In moving information onto a computer, people generally assume that the format and presentation have little effect on the information itself. Every online educator should consider the effect on students of the electronic presentation of information, however, as that assumption is questionable. Although many writers have investigated the computer as a learning medium, few have addressed the computer screen as a communication medium.
We Learn What We See
Web pages created to teach something can and should be evaluated on their ability to teach. That ability depends on how well several underlying and previously unassociated elements of educational presentation are woven into the page design.
Many authors have contributed different ideas to the discussion. I have grouped these concepts into four categories that I believe provide a balanced method for evaluating a learning-oriented web page:
Each category addresses an aspect of how a web page organizes and presents content to learners. The different aspects interact with each other in providing a balanced and usable presentation.
Creation of a learning model considers how well the web page promotes the art and science of learning and thinking, and how people react to the content and presentation of information on the page. Communication of that model is not something that educators should take for granted. Effective communication involves general principles of good design, applying them to the illustrations used by the course designer. Web readability acknowledges that the computer presents us with the problem of how to define literacy when traditional definitions no longer serve. The reader of a web page must be able to understand the text, text links, the use of graphic hot spots, and other nontraditional methods of encoding information on the page. Usability is often expressed in terms of software or hardware, but it also covers both general and educationally specific usability of the learning system interface. How easily can a student perform common learning-related tasks? Included in this concept is learnability, the ability to intuitively comprehend the tools presented on the screen for using the system.
To date, these elements have been isolated in separate and unrelated discussions that would benefit from a more holistic view of the learning environment. The goal of this article is to knit those four previously independent categories into a single unified and usable knowledge base that exceeds the sum of its parts. I view this effort as the first step in a conversation that can improve the way we view, evaluate, and use computerized learning.
Note that this article refers only to visual presentation, which neglects issues of concern to visually impaired educators and learners. I would like to see a parallel article focused on effective presentation of web-based learning material for visually impaired students. All students face challenges when participating in typical online classes, however. See the sidebar for a quick look at a studentâ€™s experience of online instruction.
A Learning Model of the Subject
The logical entry point to the integrated view of web learning I am proposing concerns the learning model of the topic under study: How can web pages be used to create an effective model of an idea or process, one that allows a learner to grasp the essence of the idea or process without limiting his or her ability to later extrapolate the information into the larger universe? In addition to presenting information clearly, the learning material must use the available elements to create a representation that guides the learner into a usable and retainable model. Such a model allows the topic to move from raw data to retainable information while fostering the construction of a personal understanding of the topic.
Several guideposts mark this path. For example, Mayer1 conducted research that revealed key elements of a good mental model: concise, concrete, coherent, and correct. On the other hand, starting with McLuhan2 and Arnheim,3 authors have observed how media can actually alter the way people think. The presentation of information visually—in this case, on the web—changes the nature of the information and therefore might change the way we perceive it, learn it, and retain it.
The challenge is to look at web pages and determine whether they simply move previous learning materials from one medium to the next, without alteration, or take advantage of the unique features of the computer environment to encourage student participation and learning. Often, the computer as learning platform has not been considered from the view of a media-rich environment. Rich media is more than the simple idea summarized by the use of the word multimedia, and it differs significantly from the ideas suggested by usability. We need to consider the effect of presenting information to the learner using various types of media simultaneously.
Communication of the Model
Ideally, a well-constructed graphic can illustrate something so well that the graphic itself becomes almost invisible and the information behind it becomes both obvious and intuitive. While illustrators have attempted to reach this goal this for centuries, the inspiration for looking at graphic design this way comes from the work of Tufte.4 His books refer to graphics in broad categories such as â€œgraphic nouns,â€ which present objects, and â€œgraphic verbs,â€ which present actions.
There is nothing computer-centric about Tufteâ€™s work, although his thoughts on PowerPoint are especially relevant. One of his central ideas is that clarity of thought and clarity of presentation are related. When both are present, as in his often-cited example of Minardâ€™s illustration of Napoleonâ€™s attack on Moscow, the result breathes life into cold statistics. When clear thought and presentation diverge, as seen in the graphics used to make the decision to land the Space Shuttle Columbia, disaster can result.5
Tufte advises keeping the intelligence of the audience foremost while producing graphics that communicate accurate and concise information. Criteria do exist for the evaluation of instructional images, along with tools for that evaluation. The online educator should look carefully at what is being communicated through the use of images. Does there exist on the page a clear presentation of information that will provide the learner with a clear understanding of that information, or is the information muddy and the graphics mere decoration?
Determining the difficulty of a passage of text based on the number of words and sentences is an idea now so commonplace that word processors calculate readability. The idea may need updating, however, if we accept that the concept of literacy is expanding.
When using web pages as teaching tools, the ability to decode the page might no longer be synonymous with the ability to decode the text on the page. Most web pages present information in multiple layers of text and graphics. Text can be subdivided into standard text, hyperlinked text, and hover text—text in a window that hovers over an element of the page. The actions of hyperlinks vary. A web page might include links to text on the current page, links to a new web page in the same browser, links that open a new browser, and still others that have the curious and unpredictable effect of opening a browser diverted to either a deleted page or an unrelated pop-up advertisement—for all intents, links to nowhere.
Graphics can provide visual explanations of concepts or processes explained on a page. They can either clarify or confuse the learner. For example, they might contain video, animations, sounds, or other functions that make the decoding of embedded content straightforward or difficult.
Illustrations can provide image maps (hyperlinked graphic areas) that might or might not be synonymous with text links on the page. Common functions coded as icons, from the generic browser environment or from the specific LMS, provide speedy access to commonly used actions. Unfortunately, they are often labeled with arcane and obscure symbols, although holding the cursor over an icon usually reveals explanatory text.
A concept new to the electronic presentation of information is the idea that a page might have a transitory state. The cursor might change from arrow to hand to text-entry tool depending on where it is placed on the page. There is no corollary to this in any paper-based medium.
The purpose here is not to object to any of these elements but to advance the idea that the concept of literacy needs to be redefined. Along with it, online educators should revisit what they assume of learners as new students enter a class.
While it is critical that learning-centered web pages adhere to the general principles of clear navigation and good presentation, I suggest looking at those pages with a focus on learning-centered usability.6 When a student views a web page, is that page usable as a learning tool? Can a learner, without much effort, navigate to the pages needed and return to previously viewed pages easily? Can a student do what he or she needs to do once there? Navigation on an educational website should support students in learning, not demonstrate the web designerâ€™s creativity. Usability addresses the issue of how well students can use a site for the purpose of learning.
Although a potentially confusing word in the current context, the term learnability can be borrowed from software engineering to describe a subset of usability that specifically addresses the userâ€™s ability to learn how to use the software intuitively. In this context, when a student views a page, a lesson, or a unit, does navigation work as expected, or does it leave the learner wondering what to do next?
Some readers might suggest an overlap between the four categories. I readily acknowledge that point. Certainly the creation of a learning model and the communication of that model interrelate, although I believe they differ enough to warrant separate discussions. Readability and usability likewise provide two different but related ways to consider the accessibility of learning. In truth, I see the borders between the categories more as transition zones than walls. In evaluating a web page targeting online learners, its specific purpose or context might stress one factor more than others. This is normal.
My purpose here is to establish guideposts that will give educators the tools they need to improve the design of learning-centered web pages by creating a vocabulary that can be used to describe them. If we can describe good learning design, we can improve the educational experience of everyone who uses computers to learn.