Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Wise design for WWW courses

Allison Brown
Instructional Designer
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
While we would expect the look, feel and accessibility of courses published on the WWW to be quite different to traditional print publications, a quick perusal of course offerings on the WWW shows a lingering tendency to treat the WWW as an extended form of print. Courses published on the WWW are often little more than an electronic repackaging of print materials, characterised by long scrolling screeds of text presented in a linear format, a one-way flow of information from lecturer to student, little navigational structure and rudimentary levels of interaction ("click here to continue").

Writing and designing for on-line documents requires radically different approaches to writing and designing for print-based materials. Writing for the WWW is a design issue as much as a writing issue. The quality of the reading experience and the depth of interaction with the material are determined by the structure and navigation as much as the meaning inherent in the text.

Careful attention to design issues can lead to enhanced learning in WWW courses.


Introduction

Early developments in online course formats were often little more than an electronic repackaging of print materials, characterised by long scrolling screeds of text presented in a linear format; a continuation of the one-way flow of information from lecturer to students; little navigational structure; and rudimentary levels of interaction ("click to continue").

Simply providing information in this manner is not enough to enhance learning. How learners come to access this information becomes of crucial importance in the Web environment. Learners, in no matter what delivery mode, also need opportunities to reflect on the learning material, discuss their tentative understandings with others, actively search for more information to throw light on areas of interest or difficulty and build conceptual connections to their own existing knowledge base.

What WWW design features can be used to facilitate access to the material; to encourage learners to be more self directed and active in their learning; and to provide opportunities for learners to interact and collaborate with others in the learning process? This paper explores some options.

Organise the learning material

Organise the learning material into manageable segments so that learners are not overwhelmed by the amount of information contained in the program. Break your content into, for example, topics, readings, learning activities and within each topic further break down the information into key points such as learning objectives and key concepts. Decide on a topic structure with headings and sub headings and repeat this same structure throughout the presentation of all topics. This will allow your learners to access information in a more controllable way and it will help them to feel that they are making progress in an environment that is potentially overwhelming in its complexity and seemingly infinite in its delivery of information.

Provide a structured overview of your whole course that learners can access in one screen. This will help them to see how the information interconnects and to understand the underlying organisation.

Use hypertext to provide for self directed access

By presenting each topic in a hypertext format you can provide for a degree of learner control as to what information will be accessed and in what order. Links can be made at the point where relevant information interconnects with other information, rather than the traditional add on 'for further information' section at the end of a topic or lecture or set of notes.

Oliver et al [1996] suggest that using hypertext to organise and retrieve information resembles the workings of human memory and cognition far more closely than does the organisational structure of linear text.

Another advantage of using a hypertext approach to presenting information is that the learners can choose for themselves which pathway they want to explore, and in doing so, discover new links for themselves which they can be asked to share. Megarry [1989:50] argues that giving the learner more autonomy in choosing how to interact with the information base makes for more effective learning. This self directed access is an important facet of learner-centred course design and the judicious use of hypertext facilitates immediate access at the point of need. It also enables students to self pace, either exploring issues about a topic of interest more deeply, or spending less time on concepts that are already understood. Students in this environment are no longer "passive learners attempting to mimic what they see and hear from the expert teacher" [Collins & Berge, 1995, p6], but more active participants in the construction of knowledge and meaning.

Write for the web medium

Writing and designing for on-line documents differs from that of writing and designing for print-based materials. In writing for the Web you need to provide your reader with the information in the fewest possible steps and in the shortest time. Documents to be read on-line must be concise and structured for fast scanning. The AGPS publication Stylewise suggests that effective on-line writing is characterised by: While short sentences are preferable, however, don't be tempted to reduce everything to fragments. Try to maintain a sense of real communication between writer and audience with attention to style, balance, rhythm and structure. You can do this without being too wordy.

Because reading extensive text on the screen is tiring for the eyes, best practice screen design is minimal use of text, balanced with graphics and space. A lot of useful information about screen design, use of graphics, and writing for the web can be found in the Yale Style Guide on the WWW.

Include opportunities for interactive collaboration

Having access to a well organised, rich information source and the freedom for learners to determine their own pathways through it is only one half of the equation. Students also need to be able to collaborate in the learning process. Harasim [1990:43] describes peer interaction amongst students as a critical variable in learning. Online education, with its computer mediated communications systems, offers a potentially rich social learning environment which can support and facilitate such active learning collaboration.

Collaborative learning can be encouraged in the online medium by the inclusion of a "Discussion List" facility. The discussion list should be fully automated for ease of use and all members of the online class should receive all the messages posted there. A discussion list can categorise and file the postings by topic and recently developed discussion list software enables a record of threaded messages to be kept. This allows for new comments to be categorised and grouped accordingly for later reference. As the discussion list provides a written transcript of the online discussion, it builds into a further rich resource: a collaboratively built knowledge base about the topics being discussed.

Online discussion has a number of advantages over oral real time discussion and these are outlined in detail in Harasim {1995]. The asynchronous nature of online discussion allows learners to respond at a time that best suits them. It allows students time to reflect on or further research the topic before responding. Hiltz [1986:98] found that 'time for reflection' was an important factor in learning effectiveness. It also allows students to seek clarification or help from others immediately the need arises or to learn from whatever discussion is taking place even though they may not themselves have initiated it.

All of these features contribute to learner-centredness in course design for the Web. They facilitate user control over a number of learning situations: the time of the interaction, the number of interactions learners choose to make and the time taken to reflect on the issue before a contribution is made.

