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Much of your front-end production time will be spent planning and producing content. The following information is not meant to give you exhaustive step-by-step instructions for creating content but rather to help you understand the issues surrounding the production of content for an online course. The strengths and weaknesses of various media types will be discussed along with the legal ramifications of copyright and accessibility and how they relate to you putting content for your course online.

Media Characteristics and Online Learning Technology

Discussing the attributes of media and the types of teaching and learning they support will help you choose what type of media to develop your content in. The following section contains excerpts and modifications from Media Characteristics and Online Learning Technology, by Patrick J. Fahy Athabasca University. Most references have been removed to improve readability - the original article is available online with references.


The analysis of media characteristics in this chapter draws directly upon Fleming's six-element typology of teaching tasks and objectives: 1) attention, 2) perception and recall, 3) organization and sequencing, 4) instruction and feedback, 5) learner participation, and 6) higher-order thinking and concept formation. The following media and modes are considered because they are common and familiar, and also because they constitute the tools most available to online teachers, trainers, and learners: 1) print and text, 2) still graphics and illustrations, 3) sound and music, 4) video and moving graphics, and 5) multimedia.

Teaching tasks and learning theories

Let's determine how Fleming's conception of learning relates to some well-known pre-online learning models and standards. Figure 6-1 shows the correspondence of Fleming's categories to those of Bloom's alterable variables of learning, Chickering and Gamson's seven principles of good practice, and Moore's needs of distance learners.

Table 6-1

Figure 6-1.
Learning and best-practice models, and learning tasks.

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Analysis of the Requirements of Teaching Tasks

The following conclusions about media in learning are drawn primarily from Fleming's work. The purpose of this review is to provide a basis for the observations contained in Figure 6-1.


A key learning principle, according to Fleming, is that attention by the learner to appropriate instructional stimuli is fundamental to learning. To be effective, training must attract and hold the learner's attention. Instruction must also recognize that attention tends to be

  • individual—the capacity to be attentive varies among individuals, and it varies for any individual at different times (e.g., fatigue or lack of background can cause attention to wander sooner than usual).
  • selective—at any one time, a learner's attention can be focused on only a small part of the learning content.
  • fluid—as a teaching topic changes, the learner must know when and how to shift attention; however, some learners may become distracted, confused, or otherwise lose the main point during shifts in attention.
  • especially attracted to novelty, to moderate levels of complexity, and to the contents of more focused, less complex displays.

Perception and Recall

Perception requires that the learner selectively focus on and make sense of stimulation in the environment, including the learner's own internal states and responses (thoughts, feelings, and physiological states). In a sense, all education and training is intended to make learners capable of finer and more articulate perceptions and distinctions. Recall involves the ability to remember and make use of relevant prior learning, as well as of the learning acquired in a given situation.

Perception and recall in teaching draw on principles such as those below.

  • Organization affects perception; that is, events, ideas, words, concepts, and other stimuli that are not organized in some meaningful way are more difficult to understand and remember than those that are.
  • Perception and recall can be aided by comparison and contrast; similarity and grouping also assist recall.
  • Presentations that focus on differences are distinguished better by learners, and their contents may be easier to recall.

Organization and Sequencing

Organization and sequencing are present in the learning models represented in Figure 6-1. In Chickering and Gamson's model, responding to diversity in learners' needs suggests the possibility of reorganizing and resequencing materials and activities. In regard to Moore's model, providing guidance and support has direct implications for organization and sequence. (Bloom's [1984] “quality tutorials” could also extend to organization and sequence, depending upon the definition of “quality.”)

For Fleming, the organization and sequencing of materials is an important task in instructional planning. The general principles listed below particularly apply to media design.

  • The first and last items in a sequence are especially important; introductions and summaries represent key learning opportunities.
  • Modeling and demonstrations can result in learning. While learners eventually must become active in the process of acquiring skills and knowledge, students can also learn while watching. Active internal states produce intellectual engagement, just as psychomotor activity accompanies the learning of physical skills.
  • Repetition and review increase learning up to a point. Repetition can be used to increase skill, automaticity, and speed; however, power (depth of understanding, breadth of proficiency) is usually not increased by repetition alone.

Instruction and Feedback

While learners require skilful instruction, they also require feedback to enable them to monitor their progress, to discover errors or misconceptions, and to recognize what they should do differently (or continue to do) to gain further proficiency. Not all feedback is equally useful, however, and not all learners require the same kind of feedback. Principles applicable to media design and use include those listed below.

  • The more mature the learner, the more informative the feedback should be.
  • With mature learners, correct answers should simply be marked “correct.” Mature learners tend to dislike excessively demonstrative praise.
  • Feedback should be prompt, but it does not have to be immediate. Learners should know how much delay to expect in test results and marking.
  • Exceptions to the above point occur when feedback on previous steps is needed before subsequent ones can be taken; when there is a safety concern (i.e., previous steps must be correct or later ones could result in a dangerous situation); or when the task is highly complex.
  • Feedback can be reduced as the learner becomes more experienced and more proficient. Initially, feedback should be frequent for most learners, to ensure that they have a positive initial experience.

All of the models in Figure 6-1 recognize that quality instruction includes the presentation to the learner of appropriate explanations, with the option for additional feedback. Chickering and Gamson's reference to student-instructor “contact” implies this element in their model. Importantly for this discussion of media-based learning, none of the models assumes that contact or interaction need be face-to-face to be effective.

Learner Participation

Learning requires engagement with the subject matter, and engagement often implies some kind of performance. In the case of psychomotor skills, the activity is usually physical, with evaluation dependent on observable outcomes. Occasionally, however, an activity may be completely or largely mental, according to the following principles.

