Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Questions for Professional Designers

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 27, 2001

I have several agendas in this long note. One is to make clear the concept of learning content as delivered through multiple formats. The other is to comment on the discussion of traditional distance learning research as compared to current methodologies. The two topics dovetail nicely into the discussion of the 'costs of producing an online course'. What I want to show is that the very question, by its inherent appear to old theory, no longer makes sense in the current context.

Call it a Kuhn moment.

From: John Hibbs Quoting someone else:

PDF? Only if it's designed for students to print out themselves. A PDF document is a lousy reading experience on the computer screen....they're hard to navigate and hard to read.

I have to disagree as I find reading a pdf document quite nice often without all the distortions that come with different versions of Word, different platforms and html tagging changes. I think the small effort to put all Word documents into a PDF is worth the OPTIONs which I think we should provide students.

PDF should not be used for reading on screen, for a variety of reasons. See

If this is a document to be used on-screen, I would suggest re-editing it.

This part mystifies me. Are you saying in the creation of a document you want studied, you would write it one way for a reader viewing on a screen and another way for a reader collecting and reading in print. Help me out here. This one is a true mystery

Short answer: yes

People's reading habits are different on-screen than in print. Jakob Nielsen (cited above) has a number of articles on this; other literature exists; see http://www.downes. ca/cgi-bin/links/view.cgi?keyword=main&concept=usa bility

For example: a person reading a printed page will look at the pictures first; a person looking at a computer screen will look at the text first. Also: people can tolerate longer paragraphs on the printed page than they can on the screen. This should be no surprise; people read newspapers differently than they read books or billboards. We don't even know yet what people will tolerate when reading from their cell phone or PDA, but no doubt it will be different again.

To hark back to a previous argument: items like this explain why a lot of old distance learning theory does not apply in an online environment. But I digress.

Different versions of the material should be created for each viewing environment. The usual way to to this is to mark up documents using XML and then to use this base to create a different version of the document for each application. It is worth noting that PDF makes this impossible, since the main purposes of PDF formats are to (a) 'lock in' page formatting, and (b) encrypt and lock content.

One part would include ONLY the parts which need to be read on screen, and would be HTML. The part which had to be printed could be PDF.

Well, I just can't figure out (for myself only, as vs for all the students) which part would be read on screen and which on a printed piece of paper. That's like saying we have to decide in advance if the reader is in an airplane, at home or in a library and then create the piece depending on the reading situation. Help please?

The analogy isn't bad, actually. Consider, for example, information on aircraft safety. On an airplane, we want it to be short, easy to read, and well-diagrammed, since people may need to read the document very quickly. At home, we are usually willing to add more detail, such as examples and historical information, which places the information in a context. In a library, we are more likely to be doing professional research and so would want detailed studies of egress routes, simulation results, and further background research. Each viewing, both in presentation mode (card, newspaper article, textbook) and in context (emergency, leisure, research) creates a demand for different information.

But WAIT! Rather than make students print 75+ pages of paper - with content which is meant to be printed - why not make it a study guide which the students purchase from your bookstore along with the text? Save them the printing and headaches. 75 pages is a study guide by any name you choose. Call it what it really is, and keep it in the medium it was designed for.

I don't see any problem with that, except if pdf format they might elect to print themselves for convenience reasons; or they might go to Kinkos and get it. Or you might mail to them. Certainly, I would have ALL those options available.

Having students buy a pre-printed study guide is a good idea if they are near a location where it is sold. Requiring that they wait 6-8 weeks for the material to be mailed detracts from the immediacy of the online environment (studies show people expect a much quicker response time in an online environment) so a downloadable version should be available.

That said, in my opinion, if the content is 75 pages long, then it is probably too long, and won't be useful except in certain contexts.

I will skip point (b), though similar points could be made.

The basic issue again arises - if you want something to work on the web, change its form and content to that which works on the web.

This is the part that truly troubles me Al. You mean all those years I have been constructing my international marketing class I have to change the content? and the "form". To what? How? Can you give me a specific example of how you have done this - tell me about a class that has different "form and content" on the web as vs. on f-2-f. That one I honestly don't understand. Help please.

Let me give you an example: WebReference http://www.web

This is an example of an online learning site that doesn't even show on the radar screen of most online learning designers. Yet it is very effective, very popular (50K visitors+ per day) and very well designed. A person could learn all about website design and development using this site alone; no need for formal studies or courses.

