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System-Driven eLearning eContent Design

Nick. B. Glezakos
InfoSociety SA, Ilioupoleos 2-4, Imittos, Athens P.C. 172 37, nglez@ktpae.gr

Maria E. Georgakalou
Halkis Institute of Technology, Psahna Evoias, P.C. 34400, mgeor@otenet.gr

ABSTRACT
The present paper deals with system-driven e-learning content design issues. It is a well
established fact that e-learning content frequently fails to meet minimal user needs such as
simplicity in use and navigation, straightforward didactic value, support for social collaboration
activities etc. In order to contribute to the satisfaction of the aforementioned user needs the
present work is based on the principle that e-learning content design should utilise simple tools
and walkthroughs for individuals and teams that may lack the kind of professional background
needed but are still determined to create eLearning eContent. The tools and walkthroughs
presented in the following sections are knowledge intensive and they aspire to cover for trivial
expertise gaps (of novice eLearning eContent authors) assuring threshold quality. The findings of
the present work suggest that when designing e-learning content following the proposed systemic
approach it takes eventually much less effort to reach threshold quality than to attempt to apply a
metadata schema to given restrictions regarding didactic material and corresponding Human
Recourses – a typical approach of novice eLearning eContent developers.

Key words: e-learning content design, Knowledge Management

Introduction and orientation


EContent in the upcoming WEB2.0 era is perceived to be an undistinguishable part of a unified
web service and this fact should be well taken into account by e-learning eContent authors.
Unfortunately, it is a given fact that elearning eContent frequently fails to meet minimal user
needs. Those needs refer equally and horizontally not only to elearning eContent as an
autonomous entity but also, in a unified fashion, to all modules and services of an e-learning
system. WEB 2.0 sees eContent as an integrated part of a thorough stand-alone web service. Let
us first review some basic facts about eLearning systems and (lately) web services before focusing
on eLearning eContent development:
An old hype?
In the WEB 1.0 era e-learning systems were perceived to be a hopeful service that envisaged a
dramatic change in the way we provide (and receive) educational services. Far from that, almost
all WEB 1.0 eLearning efforts, ranging from the micro scale of a school intranet to the macro scale
of a global e-learning web service, did not manage to provide the aforementioned vision at any
circumstance or scale. In most cases, failure to fulfil that vision came even when such services
were supported by prestigious universities or related academia.
The new hype?
Now, that technology has advanced and WEB 2.0 is here (with WEB 3.0 round the corner), now
that eLearning platforms are equipped with any functionality imaginable, now that a WEB 1.0
eLearning web service (that used to cost several thousands of dollars) is available for literally
peanuts, now that educational material is abundant and little diamonds can be found in the
blogsphere, now that MIT offers for free all their knowledge on-line (and according to
interoperable standards), now all bricks will finally drop in place. We are very much afraid: hardly
so! To be frank, we strongly support that eLearning has been following, for quite some time now,

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troubling paths – put modestly. An overstatement? Well consider this: During the last two decades
the internet has undoubtedly changed the way we communicate, work, listen to music, watch
films and socialize. It will not be a grand overstatement to say that the internet has ultimately
changed the way we live. So let us carefully examine this: Has the internet dramatically changed
the way we provide (and receive) educational services? Has it changed our education the way
yahoo, google, youtube, amazon, iPod, blogs, torrent & file sharing engines, myspace & facebook
have changed our lives? Let us face it: NO. And definitely not in the way those applications have –
that is overnight. It is more than evident that the simplicity of the aforementioned applications
has certainly escaped the attention of eLearning champions and innovators.
No Hype?
Education must be no hype. It is a serious and often too responsible and tedious business to be
any kind of hype. Educational services aim at providing knowledge to people with a view to better
their lives. Bettering peoples’ lives is the core vision of any serious educational service. This is a
grand responsibility totally foreign to any techno enthusiast fad. It is even more foreign to any
venture capital endeavour such as the likes of elearning WEB 1.0 hopefuls before (and regrettably
even after) the dotcom disaster. ELearning initiatives that strategically first aim at creating money
have no place in the virtual class of the 21 st century and they will certainly follow the ill fate of
their predecessors. On the other hand, fulfilling the core vision of education (to better peoples’
lives) and doing so by utilising the power of Information Society will surely bring millions to the
pioneers and will start a whole new industry. Since we see that happening elearning success
stories will be evident only to specialised areas targeting specific audiences like people in the rural
areas or people that just cannot make ends meet to “proper” education.
Educational services in the 21st century – a wish list
Surfing on the net is (and should be) great recreation. Online socialising definitely promotes
human communication in a democratic fashion further than any ancient Greek would ever dream.
Global search engines have literally established themselves as the 21 st century live encyclopaedias
for virtually anything. But education is fundamentally different. Education, at its simplest
“traditional” version, first and foremost needs educators. That is teachers. Teachers that need not
have more expertise in computers than simple computer literacy. ELearning education clearly
demands more than this. It demands the few of those teachers that perceive the Information
Society era as a great opportunity to offer additional educational stimuli to their students. At this
point it is highly important to underline this: It is teachers that should identify educational stimuli
that should deliver added value to an educational web service not the other way round. One
reason, we strongly believe, that elearning initiatives present such a disastrous success rate is
that their creators (sometimes people that are not teachers ….) try first to create a digital
“stimuli” for educators and educational processes. The usual result is impressive multimedia
creations destined to bomb (poor) traditional oriented classes in a most aggressive effort to
promote a multi-modal approach to learning. The most recent specimen of these interesting
phenomena is evident to all kinds of on-line tutorials (usually for computer programs and
information systems). On-line tutorials nowadays have come up to be none other than simple
video presentations. Any video presentation describing software functionality is served as a
“tutorial” rather than a “video presentation”. Surprisingly enough this simple video presentation
works much better than any WEB 1.0 on-line educational equivalent and certainly much better
than a simple “traditional” book. To sum up, elearning education must be first and foremost
education. That undeniably entails the following: It must be run by educators (often confused with
academics) and it must provide the right stimuli to the class, traditional or virtual. It must
envision bettering peoples‟ life rather than making profit. A good practice to avoid the latter is to
forget about money altogether and just keep in mind that a successful elearning initiative, a one
that will fulfil the core vision of education, a one that will change our lives overnight, will not avoid
serious funding. Having said that, we strongly believe that any 21 st century elearning initiative,
that channels itself as a web service, should be characterised by the following:

i) At the strategic level (shaping the core of the service): a) Vision: To better human
lives by educating them (st1). b) Simple and axiomatic Principles: Education (and
therefore educational systems including educational web services) must be human

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centred (st2), respect “traditional” educational methods and tools (st3) (that have
proven valuable over the last couple of thousands of years) and not be technology
based (or even worse technology depended) but technology literate (st4). c) Clear exit
criteria (st5) that define the point users exit the system.

ii) At the systemic level (describing the service), an eLearning initiative should be: Metric
based (sy1). We will elaborate on eLearning eContent development in the following
sections. The operational field of an eLearning system should be situated within a
triangle orientated by Education, Technology and Sustainability. The Education
dimension should be defined by straightforward didactic value (sy2), technology should
provide functionality (sy3) and simplicity in use (sy4). Sustainability should provide the
framework for preserving and strengthening the eLearning system (sy5).

iii) At the tactical level (deploying the service) an eLearning initiative clearly needs simple
and careful project management. Any professional elearning initiative unavoidably needs
expertise from the area of web authoring and on-line communication and so it demands
coordinated work by inter-scientific teams that come from totally different background
(teachers and web professionals ... to start with). So, in order to keep unavoidable
conflict at the minimum level, project management should strictly focus on results
oriented approach (ta1). Intensive care must be taken at role allocation (ta2) and
decision making (ta3). The tactical level is not covered in the present paper and is
mentioned for reference only to be suggested as further work.

Contribution of the present work


It has become more than obvious that any 21 st century eLearning initiative, including the
development of its integral eContent, is nothing but simple. It becomes clear that specific and
specialised skills are definitely needed in order to meet the demands of the aforementioned
strategic, systemic and tactical parameters. Our contribution focuses on delivering simple tools
and walkthroughs to individuals and teams that may lack the kind of professional background
needed but are still determined to create eLearning eContent for the first two of the
aforementioned parameters that play a crucial role to eLearning eContent development. The tools
and walkthroughs presented in the following sections are knowledge intensive and they aspire to
cover for trivial expertise gaps (of novice eLearning eContent authors) assuring threshold quality.
Furthermore, the present work aspires to pave the way for the development of equivalent tools
and walkthroughs beyond triviality. The following tools respect all levels of eLearning eContent
development, strategic, systemic and tactical. While getting to the tools it is best to elaborate on
those three levels focusing on eLearning eContent development:

eLearning eContent shaping: The strategy


The strategy of eLearning eContent development should be aligned with the one of the overall
eLearning system while focusing on the content dimension. In simple words this means that
eLearning eContent should be made to fulfil the overall system‟s strategy as described above. For
each aspect of the aforementioned strategy we present a set of walkthroughs and tools that
contribute to the four strategy aspects (st1 – st5):

Walkthrough 1: Purpose statement (contributes to st1, st2 and st5)


A simple statement of the purpose of the eContent is impertinent to constantly remind the
eContent developers of a) the thematic area(s) the eContent refers to and b) the range of the
eContent applicability. A useful pattern for such a statement is this “We develop eContent that
teaches / supports / helps / empowers <users> to <do sth>”. <Users> are taken from
walkthrough 2 and <do sth> is a verbal description of the exit criteria of the system. <do sth> is

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ideally shaped by putting a simple question to the users such as the typical “what would you like
to learn ?”. Often this is quite clear and no questionnaire is needed e.g. “doctors would like to
learn about the new products of a pharmaceutical company along with their uses and side effects”.
In this case the eContent purpose statement should be: “We develop eContent that helps doctors
to learn about the new products of a pharmaceutical company along with their uses and side
effects”. As trivial as this seems it is good practice to communicate the purpose statement with all
the eContent developers and make sure that they have full understanding of its context.
Tool 1: Purpose Orientation (contributes to st1, st2 and st5)
In case of wide / generic target audiences and / or unidentified eContent exit criteria a typical
questionnaire is needed to cover for any gaps. An example of such a questionnaire could be as
simple as the following: User ID data: Name, Occupation, Job position, etc, Q1: What are your
first three learning priorities? , Q2: Why would you like to use eLearning for those priorities? Users
must be guided to answer in a limited fashion e.g. within a word count limit (less than 50 words)
or in 1-2 sentences.
Walkthrough 2: Identify the stakeholders (contributes to st4 and st5)
From walkthrough 1.1. and tool 1.1 there can be a picture of the users of the eContent to a
certain extent. Other stakeholders are the developers themselves and people that make use of the
eContent as mediators. The logic behind stakeholders orientation is that eLearning eContent is
primarily made for the users but it is also made to satisfy all the stakeholders’ needs. A clear view
of typical eLearning system stakeholders is given in graph 1.1. The stakeholders‟ categorization is
based on two main dimensions: the demand and the supply. It is clear from the graph that
eContent developers should have a clear view of the stakeholders that provide the e-Learning
platforms for eContent compatibility reasons as long as with those who embody the eContent to
their services for eContent usability (and accessibility) reasons.
Tool 2: Stakeholders Orientation (contributes to st4 and st5)
The eContent developers should be fully aware of the e-Learning platform providers and the
eContent service provides. graph 1.1. should be communicated with the eContent developers
team and a short description of each stakeholder role should be presented.

Graph 1: eLearning system stakeholders on a supply – demand logic

eLearning eContent description: The subsystem


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Generally speaking, a system is an organized set of interrelated ideas or principles, any organized
assembly of resources and procedures united and regulated by interaction or interdependence to
accomplish a set of specific functions [1]. To be more precise, an eLearning web service is a
system that processes information, is based heavily on (users) feedback, has comprehensible
boundaries and the main parameters that govern it are known to a certain extend [1]. At the
same time it has been made clear in the previous sections that a system describing an eLearning
web service embodies inter-scientific knowledge combining educational and technology methods
and tools and, therefore, is quite complex. Similarly, eLearning eContent, as an integral part of an
eLearning web service, presents the same high level of complexity. So, our eLearning eContent
subsystem that processes information, is based heavily on (users) feedback, presents high level of
complexity and its governing parameters and boundaries are fairly comprehensible should better
be described from the Cybernetics point of view. We focus on how our eLearning eContent
subsystem processes information, react to information and changes or can be changed to better
accomplish the first two tasks. Describing our subsystem from the Cybernetics point of view
requires clear (or at least basic) understanding of our subsystem‟s governing parameters, its
feedback and the effect of the two in to the subsystem‟s evolution. In our work this understanding
shapes the tools and walkthroughs we suggest. The Governing Parameters that contribute to the
shaping of eLearning eContent belong mostly to the Educational and the Sustainability dimension
of the overall eLearning system as described above:
Education: Learning Activity (The main metric of the eContent subsystem)
A learning activity can be defined as an interaction between a learner and an environment, leading
to a planned outcome. It is the planned outcome which makes learning a purposeful activity. [1].
It is pertinent for eContent developers to design having the learning activity as their building
block. Graph 2 illustrates the essence of a learning activity.

Graph 2: Learning Activity illustration (source [1])

Education: Well established pedagogical theories based on learning activities


Walkthrough 3. (contributes to sy1, sy2 and sy3)

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A simple way to base eContent design on learning activities is to perform a “black box” analysis of
the learning process having in mind the learning outcomes of each activity. To do that in the
design phase eContent developers could first write a Table of Contents (TOC) of the learning
material they wish to develop. Each line of that table of contents should be an autonomous
learning activity. After that learning activities could be assigned to three major categories:
Activities that describe simple facts, Activities that illustrate processes and principles and
Activities that lead to high level of thinking and knowledge discovery / creation [1], [8],
[9]. The next step is to decide which form each activity should take shape of as a final
(electronic) deliverable (end product) such as presentations, questions (and corresponding
answers), graphs, multimedia material etc. Tool 1 clarifies such correlations

Tool 3 (contributes to sy1, sy2 and sy3)

Table 1: Categorizations of learning activities and correlations with end products

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At this point the eContent to be developed is design in a form of a TOC that is based on
autonomous learning activities. To further the design analysis of the eLearning-to-be eContent the
developers should shape it from the “static” structure of a TOC to the more “dynamic” of learning
paths. Put simple, the developers visualise the way the content will interact with the learners
predicting several routes the learner follows in order to achieve the didactical goals of the unit
lesson [5], [6], [7] .
Tool 4 (contributes to sy1, sy2, sy3 and sy4)

Graph 3: Learning activity tree, source [7]

Sustainability: e-learning metadata schemas (SCORM 2004)


At this stage eContent developers should be able to make use of a SCORM authoring tool that
recognises SCOs. Put simply all aforementioned autonomous learning activities are input as SCOs.
In order to fully describe the SCOs according to SCORM specifications the eContent developers
have to assign metadata in each one. A strategic selection of SCORM 2004 metadata is presented
in the following walkthrough covering both SCOs metadata at the SCO level and manifest
metadata at the unit / lesson level [2], [4]:
Walkthrough 4 (contributes to sy5)
Fill in SCOs’ Metadata (in order of Importance)
General (Title, Description, Keyword)
Life Cycle (Version, Contribute, Role)
Educational (Interactivitytype, Learningsourcetype, Interactivitylevel, semanticdensity, difficulty)
Relation (Kind)
Classification (Purpose, Description, Keyword)
Technical (Format, Location)
Rights
Meta-Metadata
Annotation
Fill in Manifest fields in order of Importance
Manifest, Title
Organization
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Identifier
Resources
Metadata

Findings: Better Quality with less effort


The findings of the present work suggest that it takes eventually much less effort when designing
e-learning content following the proposed systemic approach than to simply apply a metadata
schema to given restrictions regarding exiting didactic material and corresponding Human
Recourses, specially since the authors are much more aware of an e-Learning system as a whole.
Results (the e-Learning eContent) are anticipated to be of a significantly better quality since are
following a specific system oriented step by step approach that demands technology literate
educational content designers as opposed to a non systemic analytical approach to fully functional
eLearning eContent that clearly demands a range of eLearning professionals with considerable
expertise on eLearning eContent design.

Further Research
An interesting approach of depicting eContent quality is to measure on a developed eContent (or
on a database that embodies all the assets that are to be formatted as eLearning eContent) a
systemic reaction of core key meanings (or key semantics) that describe our eContent. A simple
approach to come to these semantics is to represent them as sets of key words that are selected
from the TOC described above. These sets of key words could then be input in a local Google
search appliance targeted at the eContent database (or a repository of its assets). The logic of
such a test is that the set of key words that result to the minimum Shannon entropy [10] are the
set of key words that best describe (its semantics are best diffused) the database (or repository).
All its left is to critically examine if that set(s) of key words are close to the description of our
purpose statement described above. The proposed test are as follows:

System reaction: a step based entropy metric


It is well known that philosophers (Dretske, 1981; Dretske, 1971) have used the information
theory in order to understand knowledge, justification and mental content. We will now try to
introduce a metric for the reaction of the system in a user‟s random query. The main idea was to
combine the quantity of the information retrieved (without considering its quality) with the time
spent to it. A potential further step would deal with the quality of the information retrieved.
In order to do so, we have used Shannon‟s (Shannon, 1948) information theory, since the
outcome of each query provides the user with some information.
We assume that the outcome of each query contains some information, which is equally divided
among the instances of the query, while the whole amount of information contained in the query
is given by the following equation:

where: s:= the whole amount of information obtained by each query,


pi:= the amount of information obtained by each of the instances of the
outcome of the query =>
pi = 1/n

Assumption: The information obtained by a query depends only in the number of instances the
query would finally end up as a result.
This would probably cause no problem at all, in case the query provides results at a high speed.
Hence, the information provided by each query during the first iteration will be calculated by
dividing 1 (the sum of probabilities) by the total amount if instances in which the query resulted

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Taking time under consideration
Still though, time is usually a crucial parametre (accuracy as well, but we have not dealt with it in
the current paper).
Assumption: Time is valuable, so the more time is spent by the system in order to reply to a
query, the less information is provided by the specific query.
Hence, the information provided by each query during the first iteration will be calculated by
dividing 1 (the sum of probabilities) by the total amount if instances in which the query resulted
and by the total time spent by the query in order to give a result.
In order to take under consideration the parametre of time, we have proceeded to the second
iteration, where the time spent for the system‟s reply to the query is used in order to calculate the
pi. Thus, the total information amount provided by the query, is now given by the equation:

where: s:= the whole amount of information obtained by each query,


pi:= the amount of information obtained by each of the instances of the
outcome of the query, divided by the time spent for the answer=>
We assume that the each of the instances provided by the query is equally probable to occur as
the rest. Additionally, we assume that the time spent for the query, is equally divided among all
instances. Thus, we have the new
[pi] = (1/n)/t

Example:
1a. (Wrong spelling – capital letters)
Google has found no matching document
1b. (Right spelling- capital letters)
Google has found no matching document
1c. (Wrong spelling – small letters)
Google has found 7 matching documents (0,04 seconds)
1d. (Right spelling – small letters)
Google has found 7 matching documents (0,19 seconds)
2a. Different sequence – same overall query (Wrong spelling)
Google has found 7 matching documents (0,26 seconds)
2b. Different sequence – same overall query (Right spelling)
Google has found 3 matching documents (0,30 seconds)

First iteration
The results are shown in the following table:

Instancespi log2pi pi log2pi Entropy


1a 0 0 0 0 0
1b 0 0 0 0 0
1c 7 0.14 -2.807354922-0.40105 2.8073549
1d 7 0.142857143 -2.807354922-0.40105 2.8073549
2a 7 0.142857143 -2.807354922-0.40105 2.8073549
2b 3 0.33 -1.584962501-0.52832 1.5849625

Second iteration

The results are shown in the following table:

time (10-2
Instancessec) pi log2p(i) pi log2 pi Entropy
1a 0 0 0 0 0

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1b 0 0 0 0 0
1c 7 4 0.04 -4.80735 -0.171691 1.201839
1d 7 19 0.007518797-7.05528 -0.053047 0.371331
2a 7 26 0.005494505-7.50779 -0.041252 0.288761
2b 3 30 0.01 -6.49185 -0.072132 0.216395

So, we have provided an entropy-based metric for the outcome of queries in any e-content
system, which apart from Shannon‟s entropy, takes under consideration the time the user will
consume on each query.

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