  • Activities that encourage the formation in the learner of mental images increase learning. Activities that require the learner first to process and then to reproduce a version of the original information do more to encourage learning than do rote reproduction and imitation alone.
  • Language use accompanying or providing context for newly learned concepts increases learning; for example, composing a verbal narrative while learning complex or abstract material assists in retention. This principle can even extend to psychomotor skills, which is the reasoning behind “visualization” exercises in sports.

The use of experience and practice in learning requires willing learner participation and the conscientious application of new skills and knowledge for proficiency to develop. Peter Garrison quotes Galison's observation that moving from declarative knowledge (knowing that something is true, or how something might theoretically be done), through procedural knowledge (knowing how an activity is performed), to craft knowledge (being able to perform a procedure or to use knowledge with expert proficiency) requires practice, feedback, and application. Craft knowledge, the distinction between the novice and the expert, is the objective of many kinds of academic learning, and all higher-level skill training.

As are the tasks of instruction and feedback, learner involvement is common to all three learning models under discussion here (Figure 6-1). Time on task is added to show that participation must be purposive and relevant. The noun “cooperation” and the adjective “active” in Chickering and Gamson's model add the notion that the learner's involvement should be more than passive observation of others' efforts or conclusions, a position with definite implications for media implementation.

Concept Formation and Higher-Order Thinking

The learning of concepts or principles is often intended to be part of a process leading to engagement with other, related concepts. In formulations such as Gagne's, below, the learning sequence is hierarchical, and as the learner moves up the sequence, more complex orders of reasoning are required:

  1. Signal learning—involuntary responses; for example, the startle response, or removing a hand from heat.
  2. Stimulus-response learning—voluntary, selective responses; for example, signaling in response to a specific cue, or imitating an action.
  3. Motor-chain learning—performing a sequence of actions in a certain order; for example, dancing, parallel parking, or replacing a light bulb.
  4. Verbal association or verbal chaining—reciting correct responses to cues; for example, singing the lyrics of a song, reciting the alphabet, or translating a word from one language to another.
  5. Multiple discrimination—responding differently to similar stimuli; for example, distinguishing individual but related members of a group, or giving an appropriate English equivalent for a foreign word.
  6. Concept learning—responding to new stimuli according to properties they share with previously encountered stimuli, or comparing properties of phenomena; for example, estimating the characteristics of similar objects based on knowledge about their composition (a large rock vs. a large pillow), identifying members of a group (saltwater vs. freshwater fish), and distinguishing examples and non-examples of a class or phenomenon (vegetables vs. non-vegetables).
  7. Principle learning—putting two or more concepts together in a relationship (without necessarily being able to explain the underlying rule governing the relationship); for example, applying physical laws (“matter expands when heated”) or mathematical theorems.
  8. Problem-solving—recalling previously learned principles and using them in combination to achieve a goal; for example, selecting and combining facts in an essay to persuade, analyzing a problem to determine its cause, or solving a complex problem by selecting and applying previously learned facts and principles.

Higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) are a challenge in technology-based learning. A persistent criticism of computer-assisted learning (CAL) and case-based learning using intelligent agents and artificial intelligence algorithms has been their failure to move beyond the mere identification and use of facts, to creative and synergistic linking of concepts.

In Figure 6-1, HOTS are present by implication in two of the models, in references to improved reading and study skills, and in the objective of communicating high expectations to learners. However, the lack of specific reference to concept formation or higher-order thinking in these models, and the other apparent gaps in the resulting table, may be less a lapse than a reminder in this discussion that somehow these tasks must be addressed in media-based learning. The developers of the pre-online models represented in Figure 6-1 undoubtedly accept that higher-order outcomes are preferred. The challenge to media developers is to make this objective specific and achievable, as discussed below.

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Media, Modes, and Learning

Background Concepts

Despite their different characteristics, online training technologies bring students into contact with their tutors, the content, and their peers. In this way, media can help to reduce “transactional distance” in learning—the communication gap or psychological distance between participants which may open in a teaching-learning situation. The differences in how various technologies accomplish their effects are important to their potential usefulness.

Media Characteristics and Impacts on Learning

Five types of media, from print to multimedia are discussed below. The intention is to make distinctions among media commonly used in teaching and learning. As technologies continue to evolve, it will be increasingly possible to use integrated, complex media to deliver instruction. We need criteria to make wise choices among the options. Design and support of instruction should be based not only on the capabilities of the technology, but also on the ability of learners to make effective use of the tools.

Print and Text

Very old books. There is no medium more ubiquitous than print, and no mode more familiar than text in its many forms. Print was part of the first teaching machine—the book—and books were the first mass-produced commodity. Print has been the dominant medium to date in distance education, and distance students have traditionally spent most of their time studying alone, often using print materials only. The question is whether this situation is likely to continue.

The answer requires consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of text and print. The chief strengths of print and text have traditionally included

  • cost—Bates reports that print is one of the lowest cost one-way technologies.
  • flexibility and robustness—print scores highest on these features.
  • portability and ease of production—with desktop publishing hardware and software, printing has become enormously simpler and its quality much higher. In addition, costs can be reduced with local production.
  • stability —organization and sequencing are positively affected, since text-only printed and online materials can be reorganized and resequenced with relative ease by cut-and-paste operations, using word-processors and HTML editors.
  • convenience, familiarity, and economy—instruction and feedback are facilitated by the medium's familiarity, as, for adept learners and the highly literate, are higher-order thinking and concept formation.

Ironically, the major disadvantages of print are related to some of its advantages, and include those listed below.

  • Print is static, and may fail to gain adequate involvement from low-functioning readers. Attention, perception and recall, and active learner participation may thus be lower for less able learners.
  • Print is relatively non-interactive, or at least non-responsive, and may lead to passive, rote learning.
  • Print often requires substantial literacy levels.

