Archive for the ‘Computing’ Category

Web design issues

February 4, 2009 Leave a comment

Broader issues of web design

Overview of WWW Design.

Comments and notes from Tim Berners-Lee:

…websites should be readable by everyone, and this should include people with slow modems, different browsers, or screen readers. This should also include those who cannot use either a keyboard or a mouse and those who are colour blind or have poor eyesight.


Website design issues from Cornish Webservices Consultancy:

design is not about graphics, it’s about using graphics effectively in conjunction with text to convey the maximum information in the most attractive and efficient way possible.

Good and bad web design features from


Nielsen says sites that attract and retain readers take little time to download, present information in a succinct fashion, underline relevant links (but not the entire sentence in which the link is contained) and contain fresh information. The bottom line, Nielsen says, is that web sites should be designed to help visitors find what they want — not what publishers or the marketing department want to promote.

An important issue about web design is that the product has to work effectively across the range of web browsers available. This is not always easy, although browser design is getting better. Internet Explorer 6, long maligned by knowledgeable web users, is about to disappear.


Web usability issues from Nielsen-Norman Group

Web design articles from Page

Web style guide from Lynch and Horton

It is important to make sure that your visitors can find what they want quickly and easily. By following the 3 click rule, you can improve your sites navigation and ease of use.

A web site is often a marketing tool, and requires more than just the presentation of technical information. However, there is a danger that the marketing aspects of the site become the main focus. Usability, accessibility and security (for the user) are often forgotten in the drive to make the web site look appealing from a purely visual design perspective.

Web site design issues from TechScribe

One way to learn about good page design is to cruise other people’s well designed pages…

Website design issues from Website Copyright

Design issues and techniques from

Web safe colours.

Various articles on design issues from MCU

Whitespace, various from Wikipedia

Designers use whitespace to create a feeling of sophistication and elegance for upscale brands. Couples with a sensitive use of typography and photography, generous whitespace is seen all over luxury markets. Cosmetics, for example, use extensive whitespace in their marketing material to tell the reader that they are sophisticated, high quality, and generally expensive.

Whitespace from Mark Boulton

Tables from

Accessibility issues, Frames and Cascading Style Sheets

Accessability issues from Jim Byrne

frames or no frames from Taming the

Why frames suck, from Jacob Nielsen

Cascading Style Sheets from Wikipedia

Cascading Style Sheets from Web Design Group

Cascading style sheets from Learn how to

Cascading Style Sheets tutorials from

CSS Tables gallery from

More CSS templates Boxes

See Zen Garden:The Beauty in CSS Based Design.

Creating killer web sites.

Academic paper: Tauscher, L. & Greenberg, S.

How people revisit Web Pages: Empirical Findings and Implications for the Design of History Systems.

Aspects of Web Design

Hot Sites?

Web design is a very personal activity and it is difficult to lay down hard and fast rules with respect to what makes a good design and what makes a bad one. A few general rules apply, but these are often broken for a variety of reasons. It is more useful to look at some of the issues and discuss them rather than lay down rules.

The now defunct (?) Digital Information Office (DIO) provided guidance for academic website design. These can be seen here.

There are a number of books on design, which you might find useful. I have this one, but am sure that there are a number of more recent ones.

What makes for good design?

  • It must look good, be pleasing to the eye
  • It must be easy to read
  • It must be easy to navigate
  • It must be easy to bookmark
  • It must make you want to come back.

...sites that attract and retain readers take little time to download, present information in a succinct fashion, underline relevant links (but not the entire sentence in which the link is contained) and contain fresh information. The bottom line, Nielsen says, is that Web sites should be designed to help visitors find what they want — not what the publishers or the marketing department want to promote. Jacob Nielsen


See Jacob Nielsen’s comments on the top ten design faults.

Nightmare web design clients.

See Wendy Boswell‘s Good Website Design for Website Optimisation.

10 most important web design tips .



Web design packages allow one to work in a wysiwyg environment, simplifying layout and providing a high level of control over layout and look. Most designers buy into a suite such as Macromedia or Microsoft. These usually include web and graphic design packages, which integrate well. The Macromedia suite includes Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash, which provide an integrated suite of web design tools.

Some people still design at code level, and it is useful to have an at least rudimentary knowledge or understanding of the underlying code. Try Elizabeth Castro – Creating a Web Page with HTML (2004) Peachpit Press as a start.

Microsoft Front Page is a popular design package. However, many designers find Macromedia or Adobe GoLive more powerful user-friendly once they get serious about design. Essentially it is a matter of choice, or perhaps what one is used to working with.

Certain HTML editing packages provide an interface that allows you to drag and drop code, rather than type it in. These include Hotdog by Sausage Software and HotMetal by Softquad.




More advanced design can can be achieved using CSS. See the contents of this book here.



Some design and accessibility issues

White space

Web pages should ideally be short and easy to read. Unfortunately, many are terribly dense, offering too much information and causing confusion. The reasons for this are varied – some pages are text based (such as our own) which makes them unavoidably wordy. The same applies to many service provider pages, which need to provide something for everyone because of the highly varied requirements of the clients.

A ‘good’ page has plenty of white space, which provides rest areas for the eye. Good design enables the designer to include the necessary information without the page looking cluttered. Generally, less is more. Web sites should not include every single fact about your company. Instead, provide the essential data in a well-organised and understandable way, providing forms and/or email links for more info.

Graphics and image size

A picture is worth a thousand words. Using photographs provides information and helps to balance and break the monotony of text.

Animated Gifs

Gifs can be set up in such a way as to seem as if they are moving. In reality, a number of different images are presented in a sequence, rather like a film. A useful free package called Xara allows one to create such images easily.

