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Design for elearning

Olimpius ISTRATE
associate researcher - Institute for Education Sciences
teaching assistant - University of Bucharest
olimpius.istrate [at] tehne.ro

We evolve more each day towards a universe in which the social world is described-prescribed by television, and Communication and Information Technology add new dimensions to the cultural world. The Internet is growing day-by-day into the arbiter of access to cultural existence. These complex communication systems deploy huge capitals, sophisticated technical equipment, massive human resources and reach billions of people - conferring them a vital position in the social, political and economical mechanisms of any society. The penetration and assertion speed of a piece of innovation, leading to social change and modernization, depends on the communication channels of a society.

The complex phenomena in modern society require more complex knowledge each day. Equally, the propagation speed and vast volume of information inhibits the receiver's capacity to interpret it in time. Thus, the current demand for analyzed and semi-prepared information. Due to new communication media, the significant reality has expanded to the "global village" and, complementary, relevant knowledge can no longer be acquired through own experiences and feelings or via direct contact with people and facts in the immediate personal environment.

The vertiginous multiplication of communication through the new media, the changes induced upon the psycho-logical reality, the fact that a growing number of subcultures are "taking the floor" and the subjectivity of the objective-logical reality are the facts that induce the passage to postmodernism. The idea of a central rationality of history disappears, hence the world communication becomes a melting pot: a multitude of "local reasons' - ethnic, sexual, religious, cultural or esthetical minorities - have the occasion to take the floor, thus contributing to a process of differences liberation. The intensity of information possibilities upon the most varied aspects of reality has made the idea of a unique reality hard to conceive. For us, reality is the mixture product between "the contamination of multiple images" and interpretation disseminated without any "centralized coordination" throughout communication media.

1. The premises of visual perceptive learning

The particularities of visual perceptive learning in distance learning emerge from the character of learning materials, that should include all the means that insure the transfer of knowledge, associated to a specific methodology, since the contact with the couyrse author or even the tutor for further explanations is difficult to achieve. For this reason, the visual perceptive learning is associated to a mostly independent and autonomous knowledge assimilation modality.

Visual perceptive learning is in fact a reading activity (different from traditional reading in the finality for which the text is read), namely a complex reception of the visual content, mainly text, involving an interpretative understanding, as opposed to the plain reading activity (defined as graphic simbols decoding or icon perception).

A simple inventory of the psychological processes involved reveals the complexity of reading in order to assimilate and interpret the visual content:

Visual perception - active and specialized for linguistic signs; concentratiuon of attention; understanding - characteristic of stimuli nature (verbal, in chains, linguistic context integration stimuli, but also implicitly circumstancial); motivation, related also to text understanding; memory (short and long term); thinking - based on an architecture of automatic reflexes (habits necessary to the accuracy and rapidity of decoding); conscience (as intentionality, than deliberation and control upon actions).

In the teaching-learning experiences, visual communication stategies should be adapted to the learning situation logics to which it applies, and pshychological-teaching aspects come first. More efficient than separate transmission is the simultaneous transmission and assimilation of content through the combination of verbal and non-verbal languages, of imagination and verbal structures, of linear and secvential icones with non-linear, instant, global, meaning independent based structures. Distance learning has the almost exclusive merit to combine in the best manner all of these expression channels.

The use of visual perceptive language in learning should aim to achieve the following main objectives, expressed in behavioral terms:

  • Acquire pertinent information in respect to its objective;
  • Distinguish the informative (referencial) elements from the emotional or connotative ones in the message;
  • Analyse and capitalize upon expression means that allow to uncover the intention of the message, separating simbolic means from non-symboic ones;
  • Achieve a critical stand in treating the symbolic information received;
  • Develop its capacity to select new sources and learning results communication channels;
  • Synthesise and integrate received information into personal experiences;
  • Recognize the ideology and inner intention of symbolic messages, offered by means of non-specific visual languages expressions, etc.

The degree of convention or coding of icon signs is an important dimension in this respect. Any icon sign, coding result of a perceptive experience, initialy requires an "alphabetization" necessary to accurate decoding, since the production and reception of the sign obey certain socially and culturally marked patterns. It is recommended to use a standard code as well as carefully inventoried polisemic icons of illustration and indication symbols.


In a certain manner, contemporary distance learning can be compared to early cinematography. The producers of the first motion pictures tended to produce movies as close as possible to theatrical representations - a fix camera was set on the stage. In time, directors have realized that the camera could be moved and that scenes could be filmed from different angles, and time could be manipulated on the cutting table.

This comparison applies and can be analyzed at all levels of materials design and distance learning medium planning. "Teachers-movie directors" have been exploiting this education channel better each day. New digital technologies and recent research in visual design (visual design, screen design, eyetracking etc.) have expanded significantly the possibilities spectrum and foresee a future that overshadows the "written history" of distance learning.

2. Effective design

In the early 1970's, research has revealed that communication media plays evidently a much less important role in instruction, as compared to the quality of education. This observation has determined a redirectionning of teachers and researchers' attention from the distribution means of learning support materials to designing education curricula and materials in teaching and education psychology terms.

