If you have used PowerPoint (or countless other tools, including word processors and spreadsheets), you understand the concept of separating content from style. With these tools, you can enter plain content and apply a number of “style sets” to it, changing its appearance. Experience eventually teaches users that it is a bad idea to embed styles within content. With embedded styles, it is a time-consuming effort to restructure content for use in other places, where the styles in the various re-used bits would not match or would conflict.
And yet, we routinely structure our eLearning content in such a way that we embed “flow.” "Flow" refers to the context or sequence of elements. Many instructional design models, as well as most if not all authoring tools, assume a certain strategy for instruction or learning. Each strategy typically involves an implicit flow, and this flow becomes embedded in eLearning as well.
This has the same undesirable consequences as in the PowerPoint example: when the designer wants to repurpose content from various sources, it may require considerable effort to get everything to have a consistent appearance, to work together, and to produce the desired results – attainment by the learner of specific knowledge, skills, competencies, and accomplishments. Until now, we have had little choice; as we create our eLearning content, our models or our tools force us to assemble it in a certain order.
However, I believe we can do better. In my company, Breakthrough PerformanceTech, we have developed an extensible learning content management system, or LCMX. This allows authors to create content that is independent not only of style, but also of presentation flow. By using this system, designers can present the same content in different “looks” and (perhaps more importantly) in different “ways.” I will present an overview of this concept in the rest of this article.
Content and styles
The earliest authoring tools, such as HTML editors, gave designers and developers (“authors”) simple text elements that they could place on a page in order to format content. These elements set attributes such as color, bolding, list formats, and other text enhancements, and allowed insertion of graphics and photographs. Many times the author (or the authoring tool) embedded the formatting within the content. The earliest software made no distinction between the text that constituted the content and the text that provided the formatting.
More sophisticated tools allowed the author to enter page elements and format them independently. With these tools, the author could apply text attributes much as one would format text in a word processing document. A further enhancement allowed for use of “style sheets” to reformat the text to match pre-defined or custom layout styles.
For example, PowerPoint slide layouts and slide appearance are independent of the content appearing on those slides. The author can choose from any of the included styles, download additional styles from the Internet, or even create new, custom, styles. This is possible because PowerPoint has separated the identity of the content and the styles applied to that content. It’s a familiar technique, available in many software applications today.
But while traditional software tools such as PowerPoint have the ability to understand the separation of content and style, they don’t have an understanding of the nature of the content.
Flow in eLearning
When we author eLearning content, we don’t think in terms of “pages.” We think in terms of context. For example, if I were to gather content on a given topic, I might think of an introduction, some examples, some common questions, some common misperceptions, maybe some typical objections, perhaps some examples of application, and maybe some case studies. As I go to build my course, I have to try to figure out a good way for the lesson to flow. Do I want to have my common questions come before or after my case studies? Do I want my objections near the beginning or near the end?
If the Learning Content Management System doesn’t have an understanding of the context of each element of content, the author must rearrange the content on the basis of the pages where it resides. This limitation forces the author to manipulate the content on the software’s terms, versus managing it on the author’s terms. The author, of course, understands the context of the data. Authors should be able to say, “I want to show the examples before covering common questions” – or vice versa. Authors should not have to go into every page, see what is on that page, and then move those pages around manually.
Moving pages around is a very poor way to manage flow, just as setting individual font attributes on every element of text is a very poor way to manage styles.
Flow is also a concern when we begin to look at alternate devices, such as mobiles. If the screen real estate is too small, we might have to present our data differently; “zoom and pan” of oversized content layouts would be awkward for the learner. As a result, when programming for mobiles authors often have to “start over” – perhaps even using different tools.
We accept this as a limitation of the technology – but it doesn’t have to be so.
eXtensibility – from XML to LCMX
Consider Hypertext Markup Language, more commonly known as “HTML.” Originally, HTML was supposed to simply apply display attributes to text. The “markup language” was limited to dealing with appearance. Text could be “bold,” or “italics,” or items in a “list.” While the designer could manipulate the appearance of the text, there was no way to define the purpose of the text. Was this a person’s name, or an address? Was this a sales order, or a list of ingredients for cookies?
But why should the list of tags be limited to describing text attributes?
And so, with the appearance of the “eXtensible Markup Language” (XML) in the late 1990’s, a revolution was born. With XML, designers can tag text not only with how it looks, but also with the purpose it serves. The brilliance of XML is that it is self-defining. XML tags can define the structure of the data, thus providing unlimited eXtensibility. (Editor’s note: For much more information on XML and related topics, see the three-part series of articles in Learning Solutions Magazine by Henry Meyerding, “XML and Content Reuse Systems for Instructional Design.”)
