Friday, January 06, 2006

On Elegance in Content Design and Learning Objects

Over the years, I’ve made a fair amount of content for my Econ courses and at one point I considered making an alternative to a textbook that would be composed entirely with different type of modules in Excel. (I might still do that in the not too distant future, depending in part on how much progress I make with the course I’m teaching this spring.) Based on that activity and previous content creation activities I’ve been involved with, I feel comfortable asserting:

(a) My graphical design skills are rudimentary at best. I might benefit from some formal instruction in graphical design. But, in truth, my interest does not lie in trying to make my content “look slick” so that as long as I feel the look is functional, I’m ok with that. I have learned something about having borders and white space on the page and not jamming in too much stuff into a small spatial area. I’m probably more textual and less image intensive than suits the medium. Given that, I can make something that is passable.

(b) I have a pretty well honed instinct on how to represent the economic ideas into elegant representations that really should help the students visualize what is going on. This is both difficult, because it really does require out of the box thinking, and fun and rewarding when something has been produced, because there is then visual evidence of how these representations improve on the understanding of the economics. This started back when I did Excelets and it has carried over into what I’ve done more recently. I’ve gotten better at it and more sophisticated in my design.

When I speak of elegance in design, I’m speaking about (b). That is representation of ideas that are good for the novice to understand what is going on. I believe that elegance in design facilitates deep learning of the ideas and I believe further that we should be talking more about this when we advise instructors on making their materials. Elegance and simplicity need to be considered as cousins if not as identical twins. But elegance is far from making things simple minded. Indeed, I believe it is only through an elegant design that depth and complexity can be brought in. Otherwise, complex ideas that are presented seem too hard and impenetrable and will be off putting to the students. Then there is no learning, just pretensions, and it is likely that the designer will develop contempt for the students, blaming the learners for the non-learning.

I want to ask here whether the notion of elegance in content design aligns with the concept of modularity that we associate with learning objects. Let me see if I can sketch the issue. Certain concepts are derivative. They depend on more primitive concepts. To understand the notion of a molecule, there must first be the notion of an atom. In the economics of supply and demand before understanding how a change in the price in one market affects the price in another market, there must first be the notion of equilibrium in a single market. Every subject has examples of this sort.

Now consider the case where those more primitive notions “may” be developed in earlier modules, and note that the use of the word “may” is deliberate. If the content is interconnected in this way at a conceptual level, is it still correct to think of it as modular? An appropriate metaphor to consider is chapters in a textbook which, for example, can each be stored as a its own PDF file. Does the ability to make those chapters into PDFs mean the content is modular? Or must they be read in a prescribed order where later chapters depend on earlier ones?

A correct response is, “maybe” or, “it depends.” When there is no conceptual dependence then yes, I would agree the content is modular, but otherwise not. Actually, the issue is a bit more subtle than that. The question is not just dependency but rather whether there is dependency on ideas/jargon/framework that may be non-standard in such a course. So the real issue is whether a non-standard approach (meaning different from the way it has been done traditionally) can be developed that is also modular. Why does this matter?

Suppose others wanted to try out my content to see if it is useful, but they didn’t want to use it all, just some of it. In particular, what they want to do is to replace some part of the textbook they are using that they find less than satisfactory. Isn’t it more natural to experiment that way than to fully embrace an alternative right out of the box?

But now suppose my elegant module is dependent on some primitive ideas from earlier modules that these other instructors are unlikely to teach. For example, in this module on Supply and Demand that I developed some time ago, the penultimate worksheet entitled, Scale, does a nice graphical technique to visualize how an economy gets bigger by making replicas of existing buyers or sellers but who are some different in their valuations from the agents they were based upon. This is done in a precise way under the hood that in the exercise is explained to the students by the expression “filling in the gaps.” This is a nonstandard development of the idea but it is quite intuitive and gives the correct core notion of what is meant by a competitive market. I am proud of that particular worksheet because of this development.

Now, suppose I make a different module on Elasticity of Supply and Demand and, consistent with trying to maintain elegance in design, I want to base the development on the ideas that were introduced in that Scale worksheet. This seems good and correct to me for teaching my own students. But it means somebody else who might try to use my stuff and wants the elasticity module, but not the supply and demand module may be out of luck.

To complete the cycle in this thinking, suppose my own sense of development is driven by the possibility of external use. This could be driven by a desire to make money selling the modules I’ve created or it could be driven simply by a sense that the effort is of value if there is this type of social utility, but not otherwise. (In other words, the motives should be pretty much the same as why faculty author textbooks.) That means I the author might be concerned about the external use at the time of the writing, and therefore might want to accommodate it out of the box.

So what should I do? My inclination now is to please myself in the design and then encourage anyone else who wants to use it to try it all. But that is the typical ego-centric approach and I’m not sure it is self-sustaining.


rlubensky said...

In the elearning field I tend to use the word elegance in a functional rather than an aesthetic or information design sense.

My understanding of a functionally elegant solution is one that is small and tight under the bonnet, yet most completely addresses a wide range of problem applications. Let me be less abstract:

Two learning object templates for a drag and drop interaction. One is beatiful but authored to accommodate exactly three draggable graphics. The other is less attractive, but authored to accept from two to 24 graphics (without copying/pasting gobs of redundant code or data) depending on the instructional or content requirement. Which solution is more functionally elegant? The second because it can be applied to more situations.

Your use of the word elegance in design is certainly related, in that the highest value is given to a simple solution that appeals or is understood most readily or deeply by the widest or most disparate audience. Good design "resonates" with people.

Trivially perhaps, my use of the car "bonnet" metaphor above is fine, but it's expression was poor because only those in UK/Australia/NZ/SA are familiar with that term, while in North America it's a "hood". Was my choice of word "inelegant"? No, but it may have been ineffective!

The creation of a good design is helped by an understanding of your prospective audience and what will work best for most of them. That may not match how you most naturally find resonance or understanding.

Lanny Arvan said...

Ron - thanks for the comments. I should have written in my post that elegance is used as a word of high praise for research level economic theory work, but I've rarely if ever seen it used to describe the presentation for an undergraduate text. It's as if the undergraduate stuff is a "been there, done that" kind of thing and hence it is not worthy of hard thinking about the presentation.

I believe quite the opposite, that in areas of knowledge that are now well understood and no longer controversial, elegance in presentation should be the primary goal --- precisely because it is how deep learning can occur.

I do think there is a parallel in your functional notion of elegance and my idea of elegant representations of economic ideas - both are audience driven - but I'd like to think that my representations would be successful for a broad audience, and that is part of the test of whether the representation is elegant.