A theory is gradually coagulating in support and guidance to education practices oriented towards principle elaboration of effective learning based on printed, audio-video or digital support materials, backed by teacher-student mediated interactions, in conditions of promoting independent studying and distance collaboration. The communication media is reduced to a mere support (not lacking in importance, since it redesigns the teaching-learning process); the development of efficient education situation becomes the highlighted area.

Today, the few comparative researches published on students achieving education new technology means versus traditional education, at closer analysis do not concentrate upon the education type comparison (mediated or classroom education), this being the mere pretext in the evaluation of the education media design. In distance learning the design of support materials acquired important functions in calibrating the formative value of the educational message.

3. Design analysis and control premises

Added to the distance education-instruction media design, the support materials design confers the former the quality attribute in a material dimension. Complex fields, education design and materials design can be approached from multiple angles, any one of these perspectives, evaluated from an integrative theoretical or praxis level stand point, is a mere element of any other perspective. This is the main reason for the following criteria to constitute analysis implicit references:

  1. A classroom teaching experience, traditional or modern, mediated or not, can be analyzed throughout two terms: structure and dialogue. The structure is the extension by which the teacher/institution is sensible to the needs and desires of the student, whereas dialogue refers to the extension defining the means by which the student can influence and control the education unit through interaction with the teacher. Hence, the two terms can become education sequences and materials evaluation referees, as well as guidelines for efficient design. The distance education support design can operationally convert the structure factor into navigation (representation of all designed functions in order to achieve easy access and orientation through the student material), whereas the dialogue factor converts into the effective feedback means (indications useful to the teacher showing that the program responds to initiatives and that the students activity was evaluated).
  2. A second perspective is knowledge organization. Arranging and structuring content should consider the dialectical unity between psychology and logics, between knowledge inner organization and their formal structure.
    In the means of knowledge representation in the inner structures of the human subject, the following main types can be described: active representation, achieved by a conjunction of actions, iconic representation, achieved by a conjunction of graphic images that replace notions without defining them, and symbolic representation, carried out by a conjunction of symbolic phrases governed by formation and transformation rules and laws.
  3. According to communication functions, the message in a teaching material, apart from the dominating denotative role governing the juxtaposition and combination of elements, should achieve an additional connotative function. The choice of including the receiver in this discourse by means of interrogations, interpellations and imperatives, should be carried out considering the importance of the information unity, its relevance to the student (in combination with the expressive function), and in respect to the objectives set. The highlight in the support materials design should fall on the manipulation of the tangible/perceivable side of the message (examining the code used and the best choice, according to the content, between image, sound or text (thus covering the metalinguistic function of teaching communication).
  4. In analyzing the course support design, each element can be regarded in a dynamic semiotic process. A sign, as communication action, maintains a solitary relation between the three poles: referee object, signifier and signified (Peirce). The signification depends upon the context of its appearance as well as the expectations of its receiver. The means of meaning generation of the sign, a learning support elements' capacity to create significations and/or interpretations deserve special attention, particularly when learning is achieved almost exclusively upon the visual material and when further explanations are difficult to obtain.
  5. Didactically speaking, the designing activity carries a gallery of structural elements that can constitute orientative items on the analysis and elaboration of course support material design activity: purpose - participants - content - realization rules and principles - methods and means - organization structures - development modus - result - evaluation. In this respect, among other aspects, the indissoluble bond between content and teaching-learning methods is remarkable, "establishing the content, including in it the indication of the channels through which its transmission and assimilation is carried out". This connection is achieved in the distance education through efficient design that insures interactive materials.

A possible approach syntax of the teaching and learning content reveals a number of designing rules:

  • Following simultaneously competences development and knowledge transmission;
  • Facilitating independent content structuring actions in an effort of synergistic action of controlled and uncontrolled learning;
  • Choose appropriate manners of issue raising in respect to the priority objectives set, in order to assist independent productive thinking;
  • Anticipate and organize by teaching the development and training of effective thinking strategies;
  • Organize content structure so as to vary mental activity levels;
  • Create conditions and elements for education and learning efficient course;
  • Create self-control didactical situations.

The main operations guiding the design of teaching activity can be translated and applied into distance education programmes by specifying the characteristics required by training specifics. Concisely, these operations are as follows:

  1. Establishing objectives;
  2. Elaborating means of final evaluation of student competencies;
  3. Chapter ordering of the content of the material;
  4. Specification and description of study units and auxiliary materials;
  5. Developing the program text, iconic and symbolic plans, or audio-video support;
  6. Program carrying out;
  7. Evaluation;
  8. Program redesigning.

As far as course development is concerned in text, iconic and symbolic plans, or audio-video support, the analysis criteria (development, evaluation, approval) measure the extent to which:

  • Sufficient information and explanation is provided in order for the student to assimilate and apply the study material;
  • Information and explanation provided in special units is subjected to control;
  • Relaxation moments, attention getters and monotony breakers are anticipated;
  • Enabling of horizontal and vertical transfer, as well as discussions initiated by students;
  • The agreement between the specific form study material and the education objectives;
  • Do these serve the teacher as well as the student?
  • Does the video material allow a reconstruction of the study material, starting from the objectives or results obtained? (Neacsu, 1990).

In distance education programmes, the medium allows education mainly through visual means, so that the translation of the content should be carried out in specific materials following generally established and unanimously agreed rules, subject that deserves careful and detailed attention.

2002, May


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