How to Find Your Way in the World of Online Learning

Leonard Houx
Apr 5, 2019 · 17 min read
Image/map of outer space
Image/map of outer space
Each one of us, then, should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches; each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows. — Gaston Bachelard¹

Great online learning — indeed, great online web design — stands on the fundament of effective orientation.*

Online marketing researcher Flint McLaughlin found that, for users to simply remain on a webpage, a webpage must orient users within seven seconds.² Specifically, it must answer three questions:

  1. Where am I?
  2. What can I do?
  3. Why should I do it?

Orientation is knowing your position (and potential positions) in relation to your surroundings. In the following essay, I hope to show the critical nature of orientation in online education; demonstrate why we need it more; and look to analysis done of the physical environment for lessons that we can apply to online learning.

Why orientation?

Well-considered orientation has the capacity to make our online students’ work more pleasurable, meaningful and effective — and we need it because we ask so much more of our students than the average online user, specifically in the following two ways.

Firstly, online education, by it’s very essence, requires students to think, to learn. However, user studies show that the more a website demands users to think, the more likely users are to leave. Hence the title of the UX classic Don’t Make me Think.³ So the need to reduce friction through better orientation becomes even more critical.

Secondly, we want online students to progress. When you go on Amazon to buy a book, the sale is the terminus. Amazon may work to ensure you circle back and repeat this journey as much and often as possible, but moving in a circle is not progression. Nothing — no one, at least — advances. In thoughtfully designed online learning, however, students should not meet a terminus in a single online activity but experience each activity as a moment in a larger, continued, personal progression.

Because of this, we in online learning need orientation even more than other sectors.

The Image of the City

One of the people who expanded our understanding of the orientation process most is the former MIT professor of city planning, Kevin Lynch.

In 1954, Lynch and fellow Professor of City Planning, Gyorgy Kepes, obtained a $85,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study the “relation of the individual to the urban physical environment as directly perceived by the various senses”.⁷ For the next five years, Lynch and Kepes used the grant to study people’s experiences finding their way in urban areas. They were interested in how people remembered the places they lived and were able to recount them, both by explaining and by drawing from memory. Lynch and Kepes wanted to understand what places people found easiest to remember, the ease with which they could form their own cognitive map of them. They called this ease its “legibility” or “imageability”.

Map from Lynch’s initial study
Map from Lynch’s initial study

Lynch and Kepes chose three urban areas: Jersey City, Downtown Los Angeles and Downtown Boston. They investigated the imageability of these places through photographs, field notes, data collection and, most importantly, interviews. In these interviews, they asked people to describe where these areas and to draw maps of them. Lynch and Kepes completed their grant with the study entitled Perceptual Forms of the City.⁸ A year later, Lynch summarised their findings in his ground breaking work The Image of the City.⁹

Book cover of Lynch’s The Image of the City.
Book cover of Lynch’s The Image of the City.

Lynch found imageability to be comprised of three elements: identity, structure, and meaning. Together, these qualities make imaginable places: places that people can remember, understand and navigate. And they are places in which people prefer to live, places where they feel like they are somewhere.


People want to know where they are. This is as true online as off and signage plays a critical role: the street signs and house numbers, the site logos and page headings. But identity is more. It’s a feeling, a tone; it’s something that becomes a part of us. For Lynch, identity is “the extent to which a person can recognise or recall a place as being distinct from other places — as having a vivid, or unique, or at least a particular, character of its own.”¹⁰ This is Lynch’s first characteristic of an imaginable city.

In Lynch’s interviews, he found Boston’s Back Bay left a strong sense of its identity with its palette of brick and copper, Victorian proportions and wide, tree-lined avenues. The experience is vivid and unique enough that you know you are in the Back Bay and not, for example, the North End or Fenway-Kenmore and you remember it as a unique place.

Boston’s Back Bay
Boston’s Back Bay
Boston’s Back Bay

Places with identity — vibrant, uncommon, memorable places — make the “imaginable city” possible. When you can a place as having an identity, you can begin to see its structure (how it fits together) and sense its meaning (its relation to you). You feel surer of who you are; as Lynch writes, “I am here” supports “I am.”¹¹

Without identity, the city becomes unimaginable. Everywhere is nowhere.

