Apps for self-directed learning

There are several kinds of apps that can assist you with your learning and help you to develop effective learning habits. Below are 21 recommended apps in 7 categories, and suggestions on how to exploit them.

Many are free to download, but for those which are not, e.g. iStudiezPro, there is usually a free version with restricted functionality. You can experiment with the free version to see whether you like the app enough to invest in the full version. Actually, there are hundreds of such apps on iTunes and Google Play, so why not try others, too.

When evaluating an app, one thing to take note of is its integration with other software and hardware. For instance, Evernote and StudyBlue accounts can be connected, making it easy to create revision flashcards based on notes that you have taken. Mindjet files sync from your smartphone or tablet to your desktop computer via Dropbox.

It is also worthwhile exploring the user guides, video tutorials and case studies that makers of the apps often provide. These can help you realize the full potential of the apps and consider alternative ways to use them.

Study planner apps

Using this kind of app can help get you into the habit of managing your time effectively. Besides keeping track of lectures and tutorials, study planner apps allow you to organize study tasks, assignments and projects according to course schedules, and to set your study priorities. These apps can also provide timely reminders to complete tasks and keep a record of your course grades.

IStudyPlan

istudiez-pro-review

 

My Study Life

Flashcard apps

These apps can be powerful revision aids. After identifying key terminology in your courses, you can create flashcards for important concepts and later be tested on your retention through a variety of quizzes. Progress is tracked and incorrect answers will be retested. Besides your own flashcards, you can browse and use millions of flashcards made by other learners.

  • StudyBlue (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)
  • Quizlet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • gFlash+ (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)

study_blue

quizlet_logo_large

gflash

Dictionary apps

Dictionary apps contain a wealth of information to assist you with academic reading and writing. Besides checking the meanings of words, you can see example sentences and find out common collocations. The thesaurus component in the apps can help you select precisely the right words for written assignments, and hearing the pronunciation of words can assist you with academic listening and speaking.

dictionary

merriam

wordweb

Mind mapping apps

You can utilize these apps in a number of ways. For instance, mind maps are great tools to capture and organize ideas for assignments and projects. They may also be used to rework lecture notes into a more visual format. Some learners employ mind maps as revision aids. These apps work very well on tablets, and the mind maps may be co-created online.

  • Freemind (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Mindjet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • iMindMapHD (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)

Freemind_logo

Mindjet

iMindMap

Bibliography apps

For higher education students, these apps can speed up the process of generating citations and compiling reference lists. With them you can scan or capture metadata and then they will automatically generate references in several styles, e.g. APA, MLA and Chicago. Whereas EasyBib is a free mobile app, Zotero and Mendeley are extensions for web browsers such as Firefox and Chrome.

  • EasyBib (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Zotero (Chrome, Safari, IE, Firefox, iPad/iPhone [Zotpad])
  • Mendeley (Any Web browser, Mac, iPad, iPhone,Windows phone, Kindle Fire)

easybibvectorlogo

zotero

Mendeley

Note-making apps

These powerful apps can do more for you than providing a convenient notepad. They enable you to collect information on an academic topic from anywhere into a single place. This information can be in many forms, e.g. images, text, web pages, audio/video clips.  The information can then be edited, annotated, filed, and even shared with other students.

  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • OneNote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)
  • GoodReader (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)

evernote

one-note-logo

GoodReader_Logo

Scanner Apps

This kind of app can boost efficiency when working with text in several ways. Many kinds of text can be scanned as JPEG or PDF files, including handwritten notes and text embedded in images. Once scanned, you have the options to straighten, crop and combine pages. Those with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) enable export of PDFs to Word, Excel or Text files. PDFs may also be shared or printed wirelessly.

  • Genius Scan (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • CamScanner (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 8)

Genius-Scan-icon

evernote

CamScanner

I hope that you have found this list useful. If you discover better apps, or new categories of learning apps, or new ways to use them, I’m all ears…

 

 

A way to introduce mind mapping tools to students

One of the secondary schools that I consult for is equipped with a large, well-resourced self-access learning centre. The 40 PCs in the centre are loaded with Inspiration mind mapping software for students to use independently.

With guidance, senior students (ages 15-18) can use such software for a multitude of study tasks, for example to brainstorm ideas for project work, to plan oral presentations and written compositions, or to create concept maps that summarise study topics.

To help introduce the functions and potential of this kind of software to junior students (ages 12-14), I created mind maps (or other kinds of graphic organisers) in Inspiration that summarized key concepts for study topics. Here is an example of a timeline that shows 4 stages of Hong Kong’s economy:

Hong Kong Economy1

Once the original had been approved by the subject teacher, I authored two new versions of it. The first new version looked like this:

Hong Kong Economy2

Students could then open this version first and attempt to reconstruct it correctly by dragging and dropping items. After finishing this task, they could request to see the original version.