Photographs are used a great deal more than they were before, possibly because of broadband.

File size is important for rapid downloading of sites and pages. Large jpg images can be made progressive and have unused colours removed. Large gifs can be interlaced. This allows them to download in a more user-friendly manner. A further trick is to slice large images into pieces and to recombine them in a table. 10 small images download faster than one image ten times the size. Using a package like Fireworks provides these facilities. A cheaper option is a free package like Jpeg Optimiser. Upgrades (at a small cost) allow optimisation of a variety of image types.

Colours, Typefaces and font sizes

Generally speaking:
Use one typeface only and a maximum of three. Different typefaces can be used for headings and general text. Use underlining sparingly… it is easily confused with hyperlinks. Use bold or italics to highlight issues.

Avoid garish colours for backgrounds as they make the text difficult to read. Be aware of colours that do not provide a good contrast… they make life difficult for people who are colour blind.

Black text on a white background is easiest to read. Use non-serif for headings (Ariel, Verdana, Helvetica, Georgia). You might consider serif typefaces for the main body (Times Roman) but experiment for readability and overall effect. Personally, I avoid serif typefaces for for anything I expect people to read on screen. See Austin, B (2000: chapters 4 and 6)

Avoid using font sizes which are difficult to read. Minimum of 10 point?

Controlling your page

1. Cascading Style Sheets


That’s great, we really like it, really great… However, the boss asked me to ask you whether you could make the paragraph headings a little smaller, say a point or so… and whether it is possible to use italics for all the photo descriptors…

Clients will often agree to one set of specifications at the beginning of your design job, only to change them at the end, when the web site is complete. In the past, this could involve hours spent changing individual paragraph headings and the like, because normal HTML has a number of locked in formatting rules, which one can neither see nor control. Cascading Style Sheets make this type of nightmare a thing of the past.

CSS provide a high level of control over things like typeface, font size, spacing etc. CSS allows a web designer to create his or her own rules to override the normal HTML rules.

The term cascading refers to the way in which the general rules within a system are overridden by local rules. With CSS one can create general rules or local rules, with local rules overriding general rules.

On a practical level, Cascading Style Sheets allow one to set up formatting for things like headers, paragraph headings, certain types of text (eg general text in your page, small text for describing photographs, italicised text (possibly) in your tables. The power of CSS is that the styles can be applied throughout the entire website. A change to the style will therefore impact on the entire site, so one no longer has to spend time editing individual pages. Dreamweaver’s CSS are easy to work with and control.

2. Frames

Frames are useful for controlling the layout of your site and for making changes easier. A frame that contains a series of navigation buttons makes it easy to add or delete pages. If each page has a set of navigation buttons, each and every page needs to be changed. This can be extremely tedious. If using frames, make sure you know how to ‘point’ to specific frames or call up a fresh window. Some design packages allow you to do this easily at menu level.

However, frames come with usability issues. As the frame is simply a space for a page to rest in, it causes boookmarking problems. The general consensus today is to avoid them and to use templates to control layout instead.

3. Tables

HTML is quite difficult to control with respect to placement of text and images and the relationship between them. The easiest way to control layout is to use tables. These allow you to control the various aspects of your page and to keep pictures neatly lined up. It helps to keep picture size under control. This can be done by sizing the image, preferably using a graphics package which optimises the pictures as it sizes them, giving control of both the optical (physical) and file (megabyte) sizes.

General advice about structure


When designing a site, keep all files (html, image, sound etc) in one major folder. Subfolders for images and sounds can be created. This makes the management of your site much easier, as it is easy to see and manage the different files. It also makes ftping the site onto the server very much easier. Any pictures from the www or from other folders on your computer should be copied into the main web folder.



Getting your site on the WWW

1. Registering a domain

Your domain is your own unique web address. Domains can be registered from a variety of sources. Try or

Shop around!!! Prices vary.

2. Getting a host

Dozens of organisations and individuals provide a web hosting service. Prices vary from free (??) to major money. Make sure that the host offers any special needs you require. This could include secure directories (https://) for financial transactions, email support, 24 hour access, automatic ftp synchronisation and a control panel which allows you access to email addresses and passwords for your site

3. Uploading

Use a good ftp package. Free packages tend to be limited with respect to features. Top grade ftp packages enable you to upload directories and subdirectories automatically, as well as automatic synchronisation and editing directly on the server. FreeFTP can be downloaded from



Search engines – allowing others to find your page.

Search engines need to find information about your site if they are to list them. You need to think about the kind of words that someone looking for the kind of information you are providing might use. These words need to be placed in the head section of the page.

A number of organisations will submit your page to a variety of search engines for a fee. How effective this is open to question. A variety of software packages claim to do the job for you.

When things go wrong… solving problems in web design. guide by Jennifer Kyrnin

Frivolities – hit counters, mouse pointers


There are a number of vendors offering counters, some for free, some by annual subscription. Try and see the post which follows for others They keep a check of the number of hits your site gets, and supply stats of various sorts. You will need to register and download the necessary code for inclusion in your index page. Accessing the Counter site (remember your username and password) will provide further info, such as types of browser used to access your site, and an analysis of hits by country etc.

Hit counters from Amazing Counters

Hit counters from Ultimate Counter

Hit counters from Shiny Stat

However, the most important thing to consider is whether we need to display this information to all an sundry. It is perhaps best kept hidden and only used if it is of use to you.

Mouse pointers

Comet Cursor allows you to change your mouse pointer. Specific mouse pointers can be called from within a page while you are browsing. Register with Comet ( and download the coding. Comet tells you exactly how to do this and exactly where in the page to place the code. There are links to other vendors on the post which follows.

