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Using metaphor as a navigation device in e-learning

Falconer, Liz; Aburrow, Yvonne

Using metaphor as a navigation device in e-learning Thumbnail


Yvonne Aburrow


ALT-C 2004
Using metaphor as a navigation device in e-learning design
Liz Falconer and Yvonne Aburrow

Recognition that an electronic resource could assist in the t&l of research methods as it is a widespread subject taught in HEIs and some of the material is common to many disciplines of research. Electronic t&l resources demonstrate the benefits of shareability and reusability.
1. Design issues
Learning is more effective when a “pull” rather than a “push” model is used
E-learning techniques are particularly effective in enabling this style of learning.
Pull models require
1. Resources
2. A means of navigating and making sense of these resources
Metaphors are already widely used in education and on the Web, e.g. book and office metaphors such as pages, contents, files, folders and filing cabinets
2. Searching for the metaphor
Here, the teacher pushes information to the students, either directly or reflected off the blackboard. Students are navigated through resources by the teacher.
Many of the research papers on metaphor in e-learning design concentrate on translating the real classroom into a “virtual” one, even down to blackboards, seats and resource cupboards. But why? Classroom techniques developed because of restrictions on resources and the need to teach groups rather than individuals. E-learning removes these restrictions, so what other metaphors could we use?
3. Maps as e-learning metaphors
There is significant evidence of the power of spatial and cartographic metaphors in discovering and engaging with information. For example, Skupin (2000) states
“By virtue of their spacio-cognitive abilities, humans are able to navigate through geographical space …… those cognitive skills also have value in the exploration and analysis of non-geographic information.”
Maps show us where we are relative to other places, how to get to somewhere from where we are now, how big the surrounding environment is and what is close and what is far away. They also enable us to plan a route to get to where we want to go.
4. Learning landscapes
In this example, there are two approaches to navigating the information landscape. From the Start point to the red dot the student follows a fixed path, stopping at “viewpoints” along the way to engage with the learning material, represented by blue dots. From the red dot onwards students can plan their own pathways through the landscape, depending upon their desired end point.
5. Context and content
Learning is contextual, both in terms of the subject being studied, and the student’s learning style. Also, learning materials can be grouped together in different ways, depending upon the subject being studied. Spatial metaphors can help to make sense of this and enable the separation of content from context, a fundamental requirement for effective and efficient e-learning design.
The RO uses a star map and observatory metaphor, grouping learning materials in the form of learning objects into “constellations”, which are visible from an “observatory”. Many of the constellations are visible from more than one “room” – the content is the same, but the theme of the room overlays a different context to the study.
Why a star map?
Wanted to get across the idea of the same material (the constellations) being seen from different perspectives (the rooms). Also we wanted to achieve this technically – to hold the info once only (good for shareability, version control and economy of effort) and then overlay contexts. SDO the RO is a metaphor driven content management system.
Constellations are how I want to envisage the info. Constellations are human-defined, depending upon our interests, culture etc. In research, probably the most self-defined and fluid of student activities, the ability to see particular patterns of interest in information is a powerful tool. We present some constellations which follow particular subject groupings at the moment, but we intend for the students to be able to see different patterns by searching and defining their own groupings of interest – next design challenge which we have begun to scope up.
But we do realise that this is not the only metaphor that might be relevant or attractive and the design of the RO using XML and XSLT enables us to experiment with other metaphors. Some time in the future we might be able to allow students to choose their favourite metaphor from a range (probably a year or two down the line), but firstly we would consider the option of no metaphor. We have to consider those users who have problems with the abstract, for example sufferers of Asperger’s syndrome, with regard to accessibility. If you have any ideas from your own areas of interest then please do catch up with us over the next few days, or email us later. We’re very keen to discuss as many ideas as possible.


Falconer, L., & Aburrow, Y. (2004, September). Using metaphor as a navigation device in e-learning. Presented at ALT-C 2004, Exeter, UK

Presentation Conference Type Lecture
Conference Name ALT-C 2004
Conference Location Exeter, UK
Start Date Sep 14, 2004
End Date Sep 16, 2004
Publication Date Sep 1, 2004
Deposit Date Apr 16, 2012
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2016
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Keywords e-learning, metaphor, learning design
Public URL
Additional Information Title of Conference or Conference Proceedings : ALT-C 2004


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