The second new version focused on vocabulary for that topic. This time, students saw this:

Hong Kong Economy3

Their task was simple enough… just replace the words in the correct gaps. Not thrilling, but good for them to check their retention of key vocabulary items.

To assist students through the process of this learning activity, a laminated instruction sheet was placed next to the PCs.

I hope you find this technique useful and would be very interested to hear of other ways to help learners familiarise with mind mapping software.

The value of art in educational websites

Abstract

“If consumers can justify elegance to themselves in pragmatic terms, they’d much rather have it than ugliness.” (David Gelernter: The Omni Interviews)

Is it possible to justify artistic website design in pragmatic terms that are convincing enough for web designers from an engineering background? Writers of seminal works on web design tend to come from such a background and appear to have two conceptions of the value of art. It is either for pleasure or for personal expression. For them, neither of these values compares in importance with the criteria of accessibility and usability. A third value – aiding users’ understanding – is highlighted, recommended and exemplified in this post. This ability of art to assist comprehension should prove more palatable to designers and provide them with clearer criteria by which to evaluate their work.

Introduction

In creating websites for educational purposes in the past, I have been uncertain about how much time and effort should be devoted to their visual appeal and impact. Besides aesthetic appeal, I was aware that visual learners, a high proportion of the population reportedly, have not been well-catered for in education historically, and that prompted me to explore the issue in a little more depth. The questions that I wanted answers to included:

  • Is the use of art and visuals superfluous?
  • Do art and visuals serve to distract and thereby reduce website usability?
  • What is an appropriate balance between form and function in educational web design?
  • Are there good reasons for designing visually attractive websites?

By the end of this post, I aim to establish criteria for the inclusion or exclusion of art and visuals in educational websites. The approach that I take is to use the views of noted web design gurus as a springboard for discussion and reflection.

Key terms: art, visuals, visual design

What is art? This is a very old and perplexing question and for the purposes of this post, as Palmer and Dodson point out (1996: 3), “There is no point in trying to arrive at some eternal essence of art.” Tomes have been written on this very subject and it is beyond the scope of this post to do the same. Some visuals are art and some are not. Diagrams and charts, for example, are not normally considered to be works of art. At the other extreme, it is uncontroversial, this author believes, that the images at, e.g., My Pet Skeleton qualify as art. There are some examples which are more contentious. However, for the purposes of this post, the important issue is not so much what art is, but what the value of art is. A more profitable level of discussion is a normative one, the value or lack of value of art and other visuals in Web design. The often hotly debated distinction between art and non-art is not crucial because it is the value of both art and other visuals that is under discussion.

I will concentrate on pictorial art even though not all art is visual, as it is the use of pictorial art that is the subject of concern amongst authorities on Web design in question.

What are visuals? Within ‘visuals’ may be included photographs, drawings, cartoon strips, animation, charts and diagrams, backgrounds. The term is used here to cover all images that are not included under the term ‘art’. The difference between art and visuals is that the latter may not create an emotional response in the user or be a means of self-expression for the designer. Their value lies in their explanatory power and ability to present information in an easily digestible form.

What is visual design? Visual design is more than the appearance of a website. According to (the now defunct) Mouse Visual Design, the term “embraces the appearance and organisation and layout of the graphical elements: focal point, contrast, relationship of one element to another, use of colour and fonts, organisation, point of view, appropriate feedback, logical navigation and appropriate functionality.” This simple website, for example, has been created using a borrowed and slightly customized WordPress theme in an attempt to convey and reinforce the monochrome association that I have with jackdaws, probably resulting from having seen quite a few block prints of these birds. Hopefully, the jackdaw metaphor – stealing shiny objects for a nest – is made more obvious.

Existing Guidelines

For Web designers there are numerous sources of advice. These consist of lists of assertions about best practice together with rationales.

Firstly, I read and summarised the views of prominent sources of advice (or gurus) on the aesthetics of computing and Web design. The following authorities were selected: Jakob Nielsen, Vincent Flanders, and David Gelernter. Also included are guidelines that informed the quango British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA)/Guardian Educational Web Site Awards. My interpretation of the theories of art and design behind these guidelines will be given in the following section.

Jakob Nielsen

Nielsen states (1999: 11) that “There are essentially two basic approaches to design: the artistic ideal of expressing yourself and the engineering ideal of solving a problem for a customer.” Nielsen declares his allegiance to the engineering approach. He does not prescribe totally excluding art, he does not try to negate the affective value of art, but sees it as just one of many factors to be taken into account by the designer. It is not the most important factor. Incidentally, the section of his book from which this quote is drawn is entitled Art vs. Engineering, suggesting an attitude that the two are antithetical. The attitude that self-expression is outweighed by fitness for purpose is reinforced by advice offered on his web site, useit.com. Websites must tone down their individual appearance and distinct design in all ways:

  • visual design
  • terminology and labeling
  • interaction design and workflow
  • information architecture

He also says, regards content, that “There will always be a need to determine the best approach to describing each unit of information.” Nielsen accepts that there is more than one way to present information. (One wonders if the best way might be visual on occasion.)