Mouse pointers from Free Mouse Pointers

Alternative mouse pointers from PC World

Mouse pointers from Goldfiles

Again… consider whether we really need these. I would suggest not.


Forms allow you to collect collection information from someone looking at your site. This could be from simple (name, comments) to highly complicated involving highly confidential data that needs special encryption for protection. Forms also have hidden fields, which provide the correct email address for the webmaster (recipient), a title, which enables him to see what the mail involves (subject), a redirect field, which generates an automatic response.

Forms have a number of other field types. These can include text fields, check boxes and radio buttons. Only one radio button a cluster can be switched on – ideal for forcing a single selection.


Copyright issues

The ease with which photographs and other graphics can be copied from the web raises the issue of copyright infringement. Strictly speaking, the use of graphics, be they photographs, cartoons, animated gifs , other images or other information needs to be done with permission. The fact that it is often difficult to gain permission, be it because it is difficult to a) identify or b) contact copyright holders, is not a defence should one be prosecuted. To be safe – do not use anything which you do not have permission to use unless you are sure that it is open to general use.

The proliferation of social software makes it even easier to fond photographic material which can be of use. Sites like Flickr make it easy for users to provide a clear indication of copyright limitations using the Creative Commons conventions. These are easy to follow and well worth considering for your own work.

UK Copyright Service

Example of good usability for visually impaired users.

Some useful recent papers on web design.
David Kember, Carmel McNaught, Fanny C.Y. Chong, Paul Lam, K.F. Cheng (2010) Understanding the ways in which design features of educational websites impact upon student learning outcomes in blended learning environments. Computers & Education, Volume 55, Issue 3, November 2010, Pages 1183-1192.

Taeko Ariga, Takashi Watanabe (2008) Teaching materials to enhance the visual expression of Web pages for students not in art or design majors.  Computers & Education, Volume 51, Issue 2, September 2008, Pages 815-828.

Tom Boyle (2010) Layered learning design: Towards an integration of learning design and learning object perspectives. Computers & Education, Volume 54, Issue 3, April 2010, Pages 661-668.

Hyung Nam Kim (2008) The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computers & Education, Volume 51, Issue 3, November 2008, Pages 1342-1352.

Piers MacLean & Bernard Scott (June 9, 2009) Competencies for learning design: A review of the literature and a proposed framework. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Gek Woo Tan & Kwok Kee Wei (2006) An empirical study of Web browsing behaviour: Towards an effective Website design. Electronic Commerce Research and Applications 5 (2006) 261–271.

Useful books on web design.

Bishop, S. Adobe Dreamweaver CS5 Revealled

Hart & Feller. Adobe DreamweaverCS5 Comprehensive

Willard, W. Web Design. A beginners Guide (2nd Edition)

Academic posters.

Edinburgh Napier University.

University of Leicester.

Academic Posters – what are they? University of Melbourne.

Creating Academic Posters using Powerpoint. University of Stirling

Categories: Computing

Constructivism. Putting the social into e-learning.

November 26, 2008 2 comments

There is no one true reality – rather, individual interpretations of the world. These are shaped by our experience and our social interactions. Learning is a process of adapting to and organising one’s quantitative world, rather than discovering pre-existing ideas imposed by others. Clements & Battista, 1990.

Constructivism is essentially a theory of learning, which developed from the work of Piaget. It is based on the belief that ‘reality’ is not an external absolute, but a personal composite constructed from our active thinking and previous experience. Learning requires the active construction of knowledge, rather than absorbing it from books  and lecturers (Eckerdal, et al. 2006). Thus, understanding is created as we engage mentally with our ‘environment’ in an effort to make sense of it, referring, as we do so, to what we already ‘know’ to be true. The word environment is used loosely here – it could be the world around us, a specific situation, a mathematical problem or a poem; essentially any situation which we strive to make sense of.

Zurita, G. & Nussbaum, M. (2004:235-6) cite the work of Rochelle and Teasley (1995) in listing the characteristics of effective constructivist working environments. These include learning being constructive, active, significant, based on consultation, reflexive and collaborative. Thus:

Constructive means that the students have to modify their current knowledge schemes to integrate new information and acquire new knowledge. Active indicates that a total student participation is expected. Significant refers that learning has to be with a meaning, built from the conceptual structure the student already has. Based on consultation points out that the child has to formulate his/her own questions, from multiple interpretations and learning expressions. Reflexive shows that the student has to mirror his/her own experience on other students, making them experts in their own learning. Finally, to be Collaborative indicates that the child learns from others by working together on the same objective, where each group member is a potential source of information.

For constructivists, learning is a transformative process in that our understanding is constantly changed by additional meaning making. Mezirow (1991:94) argues that transformative learning ‘‘begins when we encounter experiences, often in an emotionally charged situation, that fail to fit our expectations and consequently lack meaning for us, or we encounter an anomaly that cannot be given coherence either by learning within existing schemes or by learning new schemes.’’

The ability to reflect is seen as a powerful tool by constructivists. Mezirow (117) states:

Reflection is involved in problem solving, problem posing and transformation of meaning schemes and perspectives. We may reflect on the content of a problem, the process of our problem solving or the premise upon which the problem is predicated. Content and process reflection can play a role in thoughtful action by allowing us to assess consciously what we know about taking the next step in a series of actions. Premise reflection involves a movement through cognitive structures guided by the identifying and judging of  resuppositions. Through content and process reflection we can change our meaning schemes: through premise reflection we can transform our meaning perspectives. Transformative learning pertains to both the transformation of meaning schemes through content and process reflection, and the transformation of meaning perspectives through premise reflection.