The front page is designed for repeat visitors (naturally) - if you are new to the site, your best bet is to look at the site map, located at htt p:// There you should notice listings divided by topics. Click on a topic and you'll see listings that vary according to topic. In addition to being a reference library, WebReference contains tutorials, access to experts, discussion, and more. More to the point, you can use WebReference in different ways depending on your need at the time. Some examples:

  • as a traditional set of online courses: follow the 'tutorials' links and step through the instructions and examples
  • as a reference tool: look up by topic or do a search
  • as a form of continuous professional development: subscribe to the appropriate newsletter and read the articles
  • as a community: exchange opinions, trade scripts, etc., in their discussion area

Now the point is: no face-to-face class could ever be structured this way. Because face-to-face is inherently linear and structured, it could include the tutorials and nothing more. But by structuring the tutorial contents so that they draw from - and indeed are a part of - the reference tool (and the newsletter, and the community), a variety of study modes is available. In my opinion, this makes WebReference a much more useful online learning site than a traditional class 'converted' to web format.

It's less obvious, but WebReference is structured to allow for different modes of delivery as well. There is a web WebReference, an email WebReference, an RSS WebReference, and more. All the information is drawn from the same database, but formatted differently according to output device.

Now back to my digression: I could be wrong, but it seems to me there is nothing about this in traditional distance learning research or literature. So far as I can tell, the vast bulk of this research literature is devoted to the topic of conducting classes over alternative media. Yes, the literature talks about the need for different content and content formats for different modes of delivery (telephone, ITV, discussion list). But it doesn't really talk about using the same body of information in different contexts. Certainly, I have seen no discussion in the literature which merges these two things: multiple modes and multiple contexts. I could be wrong, of course (it's really hard to keep up with the literature when the authors don't post it online), and would welcome any correction on this point.

I might add, too, that WebReference - typical of such online learning sites - is dynamic. Old material is continuously being updated, so that if you took the RSS tutorial (as I did) last year, you can be notified of updates, changes to examples, new versions of RSS, etc. The learning doesn't stop with the tutorial; the tutorial is just a tool to get you up to speed quickly. See http://business-times,2276,3341,00.html for more discussion on this.

If you have lots of print documents which are designed to be used in print, and you're not going to re-design and re-think them, than make them part of a study guide the student buys from the bookstore.

Could you buy a dynamic, multi-mode searchable reference library from the bookstore? I thought not.

Well, I agree that putting all your stuff in an ORGANIZED manner causes you to think carefully about re-design and re-think...but surely that is what good professors do all the time anyway. Yes, I agree that once you have gone through this major headache of ORGANIZATION, you will have re-designed and re-thought the course? But the monetary cost for doing same should NOT be charged to "distance education". It is a "cost" that should be underwritten every year. Aren't all (good) classes each year re-thought? re-designed?

You see, there are multiple levels of organization in any field of study. Let me identify two, to make the point intuitive and obvious (I imagine some research 'discovered' this, but I'll dispense with a reference anyways):

  1. Organization by level of difficulty
  2. Organization by sub-topic

Thus, for example, you could have Beginner-HTML, Intermediate-HTML, Expert-HTML, Beginner-Perl, etc. Each of these subtopics breaks down into additional topics. Mastery of a given topic, at a given level, is defined by a set of outcomes (or learning objectives); and thus we have another layer of organization.

Now in my view, learning design involves at minimum the creation of a multi-dimensional matrix incorporating each of these divisions (I know this is researched somewhere; it is the model that NAIT, for example, is using in the design of its e-business program. I was fortunate enough to review and make comments on their course structure and organization at this level).

After this process, you should end up with a whole bunch of little boxes, each with a topic, level of expertise, and set of learning objectives (I'm glossing a bit here, but only to leave the point clear). To each box, learning material, examples, diagrams (and whatever) are added. Not all the material that is added will be used in all cases; HTML for lawyers, for example, may differ from HTML for engineers.

At this point, course design - if you want a course - begins. An appropriate selection of boxes (preferably on the same topic and at the same level (but not necessarily - it could be a survey course)) is linked together. Perhaps some unifying elements are added - overall course objectives, a term project, etc. (Which should actually be elements in the smaller boxes, identified as a theme (or in web parlance, a 'tour', but I digress).