Print is accessible (to the literate), and comparatively low in cost; furthermore, online text is easy to produce, translates well across various platforms and operating systems, and in some of its forms, may be manipulated by the user if desired. However, print may be seen by some as the “slightly seedy poor relation” of other instructional media. Text's lack of appeal is exacerbated by the alternatives to reading which are increasingly appearing, and which use multimedia (especially audio and graphics) and improvements in voice recognition and reproduction technologies to make reading less critical for users. As a result, non-print multimedia-based technologies could come to be regarded as cost-effective, especially in cultures or industries where high levels of literacy cannot be assumed, or where the costs of reading inefficiencies are high. Developments such as instant text messaging and e-paper could reverse this trend, giving print and print-based materials new life, at least until e-paper-based multimedia evolve to make text less important once more.

Still Graphics and Static Displays

Man with projector screen in the back.A wide and growing selection of graphic technologies is available to online programmers, from older technologies, such as overhead projectors and 35mm slide projectors, broadcast TV, and pre-produced videotapes, to various forms of digital video (interactive and non-interactive), computer-generated video, and interpersonal communications tools such as group and desktop video-conferencing using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

Graphics can increase the motivation of users to attend, prompt perception, aid recall, and assist in the development of higher-order thinking and concept formation. Furthermore, still graphics combine high information content (they can illustrate abstract or unfamiliar concepts) with relatively low production and distribution costs. Online compression formats, such as .jpg, permit low-bandwidth distribution of high quality graphics.

Screen resolution can be an issue in the use of graphics. Students in your online course should be advised about what display resolution is optimal for viewing your course graphics. Online static visual displays which draw upon established design principles are more likely to be successful:

  • Visuals that emphasize the critical details relevant to learning are most effective. Unnecessary visuals may be distracting, especially to learners with limited attention spans or discrimination skills.
  • The addition of detail and realism to displays does not increase learning. Unnecessary detail can add to learning time without increasing achievement, and in online situations can increase transfer times dramatically. Depending on the relevance of the cues to the learning task, simple line drawings tend to be superior to photographs or more realistic drawings.
  • Diagrams, charts, and graphs should not be assumed to be self-explanatory, but may require the learner to process the information given and to understand certain conventions. Graphics should routinely include supporting captions.

With the exception of instruction that directly employs color for teaching (e.g., identifying color-coded elements), there is little evidence that color enhances learning. Color may even distract some learners . Some other generalizations about color are below:

  • Color may increase the speed at which lists can be searched.
  • The use of too many colors may reduce the legibility of a presentation. A maximum of four colors was suggested in one study.
  • The most highly recommended colors are vivid versions of green, cyan, white, and yellow.
  • Color may be displayed differently on various systems.
  • End-users should control the color of displays, given the prevalence of color-blindness (found to some degree in 8% of men and 0.5% of women).
  • The best color display combinations are blue or black on a white background, or white, yellow, or green on a black background.

For online uses of still graphics, the following characteristics of the computer as a delivery medium must be accommodated by developers.

  • A PC screen is about 1/3 of a piece of paper in display area, and most monitors are less sharp than the best laser printers or photographic reproductions. Do not expect students to do heavy reading completely on the computer. Make sure text heavy reading assignments are printable.
  • Screen positioning is critical: important information should go to the top-left; the lower-left is the least noticed area of the page/screen.
  • What works on paper may not work, without translation or redesign, on a computer screen.
  • Designers should not assume users have superior equipment; design should be for displays of mid-range quality and size.
  • Single-color backgrounds, with a high contrast ratio between the background and the text, are easiest for readers; white or off-white is best for the background.
  • Sans serif fonts, with mixed upper and lower case, are best for legibility and reading ease.
  • The size of the font depends on the purpose. For extended reading, smaller (12-point) fonts are suitable; for presenting information that will be skimmed or scanned, larger fonts may be more appropriate.
  • Font changes can be effective for emphasis (size and type), as can capitals, underlining, and especially the use of bolding. The use of color alone should be avoided for emphasis, as systems handle color differently. All of the above techniques should be used sparingly, to preserve their impact.

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Sound and Music

Speaker symbol The principal issues in online audio are technical (storage and bandwidth) and pedagogical. For maximum effect, materials must not simply be a recorded version of another medium (e.g., a lecture), but should be rescripted to incorporate and interrelate with other modes of presentation.

Online audio (including, when file sizes are large, distribution by CD and DVD) can be particularly useful in teaching for several technical reasons, presented below.

  • An audio summary of previous material can aid recall, help retention, and lead to concept formation and higher-order thinking.
  • Although CDs and DVDs are one-way technologies (non-interactive, like a lecture), they have the great advantage of learner control.
  • CDs and DVDs are easy and cheap to produce and ship, and so reduce cost and improve accessibility.
  • The technology of discs is easy to use and familiar. Operating systems (Windows, Apple OS, and Linux) now usually offer built-in software and hardware for playing back CDs and DVDs.
  • The mode of presentation most often found on this medium, the human voice, is a familiar and powerful teaching tool.
  • Audio may be more motivating than print alone, and together with print may form a powerful alternative and aid to reading alone.

As technological evolutions permit more audio-based delivery, both interactive (e.g., VoIP) and one-way (streaming audio clips), research findings about audio's teaching capabilities become applicable.

  • Learning gains from one-way audio alone are at best weak.
  • Learners possessing higher verbal skills usually do not benefit from audio added to text.
  • There are few or no apparent significant immediate recall effects between text-only and text plus audio presentation, except that sometimes audio may lengthen the time required to complete instruction.
  • Audio may limit the ability of learners to proceed through material at their own individual rate.
  • The quality and utility of digitized speech depends upon the amount of compression, the sampling rate, and the bandwidth available to the user.
  • For general audiences, the possible benefits of audio must be weighed against the increased costs. Exceptions include uses such as language training, music instruction, and as an aid to the visually impaired.
  • Where possible, the learner should be able to decide whether or not to use available audio.

Video and Animation

Film stripVideo suffers from the same kinds of limitations as audio, but to an even greater degree; bandwidth is the primary limitation to greater video use online. The following strengths of video for learning and teaching can be exploited, with appropriate instructional strategies.