Imagine you are lost in a foreign city, you look for something to guide you: a landmark, a street sign, a vista. You find none. At best, you can track back, ask for help, or “screen” for something recognisable. An experience like this can be frightening. Without any clues or landmarks, a place can seem endless, disorienting, and in turn you may feel frustrated, lonely, vulnerable, threatened, perhaps frantic. Noone or nothing to reach out to.

Identity-less places can make you feel mad. Many expressions we use for madness are based on being lost: lost the plot, at sea, can’t find bearings, lost as last year’s Easter egg.

Often, though, you can be in a place lacking in identity yet not lost. One of Lynch’s interviewees said of Los Angeles:

It’s as if you were going somewhere for a long time, and when you got there you discovered there was nothing there, after all.¹²

The i-5 highway in Los Angeles
The i-5 highway in Los Angeles
The i-5 highway in Los Angeles

There is a loneliness in such identity-less places; as you are nowhere, you feel, perhaps, you are no-one.

Online, it is much easier to arrive somewhere unfamiliar. When a web page lacks identity, you can be left feeling unsure as to whether you should be on that page. You may search through the title, the breadcrumb trail, the url, the subheadings in search of something that may contextualise where you are.

You may choose to leave that webpage by backtracking to some page further up the hierarchy. Just as if, in a city, you’d taken a wrong turn and reversed back, hoping to return to somewhere more familiar.

In researching how people navigate online, researchers at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card developed an account they call “information foraging theory”.¹³ They found we behave online like our foraging ancestors who would continually adapt their plans against the constraints and clues. Searching for information online is much the same. It is less like following a clear, laid-out path and more like following a scent.

Users decide whether a scent is the right scent quickly and ruthlessly. These decisions are almost immediate— quick, shallow, visceral. Stephen Krug calls it the “Big Bang Theory of Web Design”.

If it’s not clear to me what I’m looking at in the first few seconds, interpreting everything else on the page is harder, and the chances are greater that I’ll misinterpret something and get frustrated.

But if I do “get it,” I’m much more likely to correctly interpret everything I see on the page, which greatly improves my chances of having a satisfying, successful experience.¹⁴

Websites with strong identities feel confident, honest, clear. Consider, for example, how The New York Times’ distinguishes page types, balancing similarity and difference, creating a stronger sense of identifiability and place. The first page is an update from their education section.

Standard content page in New York Times
Standard content page in New York Times
Standard piece from New York Times’ education section

Next is an example of one of their “interactive” articles from their arts section. The header size and logo, the text column widths, the colour scheme, and the typefaces are the same — an overarching aesthetic that lets you know you’re still reading the New York Times. But where the education update’s feature image was aligned with the text column, the interactive article’s featured image is now a full bleed which changes as the user scrolls; and where the education update’s text was evenly spaced, the interactive article brings in a greater mix of spacing.

A feature piece from the New York Times’.
A feature piece from the New York Times’.

Does your online learning feel like the equivalent of nowheresville? Lynch’s work reminds us that identity in places comprises not just some binary (I know where I am vs I don’t know where I am) but a spectrum of vivid uniqueness wherein we can find ourselves.


Structure helps us find things more easily. Yet structure does so much more: it helps us understand a place — its contours, its rhythms, its movements. This is Lynch’s second characteristic of an imaginable city.

Map of Manhattan
Map of Manhattan
Map of Manhattan

In The Image of the City Lynch defines structure as a “spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and to other objects”¹⁵. It answers the question “where can I go?” Indeed, it answers “where can I go?” and connects it with the answer to “where am I?”. And from these two questions, a map is drawn.

Structure brings a higher order of knowledge. Lynch writes

An ordered environment may serve as a broad frame of reference, an organiser of activity or belief or knowledge. On the basis of a structural understanding of Manhattan, for example, one can order a substantial quantity of facts and fancies about the nature of the world we live in.¹⁶

Effective structures are easy to comprehend. Consider one facet of Lynch’s Manhattan example: a walk through Midtown Manhattan. Knowing its grid structure and naming conventions you know where you will end up and, roughly, how long it will take to get there. So if you are on the corner of 8th Avenue and West 54th Street and you want to walk two blocks North and two blocks East, you can assume that this will take you roughly eight minutes and you will arrive at 10th Avenue and West 56th Street.