A recurring theme of Nielsen’s work is the need for simplicity:

If you do think you have too little complexity in your life, you will relish the challenge of a website with a mystery interface that makes you work hard to get any results. But most users would rather have simplicity. (1999:380)

Art is suspect in Nielsen’s view because it is ‘surplus to requirements’. Art can be an unnecessary complication that distracts the user from achieving their purposes on the web site; visual design that detracts from functionality should be avoided. Another disadvantage of art and visuals is that they increase download times.

In a discussion with Jakob Nielsen and Vincent Flanders in CIO Magazine, Nielsen says that a website looking good contributes to subjective satisfaction, and this is one criterion of usability. If there is no pleasure at all in visiting the site, then this will put users off. So, a website needs to be attractive to a certain minimum standard, but no more than that. A website that feels good is one which allows you to achieve your purposes with ease. Achieving purpose, I believe, is Nielsen’s paramount concern.

Vincent Flanders

Flanders is mostly, but not totally, in agreement with Nielsen. He identifies an exception to Nielsen’s recommendations for simplicity and usability. The exception is websites dedicated to personal expression. He makes this serious point in characteristic style:

Imagine Van Gogh as a web designer being told, “Yo, Vinnie — your work has to fit inside 640 x 480 pixels and you can only use 216 colors.” I suspect it would be a piece of your ear that would be missing. (Fixing Your Web Site – defunct website)

In his joint interview with Nielsen in CIO Magazine, Flanders is more explicit. He says that “…certain sites [such as music group sites] are expected to be hip”. Being different is central to their purpose, and this applies as much to the way musicians design their websites as to the way they write music or dress. For example, TheBeatles.com. Visitors to this site, aficionados of The Beatles, will be prepared to put up with confusing navigation. Indeed, this is part of the attraction.

However, most websites will be for commercial, practical purposes. On Web Pages That Suck, Flanders gets to the point. “Web design is not about art, it’s about making money.” Websites are mostly designed to satisfy some economic need, desire or demand. This may not be the case with educational websites.

David Gelernter

Gelernter’s discussion of design principles relates to computing in general rather than Web design specifically. In fact, he has no confidence in the Web and sees it as ‘prehistoric’. However, his ideas on design are nonetheless worthy of consideration in that they apparently contrast with those of Nielsen and Flanders. Gelernter proposes a central role for aesthetics and ‘beauty’ in computer design.  But what exactly does he mean by ‘beauty’?

“The beauty of a proof or machine lies in a happy marriage of simplicity and power – power meaning the ability to accomplish a wide range of tasks, get a lot done.” (1998: 2)

This is not a common definition of ‘beauty’. Beauty is commonly thought of as having a non-utilitarian nature. Actually, it can be seen that he is stressing accessibility and usability. The concept of beauty that he proposes is similar to Nielsen’s description of a site with a good feel.

Gelernter adds, intriguingly, that simplicity and power are necessary but possibly not sufficient conditions for beauty to exist. “Bringing power and simplicity to bear doesn’t guarantee machine beauty – just makes it possible, and nothing else does.” (1998: 2) Some other ingredient is hinted at by Gelernter, but he has no words to describe it.

Gelernter, I believe, does not see art and engineering as being in direct opposition, but that a balance is achievable that incorporates aspects of both. He proposes, in his 1998 book, designs for computer furniture and desktops that are efficient, minimalist, and with clean lines (in the case of the furniture).

BECTA/The Guardian Education Web Site Awards

There is a marked difference between the above guides’ attitudes towards design and those apparent in the guidelines supplied by (the now defunct) BECTA. Here are some excerpts relevant to this discussion:

  • The standard of websites is rising all the time and people expect more in terms of look and feel.
  • Does the design of the site, pages, graphics, sound, video, etc. assist user comprehension?
  • If the design calls for special features – animation, for example – try to ensure that the technology works in the background and does not draw attention to itself.
  • Use sound and video only when they aid understanding.

BECTA’s definitions of look and feel are not provided, so it is difficult to make a comparison with Nielsen’s definitions. If, as is claimed, users’ expectations are rising, then more resources and effort will be required for visual design in future. This source of guidelines is specific to educational websites and the emphasis on understanding makes sense in the light of this. BECTA’s guidelines hint at a different theory of the value of pictorial art and other visuals, one which will be clarified and explored below.

Theories Behind These Guidelines

The next stage of this post is to clarify and evaluate the implicit philosophies of the value of art of the above advisors.

None of the above guides make explicit their theories of the value (or lack of value) of art, so there is the possibility of misinterpretation. Yet I still consider this a valuable exercise because I believe that there is a need to think about this subject in a theoretically self-conscious way.

Nielsen, as evidenced by the quote above (1999: 11), conceives of art as a vehicle for human expression. The web designers’ personal satisfaction in having expressed themselves is not as high a priority in his estimation as websites meeting users’ needs. This is a reasonable conclusion as long as one accepts that art’s only value is its ability to act as a vehicle of self-expression. The latter is important but not as important as the website fulfilling its function.