Online discussion also provides a more egalitarian learning environment. The physical anonymity of the contributors is a great equaliser; more reclusive learners no longer need to struggle for a 'turn to speak', they can make a contribution to the discussion whenever they like with the surety that it will be 'heard' by all class members. Hiltz [1994] found that even students for whom English is a second language find the written medium of online discussion to be less threatening in that they can take longer to formulate their positions and can edit and re-edit their responses before posting them to the list.

In evaluating online courses Harasim [1987] found learners identified the following aspects of online education as beneficial: the increased interaction in terms of both quantity and intensity; better access to group knowledge and support; a more democratic learning environment; convenience of access and increased motivation.

The text based nature of online discussion also has a significant impact on knowledge building. The written record allows for revision and encourages self reflection and these are important learning strategies for developing an understanding of new concepts. This active participation in an interactive collaborative written environment lays the groundwork for deep learning to occur, through the construction, revision and sharing of knowledge.

Interface design

The ultimate usefulness of hypertext, and computer mediated communications systems depend on an appropriate interface design to enable trouble free and easy access to these features. The interface design must provide ease of navigation, a sense of human interaction, and helpfulness and responsiveness to the needs of learners studying in an information rich, self directed medium. Learners need to feel confident that they know where they are at any one point in the course and that they can easily make contact with others as the need arises.

The inclusion of a navigation bar as a fixed constant on every screen in the same place will help to meet this need. Analyse your learners' support needs to decide what items should be included in this fixed navigation bar. Consider what navigational support, what information, help or contact they will need most frequently throughout the course and include only these items on the navigation bar.

An example of interface design

In this example, the navigation bar appears on every screen in the same place, no matter which hyperlinks the student chooses to follow in the right hand table. Thus the common problem of getting lost in the hypertext web is overcome with the fixed navigation bar.

The Index Button on the navigation bar allows students to navigate their way throughout the entire course.

Students can access an entire overview of the course and check on their progress through it with the Study Schedule Button. The study schedule helps students to develop an appropriate timetable for study and helps them to stay on track.

The Help Button provides immediate online assistance with essay writing, making contributions to discussion lists, referencing, preparing for examinations, technical help, using email etc. Students can access this site at the point of need.

Should students have particular learning problems that can't be resolved through the Study Help section or on the discussion list with their classmates, they are able to contact their tutor at any time, through the Message to Tutor Button. This provides a fully automated screen set up with the tutor's email address and space for the message to by typed. Any email sent to the tutor is private. The tutor email facility helps to establish a learning environment that is helpful, responsive and most importantly, human. The inclusion of the tutor on the navigation bar helps to remind students that they have not been "abandoned".

The Discussion List facility, 'Cafe Chat' is also located on the navigation bar and is a fully automated email listserve that goes to all learners in the course. It is located on the navigation bar to give prominence to its importance to learning in the course and to enable learners to access it no matter where they are in the topics. Should learners need clarification of any concept they come across in the hypertext topics they can immediately send a message to the discussion list asking for peer feedback. They can also quickly and easily share information about any new WWW sites they have discovered by clicking on the discussion list facility no matter where their hyperlinked searches take them.

Both trouble shooting and formative evaluation of the course is facilitated by the Bug Report Button in the navigation bar. Through this facility students can be encouraged to make comments on any aspect of the course - the usefulness of the learning activities, the appropriateness of the assessment, the usefulness of the readings, any technical problems with the site and access to it, at the immediate time the idea occurs to them.

Conclusion

This paper has outlined some advantages to be gained from careful attention to design issues for the Web. It has discussed the advantages of the hypertextual organisation of information and the importance of encouraging students to take an active approach to their learning. It has also pointed to the benefits of collaborative learning and has detailed ways in which the new computer mediated communications systems can support this approach. The paper argues that attention to instructional and interface design is essential so that all of these elements can be linked in a coherent, meaningful and helpful way for the students.

The online instructional design outlined in this paper promotes a rich learning experience in a personalised supportive framework. At the same time it promotes self discipline and requires students to take a more active approach to their learning. It is more important than ever in this new information age that we develop learners who are able to locate appropriate information, make meaning of it, critique it and share their understandings with others. Attention to design issues is crucial in this context.

References

Australian Government Publishing Service. Style Wise, Vol 3, No. 3, 1997.

Berge, Z. L. and M. P. Collins (eds) (1995). Computer mediated communication and the online classroom. Higher Education Vol II. New Jersey: Hampton Press Inc.

Harasim, L. (1987). Teaching and learning online: Issues in designing computer-mediated graduate courses. Canadian Journal of Educational Communications, 16(2), 117-135.

Harasim, L. (1990). Online education: Perspectives on a new environment. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Harasim, L. (1995). Learning networks: A field guide to teaching and learning online. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Hiltz, S. R. (1986). The "virtual classroom": Using computer mediated communication for university teaching, Journal of Communication, 36(2), 95-104.

Hiltz, S. R. (1994). The virtual classroom: Learning without limits via computer networks. Human-Computer Interaction Series. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Megarry, J. (1989). Hypertext and compact discs: The challenge of multimedia learning. In C. Bell, J. Davies and R. Winders (eds), Promoting Learning: Aspects of Educational and Training Technology XXII. London: Kogan Page.

Oliver, R., Herrington, J. and Omari, A. (1996). Creating effective instructional materials for the World Wide Web. http://www.scu.edu.au/ausweb96/educn/oliver

Yale C/AIM Web Style Guide http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/

Please cite as: Brown, A. (1998). Wise design for WWW courses. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 44-48. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/brown.html


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