Effective structures also expose spaces. Chicago’s lake-front enhances the structure of Chicago because you can see so much of Chicago from there. It “gives you an intuition of the size of the city, and how it all fits together.”¹⁷

In a well structured city, you feel safer and you feel more connected to it. For Lynch, this is because you can form a clear mental model or “environmental image” of it.

A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security. He [sic] can establish an harmonious relationship between himself and the outside world. This is the obverse of the fear that comes with disorientation; it means that the sweet sense of home is strongest when home is not only familiar but distinctive as well.¹⁸

When cities lack a clear structure, they become less imaginable. They become more difficult to navigate and identify and they feel vaster, more dangerous, more misleading. You may struggle to know which direction to go and may even become detached from your surroundings.

Among unstructured cities, the most dramatic example for Lynch was Jersey City:

To the usual formlessness of space and heterogeneity of structure that mark the blighted area of any American city… is added the complete confusion of an uncoordinated street system.¹⁹

The result was clear, the city in its residents’ minds was murky, difficult to imagine:

None of the respondents had anything like a comprehensive view of the city in which they had lived for many years.²⁰

Map of Jersey City from the Image of the City

To understand that places without structure contribute to a general malaise and confusion, makes us ask: what is the equivalent experience online? What we soon find is that moving through sites with a poor structure can be just as dismal, although much easier to leave.

Here are three ways your online learning can become Jersey City:

  1. You give too many options. If there are too many options and no hierarchy or organisational scheme, learners will struggle to hold the pathways in their working memory. The higher cognitive load can impair their executive function making students less likely to select anything at all. Often, we see the “too much” type of navigation in “content dump” style online modules.
  2. You give too few options. When online learning is too restrictive, students can bring less of themselves to their learning and they can feel trapped. Like they have found themselves in a cul-de-sac. Cognitive load theory has shown how well-placed choices can expand a student’s engagement and even reduce their cognitive load. Unfortunately, we too often see the “too few options” in the “text and next” style of SCORM packages.
  3. You’re creating the wrong image. It’s clear and consistent; the problem is it’s creating the wrong image. “Wrong” in the sense that the orientation disengages, discourages or misleads. Think of hub-and-spoke course pages that don’t indicate any order in which activities should be completed. The order is clear; the choice is not.

In each of these scenarios, your students learn less. They do less, process content less meaningfully, study less effectively, and leave sooner.

Canvas VLE by Instructure: content organised around content types, not any instructional design
Canvas VLE by Instructure: content organised around content types, not any instructional design
Canvas VLE by Instructure: content organised around content types, not any instructional design

It’s not hard to find examples of any of these in online learning. The image below is a module in the Canvas VLE platform. Can you understand from looking at this page what the teaching is like? Could you measure the shape of your journey? Perhaps if you were on the home page or the syllabus section you could get a clearer sense, but from this view it is very difficult to form a picture of your studies.

Professor of Marketing, Flint McLaughlin explains the importance of structure online as a struggle for clarity:

The chief enemy of forward momentum is confusion… The chief way to you can defeat this enemy is by clearly telling them what they can do there.²¹

A great example of clear structure is the site, 2013 winner of the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award. The site holds a broad range of information from various departments and serves a wide audience. With all this complexity, the designers needed to ensure that it would not overwhelm users and it could make navigation painless and efficient. Consider this page, Apply for Universal Credit.

  • The breadcrumb shows the site structure in a simple, three-level hierarchy.
  • Right-hand side panels give me alternative options to learn more about the topic or pursue related topics.
  • The main action, applying for universal credit, is clearly titled and has a clear call to action (“Start now”).
  • If I still have questions, I can phone the right department directly.
Screenshot of site
Screenshot of site
Screenshot of site

Structure makes content easier to understand because it puts into context. Without clear context, facts become harder to remember and less meaningful because they don’t connect with anything. The Harvard educational psychologist David Ausubel explained that this is because knowledge works in structures of information and that learning therefore is a process of assimilation wherein we integrate new structures with old ones.²²

Example of concept map: knowledge works in structures of information
Example of concept map: knowledge works in structures of information
Example of concept map: knowledge works in structures of information

You experience this when you read something about a topic you have no background in. For example, if I were to read an article about Chinese pottery in imperial China, because I lack any knowledge of imperial China, Chinese art or pottery.