In addition, Nielsen may also be in the camp of those who believe that art has value because it can inspire positive emotions. “While I acknowledge that there is a need for art, fun and a general good time on the Web, I believe that the main goal of most Web projects should be to make it easy for customers to perform useful tasks.” (1999: 11) Art’s value in creating pleasure exists, but again it is not as crucial as getting things done. If pleasure is the only value of art, Nielsen’s conclusion seems reasonable for the vast majority of websites.

Flanders is less inclined to inhibit self-expression than Nielsen, but only in the special case of ‘artistic’ sites. He also appears sympathetic to the valuing of art for its ability to create pleasure for the creator or viewer.

To summarise, Nielsen and Flanders implicitly subscribe to the two most common and obvious theories of the value of art. These are identified by Graham (1997) as:

Art and pleasure

Art is valuable because it is a source of amusement, pleasure or an opportunity to play.

Expressivism

Art is valuable as it provides us with a chance to express our emotions and exercise our imaginations.

The above two theories are affective, they relate to subjective satisfaction, either of the user or the designer. However, there is another theory of the value of art which is more pragmatic and directly related to the website being fit for purpose:

Aesthetic cognitivism

Stated briefly, aesthetic cognitivism is “The thesis that serious art presents us with a means by which human understanding may be advanced…” (Graham 1997: 48)

Wittgenstein, in the translated and edited Culture and Value (1980), makes a similar point. “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets musicians etc. to give pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them – that does not occur to them.”

Showing this latter claim to be correct would increase the importance of art in most people’s estimation because knowledge and understanding are generally given a greater status than entertainment, or even the expression of emotion. This greater status explains in part the high standing in which science [and engineering] is normally held… (Graham 1997: 45)

Relating this to website design, if the inclusion of art promotes understanding, then this may justify the time and effort needed to make art a feature of said website. Artistic design may lead not to confusion but to greater understanding. Amongst the authorities on Web design that have been considered here, only BECTA took into account the implications of aesthetic cognitivism. Unfortunately though, BECTA ceased to exist in 2011, a victim of government funding cuts.

In favour of aesthetic cognitivism is the observation that people commonly discuss art as if it carries messages; they wonder aloud or to themselves what a picture could mean.

There are also criticisms of aesthetic cognitivism, and these are related to Graham’s version of the theory as applying to masterpieces: he sees the facilitation of understanding and advancement of knowledge as a defining characteristic of masterpieces. Graham’s theory is grand. It makes the claim that art pushes back the frontier of human knowledge. To circumvent this criticism, I propose another, more humble version i.e. that advancing understanding is an additional quality of art, one that is not accounted for in the guidelines of these gurus, that can combine with pleasure and expression to make a more persuasive argument for the inclusion of art in websites wherever it is an effective and efficient means to convey meaning or raise awareness. The author argues that a recognition of art as a means to assist comprehension is very important and should be a guideline for Web design.

Graham does not clearly distinguish between enhancing understanding and advancing knowledge. He is talking about art as a means to extend the totality of human knowledge. The author here only claims that both art and other visuals can help individual humans to understand existing knowledge.

Gelernter’s ideas about beautiful design appear to me to be in accordance with those of the 20th Century Modernist movement. In fact, some of the examples of good design that Gelernter mentions are from the 1930s.

The Bauhaus style, later known as the International Style, was marked by the absence of ornament and ostentatious facades and the harmony between function and the artistic and technical means employed. Bauhaus was established by Walter Gropius in Germany just after WW1. The motto of the Bauhaus movement from 1923 was ‘art and technology – a new unity’. Bauhaus attempted to break down the traditional distinction between art and crafts, and to achieve a purposeful integration of both engineering and aesthetic standards.

Gelernter’s ideas for computer furniture design, for example, and for a new interface, show that he values form that is functional, elegant and simple. Gelernter is attracted to purity (and Nielsen even more so). These are values, and they are not universally shared. A criticism, that Modernism is not exhaustive, was levelled by Postmodernists. Woodham reports that (1997: 183) “…questions were raised whether …the modernist aesthetic could cater adequately for the increasingly variegated tastes and desires of the consumer.” Some users prefer greater decoration, even on commercial sites, and greater decoration and individuality will be a part of the image of some products. For example, the Hong Kong website for the Mini (MINIhk.com) is highly dynamic whereas the Volkswagen Hong Kong site seems to me to be a reflection of the company’s car design philosophy; straightforward, unfussy, functional and reliable.

