and rushed, whereas students using the aesthetic assessment did not experience this and also indicated that they felt the design encouraged concentration and motivated them.

Of course, in addition to the academic arguments for aesthetics in online learning, aesthetics also play a big role in the branding of distance learning courses. The use of certain ‘corporate colours’, navigational templates and icons can enhance the learning experience, but also become key identifiers that a distance learning course is associated with a particular organisation. This can impact on re-enrolment of students on further distance learning courses within an organisation – once a student is comfortable with the particular distance learning house style they are more likely to choose that organisation as their place for ongoing distance learning education.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts and opinions on the importance of aesthetics in distance learning and hope that you will leave a comment.


About Cathy Thomas-Varcoe

I have a passion for distance learning and the opportunities it provides for lifelong learning. I have spent the past 11 years focussing on delivering quality distance learning. Drawing on my nursing background, I initially worked for the Royal College of Nursing Institute who ran undergraduate and postgraduate distance learning programmes validated by the University of Manchester and then for The Open University Health and Social Care Faculty. More recently I was a learning solutions consultant for The Open University’s Centre for Learning and Professional Development. In January 2012 I was appointed as the Distance Learning Lead for the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I have been involved in courses from concept to delivery, but the bulk of my work has focussed on writing and conceptualising distance learning courses.
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