Is Desire2Learn search really this ineffective?

I was reading Jacob Nielson’s new research on how College students use the web and this little tidbit popped out at me.

Students are strongly search dominant and turn to search at the smallest provocation in terms of difficult navigation.

Now there is no doubt that students turn to search on Google a lot. However, research byAlison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg (pdf) of the University of Washington’s Information School show that, while Google and Wikipedia are important sources of information for students, many will begin their search with the resources given to them by their instructor.

Almost every student in the sample turned to course readings—not Google—first  for course-related research assignments.

Students are turning first to the content given to them by their instructors. As more instructors at our institution use the LMS as a content management system for their course notes and presentations, it seems logical to assume that students are turning to the search function in the LMS to find the content they need.

This got me thinking about search in our LMS, Desire2Learn. To be honest, I haven’t really paid much attention to the content search in D2L. When we work with faculty on course content, we spend time talking about how to structure content in modules and topics, but not a lot of time considering how to design our content to be search friendly within the LMS. But according to both the Neilson and Head & Eisenberg studies, perhaps we should be paying more attention to designing for search.

Or so I thought, until I dug in under the hood and checked out search in D2L.

Turns out, we really can’t do much to make content search friendly in D2L because the D2L search only searches for content based on the title of the content. Search does not look within the body of content to find search terms. I could forgive D2L if it looked only in the body of HTML documents and didn’t index the content of other document types, like PDF, Word or Powerpoint files (in which case I would have another fine piece of ammo to use to rally against using those types of file formats in the first place), but to not even search the content of an HTML document makes the search engine useless.

I may be missing something here. Perhaps there is some setting that can be tweaked to enable a full text search in D2L (and please, if you know of anything like that, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments), but this seems like a pretty big piece of underdeveloped functionality. If students really do rely on search to the degree that research suggests, then a robust search function that will scour the course content for the exact piece of information a student is looking for should be an important feature of the LMS.


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out


8 thoughts on “Is Desire2Learn search really this ineffective?

  1. I reckon there's a difference here about what students expect and what they've learnt from a failed attempts. There may well be an expectation that they can search but they've learnt that it does't work.

    As a D2L client, I'm going to raise this as an issue with their helpdesk. Let's see if we can generate enough demand for them to prioritise this issue.

    1. I wonder what their reaction would be. Would they immediately assume that search didn't work, or would they assume that they used the wrong search terms and try again? At which point, would they then get confused. I mean, I can kind of hear their internal monologue saying "I remember reading this early in the course. Why can't I find it?" and getting frustrated and confused. Anytime you have a frustrated and confused student, you have a barrier to learning imo.

  2. Clint, Have you seen the search engine Desire2Learn has utilized for the Learning Object Repository? It is rolling out to more and more elements of the platform. We really do see search as a key aspect of the system and finding content was the first priority.

    1. No, I haven't yet seen the LOR search, John. Is it something that students would be able to use to find content in their course, or something that instructors would use to find Learning Objects?

      I'd be interested to know just how much students use or rely on the search engine in their courses. I mean, we have some courses with hundreds of documents and pages. I would suspect students would find a robust search engine useful in that instance.

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