I've been reading the work of Otto Peters in my distance education class, and realizing in fresh ways both the incredible possibilities offered by the digital networked environment, and how little most education practices have adjusted so far to take these new possibilities into account. Peters makes an apt comparison to the introduction of cinematography as a technology: it took a great deal of time, and creative rethinking, to move beyond simply filming scenes to all the potential of moving cameras, zooming in, blue screens, animation, etc.
In particular, thinking about moving toward learner autonomy - where learners, not teachers, control the direction, pacing, and goals of their education - and the possibilities inherent in technologies like XML for separating content from presentation, leads to some interesting ideas. Here's one, probably not fully thought out, but still potentially revolutionary in its impact.
In the hypertext environment, independent learners can always "digress" into a new direction. This is a positive feature, more consistent with educational theory than the traditional teacher-as-presenter, learner-as-receptor model. How can we structure on-line materials to enable learners to explore at varying depths, either a quick glance, a brief look, or a more detailed examination, according to their own interests and needs? At one extreme are the simplest references: a dictionary definition, or the text of a Bible verse. These are so brief they can be simple pop-ups on top of existing material. But this concept extends further: for example, in a educational unit presenting the Christian doctrine of salvation, a reference to "substitutionary atonement" might be hyper-linked to a separate unit on this concept.
Here's where it gets interesting for me. Imagine this unit in its full glory is a detailed presentation that might take a full hour to peruse in depth: drawing on this Wikipedia article for content, such a unit might examine various scripture texts and their interpretations, the arguments in favor of and against this perspective, some history of the classic articulations of the doctrine and its proponents, etc. Now imagine this presentation is derived automatically from a structured representation where the author has distinguished different levels of detail, perhaps into a tri-partite division of brief, light, and detailed treatments. One could operationalize these distinctions: a brief treatment should be capable of complete review in 5 minutes, a light treatment in 20 minutes, and a full treatment in an hour (with additional hyperlinks to other resources that could extend it even further). If - and this is the critical if - the material in its underlying organization can be carefully structured so that shallow levels of detail don't directly reference deep ones, one could imagine allowing the users to dynamically choose the depth they want to pursue, and automatically presenting (via XSLT or whatever) the appropriate content. If the learner wants only a brief digression, they get an overview of the concept, without all the argumentation or supporting evidence. Those with additional time and inclination can get the whole story.
I'd have to try authoring some content along these lines to see whether this could actually be carried out in practice. But it seems like a much more learner-centered approach than offering only the choice of all-or-nothing.
Peters, O. (2001). Learning and teaching in distance education - Analyses and interpretations from an international perspective (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page.
Peters, O. (2004). Distance education in transition - New trends and challenges (4th ed.). Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg. [no URL available as of 2005/06/05]
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