  • adds a sense of direct involvement and physical presence among geographically dispersed learners.
  • The social presence and cohesion that video fosters among users is often valued, especially by participants new to distance education, and may improve motivation.
  • enables the delivery of global expertise to remote learners.
  • The technology permits the sharing of various visual resources.
  • Group-based learning activities may be more attractive and feasible with video technology support.
  • Well-designed and appropriately implemented uses of video can help in the teaching of abstract, time-protracted, hazardous, or unfamiliar concepts.
  • eliminates or reduces travel time and time away from jobs and family.

According to Roberts, critical issues in the delivery of video-based training include those listed below.

  • Proper training of instructors.
  • User self-consciousness.
  • Integration of other media into video presentations.
  • Optimum length of sessions and size of groups.
  • Session variety.
  • Technical design and support.
  • Professional quality visual elements.

Video delivery is complex, potentially costly, and of uncertain benefit for some teaching tasks over simpler, more economical media. A clear pedagogic and business case is obviously needed for its use.


The term "multimedia" generally means the integration of video, audio, graphics, and data within a single computer workstation. While multimedia applications offer advantages and benefits, these do not come without costs, awareness of which may help users to make informed decisions about the true advantages of the medium. The key concerns include:

  • unnecessary duplication of existing instructional materials
  • teachers untrained in design becoming bogged down in the production of low-quality multimedia
  • problems of assessment using multimedia materials, which occur because learners using hyperlinks in multimedia do not always cover the same material in the same sequence
  • high technical demands, with technical difficulties arising because of the complexity of some multimedia applications.

Obstacles to the widespread use of multimedia are myriad, and arise in part from the fact that multimedia applications, even if instituted carefully and with the intention of altering the learners' experiences, are an example of change and innovation, and so may provoke resistance, including such obstacles as:

  • reluctance on the part of teachers to see materials transformed.
  • the fear felt by users (staff and learners) over the level of technical knowledge required to get involved.
  • the need of many tutors for special training (which may or may not be conveniently available) to use multimedia effectively.
  • the significant challenge and expense of “adapting and transforming material intended for traditional delivery methods into new media”.
  • the desire to tinker endlessly and mindlessly on presentations, with negative results for productivity.

Despite these potential limitations and weaknesses, multimedia also has potential strengths when used appropriately:

  • multiple, active learning modalities.
  • accommodation of different learning styles and preferences, including disabilities.
  • effective instruction across learning domains, including affective and psychomotor (with simulations, case studies, and other representational and interactive uses), promoting development of higher-order thinking skills, and concept formation.
  • realism, especially when coupled with graphics and video.
  • potential interactivity.
  • individualization, with use of computer branching capabilities and CML (computer-managed learning).
  • consistent experiences, compared with group-based face-to-face instruction.
  • potential for high levels of learner control.

The impact of multimedia in teaching is ultimately dependent upon the incorporation of certain principles that govern its usefulness and effects. Mayer has suggested seven such principles, based on his ongoing research:

  1. Multimedia principle: Students learn better from words and graphics or pictures than from words alone.
  2. Spatial contiguity principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  3. Temporal contiguity principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
  4. Coherence principle: Students learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.
  5. Modality principle: Students learn better from animation and audible narration than from animation and on-screen text.
  6. Redundancy principle: People have only limited capacity to process visual and auditory material presented simultaneously; therefore, students learn better from animation and narration than from a combination of animation, generation, and onscreen text.
  7. Individual differences principle: Design effects are stronger for low-knowledge learners than for high-knowledge learners.

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The Internet

Class with laptops.The Internet offers both advantages and challenges to educators and trainers. The advantages arise from the Internet's enormous capacity to link participants with information and with each other. But problems with navigation, structure, interactivity, complexity, security, and sheer consumption of time must be addressed.

The Internet is potentially a powerful linking and communication vehicle. Heinich, Molenda, Russell, and Smaldino suggest that the Internet's power lies in its capacity for providing numerous connections to engrossing, multi-sensory experiences, suited to individual needs. The fact that these can be constructed by teachers themselves, and can incorporate knowledge of their students' needs and feature meaningful student-student collaboration and student-teacher interaction, also makes the Internet a revolutionary learning tool. At the same time, the Web's inherent lack of structure may result in some users getting unintentionally “lost in cyberspace,” or making poor use of time (“surfing,” or exploring interesting but irrelevant minutiae). Also, Internet materials often fail to exploit the medium's potential for interactivity, consisting of one-way presentations of information. The reliability of online information may also be suspect, unless its provenance is known. And successful use of the Internet currently demands proficient literacy and computer skills. (As noted earlier, this may change as bandwidth availability makes supplemental audio and video more available.)

In relation to Figure 6-1, the Internet offers a means for gaining the attention of learners, and of presenting opportunities for focusing perceptions and prompting recall. Learner participation can also be supported, especially with CMC and use of collaborative learning projects. Providing instruction, and assuring appropriate organization, sequencing, and higher-order outcomes are less easily accomplished with the Internet, for reasons discussed here.

Graphics of the world connected to a wire.

Two related Internet-based media show particular instructional promise for those with the skill and discipline to use them well, especially in relation to organization and sequencing challenges presented by the Internet: hypermedia and hypertext. Hypermedia is the linking of multimedia documents, while hypertext is the linking of words or phrases to other words or phrases in the same or another document. Internet delivery may be hyperlinked or linear. As a technology, hypermedia has existed for decades, but with advances in hardware, software, and human-computer interfaces, it is now technically feasible to incorporate hypermedia systems routinely in teaching, and dozens of hypertext and hypermedia development systems now exist.