Gelernter says “beauty of a proof”. A proof in mathematics is admired for its simplicity and brevity. Scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are guided in choosing between rival theories, proofs or propositions by Occam’s Razor. Occam’s razor is a logical principle attributed to the mediaeval philosopher William of Occam. The principle states that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. This principle is often called the principle of parsimony. It underlies all scientific modelling and theory building. It admonishes us to choose from a set of otherwise equivalent models of a given phenomenon the simplest one. (Occam’s Razor)

However, how close is this analogy between proofs and websites? Cognitive modelling is probably the equivalent of applying the Razor, but it is used in combination with user testing because “…no mechanistic interpretation of cognitive processes is comprehensive.” (Cognitive Modeling and Human Computer Interaction) The design that is most successful at the cognitive modelling stage of development may fail to impress users.

How can art and visuals be used to help us understand?

I propose several ways:

1) Art can help us understand art itself

For those websites devoted to art education, the exclusion of art would be a severe limitation. Eyes on Art is an example of a task-based art education site that it is difficult to imagine working as well with text only. There is the possibility of the benefit that exposure to and discussion of art may lead students to a better understanding of human nature, as Harrison (1997) concludes.

2) Visuals can reinforce the explanation of concepts

Haight, M (1999: 3) “A valid argument’s form is like a reliable sausage machine: if you put good meat in, you get a good sausage out; if you feed truth in, you get truth out.” Her sausage machine depiction of the process of argument is a good example of using a visual to reinforce a concept. This pictorial metaphor of a sausage machine is used several times to convey concepts and illustrate valid, invalid, sound and unsound argument forms. On a website, her sausage machine could be animated for greater effect.

3) Producing art is a valid response to art, to demonstrate understanding of a work of art

Avril (2002) found positive results in doing this with students. “Students made their own computer graphics both to discover and to describe literary structures of their choice.” The process of producing these graphics encouraged “genuinely original literary perceptions”. An example of this can be seen at At Exeter University TTI course: Cover 7; the student Alison Pringle has demonstrated her insight into the LeGuin novel through production of a title page. Avril concedes that, although the method appeared to work well, it is not understood why; further research by educational psychologists is required. In the meantime, however, the method can still be used. Importantly, “The module’s innovative methods are eminently transferable to other disciplines.”

4) Art and visuals help users comprehend the philosophies of companies and other organizations

No commercial website would be complete without artwork. Even on the simplest corporate sites e.g. Google, careful attention is paid to the logo, the choice of font and the background. This is sometimes referred to as identity or logo design. There is a point being made, a philosophy behind the design, and the logo is to help the consumer understand the message that the company wants delivered. For example, is the company modern and trendy, eco-friendly, or steeped in tradition and trustworthy? Woodham (1997: 143) attributes to Henrion the idea that the fashioning of corporate personality is crucial in a situation where it and its competitor’s products are very similar. The Care2 website has a good example of a logo. Green is used and a frog with the associations of nature and environment.

By contrast, Nielsen’s site, useit.com, lacks a logo that is truly distinctive. useit.com is in Arial. The word ‘use’ is red and the rest is black. It is not instantly recognisable, and it is not easy to protect in that it is reproducible on any computer. The author imagines that for these reasons it might have been difficult to register it as a trademark. Compare this with the logo for Google. Google is well-known for having a simple interface yet considerable effort has been put into the creation of its logo. Flanders used an image (of a spanner) as part of a meaningful logo on his old website called Fixing Your Web Site.

5) Art and visuals can, on occasion, be more efficient and effective than text at conveying ideas

In Kress and van Leeuwen (1996: 2) the view is put forward that “…some things can be ‘said’ only visually, others only verbally.” This is a strong claim, very difficult to substantiate, and one which is debated in Harrison (1997). Going back to Gelernter, he is unable to describe in words the ingredient that guarantees machine beauty. There may be truth in the above claim by Kress and van Leeuwen, and the evidence for it is simply that language is a clumsy tool with which to describe what visuals ‘say’. Weaker claims, that some things may be said more or equally as effectively via visuals, or are effectively reinforced via visuals, are preferred by the author because they are less controversial. The example is given in Kress (1996: 31) of how some science text books are changing in design, with visuals taking over from text as the primary means of explanation.

Visuals can be a particularly efficient way to portray complex concepts; as the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. On Flanders’ Web Pages that Suck he uses the term Mystery Meat Navigation, and then includes a paragraph to explain the expression. I would argue that his mouseover image of a road sign does a better job of getting across the concept of the result of poor design of navigation buttons. The language that he uses is opaque, not plain as Nielsen recommends. Flanders is willing to use language and visuals creatively in order to get his message across. The explanatory power of visuals should, however, be balanced carefully with Nielsen’s “An image takes two thousand words worth of download time.” (1999: 135) Yet this need not be the case when lossy files
are utilised and becomes less of an issue over time with the advent of shortened download times.

Additional reasons for including art and visuals

  • Users with a tendency towards a visual learning style can benefit from the inclusion of art and other visuals.
  • Visual literacy is a big issue in schools. Kress (1996: 32,33) “If schools are to equip students adequately for the new semiotic order…” “This will have to involve modern computer technology, central as it is to the new semiotic landscape.” The use of icons and other forms of visual shorthand is widespread.