Constructivists believe in creating learning environments that offer learning opportunities that are meaningful to the learner, provide maximum learner control over the learning situation and encouraging the learner to be active in their construction of mental representations of phenomena in their world. Constructivist teachers value the understanding (often informal in the case of young children) what learners bring to the table and use it as a starting point for further learning. Constructivist do not really believe in ‘teaching’; rather that learning occurs in an environment which is creative, exciting, engaging and motivating for learners.  The function of the facilitator (teacher) is to create this environment, and to guide or support the learner in his or her path to understanding. This is done in a number of ways, including asking pertinent questions which steer the learner’s thinking so as to provide direction.  Bruner called this  support scaffolding, based on Vygotsky’s idea about the zone of proximal development, being the difference between what a person knows now, and can learn next.

Social constructivism (socio-constructivism) is based on constructivism, but places emphasis on the social aspects of learning. Vygotsky saw language as the prime conduit for learning, saying that our most valuable learning is gained by talking about things. Knowledge making can occur as we reflect on issues as individuals, but discourse – discussion, questions, argument, explanations – is the most powerful method of refining our understanding. Downes puts the idea neatly by saying (2008:24) “Although we learn what we learn from personal experience, we usually learn what we learn from other people.”

Learning environments reflect the change in our beliefs about how learning occurs. Today, desks are arranged to facilitate discussion and teachers provide opportunities for groups to discuss issues. Fernandez, (2008) provides us with a useful contrast between the learner as an individual and the learner as a member of a social group, reflecting on Brown’s comments that the idea of ‘I think, therefore I am’ should be replaced by ‘we participate, therefore we are.’

Constructivism was welcomed by educationists who were turned off by the assumptions of the behaviourist school, which tended to see learning simply as a matter of responses to stimuli. Lowerison et al. (2004:466) say that  “the objectivist position is that reality exists independently of the human mind and is not affected by an individual’s particular belief system. Physical laws are constant, and are based on an objective and reliable set of facts, theories and principles. Perceived changes in the nature of reality are simply the evolution of our knowledge about the “truth” driven by the discovery of some previously unknown, but pre-existing, phenomena.” The essence of the difference between these paradigms is the way they perceive the nature of truth, and the way one goes about ‘acquiring’ it.

Closely allied to constructivism is the idea of constructionism, which suggests that  learning happens most effectively when people are also active in “making tangible objects in the real world” (Wikipedia). As such, it ties closely to the idea of apprenticeships and experiential learning.  Seymour Papert contributed largely to the development of the constructionist theory.  LOGO, a computer programming language popular in schools in the 1980s, provides a useful example of a constructionist  approach to learning.

Papert and Harel’s ideas about constructionism can be explored here. This paper (undated, accessed 27/11/09) by Ackermann examines the differences between constructivism and constructionism.

Bruner built on the work of Piaget and Vygotsky,  is also worth looking at.  Like Piaget, Bruner saw learning as an active process where learners construct new ideas and concepts based on existing knowledge. They select and transform information, construct hypotheses  and make decisions with reference to and reliance on an internal cognitive structures, based on a network of schemas which provide meaning and structure to experience and allow the learner to build on what is already known to expand their repertoire of understanding (Pritchard &Woollard, 2010). For Bruner, the task of teachers is to encourage pupils to discover principles for themselves, with the teacher providing ‘scaffolding’ by pointing the student in the right direction by way of open discussion and asking questions which help the pupil to develop their understanding – essentially providing a means for students to bridge the gap between known and achievable as described by Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.  Bandura’s work is also based on Piaget and Vygotsky, with learning seen as active and collaborative, with people working together on shared beliefs and common goals to improve their lives (Pritchard & Woollard, 2010).


E-Learning and social constructivism

It is relatively easy to create a social constructivist environment in a classroom. It is more difficult to do so in the context of distance learning, whether paper based (these still exist in developing countries) or electronic. Early distance education e-learning environments tended to be simple electronic versions of old paper based ones, where lecture notes was provided for students to read on screen. Communication was more or less limited to e-mail discussion with  the course tutor. The attrition rate in distance education has always been high, one of the reasons being that the systems designed to deliver e-learning has tended to leave students students feeling isolated (Flood, J. 2002). E-learning designers have struggled to design systems which provide a social constructivist environment, largely because it is impossible with the technology available at this stage to recreate classrooms online. According to Valentine (2002) problems include “the quality of instruction, hidden costs, misuse of technology, and the attitudes of instructors, students, and administrators.”


The kinds of applications used to ‘deliver’ content have been called Learning Management Systems (LMSs), managed learning environments (MLEs) and virtual learning environments (VLEs).  VLEs like Blackboard force users down a narrow, highly directed path and are not particularly user friendly as a result.  Holley and Oliver (2009) express concern about this approach.   However, they add that “when academics offer rich and engaging online materials, an opportunity is provided for students to learn in a different way, at a place and time of their own choosing” (page 2). However, to provide more personalised and individualised modes of study, negotiated with individual students, involves teachers relinquishing some power and control of the classroom, meaning that they have to really value the alternative approach.

There are two issues here – the lack of flexibility of LMS systems, and the inability of teachers to trust students to control their own learning.  Improvements have been made by open source developers, who are involved in ongoing work on more flexible applications like Moodle, which is more capable of supporting  constructivist pedagogies (Downes, S. 2008). Fernandez (2008) makes the point that Moodle “isn’t just a piece of software used for teaching and learning, it’s also a community of educators and software developers who have incorporated the culture of the guild and apprenticeship into their work processes.” The influence of educators is important when it comes to providing systems which match the needs of learners.

We see here that better software does facilitate better design and provision. This notwithstanding, it is useful to take cognisance of Farmer’s comment (2008) that “the use of constructivist methods does not necessarily require a specific e-Learning system…” and that providers need to “focus on instructional methodology rather than information technology.”

