June 30, 2006

Thematic Navigation and Contextual Navigation

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.

Steve Carpenter 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. These themes run across the whole site, and may appear in any context. For example, the theme 'Writing Skills' may be assigned to any page. In Sitebuilder and Warwick Blogs, themes are applied using a taxonomically consistent set of keyword tags. So for example, this blog entry, and many others in Warwick Blogs, contains the tag 'E-learning', indicating that it is of that theme. When carried out in such a systematic way, keyword tagging may build an alternative way of organising web content, independent (or on top of) of contextual navigation. Furthermore, each page may contain more than one theme, thus providing sense about the relationship between themes as expresses in the page. The final element of thematic navigation is the provision of ways in which a user can see the available themes, and query for pages that contain those themes. Steve has written a Flash interface that provides a diagram of a set of themes, with lists of pages that express selected themes. I have been working on aggregating the results of such queries into html and javascript. Both Warwick Blogs and Sitebuilder provide interfaces for such queries, returning either html or an RSS XML response.

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.

- 2 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Chris May

    I think this is interesting, but I also think there's a counter–force that must be considered.

    Firstly, consider that there's nothing implicit in HTML that requires what you term the 'classical' style of contextual navigation. HTML pages as originally constituted were nothing more than a web of links, with no overarching structure. Over time, people started to impose structures onto websites to make them more comprehensible. Most frequently that structure would be roughly hierarchical, although there are plenty of places where that isn't the case.

    Now, one of the problems with a hierarchy is that it has only one root, and therefore it enforces a fairly inflexible taxonomy onto a site. But that's also one if it's great benefits – it's very easy to comprehend, even if it's not always obvious where in the structure a piece of content should sit.

    Now, more flexible structures (like tagging) allow for much better categorisation of the information, but at the cost of a model that's harder to understand. In extremis, you end up with a site like del.icio.us, where the structure is so flexible that really the only way to find pages (other than your own) is to revert to a free–text search. So it seems to me that there's a need to strike a balance between a structure that's simple and easy to comprehend, versus one which is rich but harder to grasp.

    30 Jun 2006, 14:16

  2. Robert O'Toole

    The combination of the two approaches offers great advantages.

    But as you say there is a problem with thematic navigation. It is potentially disorienting. Content can be presented and accessed out of context. The important thing to do when designing a thematic navigation system (such as Steve's Flash diagram and query tool) is to make sure that context is preserved where necessary.

    30 Jun 2006, 14:30

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