For example, in a 2002 study in the journal Memory and Cognition, researchers found that prior knowledge was the most reliable predictor of reading efficiency — more than working memory span, age or interest.²³

Another study found that students performed better in free recall tests when their background knowledge had helped them organise the content into categories.²⁴ Ausubel calls this process of organising information “superordinating”.

The importance of structure is not lost on Information Architects, savvy online marketers and Ausubelians. Yet Lynch’s work reminds us of how deeply a clear structure shapes our mental models of a place (be it physical or virtual) and our sense of well-being and inspires us to think more deeply about structure. Education is an undertaking that reconfigures our personal pathways, opening up new possibilities. We should create education that shows this sense of structure, this sense of “where can I go?”.


For you to want to be somewhere, that place needs to mean something to you. It needs to have meaning. This is Lynch’s third characteristic of an imaginable city: meaning. But what do we mean by “meaning”?

For Lynch, meaning is a relation, a relation of the built environment to you. To your shared values and associations. Lynch uses the example of Chatham Village in Pittsburgh,

Not great architecture at all. But by this particular choice of symbols, the use of brick, the copying of an English style, the designer was speaking, maybe unconsciously, to many symbolic meanings: of home, of comfort, of safety, of family life.²⁵

Chatham Village

Meaning is something we construct socially and experience sensorially, yet, and above all, project internally. It’s subjective. Yet we experience these meanings as belonging to the places themselves, as empirical, despite the fact we can all have such different perceptions of a place. Lynch gives the example of the various meanings the Manhattan skyline can have:

[It] may stand for vitality, power, decadence, mystery, congestion, greatness, or what you will, but in each case that sharp picture crystallizes and reinforces the meaning.²⁶

But this is why, in places, meaning wins our attention, our interest, our sympathy: because it connects with our lives and aspirations.²⁷ Like a good story with a likeable hero, we identify with meaningful places, they draw us in and enlist us in their cause.

The greatest danger to meaning for Lynch is not the place with negative meanings but the places with no meaning at all. Jersey City, partly as a result of its lack of identity and structure, lacked meaning, leaving residents with little to say about it:

The question: “What first comes to mind with the words ‘Jersey City’?,” so easy to answer for Bostonians, proved to be a difficult one. Again and again, subjects repeated that “nothing special” came to mind, that the city was hard to symbolize.²⁸

In online learning, many of us experience meaninglessness far colder than anything in Jersey City. You see it in the stock photographs, the technical descriptions of errors (“504 error”), the technical jargon around activities (“SCORM object”). Most of all, you see it in the failure to make content relevant.

Are stock photos such as these of people enjoying elearning relevant? No. And what is she doing? Who is she looking at? And w
Are stock photos such as these of people enjoying elearning relevant? No. And what is she doing? Who is she looking at? And w
Are stock photos such as these of people enjoying elearning relevant? No. And what is she doing? Who is she looking at? And why are her pupils so white?

Psychologists mark meaning as an inherent psychological need.²⁸ People need to feel that information has some connection to them. Experiencing this sense of connection leads to “health and well-being” and not having it leads to “pathology and ill-being”.