Virtual Learning Environments as we understand them today, are unlikely to be as powerful as blended learning environments for the simple reason that it is is impossible to mirror the classroom, with all its nuances, vocal and visual clues. However, e-learning providers have learned much in recent years, supported by more powerful computers, communications infrastructures, Internet technologies and applications enabled by the changing way in which we understand and use the web.  What has become clear is that a high level of personalised support or “hand-holding” (Martinez, M. 2003:1) is important for distance learning students and that learning-management packages need to come bundled with tools which enable students to communicate effectively with one another to make use of the potential of socially constructed learning.  Computer mediated communication plays an important part in this, providing the potential for supporting both personalised and social learning in terms of choice of tools and the means to communicate with one another to create effective learning networks. More and more communication tools are on offer – email, messaging, sms texting, discussion boards, video-conferencing, blogs, wikis, podcasts, vodcasts, microblogging applications like Twitter, Plurk and (until recently) Pownce. The number of choices grows almost daily. Downes (2008:24) has suggested that developments in conferencing applications “will make actual in-person meetings less necessary, and the ‘blended’ aspect of blended learning will come increasingly to reflect the in-person activities people undertake in their own workplaces or communities.”


The bottom line is that educational institutions as we now know them are bound to change. Already we see lectures being replaced by podcasts and a steady reduction in tutor-student face to face time as management types replace academics as leaders of universities and universities become more like businesses, trimming costs and urging faculty to ‘work smarter’. New applications like Second Life are already attracting a good deal of interest in academic circles, raising the possibility of adding value to both  distance education and replacing at least some part of current face to face blended learning. In the future, the brave new world of virtual reality will have an even larger impact on the way we communicate, learn, recreate and do business.

In the immediate future, new, web-savvy students who were raised in a digital age and use powerful information technologies on a daily basis for both personal and work purposes are pointing us in a new direction, that of personal learning environments (PLEs). Unlike VLEs, these are created by the users themselves, providing rapid access to the resources they require to do what they do. From a pedagogic perspective, the importance of this is that PLEs provide a high level of personal control as opposed to institutional control, providing a good fit with the constructivist paradigm.  ‘Digital natives’, as Prensky (2001) calls them, are natural networkers, highly ‘connected’, social, collaborative, multi-taskers. They use information and communications technologies intuitively, even if they do not always understand the educational potential of all the applications they are familiar with (Trinder et al. (2008). The idea of connectivism (Drexler, 2008) ties in well with social constructivism, demonstrating how new generation learners use the power of our networked world to tap into remote sources of knowledge, including experts in various fields.  These learners work in a world without boundaries from a technological point of view. They are adept at finding, storing, managing and sharing information using new web-based applications. More importantly, they are involved in knowledge creation, using blogs, wikis and other on-line applications to mash and developing new ways of looking at and using information. These students bring fresh challenges for learning institutions across the educational spectrum, given their need for a fast moving, game oriented learning (Pensky, 2001) which traditional learning environments are hard pressed to provide.

The video below, created by Wendy Drexler, shows how today’s independent learners use technologies to find, organise and manipulate information in our information rich world, using their connections to develop powerful social networks to mediate their construction of knowledge.  It is these skills which are essential for all learners if they are to flourish as members of the knowledge economy.





Bellefeuille, G., Martin, R. & Buck, M. (2006)  From Pedagogy to Technagogy in Social Work Education: A Constructivist Approach to Instructional Design in an Online, Competency-Based Child Welfare Practice Course Child and Youth Forum, 34(5). 371-389.

Clements, D. & Battista, M. (1990) Constructivist learning and teaching. Arithmetic Teacher, 38(1). 34-35.

Downes, S. (2008) The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On. Accessed 30/11/2008.

Drexler, W. (video) Access via Belshaw, D. (2008) Finally! A video that explains what I’m aiming for as a teacher. (accessed 29/11/2008)

Eckerdal, A., McCartney, R., Mostrom, J., Ratcliff, M., Sanders, K & Zander, C. (2006) Putting threshold concepts into context in computer science education (2006) Proceedings, ITiSE ’06, June 26-28, 2006, Bologna, Italy.

Farmer, J. (2008) Social constructivists and eLearning. Michael Feldstein’s e-Litrate blog. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Fernandez, L. (2008) Moodle and social constructionism: Looking for the individual in the community. Academic Commons. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Flood, J. (2002) Read all about it: Online learning facing 80% attrition rates. TOJDE 3(2)

Holley, D. and Oliver, M. (2009) Student engagement and blended learning. Portrait of risk. Computers and Education.  Accessed 3/12/2009.

Holley, D & Dobson, C.(2008) Encouraging student engagement in a blended learning environment: the use of contemporary learning spaces. Learning, Media and Technology, 33(2). 139-150.

Lowerison, G., Sclater, J., Schmidt, R. & Abrami, P. (2006)  Student perceived effectiveness of computer technology use in post-secondary classrooms. Computers and Education, 47. 465-489.

Martinez, M. (2003) High attrition rates in e-learning: Challenges, predictors and solutions. The e-learning development journal.

Mezirow, J. (1991)  Transformative dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pear, J. & Crone-Todd, E. (2001) A social constructivist approach to computer-mediated instruction.  A social constructivist approach to computer-mediated instruction. Computers and Education, 38(1-3).221-231.

Prensky, M (2001) Digital natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001).

Pritchard, A. & Woollard, J. (2010) Psychology in the Classroom: Constructivism and Social Learning. David Fulton, Oxford.

Trinder, K., Guiller, J., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Nicol, D. (2008) Learning from digital natives: bridging formal and informal learning. The Higher Education Academy.

