Learner-Centered Design: Powering the Coming Golden Age of Educational Software

Learners are not just short users. So, while UCD — User-Centered Design — is the dominant theory of HCI — Human-Computer Interaction — software designed from a UCD perspective is not always appropriate for those short users! Those short users have unique needs that well-designed software should address.

Toward recognizing the special needs of learners that User-Centered Design did not address, in 1994, we (Cathie & Elliot and colleagues) proposed an HCI perspective we dubbed — ready for this — Learner-Centered Design (LCD). We identified three needs that we felt were unique to learners — needs that LCD should address:

  • Growth: Learners change over time; that’s just the very definition of learning! But the software that students use in September, at the start of the school year is the same software that they use in June at the end of the school year. Students change; software doesn’t. Why can’t software that is meant for learners, also change and thus better accommodate those learners?
  • Diversity: Learners are all different but, by and large, within their profession, professionals tend to be homogeneous. For example, accountants, almost by definition, all have the same sorts of knowledge and skills, interests and practices. Sure, there is diversity within the accounting profession, but the diversity in a typical third grade classroom trumps the diversity of groups of professionals such as accountants. Why can’t software that is meant for learners, accommodate the diversity that is a hallmark of K–12 classrooms?
  • Motivation: Learners have wavering motivation. Indeed, "wavering" is a gentle way of saying that learners would, more likely than not, prefer playing games, interacting with their friends, etc. While a boss might be able to command his or her employees to learn how to use a piece of software, commanding children usually has a little less impact — to say the least! Why can’t software that is meant for learners, accommodate their tendency towards wavering motivation?

LCD sounds like a great idea, right? Learners do absolutely have the unique needs identified above. But alas, LCD has not caught on — until now.  

Today, for example, we see educational software being developed that does adapt to the user — oops, excuse us — to the learner. While we are not big fans, for pedagogical reasons, of "personalized learning", personalized learning is most definitely an example of Learner-Centered Design in that it does adapt to the growth in learning that short users exhibit. And, addressing the wavering motivation of learners, we are seeing educational apps that are visually more interesting (e.g., BrainPOP’s software) and game-oriented apps (e.g., Kahootz) that are more engaging to the "kids these days".

Why is LCD catching on now in 2016 while it didn’t in 1994? We see several factors at play here:

  • Demand: Just as smartphone users employ multiple apps on a regular basis, as 1-to-1 truly becomes the new normal in K–12 classrooms, more software is going to be needed to power all-the-time, everywhere learning.
  • Differentiation: Companies can differentiate their educational software by showing how their apps have been specifically designed based on the principles of LCD.
  • Learning Analytics: Only now, as more learning environments are becoming cloud-based, tracking what students are doing is relatively straightforward. In addition to using those data to target ads to the students, we can now target their learning activities, too.
  • Zorch: Manufacturing computers has been obeying Moore’s Law now for approximately 50 years. The power of a computer doubles every 24 months or so — but the cost remains more or less the same. No one other manufacturing industry has a Moore’s Law — sad to say. Today, then, the raw compute cycles that can be devoted to the interface part of a software application has become more than plentiful.

But these are early days — very early days — in identifying the principles and practices of Learner-Centered Design. The learning analytics powering personalized learning systems are a first, and obvious, step: Make direct instruction more effective. But direct instruction teaches kids when the War of 1812 was or who is buried in Grant’s Tomb — direct instruction doesn’t help teach kids how to "figure things out," how to engage in entrepreneurial thinking and solve problems. As techies, though, we are ever optimistic; we fully expect the Golden Age of Educational Software is in the works! 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at

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