Conclusions

Is it now possible, after this discussion, to establish criteria for the inclusion of art and visuals in website design?

Web designers will have to decide whether the inclusion or exclusion of art or visuals affects the website’s success significantly in any or all of these ways:

  • users do or do not like the look of it
  • users do or do not understand the message or content as well as they might.

In addition, copyright issues must be taken into consideration. Who do the images belong to? Is permission needed to use them?

A final question to pose is whether Web designers’ personal expression interferes with accessibility or usability. If it is only personal expression that is being satisfied by including art, and it does make the site more difficult to use, then another design is required.

These decisions can be informed by feedback from user testing.

Questions

Do any (educational) web designers out there agree with my criteria?

Do you know of any websites that include art and visuals in ways that promote comprehension? If so, please tell me about them. Thanks!

References

A Discussion with Jakob Nielsen and Vincent Flanders In this section … – CIO Magazine Dec 1. URL: http://www.cio.com/article/30756/How_Should_Websites_Look_Jakob_Nielsen_and_Vincent_Flanders_Speak_Up

Avril, H. (2002) Computer graphics and the literary construct: a learning method. British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 33, No. 1, 7-15.

Becta/The Guardian Educational Web Site Awards: Effective Web Design. URL:  http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110130111510/http:/www.becta.org.uk

Care2 Environment Supersite. URL: http://www.care2.com/

Cognitive Modeling and Human Computer Interaction. URL: http://www.cs.uoregon.edu/research/cm-hci/

Eileen Gunn: Imaginary Friends :: The Omni Interviews :: David Gelernter. URL: http://www.sff.net/people/Gunn/gelernter.htm/

Exeter University TTI course: Cover 7. URL: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/bjethybridarticles/welcome.html

Eyes on Art. URL: http://www.tommarch.com/webquests/art2/guide/guide.html

Fixing Your(tm) Web Site – Solving Design and usability problems. URL: http://www.fixingyourwebsite.com/nielsen_dogshows.html/

Gelernter, D. (1998) The Aesthetics of Computing. Phoenix.

Google. URL: http://www.google.com/

Graham, G. (1997) Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. Routledge.

Haight, M (1999)The Snake and the Fox. Routledge.

Harrison, A. (1997) Philosophy and the Arts – Seeing and Believing. Thoemmes Press.

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (1996) Reading Images – The Grammar of Visual Design. Routledge.

MINIhk.com URL: http://www.minihk.com/

My Pet Skeleton. URL: www.mypetskeleton.com/

Mouse Visual Design. URL: http://www.mousewks.com/visual/definition.htm/

Nielsen, J. (1999) Designing Web Usability – The Practice of Simplicity. New Riders Publishing.

Occam’s Razor. URL: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/OCCAMRAZ.html/

Palmer, J. and Dodson, M. (eds) (1996) Design and Aesthetics – a Reader. Routledge.

THE BEATLES.COM. URL: http://www.thebeatles.com/top.html/

useit.com. URL: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20000723.html/

Volkswagen UK. URL: http://www.vw.co.uk/

Web Pages That Suck. URL: http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com/

Wittgenstein, L. (1980) Culture and Value. Blackwell.

Woodham, J.M. (1997) Twentieth-Century Design. Oxford University Press.

Integrating Information and Communication Technology (ICT) with Task-Based Learning (TBL)

Abstract

In this post, I explore the practicalities of integrating ICT with the TBL framework devised by Willis (1996). This is done by drawing a comparison with an established learning framework that already incorporates ICT, by reflecting on what ICT could add of educational value to TBL tasks, and considering the compatibility of TBL and published language learning activities that make use of ICT. The issue of preservation of task design quality is addressed and it is noted that TBL offers useful guidelines for devising communicative tasks for educators outside TESOL who employ ICT. I also argue that it is desirable for teachers and materials writers to acknowledge the development of thinking skills in ICT in TESOL lesson plans in a standard way and as a matter of standard practice.

Introduction

Two comments in the literature about TBL prompted me to explore the practicalities of integrating ICT with TBL. Knight (2000) suggests that “Long and Crookes’ model of TBL is transferable and therefore realizable in Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) contexts.” He also puts forward the opinion that “other models of TBL may also be relevant for CALL” but does not pursue this line of enquiry. Moreover, Warschauer and Healey (1998) identify TBL, project-based learning and content-based learning as methods to develop both language and ICT skills within authentic contexts.

The aim of this post is to consider whether a TBL framework conceived primarily for language teaching in the classroom, as proposed by Willis (1996), is still workable and perhaps enhanced when ICT is employed. I take three approaches:

  1. Comparing the characteristics of TBL with those of a learning framework not specific to TESOL (i.e. WebQuest) that purposefully integrates ICT;
  2. Conceiving ways to incorporate ICT into TBL tasks and reflecting on the educational benefits of doing so;
  3. Examining the task types used in published TESOL materials that integrate ICT to see whether they match either TBL or WebQuest task types.