While hypermedia permit huge amounts of information from a variety of media to be stored in a compact and easily accessible form, the sheer amount of available information may also overwhelm learners, especially if they are unable to refine a search or conduct a focused exploration successfully. Users require skills (some technical, others related to organization and self-discipline) to make efficient use of hypermedia materials. Although the results of hypertext use in teaching have previously been somewhat mixed, the promise is in the potential to offer self-directed learners the option to control the details of their own learning to a much greater extent than is possible in group instruction. With emerging online communications capabilities, the ability for teachers to oversee and monitor this kind of learning also increases. The problem is to overcome the users' tendency only to “focus on facilitating access to information,” and not on actual learning outcomes. This is an important distinction, and one that could be applied to any of the media discussed here.


Online learning is still in its early infancy. There are many outstanding, and, in some cases, vexing issues: costs are declining, but still limit widespread access; many users (teachers, trainers and learners) feel they do not have all the skills they need to make mature use of online learning's potential; administrators and policy-makers often overstate the likely impacts of going online; and the relation of learning outcomes to technology use, for specific populations and in particular circumstances, has not been clearly identified, and is not well understood.

Although these realities prove that there must be evolution before online learning can be seen as mature, at the same time there are promising signs. Access to the Internet is improving, especially for some previously disenfranchised groups; for example, women as a group now exceed men in numbers of Internet users. Some consensus about good practice is emerging, including examples of clearly successful uses of technology to meet persistent learning needs. Finally, in-service training is increasingly available to potential users.

Will these trends continue? Change has been a constant in the online learning world, and as technical capabilities come out of the lab, they are quickly packaged and made available to users by entrepreneurs. Education could keep pace, and could avoid the costs and uncertainties of invention, by merely following the technological lead of the corporate sector.

Whether online learning follows this path or not, it has a good chance to grow because online access to information—wired or wireless, structured or user-driven—and interaction using various computer-based technologies are established social and economic realities. Whether one deplores or applauds this reality, it is nevertheless a fact that as a culture we now go online for many purposes. Consequently, every educator—and especially every distance educator and trainer—should consider the potential of online media as an element of their practice.

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Course Technology

From the Quality Matters Rubric - Inter-institutional Quality Assurance in Online Learning:

General Review Standard: To enhance student learning, course technology enriches instruction, fosters student interactivity,and increases access to instructinoal materials and resources.

Quality Matters Course Technology rubric
Specific Review Standards
Annotation: What's the Idea?
VI.1 The tools and media support the learning objectives and are appropriately chosen to deliver the content of the course.
Tools and media used in the course support related learning objectives, and are contextually integrated with texts and lesson assignments. Students know how the tools and media support the assignments and how they support the learning objectives.
VI.2 The tools and media enhance student interactivity and guide the student to become a more active learner.
Tools and media used in the course help students actively engage in the learning process, rather than passively "absorbing" information.
VI.3 Technologies required for this course are either provided or easily downloadable.
The term "technologies" may cover a range of plug-ins (e.g., Acrobat Reader, media players) or special software packages. Clear instructions list the required software and plug-ins, along with instructions for obtaining and installing these items.
VI.4 The course components are compatible with existing standards of delivery modes.
The course components are compatible with existing standards of delivery modes.
VI.5 Instruction on how to access resources at a distant are sufficient and easy to understand.
The instructional materials, resources, tools, and media should be easily accessible, obtainable, and useable by the student.
VI.6 The course design takes full advantage of available tools and media.
Course technology should be current and reflect an evolution of the field of online education. As new versions of a course management system are released, instructors should integrate the new features into their course to ensure that students have the most effective and efficient access to the courses.

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The following information is from UW Extension's excellent "Teaching Online: A Workshop for Faculty and Staff Development" guest lecture by Alice Anderson and Blaire Bundy.

What is Accessibility?

Image of a disabled sign.Accessibility is a term that is often used to describe the degree to which something is usable by as many people as possible without significant or burdening modification. Accessibility is often associated with assisting or benefiting people with disabilities. Current estimates based on U.S. Statistics suggest that approximately 20% of the U.S. population have some type of disability. Disability categories include:

  • Mobility
  • Deaf or Hard of Hearing
  • Visual (Blind or Low Vision)
  • Learning (including Attention Deficit / Hyperactive)
  • Speech and Language
  • Psychological
  • Other (Epilepsy, Head Injury, etc.)

The range within each category is also broad. For example, visual impairments include those legally blind, those who suffer from potentially blinding eye disease, and people who have visual conditions not correctable by glasses.

Disability Law

To address the concerns and issues of Americans with disabilities, Congress passed Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act - prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities and mandates actions that must be taken to facilitate equal opportunity. The most important provision of hte act is Section 504, which states that:

Icon of the Section 508 Rehabilitation Act.

"No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States... shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Simply stated, this means that all college programs and activities must be accessible to people with disabilities.

Accessibility as a focus, when expanded beyond benefitting people with disabilities, refers to the ability to access information by all. Within learning environments, it is about providing content to meet the needs of all learners - all learners benefit. In this broadened context, disability is reframed to reflect 'diverse ability' - which includes a mismatch between learning styles or learner needs and the instruction offered. When instructional material is designed to be usableby all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaption or specialized design, we are referring to 'universal design' (UD) that benefits all learners, including those with disabilities.

Universal Design

UD is about making products and environments useful to people with a wide range of characteristics that include age, race/gender, language, socioeconomic status, and ability, disability and learning style. Principles of UD evolved from the field of architecture and are quickly being embraced in education. Architects recognized that many of the environmentalchanges needed to accomodatepeople with disabilities actually benefited everyone.

UD of Instruction offers the following benefits to learners:

  1. Multiple ways of representing information to learners
  2. Multiple ways for learners to demonstrate knowledge
  3. Multiple means of engaging learners

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Why is Accessibility Important to Faculty - Especially to Those Who Teach Online?

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web Consortion (W3C) and credited as being the Invetnor of the Web.