Because of the XML tags on data, applications can easily go in and extract just exactly what they need for each particular purpose. For example, to create a physical letter, an application can select a customer’s salutation, formal name, and mailing address. If the user wants to generate an e-mail, the application can select an informal greeting along with the e-mail address. In this way, an extensible system allows the reshaping and restructuring of data.
It is this power of self-defining extensibility that makes an eXtended LCMS (like LCMX) possible.
Independent style and flow
Unlike PowerPoint, an eXtended LCMS uses XML to support independent style and flow. To explain the power of this approach, let’s compare content entry in PowerPoint versus content entry in (for example) LCMX.
When you author content using PowerPoint, you can start by simply typing in the content, knowing that you are going to be applying a specific formatting style later. You don’t worry about defining fonts and colors and sizes of everything.
With LCMX authoring, you start at the same point. Enter the content text, and don’t worry about applying fonts or colors or sizes – you will be applying a style template later. So far, this is the same as with PowerPoint.
In PowerPoint authoring, you do have to place your content into definitions that are meaningful to PowerPoint. For example, you have to identify what content goes on each page, and set the order of the pages. As you do this, you are applying PowerPoint’s definitions to your data. For example, “This is the page 1 body text” or “this is the page 2 illustration.”
With LCMX authoring, you don’t initially place your content on any pages at all. Rather, you identify it by its potential future uses. For example, you can specify, “This is a common question that somebody would ask about this topic,” and then, “This is an excellent answer to that common question.” Furthermore, you can enter that data in several different formats. In this example you could provide the text of the question and answer, an audio clip of the question and answer, or even video clips of people asking the question and providing the answer. And just as you enter this content without “formatting,” you enter this content without “flow.” At this point, you are only providing content – you do not need to bog down in how it will look, or where you will use it.
Going back to PowerPoint, we commonly accept that we don’t need to specify the appearance of all the individual text elements. We know that, at the proper time, we will be applying a “style template” for all of our content to make it pretty.
With the extended learning content management approach, we will not be applying one template – but two. First, we have the same “style template” that governs the appearance of the content – much as we have in PowerPoint. The difference is that the LCMX also offers a “flow template” that allows it to govern the presentation methodology of the content.
With a software tool like PowerPoint, you enter content independent of style. With the LCMX, you enter content independent of style and flow. What this allows you to do is to reshape and re-visualize your content in an infinite number of ways. By applying style and flow templates, we can find a look that conveys our intentions in a visually pleasing way as well as find the way of presenting our content that best facilitates effective learning and results in a pleasing overall experience.
Leveraging learning content
In the LCMX, what we want the learners to learn is broken down into different levels, such as “courses” and “learning objects.” For our purposes, we can simply refer to this as “Learning Content.”
The second element, “Style Sets,” defines how we want that content to look. In the LCMX, this not only includes common style elements such as font size, color, and placement on a page – but also elements such as the protocol in which to deliver the content. In effect, choosing to display a video in .MP4 or .WMV format is no different than choosing to display a page title in red or blue – you simply select that which best suits your needs and aesthetic tastes.
The third element is the flow in which we want to present our content. In the LCMX, we call this the “learning framework.” You often don’t have the luxury of selecting an independent learning framework. (Some tools do indeed have flow templates, but you must shape your data to fit the flow template as you enter it – this is a significant difference!). While many authoring approaches don’t include a standalone learning flow at all, the learning framework serves as the bedrock of the LCMX architecture – providing the basic structure of the learning experience independent of appearance or content.
It is important to note that, in the LCMX, you enter your content and flow independently, and you can mix and match them in any combination. Consider Figure 1, where we have three sets of Learning Content, three Style Sets, and three Learning Frameworks.
Figure 1. The elements of an extended learning content management system.
Since the LCMX starts with a library of style sets and learning frameworks, if you entered those three content sets you could immediately generate each set of content following the flow of all of the learning frameworks, and have them available in all of the available style sets for all supported devices – desktop and mobile alike. You could release them all to your learner community, or choose to offer certain content in only a handful of flows that work particularly well for that specific content. Only your imagination limits the possibilities, and through the simplicity of LCMX-style authoring that totally isolates content, you can literally create all of those courses very quickly – complete with automatically generated animations and formatting.
By separating Content, Style and Flow, and integrating extensibility, an extended Learning Content Management System allows courseware authors to leverage their learning content and present it in countless different ways for a wide variety of target platforms and in a remarkably short timeframe.
I believe this is an important concept, worthy of the time it takes to understand it, and you will be able to see a demonstration of it at DevLearn 2011 in Las Vegas, where we are launching our LCMX as an offering.