Using distance learning to your networking advantage. The e-Learning Portal. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Valentine, D. (2002) Distance learning: Promises, problems, possibilities. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Zurita, G. & Nussbaum, M. (2004) A constructivist mobile learning environment supported by a wireless handheld network (2004 Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20. 235-243.

Useful books on Constructivism.

Fosnot, T.T. (1996) (Ed.) Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. Teachers College Press, New York, London.

Hiebert, J., Carpenter, T.P., Fennema, E., Fuson, K.C., Wearne, D., Murray, H., Olivier, A. & Human, P. (1996) Making Sense: Teaching and learning mathematics with understanding. Heinemann, Portsmouth NH.

Supplementary material.

Royal Navy uses Sony PSP for on-board training. The Telegraph, 27/11/2009

Belshaw, D (2006) The kind of school in which I want to work. Accessed 1/12/2008.

Brahm, Taiga (2008) PLE illustrations. Social Software and More blog. Accessed 3/12/2008.

de Freitas, S. (2008) Serious Virtual Worlds. A scoping study. Serious Games Institute, JISC.

Frielick, S. (2004) Beyond constructivism: An ecological approach to e-learning.

Koohang, A.,  Riley, L. &  Smith, T. (2009) E-Learning and Constructivism: From Theory to Application. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, volume 5.


Useful books.

Pritchard, A. & Woollard, J. (2010) Psychology in the Classroom: Constructivism and Social Learning. David Fulton, Oxford.

Woollard, J. (2010) Psychology in the Classroom: Behaviourism. Dasvid Fulton, Oxford.

Computer Mediated Communication.

November 20, 2008 Leave a comment

Computer Mediated Communications is now quite a wide field, covering a host of asynchronous and synchronous communication tools and practices.

Broadly speaking, it covers any on-line communication technology, including web pages, blogs and wikis and even social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. Micro-blogging is growing in popularity, providing a useful ‘quick fire’ medium of communication for communities of practice as well as for casual chat. Messenging and SMS can be used with applications like Twitter and Twitterpics. Other micro-blogging applications include Plurk, which provides a structure which supports conversational threads.

More narrowly, it covers e-mail, forums and discussion boards, video conferencing, instant messaging and texting. It is an area which has attracted a fair amount of interest and research.

I have attempted to provide a cross section of this in the links below. Some are old, but will serve to provide you with a notion of where we have come from in an industry which is developing at a very rapid rate.

It is not always possible to know the extent to which different participants have looked at this area, so I have started with some very general links and gone on to more specific ones. From my own point of view as a social constructivist, communication is extremely important aspect of the learning process.

Early on-line ‘distance’ learning environments tended simply to provide electronic copies of paper based resources used in face-to-face teaching environments, providing a somewhat impoverished medium incapable of providing the all-important aspect of discussion. VLE’s today have inbuilt communication tools, but the general consensus is that these often fail to provide a level of discussion to facilitate effective learning, for a variety of reasons, including personal ones. Van Alst (2006) highlights both the quantitative and qualitative problems of asynchronous learning networks (ALNs) and calls for the development of ALNs as collaborative communal learning resources.

There seems to be a growing body of evidence indicating that where students do communicate with the course coordinator and one another, learning is enhanced.
Hassini (2006) suggests that e-mail lists can provide a valuable student-instructor communication channel, with ‘strategic’ use of e-mail leading to a richer learning experience both as a medium for communication and as a ‘feedback database’ which can be used to improve courses.

Schellens and Valke (2006) looked at the issue of using asynchronous discussion groups as a means of fostering knowledge construction in university students. They found that students involved in discussion groups were task orientated, showing significant increases in cognitive interaction, task orientation and higher phase knowledge construction. An important variable identified was group size, with discussion in smaller groups reflecting larger proportions of of higher level knowledge construction.

Finally, a study by Simpson (2006) using asynchronous video access to a lecture course found that it had specific advantages for English second language speakers, providing them with more control over the lecture without the distractions characteristic of live lecture sessions.

Does texting destroy the English language? – discussion.

List of References.

Hassini, E. (2006) Student-instructor communication: The role of email. Computers and Education 47, 29-40

Schellens, T. & Valke, M. (2006) Fostering knowledge construction in university students through asynchronous discussion groups. Computers and Education 46, 349-370.

Simpson, N. (2006) Asynchronous access to conventional course delivery: a pilot project. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(4), 527-537.

Van Alst, J. (2006) Rethinking the nature of online work in asynchronous learning networks. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(2), 279-288.

Additional readings.

Offir, B., Lev, Y, & Bezalel, R. (2008) Surface and deep learning processes in distance education: Synchronous versus asynchronous systems. Computers and Education, 51(3), 1172-1183

Wang, Q. (2008) Student-facilitators’ roles in moderating online discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 859-874.

An extensive list of CMC related articles in the Computers and Education journal can be found here.

Links to other resources.

Wikipedia basic info basic info

Overview and perspectives from Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom, Volume 1. 1995.

Journal of Computer Mediated Communication (JCMC)  New site for JCMC.

Gender differences in Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing familiar baggage to the New Frontier. Susan Herring, CSPR, 1994.

Reality Instant Messaging – Injecting a dose of reality into online chat. Chuah, 2003

Using CMC for Cyber mediation . Gibbos, Kennedy, Gibbs. Social Sciences Research Network, 2002.