Accessibility is a legal requirement but it is also about doing the right thing. It is about equitable use for all learners, convenient access on all devices and benefiting all users! Education delivered on line provides the opportunity to level the playing field for all learners. Accomodating all learners is part fo the process of ensuring that high quality education experiences are available to every individual - reaching the widest possible audience. There is an ever-increasing demand for courses, resources and communication via the Internet. Access to the Internet is among the most important tools we have today. There are growing numbers of people accessing the web, working with e-mail and operating computers, PDA's (Personal Digital Assistant), cell phones, smart phones, iPods and other mobile technologies.

Another trend that educators should be aware of is the rapid development in Asstive (is this the right word????) Technologies (AT), making it possible for individuals with a wide range of disabilities to gain access to computers, networking and telecommunications technologies and multi-media products. AT removes barriers to accessing information and education for people with disabilities. A potential learner may have differences in how they interact with a computer, including hardware and software, input and output. A person who is blind may use screen reader software to hear the information instead of viewing it on a screen. Limitations in mobility could mean that the student uses an adapted keyboard to navigate the Web. Common computer-related AT products include screen magnifiers, screen readers, large-key keyboards, alternative input devices such as touch screen displays, over-sized trackballs and joysticks, speech recognition programs, and text readers.

How Can Assessibility be Used/Implemented in Online?

Improving accessibility begins with increased awareness of the barriers—the perceptive and functional abilities of people with mental, physical or learning disabilities that may or may not affect online learning. Examples of some of the barriers or problems for people with disabilities include:

  • Visual disabilities and images, charts, graphics, etc. without an alternative text behind them
  • Hearing disabilities and audio that doesn't have transcripts or captions
  • Physical disabilities and the ability to use a mouse or a keyboard
  • Cognitive disabilities, learning disabilities or dyslexia and web sites that lack clear language, are verbose, or have inconsistent navigation or design from page to page
  • Low vision and fonts that are not able to be enlarged, or have poor color contrast
  • Color blind and information that conveys meaning only through color (red/green)

As you design, consider each non-textual element: graphics, movies, graphs, charts, applets, and so on. Think of ways you could communicate the same information in text.

Consider all Web pages for your organization (i.e., pages associated with courses of instruction, departmental programs, Campus-sponsored activities, employment, administration and university services) – is the information and service(s) accessible to the widest possible audience - including users of old, adaptive, alternate, or emerging technologies?

What Best Practices, Techniques, or Guidelines are Useful When Considering Accessibility?

At the design stage of courses, curriculum or resources, think about UD, and the inclusion of people with disabilities or people with different learning styles or technologies.

Three areas require attention for web (on line) design:

  1. Content -- Give thought to what you are communicating. Make it clear.
  2. Structure -- Thoughtful organization can assist access to content.
  3. Presentation -- Thoughtless presentation techniques can block access.

Content is how users process information presented on the web is to scan as quickly as possible the content, scrolling down the page looking at items that stand out (headings, links, bold text and bullet points). Those using AT (visually impaired or non-keyboard users) often scan pages by tabbing between headings or links and listening for descriptive information. An example would be the title or heading of a new section or paragraph or the alt text associated with a button.

Structure is how a page is organized, usually with navigational menu items, headings, sub-headings, paragraphs, lists, and links. You can think of it in terms of the hierarchy of a simple MS Word document. The title of the document could be the topmost heading, i.e., Heading 1; sub-sections of the document could be Heading 2(s) and so forth. Not only will this provide a visual distinction between sections of your documents it will also provide non-visual markers for screen reader users. Additional benefits to use headings correctly and consistently in Web documents are better and more accurate Google hits!

Presentation is how words and images (content and structure) are presented to the end user. Be consistent. Predictable design and navigation greatly enhance accessibility.
Be clear. Describe content, techniques, why and how, rather than relying solely on visual information. All visitors will appreciate good organization and clean design.

By separating structure and presentation your web resources will be accessible to and ready for the future of the Internet: PDA’s, mobile phones, in-car browsers, etc. This is most often done though the use of Use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) whenever possible. CSS is a web markup language that accompanies HTML and gives both developers and users more control over how pages are displayed. CSS allows web developers to separate the appearance of a page (CSS) from its structure and informational content (HTML). Because it is not known how users are accessing content (using a wide variety of devices and media) the presentation of a document should not be the same for everyone (but content and structure should be). People with disabilities benefit from this approach because they gain more control over how web pages are displayed or presented. For example, a user might have a visual disability that requires text to be displayed at 24 pts and in bold yellow on a dark blue background. If you are presenting your information using cascading style sheets that may have text set for 12 pt font, black text on a tan background, the end user can apply their own CSS. In effect, overriding your CSS with their own!

Put yourself in another person’s shoes. As you design, or review your material, imagine yourself in AT browsing situations. Will you still be able to access the content if you:

  • Are unable to use a mouse? - Turn your mouse over!
  • Have limited vision? - Set your monitor to grayscale or print out your material on a black and white printer!
  • Are unable to view images? - Turn graphics off!
  • Have a portable device or limited vision? - Increase font size!
  • Cannot hear or have limited hearing? - Turn your sound off!

The tools of web accessibility will change a lot in the future, but there are a few things you can do now. Most importantly, provide alternative text for graphics and provide good color contrast between type and backgrounds.

When creating web pages, select an authoring tool that both encourages you to create accessible content in a fairly intuitive and integrated fashion and helps you to check whether you have created accessible content. For example, when making Web pages, Macromedia Dreamweaver has built in preferences that help you to make your content more accessible and reminders and prompts for when you fail to make accessible.
Another example is using Adobe Acrobat to create more accessible PDFs. By default, PDFs will be images of the text and the structure, unless they are authored correctly. A person using a screen reader, auditory browser, or other assistive technology (AT) will not be able to access or extract the information on a PDF that is an image. You can use the Accessibility quick check feature that provides feedback and checks for errors. If you are including PDFs, it is recommended that an alternative HTML file also be included.

