Sitebuilder and Warwick Blogs, as with many other web systems, provide a range of means by which it is possible for someone to arrive at any one of the many thousands of pages that are held within them. The most common and easily understood of these can be called contextual navigation. In recent advisory sessions, I have been encouraging people to consider a second complimentary paradigm: thematic navigation. In this entry I define these terms, and explore their significance for e-learning.
Firstly, some definitions:
The classical approach to web design assumes that the user reaches content on a web site through a well specified and deliberately shaped route. For example, we may expect a student to go to the university home page, locate the link to their department, follow that link, find the part of the department site that lists course programmes, then modules, then lectures, and finally they reach the lecture notes that they require. Throughout this process, the relative structure of the pages and sites communicates context defining information, which in turn helps the user to interpret the content that is contained. This is what i mean by contextual navigation.
Of course such convoluted routes are usually circumvented through the use of bookmarks. The user jumps right into the required context, or at least one close enough to it so as to save time. In such cases other tricks are required to speed up the communication of context. In the Sitebuilder web content management system, each sub site (department, research project, sometimes course and sometimes even individual modules) have their own visual design (within the boundaries allowed by Sitebuilder). This design provides instant visual contextualisation. Warwick Blogs, however, is much more flat in terms of context. Each individual blog has its selected design (sometimes customised) and title. All entries are presented in that context. Even pages that represent entries with a single tag vary little in contextualisation. So for example, my Philosophy Research page looks just like my Baby Lawrence O-Toole page.
of the E-learning Advisor Team
introduced me to the term thematic navigation
as part of some work he has been doing with Warwick Manufacturing Group. The idea is this: a web site contains content constructed along classic contextual navigation lines. Users can navigate through these contexts. However, each item of content is also classified as pertaining to one or more themes
Thematic navigation may therefore connect content across contexts. This has obvious advantages, in that related content is automatically aggregated together. But more interestingly for learning and teaching, it encourages the end user to view related content from different contexts, and consider the differences between those contexts explicitly. So for example, a topic may appear in the module of a lecturer in Continental Philosophy, and in a module by a lecturer in Analytic Philosophy.
An obvious question to raise at this point is this: surely this could be achieved by the student doing a free–text search of all of the pages (or even the whole web)? Yes, but, if each of the lecturers were to consciously assign themes to their pages from a pre–figured set of themes (possibly even a taxonomical model), and the student were provided with that model as a guide to understanding the course, then they are given clearly specified and consistent concepts for understanding a diverse set of content or activities. This happens to be an important and widely respected pedagogical method. Curricula are in fact often designed as a combination of contextual navigation (modules, lectures, seminars, assessments) and thematics that run across those contexts (skills, concepts, competencies, objectives, values etc). Almost all of the modules that I am asked to look at work in this way. A diverse series of activities is undertaken, which have their own developmental logic. But alongside that diversity, a core set of concepts (often skills) are supposed to be the objective focus of development. However, frequently the problem is that the students and lecturers do not understand the themes, or lose sight of them in the diversity.
Thematic navigation provides a method for demonstrating and reinforcing the existence of a set of key concepts. These can run across a diverse range of activities within a module, course, department or even the whole university. We can provide interfaces that represent these themes in relation to each other, and allow people to query for content on the various themes. By integrating themes in Sitebuilder and Warwick Blogs, we can even allow people to comment and reflect upon the connections between content and the thematic model.