As a result I hope to identify, gather and synthesize positive aspects of existing practice into guidelines for integrating ICT and TBL. In addition, I reflect on a possible two-way exchange of insight between TESOL and other branches of education.

The aim of this post is not to debate the validity or usefulness of TBL. I do not wish to constrain course designers, materials writers and teachers by promoting TBL as the best way to integrate ICT with language learning. Whether to adopt TBL is a choice left to those professionals.

Finally, before proceeding, it should be mentioned that the learning scenario envisaged by me is that of ICT being used to compliment and enrich a face-to-face course rather than one which is conducted purely online.

Two learning frameworks: TBL and WebQuest

TBL is an instructional framework, a methodology for language learning. There is a full expression of TBL for classroom teaching in Willis (1996), according to which each task-based lesson has three phases. The first is to activate learners’ schemata regards the topic and to clarify relevant vocabulary (without knowledge of which students might struggle to complete the central task). The second phase is the main communicative task together with preparation and presentation of a reflective report on how the main task was performed. The final accuracy phase is a focus on language items used during the main task together with additional practice of those items. The idea is to provide as genuine a communication opportunity as possible given the restrictions of the classroom. Willis also details ‘processes’ in example TBL lesson plans which may be interpreted as thinking skills (e.g. analysing) or as functions of language (e.g. giving opinions). The language teacher will see the primary value of TBL as a means to develop learners’ language proficiency. The development of thinking skills through the group processing of information is of secondary concern.

The task types proposed are:

  • Listing
  • Ordering, sorting, classifying
  • Comparing, matching
  • Problem-solving
  • Sharing personal experiences, anecdote telling
  • Creative tasks, project work.

Which learning theory underpins TBL? TBL is closely identified with Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Willis also refers to cognitive theory and learning styles.

Webquest, a model for learning developed by Dodge (not the car manufacturer) in 1995 at San DiegoUniversity, bears some resemblance to TBL. According to Dodge’s description, the model features an introduction to set the stage and provide background information, a task that is achievable and interesting, a clear process, the teacher should provide guidance, and some kind of closure is required. A clear process may be advocated but the guidelines for preparing a WebQuest are less specific than those in TBL. To be fair, this is partly because WebQuests may be cross-curricular rather than subject specific. An example of a short-term WebQuest is online research followed by student reports to the whole class. A long-term WebQuest involves creating something concrete that can be responded to by others. This can be an authored electronic product (e.g. a digital video story).

Webquest task types include:

  • Responding to a series of questions
  • Summary writing
  • Problem-solving
  • Researching a position to be defended
  • Creative work.

However, these are not the only possibilities and Dodge’s criterion of a good task is “anything that requires processing and transformation of the information.” (Some thoughts about WebQuests)

Which learning theory underpins WebQuest? Dodge makes reference to the work of Marzano (1992) on thinking skills. Marzano’s model is an expansion of Bloom’s taxonomy. The emphasis of this learning framework is on developing thinking skills (e.g. classifying) as well as subject knowledge.

A major difference between the two instructional frameworks is that TBL is largely informed by an approach to learning that is distinct from general learning theory. This can be justified in that “L2 learning needs to be understood in its own terms rather than approached via something else.” Richards (2001). Despite adherence to different approaches, TBL and WebQuest are similarly structured frameworks for learning and even share one task type, namely problem-solving.

A comparison with published TESOL materials that integrate ICT

In Dudeney (2000), a wide range of tried and tested activities are presented in which the Internet and other technologies are employed. Amongst others, the following task types are represented:

  • Basic research
  • Projects
  • Reviewing and classifying
  • Getting opinions
  • Problem-solving

These are reminiscent of WebQuest task types and the task types in TBL that involve more complex cognitive operations.

The value of adding ICT to TBL tasks

Can anything of educational value be added through using ICT in TBL tasks? For a quick reminder of TBL tasks here are examples from Willis (1998):

For example, taking the topic “cats,” a listing task might be: List three reasons why people think cats make good pets. A comparing task might be to compare cats and dogs as pets. A problem-solving task could be to think of three low budget solutions to the problem of looking after a cat when the family is absent. An experience sharing or anecdote telling task could involve sharing stories about cats.

As it stands, the listing task – list three reasons why people think cats make good pets – relies solely on students’ general knowledge. Based on this, students are pretty likely to come up with common, unsurprising reasons. By contrast, given access to the Internet, search skills (and a sensible time limit) students could locate reasons not imagined by any of the class members or evidence to back up their reasons and so promote more stimulating discussion during the comparison stage. Indeed, one group of students could research the pros of cat ownership while a second group does the same for dogs. Members of different groups could then pair up and argue the case for their kind of pet. Alternatively, pairs or small groups of students could sit around computers to discuss the reasons they have found as they cut and paste into PowerPoint slides for presentation to the rest of the class. If the classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard, then presentation of ideas is very conveniently managed. It is also true for problem-solving tasks that having the Internet available for access to a wide range of authentic materials is a major advantage.

