You Can Get There From Here: Websites for Learners

by Amber Simmons

24 Reader Comments

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  1. Amber,

    Wonderfully thought-provoking piece. I already got immersed exploring the Sputnik site; a great illustration of the direction you’re advocating.

    I like your argument that we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s possible with content designed for exploratory learning. In our struggles as web designers to get recognised, get respect, and get professional, it’s too easy to get comfortable with the current state of the web; to forget that the tools we use today are just a first draft, not the final word on what’s possible.

    The case studies are good, but rather than offer “solutions”,  you leave the matter unresolved; something for people to think about and experiment with, instead of following proven recipes. Not an easy approach to take, but exactly what we need right now.

    So I’ll go away and think, and see if I can somehow follow your lead in my own work.

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  2. Great piece, Amber!

    It reminded me that me that sometimes, as web designers/developers, we spend so long concentrating on the minutiae of our website de jour – carefully planning the navigation, information architecture etc. – that we forget that users will find their own way of doing things.

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  3. Fascinating article. I can see the implications for structured content sites like Wikipedia or library catalogs, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around applying this to blogs, particularly blogs that attempt to teach readers about a field. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I’m already starting to think of some experiments with my own content.

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  4. This has been the promise of the web from the beginning. It is our responsibility as designers to learn to design for the users unique point of view, needs and desires.

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  5. It’s the Steve Irwin approach to discovery on the web—“I’m going to click this here link”¦just to see what happens!”

    I think Steve would’ve been more likely to say: “Crikey! Look at the size of that link! Let’s see where it goes.” ;)

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  6. @John: Haha! Steve Irwin had so many great sayings; I’m sure we could find a bunch more I could have used.

    We’ll have to save them for the next article!

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  7. I always laugh when I see people avoiding the sidewalk to get to their destination. I think this idea of desire paths really hasn’t been explored on the web. We try so hard to tell people where to go, that we forget to ask them where they want to go.
    I think allowing users to follow their desire paths creates an environment that they want to be a part of.

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  8. @Jutta: No one’s saying your website has to be narrative. It doesn’t have to be anything. But if you want to help people learn, narrative is a fundamental way of doing that.

    Sure, “clean, structured websites” are important. But narrative is a structure. That’s what it is. It’s not just “storytelling”. It’s a way of organizing and presenting thoughts and ideas in a meaningful, memorable fashion.

    Of course, whether that sort of structure is important to a web creator depends on what they want to accomplish. The point here isn’t that narrative is required for everything. The point here is that it is essential to certain kinds of activities—activities which I believe have been overlooked by the majority of folks putting forth information about what makes a “good website”.

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  9. Nice work, very informative. I do agree that sites should be very informative but kept clean and to the point also.

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  10. Good article, Amber. Thnx for writing it.

    Not sure, but there may be a message implied by the article: When creating a Web site to support learning, use what we know about learning.

    For example, we know that narratives engage people. They also help set a context for knowledge use. So, use them.

    Your section on interaction is much like what constructivists say (constructivism is a learning theory). Learning is not “open up the skull and pour stuff in.” Instead, people construct their own meaning from content. Nothing is truly passive, even just sitting and listening to a lecture.

    Discovering is powerful. However, it may suited to some types of learning goals and contexts, but not others. For example, if you’re trying to learn HTML, Wikipedia may not be the best resource.

    It may be that structured lessons covering HTML basics would be more efficient and effective. The lessons would include writing pages. Not just any pages, but pages chosen by the lesson’s author so that doing exercise A and then exercise B will help someone learn something specific.

    Once the learner has some basics, then s/he might branch out on his/her own projects. The learning mode shifts to discovery. The learner might come back to didactic lessons for specific topics. Like tables or forms.

    Creating a site that supports learning well might require content authors who know about:

    • The learning context (e.g., learner goals and constraints)
    • Effective learning practices (e.g., how to create “levels of description” that don’t overwhelm learners with too much detail)
    • The knowledge domain (e.g., chemistry, Web design, …)

    Not sure how many educational Web projects put all three together.

    Kieran Mathieson, CoreDogs

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  11. Kieran,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. You’re right on; this is a much a call to action as anything else.

    What I hope for is a larger number of instructional designers and educators coming to the web development table so that we can benefit from their knowledge and understanding of how we learn and how we relate to information—how we internalize and integrate it. We understand many elements of the web very well—but there are some things, like how to best structure it for learning, that we don’t understand so well.  There are professionals that can help us in that, but we’ve largely left them out of the conversation. This is my cursory attempt to begin drawing them in.

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  12. Amber’s article was excellent and sparked a lot of ideas for me. I wanted to pass along a few sites I think do a great job in using narrative and a variety of styles and approaches to present information.

    “The Tofte Project”:http://tofteproject.com/flash.html
    Opens with a great narrative overview and sets the tone for the rest of the content. Presents info in short 1-2 minute vignettes, mixes graphics with text, narrative, stats & data and offers multiple paths of discovery and navigation.