Computer Mediated Collaborative Practices – Caroline Haythornthwaite, JCMC, July 2005

Instant Messaging for Collaboration: A case study in a high-tech firm. Quan-Hasse, Cothrel, Wellman. JCMC, July 2005

The impact of emoticons on message interpretation in Computer mediated communication. Walther, D’Addario. Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 19, No. 3, 324-347 (2001)

Marked for Deletion – an analysis of e-mail data
. Dabbish & Cadiz, 2002

CMC and Distance Learning – Some problems and possiblilities
. Sincovec & Rugelj, 200?.

Computer-mediated Communication (CMC) and the Traditional Classroom
. Reed. Teaching and Technology Today. 2000.

Evaluating the possibilities and problems of distributed multimedia technologies in the development of online collaborative learning environments. Kamran. 2005.


Twitter Power: Tweets as electronic word of mouth Jansen, et al. (2009) Journal of American Society of Information.

Rutledge, P. Ten things I like about Twitter. Psychology Today 7/4/09


Texting using mobile phones has created a language of its own – CUL8R, etc. Many teachers have suggested that this is the beginning of the end language as we know it. This interesting article sees a positive side. C also this rtikl.

2br not 2b? Proferssor David Crystal on texting. 5/7/08

The joy of text. Will Self and Lynne Truss. 5/7/08

Gr8 Db8 takes on linguistic luddites. Crace-Crystal interview. 16/9/2008

Texting: The gr8 db8. David Crystal 11/10/2009

Foundations. Past, present and future

November 12, 2008 1 comment

It is interesting to reflect back on the developments in computing over the past thirty or so years at a time when the prevailing technologies seems to be taking another major turn, this time in the direction of  ‘real’ mobile computing and user friendly surface interfaces. This post provides a brief history of the development of computing, before considering the kinds of changes which look likely over the immediate future and the impact that these developments are likely to have on our both personal and educational practice.

Analysis of computer development identifies four main stages of development, being:

1) The first generation (1946-1958) The era of vacuum tubes. Examples are ENIAC, UNIVAC, EDVAC

2) The second generation (1959-1964) The era of the transistors.

3)  The third generation (1965-1970) Integrated Circuits-Miniaturizing the computer

4) The fourth generation (1971-today) The era of microprocessors.

Question: Are multicore processors a fifth stage, or a continuation of the fourth?

The past…..

computer_1954This picture appeared in a 1954 copy of Popular Mechanics. The original, dreamed up by scientists from the Rand Corporation, was forwarded as a ‘home computer’ for the year 2004. It would have a teletype interface and would use the Fortran as a language.

(Any idea why is has a steering wheel?)


Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac).

Designed and built to calculate artillery firing tables, ENIAC (1946) was able to solve a wide range of computing problems.

acorn_bbcb_system_s1Real personal computing came of age in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

My first computer – Acorn BBC model B. £399.00 (ouch!) I later added a “Torch” floppy disk unit, which had two 5.25 floppy disk drives and a Z80 co-processor which allowed the BBC to use CP/M software. Perfect Writer, Perfect Calc and a database came bundled with the Z80.
Although these features are not particularly impressive by today’s standards, they provided powerful new tools which helped people to work more quickly and efficiently. Wordprocessors and Spreadsheets were suddenly available to the man in the street.

This software was also available for the first IBM PCs which became  available at about the same time. The IBW was well built, heavy and expensive. Early models featured two 5.25 inch floppy drives. Hard drives were available at a later stage and were very expensive.

The first Apple.  Garage model.


In spite of this somewhat scruffy beginning, Apple Computer (now Apple) went on to become a a major consumer electronics manufacturer, successfully branching into the mobile music and mobile phone markets, where they lead the field for well designed and finished ‘cool’ gadgets.

Links to sites providing histories of computing.

Old Museum : History of computers, 1 : History of computers, 2 : Computer History Museum : Computer History Museum : A history of computers from About : Presentation by Michael A Hoyle.

An illustrated history of computers : PC World’s brief history of computers, as defined by TV ads : A history of Apple computers from About.  A working lego model of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine.

Laptops and Notebooks



The Apple IIc


The first laptop? | More on early laptops | GRiD Compass 100

Even at this stage, there was a demand for ‘portable’ computing. Early models like the Osborne (1981) and IBM (1984) were similar in design.



The IBM5155 (1984)


They were extremely heavy when compared with today’s models, with small monochrome screens which did not show up particularly well in the open.  True portablility was limited, given the need to plug into an electrical supply, limiting them as office to office machines.



Osborne 1, 1981




An Apple laptop from 2004



Wired Gallery – Classic computer manuals from Apple and IBM

First Spreadsheet – Visicalc… Or was it? Dan Bricklin’s Website : First Word Processor – Wordstar… Others… : Other software from

What some do with their old technology.

Moore’s Law

moore1There was a steady development of both hardware and software through the 1980s. 5.5 inch floppy discs were replaced by smaller 3.25 inch discs, which were more robust and held more data (1.44 mb). Hard drives became more affordable. The key to development depended largely on the development of better microprocessors.

The power of microprocessors has doubled every 18 months or so, as engineers found ways to pack more and more transistors onto chips. The first person to write about this trend was Moore – hence Moore’s Law.

Moore’s law has played a big part in the development of computer chips and processors. Recent articles have questioned whether the rate at which processors double their speed can continue. Others point the way to new technologies which will allow us to continue developing more and more powerful computers.

Moore’s Law – Wikipedia Moore’s Law – Intel Understanding Moore’s Law – Arts Technica Original issue of publication found – BBC News Moore’s Law – 40th birthday article (April 2005) Moore’s Law is dead, says Moore. New life for Moore’s Law says Steven Chou. CNet News Moore’s Law meets its match. IEEE Spectrum Beyond Moore’s Law – Technology Review. Superfast computing – BBC (2004)

Various Histories

IT Timeline : IT History : Internet History : Telephone History : Eniac museum online : About Eniac : Living Internet : About history of the internetHistory of computing hardware (wikipedia)

The essential trend in the development of computers has been the appearance of smaller, easier to use and more powerful machines at a steady rate. More powerful microprocessors have enabled software developers to design better software. Another important aspect is the rapid fall in ‘real’ price, with computers becoming more affordable – hence the ubiquitousness of the technology today.