What Tips or Advice Could You Share About Accessibility?

The Internet and online learning has unlimited potential to offer access to information using different modalities, assuring people with disabilities will be included.

Many of the techniques used for accessibility benefit users of emerging technologies and new or different kinds of devices such a mobile phones, Personal Digital Assistants, information kiosks that are web-based, WebTVs and so forth. Then there's also people who are aging and wouldn't consider themselves to have a disability, but benefit from many of the same solutions.

Course Management Systems (CMS) e.g., Desire2Learn, also known as D2L, WebTV, Blackboard, A-Tutor, and WebCT etc., are designed to help educators create effective online learning. Components of these systems may include templates for content pages, quizzes, discussion forums, chat, and exercises such as multiple-choice, true/false and one-word-answer. Instructors fill in these templates and then release them for learners to use. A CMS is considered the shell, and even when the shell complies with accessibility regulations, chances are good that an instructor may add content that is not accessible.

Quite often this happens without the instructor even being aware that they are adding inaccessible content. For example, an instructor might upload PowerPoint without adding alt tags to images or without descriptive titles for their slides. Other examples could include audio files without text transcripts or video files without captions.

Education delivered via the Internet provides an opportunity to level the playing field for learners with disabilities through use of new technologies, in combination with thoughtful design of web and on line resources. The technology is available, but the onus now rests with designers to present Web-based resources in formats that are accessible to a full range of learners.

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Copyright Information for Online Instructors

The following information is from UW Extension's excellent "Teaching Online: A Workshop for Faculty and Staff Development" guest lecture by Tracey Gladstone-Sovell, Ph.D. is a Professor and Chair of the Department of the Political Science at University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

When the United States Constitution was written in 1787, Congress was explicitly given the authority "To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Laws enacted under this authority are now referred to as copyright and patent protection.

The following information is adapted from Copyright Basics, ( U.S. Copyright Circular 1, September 2000 with updates from the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and the Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization Act.

Copyright Protections

Copyright symbolThere are two basic functions of copyright law. It allows the creator of a copyrighted work to:

  1. Control how that work is used.
  2. Earn a profit from a work of value.

In order to achieve these goals, copyright provides certain forms of protection to authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. It is based on federal law (title 17, U.S. Code), and gives to the owner of copyright (and/or to authorize others to have) the exclusive right to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work (examples include such things as translations, musical arrangements, motion picture versions, art reproductions, sound recordings, or any other form in which a work is recast or adapted);
  • To distribute copies or phonorecrods of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Types of Works Protected (and not protected) by Copyright

Copyright protects "original works of authorship" that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. Today such works are often seen as forms of "intellectual property." The following commonly used categories of intellectual property used for educational purposes are covered by copyright law:

  • literary works
  • musical works; including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

If you can see, read, watch or hear it, the work is considered fixed and is most likely eligible for copyright protection.

However, not everything that might be considered an intellectual produciton is covered by copyright law. The following works are not protected by copyright:

  • ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices
  • collection of facts such as the white pages of the phone book
  • works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, an improvisational speech that has not been written or recorded)
  • titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • familiar symbols or designs
  • listings of ingredients such as recipes
  • information that is common property such as calendars, height and weight charts, rulers
  • federal government publication

Notice of Copyright

Since 1989, works no longer need to carry notice of copyright (such as the letter c in a circle) in order to be protected. Copyright is secured automatically when a work is created. Works are created when they are fixed in a medium such as a book, manuscript, videotape, sheet music, or CD. Digital works created on the internet are copyrighted automatically as well.

Pre-1978 published works must carry the copyright notice and be registered in order to be protected. Pre-1978 unpublished works (e.g., a letter, a diary) are protected, even without copyright notice.

Duration of Copyright and Materials in the Public Domain

Under current law, copyright lasts the life of the author plus seventy years. Materials produced prior to 1978 documents are protected for a maximum of 95 years, if they have been formally copyrighted. When a copyright expires, the work is said to have entered the public domain. Because the question of when a copyright expires can be a complicated issue, the University of North Carolina has created a web site to help determine when works pass into the public domain. Consult this table ( to learn more about when works pass into the public domain.

Penalties and Exemptions

Anyone who violates any of the rights provided by the copyright law may be held civilly or criminally liable. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. The most important exemption from copyright liability for educators is the fair use exemption established by section 107, title 17, U.S. Code.

The fair use exemption outlines certain situations when the reproduction of a particular work is considered "fair," and the distance education exemption outlines situations in which instructors in nonprofit educational institutions may transmit online non-dramatic written works and portions of dramatic works such as movies.

Fair use, outlined in section 107 , title 17, U.S. Code, allows copyrighted works to be reproduced for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. []. Fair use applies to all formats (print, AV, digital, etc.) If a use of a copyrighted work is considered "fair," you do not need to pay royalties or obtain permission to use or reproduce the work. Section 107 is the "umbrella" exception that allows for use of copyrighted works in a variety of unpredictable situations and provides some flexibility in the application of copyright law. Because of this provision, students and faculty can copy articles, parts of books, material from the web, etc. for personal use and instructors can use copyrighted material in the classroom.

Section 107 sets out four factors that must be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair. Those factors are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

All educational uses of copyrighted works are not necessarily fair. Each time a copyrighted work is used, a fair use analysis must be conducted using the four factors. Generally, if you are using a small amount of a published, factual work in an educational setting, and that use has no effect on the market for that work, your use is likely fair. It is the responsibility of all faculty, staff, and students to conduct a fair use analysis each time a copyrighted work is used, and to make a reasonable, good faith determination if the use is fair or not.