    “Becoming Human”:http://becominghuman.org/node/interactive-documentary
    This site is broad and covers a lot of info, but breaks things down into layers. The outer layer is easy to digest info that draws you in; the deeper layers are for research-oriented folks looking for in-depth text.

    “The Selway River”:http://web.archive.org/web/19990508075025/www.nationalgeographic.com/selway/home/firsthome.html (made in 1996, accessible thru the wayback machine)
    This site was a rare gem in 1996 when the rest of the web looked like Jakob Nielsen’s site. It explores a river trip using bite-sized narrative and interesting sidebars. The site does a good job exploring a topic from various angles and interest levels.

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  13. One of the issues with learning on the web is that institutions generally wall off learning within LMSs (Learning Management Systems) where sometimes, it might be better for learners (students) to explore and bring back information to the classroom or online space. Considering that some LMSs are not that accessible from a usability standpoint and are not flexible in the design end of things… it’s going to be an uphill battle.

    Another issue that’s out there is that instructors at higher education institutions are generally not web designers – so while they may understand how to design instruction they don’t know how to structure navigation, interaction… becoming a teacher has gone from being a subject matter expert to being also a creator of content. As we (educators) move towards more of our interaction occurring in online spaces, we’ll see some forward motion on the aesthetics of the formal e-learning spaces.

    I suspect that eventually we’ll get to the point where both formal and informal spaces look great, are usable and are full of great content. I also hope that at that moment, things will be more open, flexible and more discoverable. That will take a shift from educators and educational institutions in their philosophy of education, though.

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  14. Thanks Amber, I don’t think I’ve ever read an article this big word for word.  Content is something I struggle with, so I think this helped.

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  15. “I think allowing users to follow their desire paths creates an environment that they want to be a part of”

    That is what I think, but how can I do that? That is my struggle!
    I really think that I don’t have the skills to do that.

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  16. @Dave: Thank you for those examples! Very cool! (Especially the one from 96; way ahead of its time.)

    @Jon: The point about LMSs is a good one. I used to work for an eLearning firm, so I’m familiar with the obstacles of porting learning materials form one platform to another—and moreover, making the best use of the platforms’ different potentials and abilities.

    But technology aside, I feel the most salient point is this one: “so while they may understand how to design instruction they don’t know how to structure navigation, interaction”¦” And similarly, those of us who know the web side of it don’t necessarily understand the cognitive and learning aspects of it. That’s precisely why I wanted to write this article: to shed some light on a potential bridge between the two groups and bring them together. Web-native, interactive, discoverable learning environments aren’t going to emerge from any highly specialized field: it’s the cross-over and multidisciplinary teams that are going to make this happen. The less we silo ourselves and the more we bring different perspectives and specialties together, the better our chances at building a web that does more than waste our time and sell us crap we don’t need.

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  17. Thanks for the eye-opening piece, Amber. I guess though everyone has there own idea of what a good website is. But you do raise a lot of salient points. The users/visitors are ultimately the final judge & jury.

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  18. Amber, you make some great points…

    It’s true, most websites aren’t user friendly at all.

    Good article

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  19. I really liked your analogy of of the seven year old girl who had an opportunity to learn from a great book, but she didn’t quite understand the relavence. Later as a woman, you read the same passages, and the text made sense for you. The book never changed, the context was the same; however, it was your perspective that was altered.

    In the same way, we need to help our clients understand the perspectives that their audience may gain from their website from a contexual point of view. Whether that is through a narrative perpective or purely design focused, as long as the intended perspective is brought forth from a user’s understanding – that is important. Great article.

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  20. An interesting article indeed.
    Narrative may not work for everyone. It does make the content more interesting, but in my opinion, it can actually cloud the main idea of the content and the learners end up getting more of the narrative instead of the knowledge itself.

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  21. Websites do not need to be overly complicated to be good. You can have simple navigation, simple graphics and design that is easy for newbies to get around, but still look and feel good.

    I don’t think it is possible for everyone to consider learners. For example; having help promps on their website. However if someone new wants to browse more websites then surely they can learn it on a website that is designed to help newbies.

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  22. Fascinating article.
    The case studies are good,Nice work, very informative.
    I do agree that sites should be very informative
    When we are working on the Web. It is our responsibility to learn
    to design for the users unique point of view, needs and desires.
    I have already started to think of some experiments with with it.
    Not an easy approach to take, but exactly what i need right now.

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  23. Thanks for this article Amber, well done. Interestingly enough, it strikes at the essence of modern internet marketing methodology. Today, successful sites (whether commercial or otherwise) focus a lot of energy engaging with prospective customers by providing remarkable, useful content from which visiting traffic can expect to benefit for free.

    If one were to subscribe to the recently coined ‘Inbound Marketing’ dogma, their site would include a blog that genuinely educates, downloads and free tools that address a need, and a way to smoothly communicate with the website’s owners or representatives.

    Clearly there is much that can be directly applied from your article to Inbound Marketing with regard to how remarkable content and tools can be staged in order to foster free-wheeling, unconstrained learning.

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  24. The internet is the greatest contribution to learning since the printing press.”

    I would go even so far as to say the Internet is the greatest contribution to learning, period. Great article.

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