Importantly, through searching for and gathering ideas from websites, students read and then discuss for a genuine reason, evaluate the ideas they find and synthesize them into something worthy of presentation to their peers. In this example, both language and cognitive skills beyond those intended by classroom-based TBL are exercised through the introduction of ICT. In addition, by completing TBL tasks that employ ICT, students are also given opportunities to hone their ICT skills.

Maintaining task design quality

The advantages of integrating ICT with TBL (or using Webquests in language teaching & learning) will only be realised as long as teachers and materials writers maintain quality in lesson design.

Here are some examples, from my experience, of ways in which poor design can reduce the benefits of TBL lessons that incorporate ICT:

1. Topic rather than task

Simply asking students to spontaneously contribute to an online discussion thread on a given topic does not qualify as a ‘task’ in TBL terms because it lacks communicative purpose. Some students will have sufficient extrinsic motivation to participate, and some may be motivated by the topic itself, but many learners will not be particularly enthused. Moreover, when presented with a topic rather than a task, students tend to tangent or diverge from the topic.

2. Insufficient preparation for the main task

When the first phase of a TBL lesson is too economical the main task may fail or not progress very far. An overview of the topic by the teacher can have a leveling effect, making sure that all the learners are aware of common knowledge about a topic. Then, their online research can push that knowledge further. Linguistic preparation in the form of pre-teaching key vocabulary is also vital to lubricate the main task. An example where a main task has ground to halt is when a written role play was set up on a Bulletin Board System (BBS) with insufficient contextualization beforehand. It was difficult for students to imagine the next lines of characters in the role play without full details of those characters and the situation.

3. A lack of audience

Students may publish Web pages as a means to present project work or creative tasks. This appears to offer an easy solution to the challenge of finding an audience, an important element in authenticity of tasks. People outside the school could view and respond to their work. But this requires more thought and preparation otherwise those Web pages are never visited. One solution is to teach students how to use HTML meta and title tags to improve their ranking in search engines. Another is to upload student work to a free online platform such as Oracle’s Think.com if your institution is a primary or secondary school.

A lesson for TBL from WebQuest

The development of thinking skills is not something that ESOL teachers are in the habit of expressing in lesson aims and objectives. In the Willis version of TBL this is addressed by the inclusion of ‘processes’ in sample lesson plans. However, reference could be made to a more-widely recognised classification of levels of thinking (as WebQuest does by referring to Marzano). It may be the case, if this is not done, that a bias develops in TESOL course materials to develop some thinking skills to the exclusion of others. Another benefit of using a common terminology is that liaison with teachers from other disciplines would be facilitated, especially where ESOL teachers are working in a state or international school. Greater recognition of the relationship of TBL with wider social and psychological processes occurring in classrooms is recommended. This also accommodates humanistic approaches to language learning, the desire to develop the whole person.

 A lesson for WebQuest from TBL

The TBL framework can contribute to quality assurance in WebQuests. By following TBL guidelines for designing communicative main tasks, this ensures that tasks are purposeful, meaningful, real world and probably more memorable. This is reminiscent of Vygotsky (1986) who sees a central role for language in cognition in young minds. He emphasizes that learning should take place in meaningful contexts. If no ‘real’ communication opportunities are provided in the classroom, I question whether conditions are optimum for cognitive development. Putting students in situations that include an information gap between them is important because it is by trying to clarify matters with and for others that we reach a better understanding ourselves.

Conclusion

This was an investigation of the marriage of a TBL framework and ICT. The conclusion reached is that TBL is practicable when ICT is introduced and offers the bonus of supplementary linguistic, cognitive and ICT skills development as long as lesson design quality remains high. In the process of considering TBL and WebQuest, I came to believe that each framework has something to offer the other. TBL has the virtue of a central communicative task which should also be valued in general education and WebQuest makes overt reference to a model of thinking skills.

References

Dodge. B(1995) WebQuests. URL: http://edweb.sdsu.edu/courses/edtec596/about_webquests.html

Dudeney, G. (2000) The Internet and the Language Classroom. CambridgeUniversity Press.

Knight, P. (2000) The role of language and learning models in student-directed CALL. In: Brett, P. (ed.) CALL in the 21st Century. IATEFL.

Marzano, R.J. (1992) A different kind of classroom: Teaching with dimensions of learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Richards, J. (2001) The ideology of TESOL. In: Carter, R. and Nunan, D. (eds.) Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. CambridgeUniversity Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Thought and Language. The M.I.T. Press.

Warschauer, M. and Healey, D. (1998) Computers and language learning: an overview [Online]. Language Teaching, 31, 57-71. URL: http://www.gse.uci.edu/markw/overview.html

Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Longman.

Willis, J. (1998) Task-Based Learning: What kind of adventure? [Online]. The Language Teacher Online, Issue 22. 07-July 1998. URL: http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/files/98/jul/willis.html