This is critical, they found, for all the many activities in life that are not intrinsically motivating. Not surprisingly, then, researchers found that students reported feeling more motivated when (face-to-face) teachers explained the relevance of their topic to students.²⁹ Psychology Professor Robin Roberson writes,

Through the years I have learned that students recognise how much effort it can take to provide relevance, and they see the effort… as care… Relatedness provides relevance to students first via the developing relationship between teacher and student — this piques students’ interest in what the teacher has to say.³⁰

In one study, researchers found that relevance was the main criterion by which the students assessed their studies.³¹ By “relevant” or “meaningful” the students meant that the teaching felt concrete, was connected with them, to their work and their their future careers:

After having the lecture, we have to do some practical exercises. If we are unable to work it out, we can raise questions. I think I can learn from this practical way of teaching.³²

The opposite of “relevant” for the students interviewed was teaching that starts off too theoretically:

If the content is abstract or difficult, we may not be able to understand and we all just sit there. We may not be able to ask questions as we are not sure about what we got. We hesitate as we are afraid of asking inappropriate questions.³³

The abstract content feels irrelevant because the students can’t trace, can’t orient the ideas back to their own lives. In Ausubel’s terms, we can take this as having too many high-level concepts without any sub-concepts to include within them: like an article with a heading and no body text. In Lynch’s terms, we take this as a kind of intellectual Jersey City — as content lacking meaning.

Where are you?

Identity. Structure. Meaning. Kevin Lynch opened the eyes of city planners with these three ideas to a more thoughtful perspective on our experience of the city.

The discourses around learning technology are maturing. We have moved, to a great extent, from simplistic pseudo-intellectual conversations about affordances to richer conversations about student experience, effective learning, retention, and ethics. In other words, from technology to students. Perhaps in the future we will talk more about this: the overall shape, the overall feeling and journey of learning online and — perhaps — it could sound — at moments — like Kevin Lynch.

As a place, how would your students describe your online learning? Is it be a place they can imagine? A place they can move within and from? A place worth visiting?

* With warm thanks to Caireen O’Hagan for her comments and ideas for this essay.

¹ Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space trans. Maria Jolas (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992), 11.

² McLaughlin, Flint. Clarity Trumps Persuasion (Jacksonville, FL:, 2009).

³ Krug, Steven. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (San Francisco: New Riders, 2014).

⁷ Kepes, Gregory; Lynch, Kevin. “Draft Proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation for Perceptual Form in the City,” 4 December 1953, box 2, Kepes Papers, AAA. See also Rowan, J. (2009). The Redevelopment of “Human and Social Values in Modern City Life”: Jane Jacobs and the Rockefeller Foundation. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from

⁸ Kepes, Gregory; Lynch, Kevin. Perceptual Form of the City (New York, NY, The Rockefeller Foundation, 1959). Retrieved March 19, 2019, from

⁹ Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960).

¹⁰ Lynch, Kevin. Good City Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968) 131. ‘The extent to which a person can recognise or recall a place as being distinct from other places — as having a vivid, or unique, or at least a particular, character of its own.’

¹¹ Ibid., 132.

¹² Lynch, The Image of the City, 41.

¹³ Pirolli, Peter; Card, Stuart. Information Foraging (Palo Alto, CA: Xerox PARC, 1999).

¹⁴ Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 89.

¹⁵ Lynch, The Image of the City, 8.

¹⁶ Ibid. 20.

¹⁷ Lynch, Kevin What makes a good city? General theory of city form; a new try at an old subject (Holst-Lezing: Eindhoven University of Technology, 1980) 15.

¹⁸ Ibid. 4–5.

¹⁹ Lynch, The Image of the City, 25

²⁰ Ibid. 29.

²¹ McLaughlin. Clarity Trumps Persuasion, 9.

²² Ausubel, D. P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267–272.

²³ Miller, L. M. S., Cohen, J. A., & Wingfield, A. (2006). Contextual knowledge reduces demands on working memory during reading. Memory and Cognition, 34(6), 1355–1367.

²⁴ Rawson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (2002). How does background information improve memory for text content? Memory and Cognition, 30(5), 768–778.

²⁵ Ryan, R. M., & Desi, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Faciliation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

²⁶ Frymier, A. B., & Schulman, G. . (1995). “What’s in it for me?” Increasing content relevance to enhance students’ motivation. Communication Education, 44, 40–50.

²⁷ Roberson, R. (2013). Helping students find relevance. Retrieved March 7, 2018, from

²⁸ Kember, D., Ho, A., & Hong, C. (2008). The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 9(3), 249–263.

²⁹ Ibid, 254.

³⁰ Ibid.

Leonard Houx

Written by

Director at the eLearning Network and Senior Instructional Designer at Cass Business School

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade