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Page-turning isn’t learning


Electronic page turning is the bane of e-learning.  The lazy tendency to translate traditional educational resources into the equivalent of online books undermines both the credibility and effectiveness of web-based learning because it ignores all the interactive potential of the medium.  Pressing ‘Next’ to move on a screen is a dumb device to progress.  It requires no thinking and simply assumes that user has ‘completed’ the screen.  It often creates a situation when users blindly click next without even considering the content before them.

Having said that, in order to break up large amounts of content into more manageable chunks, users require some form of simple control.  Many argue that it’s better to have more screens with less content on each than fewer screens weighed down with information.

For a project I’m working on at the moment, rather than resort to a Next button to move through material, we’re adapting a successful class technique championed by Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools.  He calls it “No Opt Out.”  It’s the requirement that students must give the right answer.  It’s a way of avoiding the demotivating and disengaging “Don’t know” response that often occurs when students are asked questions without warning.  More often than not, the verbal shrug leaves the student abandoned as the tutor poses the question to someone else.  Lemov argues that such an approach leaves lazy, timid or disengaged students behind – bad for the individual and bad for the class.  In the face of such a response, he suggests a number of strategies:

  1. You provide the answer and the student repeats it back
  2. Another student provides the answer; the initial student repeats it back
  3. You, or another student, provides a cue and the original student uses it to find the answer

It means that even if a student struggles initially, he always gives the right answer in the end.  It’s a good, if tough, motivator.

I’m taking the principles of No Opt Out and applying them to controlling the progress through online content.  Rather use static ‘next’ buttons, we’re embedding the functionality to move on into hotspots which are associated with clear call to action.  The hotspots relate to content and users must demonstrate their understanding of material by identifying and clicking on the correct item.  For example, users are asked to click on the only invertebrate in a collection of creatures to access the next screen.  It’s a method that combines micro-assessment with navigation.  It’s almost game-like in its presentation because of the ‘treasure hunt’ element to it.  Indeed, by stripping the screen of obvious navigation controls and focussing on content, it promotes the discovery learning that characterises many games.  It forces active engagement.

Of course it’s an approach that will irritate some users because of the apparent pettiness of the challenge but the one thing it will go some way to addressing is ensuring that the experience isn’t one of simply turning the page.

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