Rich Content vs Content Rich

An online course should be a rich and rewarding experience for the student.  Sadly, this is not always the case and one reason is the old GIGO adage (garbage in…).

If you start with ‘dumb’ content then anything built from it will be ‘dumb’ too.  Simply using the learning environment as a file store and posting large amounts of videos or static PDF and Word files all over the place cannot result in a highly functional, interactive learning experience. Of course, a pedagogy must be used, but why is rich content being suggested as an essential element of it?  There are a number of reasons, but it is important to understand why there are benefits from having content that can be used in a smart way.

The first benefit is that it can enable course developers to focus on the worth and fitness-for-purpose of the learning materials themselves and not be seduced by the relative ease of hacking a course into a learning environment.  There is absolutely no reason why learning materials will be any the poorer for being developed as a body of materials outside of the learning environment.  In fact, there is every reason to think that they will be richer as they are not being shoehorned into the restriction and fixed ways of a specific learning management system.

What is Rich Content?

Rich content is content which is developed semantically – structurally and with meaningful element labels or ‘meta-data’.  Traditionally this has been the domain of specialist formatting languages, though the Web’s latest HTML specification HTML 5 is becoming ever more semantically rich with every update – see https://html.spec.whatwg.org/

“HTML is the World Wide Web’s core markup language. Originally, HTML was primarily designed as a language for semantically describing scientific documents. Its general design however, has enabled it to be adapted over the subsequent years, to describe a number of other types of documents and even applications.”

To take advantage of these more meaningful developments, the content for an online course should be semantically enabled, consistent and efficient to produce and maintain.

There are already many rich semantic publishing languages that can be used for course markups (DocBook, DITA, NML) and there are a number of good alternatives for mastering rich content (MarkDown, LaTeX and even the latest HTML), but there are also some poorer choices.  The reason that this richness is of value is that it lends itself to an equally semantically-rich interpretation when being transformed for use.

For example, here is a very simple piece of meaningful (semantic) tagged question content.

<task id="wb01" role="dwb"><title>Example Reflective Activity</title>
    <question id="q123"> <content> <para>Please describe the novel "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien </para></content> 
      <answer><para> <blank id="q123_fib" size="100" rows="3"></blank></para> </answer> 
    </question> 
</task>

How could this very simple structure be interpreted for use?  There are very many ways it could be done, depending on the capabilities of the course publishing tools and learning delivery platform.

  • If the output is PDF page format for online use then:
    • The PDF page produced might list the title and the text of the question and then draw a blank box of 100 columns by 3 rows.
    • If the PDF uses Forms then this box might be made into an Input, with functionality behind it.
  • If the output is Web browser i.e. HTML format, then the box might be produced as a text entry area on a Web page.
  • If the learning delivery platform you use supports an interactive object library such as H5P, the output could be an interactive H5P Essay object that gives better practice and feedback.
Illustration: An H5P Essay object that can pre-mark a student response

The dumb approach to doing interactive course development is to craft each course interaction or page by hand. Very time consuming to develop initially, and costly to continuously maintain.  Better to format them semantically in a ‘master’ and have automated publishing tools generate ‘delivery format’ content pages by the thousand.  If you have a hundred such reflective activities in your courses, then that’s a lot of object creation and embedding effort saved.   If you want to generate them in multiple languages, it’s an even bigger win.

What is H5P?  H5P is an open information standard for such interactive objects, which makes what you produce non-proprietary and more future-proof. Its asset building and non-proprietary. Check out the open standard H5P website for countless other examples of meaningful interactivities that can be produced in volume this way.  

Another example? What about embedding discussion forums in your learning materials. Imagine the work a teacher has to do, if editing directly within a platform, to include in a paragraph:

now post your thoughts to the Group Forum

and to link it to an actual Forum (or similarly to a quiz or other activity) somewhere on the platform.

Wouldn’t it be much simpler if, when writing the learning materials, merely indicating a Forum (or quiz or whatever) means the teacher could be assured that this mere mention will be guaranteed to link to an actual Forum.  By adding a symbolic name, then repeated mentions, as in:

Post your thoughts to the [Subject Y] discussion forum for Topic 3

could link to the same Forum with a consistent interpretation of the semantics of the learning materials guaranteeing the generation of the Forum on the platform.

If the learning management system changes, as they frequently do, no worries. The re-generated course materials will automatically solve that issue and link to the new forums function on the new LMS.  Smart content at some of its most evident.

Why bother creating rich content?

The whole point of doing this is to help educators take their ability to produce rich learning content and present it better and more easily online (and in other forms).

As course authors look more carefully at their course design, possibly guided for example by UCLs ABC (https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/abc-ld) methodology, they can begin to see how easy it is to add such educationally meaningful, interactive features to their learning content. 

They do not have to be expert in semantic mark-up or its related tools.  They could readily use Microsoft Word to write the bulk of the content but indicate where they want a <task>, an <mcq> or one of the many other H5P objects to appear in their materials.  Whoever is in charge of mastering the materials – and we would always advocate that this is done centrally by specialists – can interpret the intent and capture it in the final semantic form.

It is more effective if the teacher is able to focus on producing educationally rich and effective learning materials, rather than being restricted to what a particular tool or technology currently offers – one that they might not actually be able to use well, at that.    How many teachers are knowledgeable about internet cascading style sheets (CSS) or even HTML5. How many really need to be? Very few.

In sum, rich content is a critical part of the embodiment of a high quality course pedagogy. This is not just an individual’s concern, but one which universities would be well advised to invest in resourcing centrally and at scale.  Some already do and very successfully, including the UK’s Open University, EdX and MIT.

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