As our age grows more reliant on data, questions about how ever growing records of information are stored, organized and secure are taken more seriously. And I mean Weapons of Mass Destruction-level seriously. The global information architecture is a growing concern in a digital arms race, often including actual arms. But you don’t have to go nuclear geopolitics to be affected. The internal information organization of a website, for example, can influence how search engines make sense of it, therefore affecting its ranking in results pages. Humanitarian efforts are also direct beneficiaries of sensible and optimized access to structured information, as the international response to the 2019 Novel CoronaVirus 2019 illustrates, in real time.
In summary: It’s high time you start thinking about learning and organizations as information flows.
In fact: Isn’t learning a way to organize information into one’s brain?
Why does Information need an Architecture?
It can be akin to how people move around in a building. Architecture is the practice of making the flow frictionless and pleasant. It also requires some preconditions. For starters, its design and process must
- optimizes resources
- is sustainable
- is easy to communicate to others
- reflects your core value proposition.
Moving this idea into the information space, swapping buildings with platforms and apps, and people with data, it should become clear how important it is to address issues pertaining to Information Architecture to educational technology. It surely is easy enough to fire a development framework to plug an interface into a database. But will this fast-and-loose design be able to withstand a surge of users, development teams and multiple leadership directions? In short: Is your Information Architecture (IA) an asset for growth and learner success, or a liability?
It is not a theoretical question. It highlights the complexity of the software development and marketing process. It is the main reason why videos, demos and trials may not suffice for a sound procurement decision. From an organizational perspective, it is at the core of operational efficiency. Just like architecture, makeshift operations without regards to the “well-being” of its inhabitants (human and informational) can severely limit the potential for growth, or curtail it outright. For Open Source organizations, giving unrestricted access for everyone to an inscrutable structure is, in the most gentle way to put it, a missed opportunity.
Information Architecture (IA) has another vector of importance. It determines the way in which information from a learner, or user, is captured by the system or organization. The implication is simple. IA has a role in the design of a database as meaningful as in the UI\UX. Given how common it is for both worlds to barely interact in the development of modern applications, it is worth wondering if we are heading towards an Information Architecture crisis. Or if it has been artificially kept at bay thanks to growing computer power, and soon 5G.
And in EdTech, as it is the case of any organization, it bears wondering if the current way in which information flows –in, within and out– serves the purposes of the actual users it is aimed to serve; and if it does so according to the values, mission and vision enshrined on its statements. Great IA also has legal, privacy and ethical benefits.
The structure is the message: How IA affects different areas of a learning organization
From and IA point of view, success depends on the efficiency and sustainability of information capture and flow. This has clear implications on the structure of an organization, and the software development process. Or it should anyway. While the questions often become domain-specific, there are some common starters:
- How do we ensure we capture the right information from humans and other external source?
- How do we preserve it for history?
- How do we draw insight from it?
- How do we secure it?
On the learning organization units, processes and systems
Systems like Enterprise Resource Planners (ERPs) continue to evolve, at least in part by answering these questions. Different areas of an organization have seen the rise of different systems, from sales and marketing to HR and Accounting. (For schools, there is the SIS.) In this sense, the soundness of a platform's AI cannot be measured by its internal consistency alone, but how effectively it flows across areas.
At the end of the day, the IA of the systems, and the areas themselves, exist with one focus at hand: To enhance decision making. This underscores the need for a leadership that makes the most of its overall IA to refine the quality and speed of decisions. Managerial approaches like Balanced Scorecard emphasized the role of these areas by naming them Supporting Business Units, or SBUs. Among them, the most critical SBU for effective IA practices is the Chief Information Office.
The CIO or equivalent role must ensure efficient flow of relevant and high-quality operations between SBUs and with CEO. But it is the latter who bears a more important role, which for now we can define as "Culture": The core message, as well as its formats and the frequency in which it is reinforced.
On the learner experience
A vast body of literature deals with the relationship between usability and IA. In its ideal form, the way information is displayed to the user must reflect the hierarchies and relationships built at the database level. Introducing design elements usually leads to introduce new terminology (Schemes, Contexts, Taxonomies, Metadata) which we will avoid here. Their definitions can be easy to find from reputable sources.
It is at the UX level, which needs both appealing interfaces and well-performing code, where we see the positive effects of great IA in all its glory. The opposite is also true.
- Organizations and hierarchies. Does the visual representation of information display (content) and request (input fields) reflect the structure and relations of the database?
- Labeling: Are the interface and the database flexible and adaptable to a broad set of experiences that encourage a diversity of use?
- Navigation: Whenever different sets of interrelated information display and request are not possible on the same page, how easy and efficient is it to arrive from one page to another? Furthermore, how can pages maximize the amount of information sets displayed without affecting UX?
- Search\Queries: How to minimize the time it takes for a system to provide the user the information they are looking for?
On the architecture of learning applications, Open LMS in particular
For the "agglutinating" role that LMS are meant to play in the new Open EdTech Ecosystem paradigm, IA plays an even larger and more urgent role. Arguable, open source software have the advantage to influence the global evolution of the way we "speak" AI. Or at least the opportunity.
In any case, both open and proprietary software alike can join a global effort for unified IA standards. Organizations like W3C and learning-specific IMS Global provide some starting steps and basic tools. A lot of efforts are still needed to internalize messages regarding the value of IA focus, especially from top-down initiatives.
Understandably, it takes more than one article to underscore the importance of AI in user experience, operational effectiveness, growth and global geopolitics. At least, we hope it sparks conversations regarding the operations and the development processes of EdTech development companies; and the considerations software procurement departments need to make to ensure a sustainably effective purchase.