While looking at the development of computing and the kinds of computers and software prevalent in the seventies and eighties, a number of commonalities emerge. These were personal computers, not only in name but in character too. They were used in an isolated fashion for a variety of tasks, at a time when the idea of a fully networked world was understood by very few.

The 90’s – Colour, multimedia and the world wide web.

images-1 Computers would begin to change in the early 1990s as the internet developed. The launch of multimedia computing would also change the way we understood and began to used computers, especially as educational tools. Resources like Microsoft Encarta providing a rich multimedia environment which revolutionised the way we explored information, allowing us to look at data in totally different ways. The development of the web launched the world into the Information Age.

Breaking News

tblTim Berners-Lee to head web research project.

The influence the internet has had on the way we socialise and live our lives is to become a focus of a new field of study under the leadership of the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee.

The joint research programme in web science is being launched by the University of Southampton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

The new research area will look not only at computer science, but will also cover emerging research into social networks and how people behave while using the internet.

Prof Berners-Lee, a professor at both Southampton and MIT, who invented the world wide web’s basic software was knighted in 2004, said: “The web isn’t about what you can do with computers. It’s people, and , yes, they are connected by computers. But computer science, as a study of what happens in a computer, doesn’t tell you about what happens on the web.”  Education Guardian, 2/11/2006.

The future.

Jonathan Zittrain explains how the web works because  of random acts of kindness.

Tomorrows computers and issues…


Smaller computers, and powerful internet ready mobile phones. A Jan 08 report from ZDNet provides evidence that iPhones are used to a far greater extent for accessing the web than other internet ready phones. This suggests that we are heading in the right direction with respect to the development of easy-to-use interfaces. A growing number of applications for both the iPhone and the new iPod suggest that ‘usable’ hand-held computers are likely to be available sooner rather than later. The recent launch (October 08) of Google’s Android powered phone, updated iPhones,  new Blackberry’s and the new Palm Pre (Oct 09) have raised the stakes in this market.

Collaboration and The Cloud

Perhaps the most important change in recent times has been the way we use the internet. While we once simply looked up information (the read web) we now use it largely as a communication and collaborative tool (read-write web). Web2.0 is largely about talking and sharing, where we use the web as a platform for what we do. This contrasts to old style computing, where the software we used was purchased and installed on the computer itself. Efficient hand-held devices now allow us to interact with the web while we are on the move – in buses, trains and while sitting having coffee – enabling us to be more productive.

Other developments include user friendly surfaces, which provide new ways of buying and paying for things and of interfacing with one another and information. While these are still expensive, it it likely that they will become more affordable in the future.  Microsoft’s surfaces is demonstrated here.

Other new developments.

Apps on a stick from Wired ‘How To’ wiki.

Wearable computers Business Week | Wikipedia


Sony reader

Sony reader


Electronic paper – the killer technology of tomorrow?

Cloud computing. The future is online.
ZDNet on cloud computing
BBC News… video

Worrying issues…

Government interference and spying: Zimbabwe , South Africa and the UK.
Privacy issues and ISP spying. The BT / Phorm issue. More on Phorm from New Scientist.



  • Continued shrinkage
  • merging technologies ||  more
  • More Web2 applications
  • Changing practice, changing applications
  • blogs, wikis, social networking, personal learning environments, collaboration, multitasking, typing not writing, voice recognition
  • wearable computers
  • Better understanding of today’s learners**, more provision and effective use in schools.
  • More user-friendly touch sensitive devices
  • Powerful technologies, potential for abuse by powerful organisations.
  • The end of a free Internet?

** See
1. Oblinger, D. (2003) Boomers, Gen-Xers & Millennials. Understanding the New Students.
2. Frand, J.L. (2000) The Information-Age Mindset. Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education.
3. Marc Prensky’s website.

Connectivism. How digital natives use technology to develop their own learning

Articles for summary and discussion

Ball, P. (2006) 2020 Computing: Champing at the bits.

Butler, D. (2006) 2020 Computing: Everything, everywhere.

Dempsey, J. (2007) The Internet at Risk. The Need for Higher Education Advocacy. Educause, Nov/Dec.

Hawkins, B.L. (2007) Winds of Change. Charting the Course for IT in the Twenty-First Century. Educause, Nov/Dec.

Ruttimann, J. (2006) 2020 Computing: Milestones in Scientific Computing

St George, A. (2007) Imaging Tomorrow’s Future Today. Educause, Nov/Dec.

Science Daily (30/3/2008) Future of Computing: Carbon Nanotubes and Superconductors to replace the Silicone Chip.

Inventor Ray Kurzweil talks about the future of technology.

Recommended readings on the Top Ten IT issues from Educause.

See these pics from The Guardian. More here.

Some interesting videos



Click to see iPhone feature


Augmented reality.


Augmented Reality and social networking. Some thoughts from web innovator Matthew Buckland.

Situated Audio Platform (SAP) – an Augmented Reality game.

Questions are being asked about the future of the web. Can we assume that the free access to resources and social networking we enjoy will continue?  Or will the web ultimately be commodified? The end of the internet?

What path will we take with respect to using the web as a tool for learning? The future of institutions. Some thoughts by Graham Attwell of Pontydysgu.

Resonant Energy Transfer – WiTricity – will be a useful invention when it is fully developed.