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First published: January 04, 2001
This article probes the usual question: Why are online courses so boring?
And in doing so, aims to answer this complimentary question: Why are Webmonkey courses so interesting?
Why are online courses boring?
An recent article in Wired.com, Online Training 'Boring', reported the failure of some online training programs. Citing a Forrester report, the article informs:
Many of the managers who responded to Forrester's survey said they were struggling to convince employees to utilize "boring, text-heavy content," and were meeting real resistance from employees who preferred traditional person-to-person training methods. According to the report's author, John P. Dalton, much of the problem is caused by firms who simply convert standard instruction manuals into Web pages.
One reason for some courses being 'boring', is their failure to appreciate the uniqueness of the Web medium. The Internet presents itself with its own unique set of affordances, and constraints. The New York Times, Washington Post, and numerous other print publications have long found out that duplication of print on the Web just doesn't cut it.
The same ought to be true for online instruction. Lets take an example.
This course has all the ingredients that go into any regular course:
- Learning Objectives & Advance Organizer
- Topical presentations
- Practice Examples
- Review, and even
- Home work!
Now, the obvious question would be, If most regular courses also contain the above ingredients, what are the factors that make the Webmonkey course a cut above?
Answer: Its the quality of the written instruction (content).
Delivering the Communicative Intent
Roger Schank, in his book, Tell Me A Story, describes the process of storytelling. Shank writes of the ability of a storyteller to communicate different versions of the same story depending on his/her communicative intent:
In the first telling of the story, a teller decides what to leave out. This decision is based upon a number of factors that include whom he is telling the story to, why he is telling it, and how he perceives what has happened to him. After all, one cannot say everything that has happened. A story about a two-week vacation could take two weeks to tell. A teller must decide what aspects of the gist are likely to be of interest to the hearer. (p. 176).
Thus, a good storyteller can tell two different hearers (depending on the communicative intent) two different versions of the same story. Similarly, a good instructor should be able to instruct two different learners in two different ways.
There are three important points here:
- Knowing who am I telling the story to. Or, knowing my hearer.
- Knowing what I am telling about. Or, my subject matter expertise.
- Knowing how to tell (delivering my communicative intent). Or, my communicative expertise.
Or, in instructional terms:
- Knowing the learner characteristics.
- Knowing the subject matter.
- Knowing the affordances of the communicative medium to deliver the communicative intent.
From this, it seems online instructors need to know how to tell stories (deliver their communicative intent) for the Web.
Analyzing the Webmonkey Style
Good writing is about being able to take a subject and breathe life into it. And all the style manuals, dictionaries, and thesauri in the world wont help you do that if you don't properly research and grapple with your subject. Yet, if you do the work and find a way to write about your subject persuasively and interestingly, then no doubt your audience will be interested too. The bottom line is that Internet users are curious, information-driven people. And if you can give them content that's written with energy, passion, and vitality ... theyll think, and smile, and love you for it. (From Effective Writing for the Web).
This one's really important when writing for the web. People don't read -- they skim. Nobody likes to scroll through a long narrative looking for the "good stuff." (From Be Succinct!).
Be generous with paragraph breaks and headings - they make pages a little more eye-friendly and easier to scan quickly. If appropriate, don't be afraid to use things like bulleted lists and tables - anything to make the information jump out at the reader, instead of making them sift through long paragraphs to get at it. (From Writing for the Web: Cut it down and open it up).
All of Webmonkey's courses are split into lessons, and lessons are further split into pages. Each page tackles one specific issue/objective. Paragraphs on these pages are normally five lines long, and are around 80 columns wide. Further, these pages in themselves are not disjointed in anyway, rather they are a part of a trail, and make semantic connections with other pages.
Example from Lesson 2: Introduction to variables
Writing the most important information first (What's in it for the reader?), then branching out into the less important background details. (From Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace).
If you're covering an event or an abstract topic, you want to write a compact overview that includes all the liveliest tidbits right up front-- suspense and deferred gratification have much more limited appeal on the Web. (From How to build web-resource pages).
Example from Lesson 2: Introduction to variables:
Example from Review to Lesson 1:
Topics covered today:
Today was just an introduction to give you a feel for how things work. Next time we'll start getting serious.
Topics for next time:
See you next time!
A good writer writing in first person can be very powerful, very strong—in the same way that a good speaker can move you in ways you'd never imagine. The assumption I like to make is that the writer is a smart person; therefore, we care about his or her views. (From Writing for the Web with Derrick Story).
Be Yourself. Write Conversationally. It's the most natural way to write -- try writing the same way you speak to a friend. You'll end up being more concise, clearer, and more engaging. Use You instead of I or We or They. (From Let's Talk about Writing Style).
Example from Intro to Lesson 5:
Including links to related content shows readers that you've done some research, and that you are willing to let them check out other viewpoints. Most importantly, it simply makes your article a more extensive resource. An article that includes lots of appropriate links can be like a mini-cyclopedia of a particular topic. (From Writing for the Web: Links Aplenty!).
In general, if another page already does a decent job of covering one of your subtopics, you can just link it (with a brief summary, ideally) rather than having to cover it again yourself. This implies a new composition-strategy that starts with a Web survey of available resources, shaping each new topic-page first as a framework for these links... plus whatever special value you can add. (From the The future of academic publishing on the Web).
A good example of hyperlinking is this page you are reading! We know that there are several external resources (credible and dependable) that do a good job in explaining the different elements of effective online writing. So, instead of having it cover it ourselves, we use them as scaffolds to enhance our communicative intent.
Related online writing links:
- Useit.com: Writing for the Web
- Web Reference: Effective Writing for the Web
- ClickZ: Writing in the Voice of the Internet
- ClickZ: The Seven Qualities of Highly Successful Web Writing
- Webmonkey: Writing on the Web
- Wired News: A Matter of (Wired News) Style
- WDVL: Writing for the Web
- Webword: Writing for the Web and Creating Effective Online Content
- Robot Wisdom: The future of academic publishing on the Web
- The Web presents a unique set of affordances and constraints. If you want to instruct effectively through the web, you must understand and acknowledge them.
- Affordances include the ability to hyperlink, while a major limitation is the difficulty in retaining reader's attention. We have addressed these issues and presented recommendations in the context of a Webmonkey tutorial.
- Our analysis and recommendations imply a need for a overall strategy for composing instruction on the web. This includes creating a structure for information, sequencing of topics, a web survey of related resources, framework for presenting these external links in context, adopting a direct and engaging style of writing and laying out everything in an eye-friendly and easy to scan manner.
- Effective online writing is not an unimportant and independent link in the overall instructional design strategy. Rather, it plays an integral part in making the instructional design process itself successful. After all, what's the use of a professionally done instructional design when its intent cannot be communicated effectively