Although you must determine fair use on a case-by-case basis, some uses of copyrighted works clearly are not fair. Some examples of activities that would not pass a fair use analysis are:

  • Copying large sections of a work (the "heart of the work") and distributing it to all students in a class or posting it online for students
  • Combining a number of copyrighted works into a course pack and selling copies to students without obtaining permission or paying royalties
  • Taping a movie or television show to show in class and retaining and using the copy indefinitely
  • Duplicating an entire CD or video and keeping it or giving the copy to a friend
  • Sharing copies of copyrighted music or software on the internet
  • Obtaining a video on loan, duplicating it, and using it in class

General Rules for Complying with Fair Use

  • Remember that you are affiliated with a not-for-profit educational institution
  • Never post copyrighted materials for general access on the web
  • Use materials that have been lawfully acquired (material that you or your institution has purchased, received as a gift, or leased).
  • Maintain copyright notice and authorship identification. Give credit to the copyright owner.

Because the distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear, you may want to refer to the U.S. Copyright Office's Fair Use Fact Sheet and the Final Report to the Commissioner on the Conclusion of the Conference on Fair Use .

In addition the Checklist for Fair Use from the Copyright Management Center is also helpful in conducting a fair use analysis

Recent Modifications of Copyright Law

Digital Millenium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was enacted in 1998. It was an effort to update copyright law to take into account digitally produced and reproduced materials. The act affects universities in their role as Internet Service Providers and Information Technology Providers. It requires that Universities take reasonable efforts to insure that the copyright protections applying to digital material are in place on their campuses. Further information on the educational impact of DMCA is provided by EDUCAUSE.

The U.S. Copyright Office also provides a summary of the DMCA legislation .

Teach Act

The newest revision of copyright law affecting universities is The Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act, (TEACH Act) which became law in November 2002. It is particularly important for those teaching in an online environment.

The TEACH Act modifies existing copyright law to allow educators to use some copyright protected materials in distance education without gaining prior permission and/or paying royalties without violating copyright law. The general intention of the act was to make the same "fair use" criteria that apply to face-to-face educational contexts also apply to distance education.

The TEACH Act applies only to accredited educational institutions that have stated copyright policies which are made available to faculty, staff and students. In order to comply with the TEACH Act, copyrighted material made available via distance education must, among other things, meet the following criteria:

  1. Access must be limited to enrolled students
  2. Access must be limited to the time needed to complete the class session
  3. Reasonable efforts must be made to prevent students from copying and disseminating the material after they view it
  4. Analog material cannot be converted to a digital format, if it is readily available in a digital format
  5. The material must have been legally acquired initially

When one is delivering a course through the University of Wisconsin , inside a closed environment such as Desire2Learn most of the requirements of the TEACH Act are covered. All faculty and staff engaged in distance education should become familiar with the provisions of this law.

More information can be found through the American Library Association at the following site: Distance Education and the TEACH Act and through the Copyright Management Center at Indiana University - Purdue University - Indianapolis
 Overview of Copyright and Distance Education.

Using Copyright Material

It is possible to use copyright material for educational purposes, but to do so, one must first obtain permission. If use of an item does not meet the four factor fair use test, then you must seek permission to use the work. Most universities have processes and procedures for how this is done on any particular campus. The library is a good starting point for seeking out that information. In addition, the Copyright Clearance Center ( can assist in obtaining permission. You can also obtain permission to use copyrighted material on your own. Here are some sample permission letters to use as a guide, if you choose to seek permission to use material on your own.

Audio, Video and Copyright

Fair use applies to audio and video material. The same four criteria should be used to assess whether or not fair use applies. However, due to the formats, audio and visual materials have additional considerations that have to be taken into account.

Material can only be transferred from analog to digital under certain conditions:

  • If original analog version is damaged
  • If analog version will be destroyed after copy is made
  • If analog version is on unsupported format (1/2" reel to reel videotape)

Using audio and video clips in class and online:

  • A clip can be shown a second time for reinforcement
  • If clips will be a regular part of the class or will be downloadable on-line, seek copyright permission
  • Give credit where due
  • Seek legal commercial copies first
  • One copy, one use: if you need more than one copy or use clips often, seek permission

Protection of Your Own Intellectual Property

The University of Wisconsin System established a policy "Copyrightable Instruction Materials Ownership, Use and Control," in 1997 that governs the status of copyrightable material produced by UW employees. This policy can be accessed at

The UW system has also required that each campus develop its own official copyright policy. An example of this is the UW-River Falls general copyright policy which can be found at

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Local Support, Production, and Solutions

UW crestThe above topics were meant to give you an overview of the pros and cons of different media types, methods to help organize content, and the issues surrounding accessibility and copyright of content. Once you have combined these with your instructional goals and chosen the types of content and media that you want to produce, where do you go for help to produce that content? Alternately, if you have funding, where do you go to pay someone to produce or digitize the content for you?

Free or Low-cost Local Support

UW-Madison is a very decentralized campus, and as such there are a variety of groups that provide free or low-cost service both within specific colleges or departments, and University-wide. To start, always check with your department to see if there are any local IT support staff that can help you with digitizing materials into a format appropriate for online delivery. Local support will most often be most familiar with appropriate solutions and making use of those solutions will put help within easy reach should you need it! If the department does not have IT support staff, work your way up, through the school and then the college level.

As a starting point, here are a few University of Wisconsin Madison resources that you can check with:

Partnering with IT support will reduce your frustration in producting content, making sure it is in a format usable by your students and supportable by your local IT group.


This is by no means an exhaustive list of technology solutions for online learning - it is a starting point for those with an interest in further learning. We do highly recommend that you look at this list with a local IT support staff member to help you pick and choose which solutions are most appropriate for you.

  • Course Management System: Learn@UW
  • Asyncrhonous Online Lecture Creation: e-Teach
  • Synchronous Meetings and Lectures Online: Acrobat Live

Pay-for Production Groups

If you have funding and would prefer to concentrate on your role as a content expert, you can consider hiring a production group. Some of the local groups available on the UW-Madison campus are:

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