Educators are increasingly reliant on a range of software tools to support their teaching practices and engage their students. However, learning to use these tools and integrating them into a classroom environment can be challenging and time-consuming, especially for those without a technical background. With feature-rich classroom software like learning management systems (LMS), educators face a particularly steep learning curve, as they often need to customize aspects of the look-and-feel or functionality of these tools to match their own teaching practices and circumstances.
Customizer is designed to simplify this learning process, letting educators leverage the collective wisdom of their colleagues to discover useful, vetted customizations and seamlessly apply them to their own software setups.
The Customizer platform
Built atop the Canvas LMS, Customizer incorporates a context-aware recommender system for serendipitous discovery of example customizations used by colleagues. It also includes a Try It mode, where educators can interactively experiment with shared customizations in a safe testing environment that mimics the content of their real courses (avoiding unintended student-facing consequences).
Educators can import promising customizations directly into a Canvas course without the need to scour through settings menus or external help forums. Finally, Customizer offers robust tools for authoring and sharing example customizations with others, alongside rationale such as what pedagogical goals they support or how they improve the interface.
Customizer was built through a human-centered design process that began with interviewing K-12 teachers and university instructors, to build an understanding of the challenges they face with customizing their classroom software and to explore possible design directions. These interviews made it clear that most educators preferred to pick up software knowledge via over-the-shoulder learning — i.e., seeing a colleague demonstrate how they customized their software and trying to borrow their strategies.
Through a few rounds of prototyping and usability testing, I designed several tools to support this model of learning directly within a software application and implemented them as features of Customizer, which users install via a lightweight browser extension.
Evaluating Customizer in practice
I planned and conducted a multi-week field deployment of Customizer to gauge how educators would use and perceive its features in real-world contexts. As it turned out, participants found all sorts of creative ways to integrate Customizer into their day-to-day workflows, including for rapidly experimenting with new ideas, gaining confidence to explore LMS features, streamlining their knowledge-sharing routines, and learning at their own pace without bugging others.
Our conference paper about Customizer's design won an award at DIS 2020, and was followed by a further paper at CHI 2022 describing the field deployment and results. Looking to the future, the design ideas behind Customizer also have the potential to generalize well to other types of feature-rich software, such as image/video editing software, website builders, and highly-customizable IDEs.