But why, having gone to all this trouble, would you then create a course that can only be used one way, in one mode of delivery, in one context? That's absurd! Better to leave your learning content as (unformatted) elements in a database, and then create courses, reference libraries, etc., as (glossing again) database enquiries, adding or excluding formatting and content as the situation warrants.

In an ideal world (which, sadly, we do not inhabit), each box is maintained by an expert who continually edits, modifies, and otherwise improves the content. These experts may live in different parts of the world and work for institutions. In some cases teams of experts will work on a box. One expert may work on several boxes. The list of topics, their organization, and the maintenance of other elements would be the ongoing task of standards bodies, professional organizations, researchers and other experts. Nothing is static: there is a continuous flow of changes. This becomes the common core of materials used by academic institutions and corporations around the world, studied by individuals on their own or with the guidance and tutelage of learning facilitators (who also add local content, additional examples, etc).

The designer would accept that the bulk of the text materials would be uploaded to a bulletin board, of a kind we use at Franklin - free - (which allow threaded discussions and easy text uploads.)

Why? Print them and sell them to the student. SMALL volumes of text are indeed appropriate for that which John suggests...but not near-books.

Are your "fighting" the idea of threaded discussions on a bulletin board? If the text materials go on the board, doesn't this allow easy snipping, cut and paste, circulating ideas, arguments, discovery? Once you print them you are back to a one-to-many concept - far, far, far different than what Guy Bensusuan is so proud of. (I think Guy argues that once you post a topic, it gets "torn up", dissected, tossed around...the "re-design" "rethink" comes from the hashing of the document)...(not unlike what I am doing with this response to Al Powell?)

I think people should stop thinking of learning materials as 'documents' that can be "uploaded" or "printed" as a whole. This type of thinking treats learning more like books and less like a database. Think database. Think of uploading as uploading database elements. Think of printing as a structured database enquiry in a certain output format.

Move beyond paper. Even if you use paper, move beyond paper in your thinking. Move beyond linear. Even if you use linear, move beyond linear in your thinking.

a) - how many hours will it take to accomplish the uploading and a reasonably navigatable site?

See, it's not even a reasonable question any more.

This is the thing with paradigm shifts. Old questions no longer make sense, because they incorporate the precents of the old paradigm. Just as old theories cannot be (as Mauri suggested) "reformulated" because the old theories contain built-in presuppositions. By analogy: we did not "reformulate" the theory of phlogiston; we discarded it. We cannot answer "How much phlogiston does a fire emit" because the question simply does not make sense.

From my point of view, a lot of the discussion on DEOS does not make sense because it is firmly rooted in old theories of learning design which in today's environment must be discarded (as people, as promised, introduce and describe these theories I may try to show how the current environment invalidates them).

Gawd. HERE is the reason that this group should push to involve the f-2-f instructors...Following the "let's just print last year's study guide is a whole lot easier than taking a threaded discussion on each and every portion of the study guide and posting a summary of THAT outcome. Is the "significant difference" that the majority of f-2-f teachers are lazy and the majority of distance education teachers are hard working?

Well - it is different, to be sure, but the explanation is not found in the fact that teachers are "lazy." I think that an annual review and improvement of each part of each course - online or offline, traditional or non-traditional - is a task no institution could afford. And moreover, it makes no sense to have a thousand separate reformulating and improvement exercises, each involving one professor, being conducted when we could have one being conducted by a thousand professors (or more likely, three or four each conducted by 250 professors).

Any media product has three characteristics: Good, Fast, and Cheap. You can pick any TWO of these for your project.

The truism is probably true. The way to escape the truism is to stop thinking of online learning as 'media products'.

I think that is very true for a "media" product. Those great Budweiser ads do not come cheap. But we are not in the "media" business. We are in the CONTENT and DELIVERY business. Maybe we should be thinking less bells and whistles (media) and more text, more writing, more interactive communciation, more exploration, more original thought and a whole lot less printed study guide, good year in and year out. ????

Bells, whistles, text, writing: these are all forms of media. These are output formats. Nothing more. It's important to think beyond the media. Beyond bells. Beyond whistles. Beyond text.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 18, 2024 8:31 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.