I have long promised that I would clear some time to write about what I’m learning from my new job at Cengage. Well, finally, this post is my first installment. Coming at the design of digital learning environments from a textbook publisher’s perspective has been enlightening in several respects. First, in the world of the LMS, we have tended to start with a generic model and put all the specifics into what we tend to call the “long tail.” It’s important, but it’s still the tail. But for textbook publishers, the tail wags the dog, so to speak. We don’t just think about people who want to teach and learn. We start by thinking about teaching and learning English. Or math. Or world languages. Or music. It’s always quite specific. Second and relatedly, we don’t start by making a list of all the tools and activities that one needs for a class. We start from the content and then think about the tools and activities that are necessary to teach that content. Third, because textbook publishers generally sell to teachers and students rather than institutions, there is more of a focus on (wonder of wonders) teaching and learning. The institutional concerns are there, but the enterprise sale comes after delivering a quality educational experience. All too often, the dynamics of the LMS market put things the other way around. And finally, there is some advantage to coming late to the game and being able to start with a blank sheet of paper. So all in all, it’s a fascinating place to be. In this first post in the series, I’m going to talk about a basic change in orientation than undergirds some of the innovation we’re going to be seeing in digital learning environments over the next few years.
Metaphors We Live By
When the LMS was conceived, it was thought of as a virtual classroom. There tended to be a one-to-one mapping between activities (e.g., handing out documents, having class discussions, turning in assignments, etc.) and tools (e.g., shared file storage, discussion boards, homework drop boxes, etc.).There also tended to be a one-to-one mapping between tools and web pages. The result was a giant bento box, where each activity was separated from the others. As more and more tools got brought into the learning environment, the online learning experience became richer but also more fragmented. LMS providers dealt with this by creating point-to-point integrations between selected tools (e.g., making the discussion forum gradable) and through the creation of synoptic windows that provide views into LMS pages (and activities) that are not open in the browser window. These steps provide significant improvements, but the metaphor that is woven into the architecture of these systems is a limiting factor to the amount that they can improve. The LMS, as a product category, will always force a certain amount of fragmentation of the learning experience.
For textbook publishers, the natural metaphor is not the classroom but the book. It is a path through content. That path can include all kinds of media as well as all kinds of educational activities, but their location in the interface is based on how they fit with the students’ encounter with the content rather than on what type of activity they are. Imagine that the student is reading about some important topic. The system provides a first-rate reading experience. Maybe it’s history, so there are interactive maps. Maybe it’s economics, so there are interactive graphs where the students can control the variables. At any rate, the student is moving through the content, engaging in it, and then right at the point where the teacher wants the students to think and discuss, zero clicks away, there is a discussion thread inline underneath the relevant paragraph. Not a link to a discussion board that has many threads, one of which is relevant to the text. The relevant conversation—and only the relevant conversation—is right there next to the content that is being discussed.
This is not an interface that was born in the era of PCs and 19-inch monitors. It is not a sprawling mass of functionality. It is an interface that was born in the era of tablets, with an interface that is maximized for focused attention, and for achieving flow, in the psychological sense of the term. It is a fundamentally different user experience and, really, a fundamentally different product category. Other than MindTap (the Cengage platform that I work on), the only other products that I know of in this vein (so far) are Inkling and Kno. We don’t really have a name for this category yet. Before MindTap was named MindTap, Cengage briefly flirted with the idea of calling it a “NextBook.” That term turns out to be taken, but we are going to need something like it.
There will be some trade-offs to the book metaphor—as with any—and some people will just not like it. For example, some may react to the interface as being too “linear.” I never fully understood this complaint in instructional design. First of all, hyperlinks exist. There’s nothing about a default path that locks people in place. Second, lots of things are linear. Time, for example. Time is linear. Narrative is linear. Our experience of content and the world is linear. I don’t think there’s anything pedagogically suspect about providing one or several default paths, as long as we also create an environment in which students feel empowered to wander off those paths and blaze their own trails when appropriate. Joel Spolsky once defined poor user interface design as forcing people to make choices they don’t care about. Something similar could be said about poor learning design. The challenge of doing default paths right in learning design is that you don’t want to limit the students’ imagination regarding what’s possible or what they need. There are a number of ways to do this, including providing non-linear activities within the larger linear path, artfully placing navigation that suggests directions other than the default ones, scaffolding the path so that students understand why it goes in the direction it does, providing several clearly marked paths students can choose from, and allowing students to actually reshape it themselves based on both explicit and implicit input. That said, I would argue that an obvious default path is the right learning design choice more often than it is the wrong one.
The main point here is that the metaphor of the book opens up a whole new world of design questions and design decisions, the implications of which are far-reaching. I will explore some of these implications further in future posts.