Contradictions in adjectives: You can’t be consistent and optimal

One current challenge is attempting to engage productively with institutional strategic/operational planning. The big challenge in doing so is balancing the perceived importance of institutional level concerns (governance etc) with those of an individual teacher.

As part of this challenge I was reading a document summarising the aims of a rather large institutional project in ICT around learning and teaching. Yesterday I tweeted part of the strategies from that project (it starts with “Ensure the development of”

As my tweet suggests I see some contradictions in the adjectives.

Here’s a story from the dim dark past to illustrate how it’s essentially impossible to have an online student experience that is both consistent and optimal.

You shall not use single quotes!

Back in the mid-1990s CQU was a fairly traditional second generation distance education provider. As such it had a style guide for print-based materials (almost the only sort) that were distributed to students. In large part the aim of the style guide was to provide a consistent learning experience for students. One such element of the style guide was ‘You shall not use single quotes’. “Double quotes” were the only acceptable option.

So, that’s consistent.

Less than optimal

As it happens, in the mid-1990s I was the tutor in the course 85343, Machine Intelligence. The practical application of the concepts in this course were done in the Prolog programming language. Here’s a brief section of Prolog code taken from here. Can you see the problem this is going to cause in terms of consistency?

move(1,X,Y,_) :-
write(‘Move top disk from ‘),
write(‘ to ‘),

That’s write, Prolog code makes use of single quotes. The distance education study material for 85343 included sections of Prolog code. Do you know what the central distance education organisation did?

Obviously, because ‘You shall not use single quotes’ they automatically converted all of the single quotes into double quotes, printed the materials, and sent them out to students.

I don’t know whether the coordinator of the course got to proof the study material before it went out. But he was the Head of School and I’m willing to be if he did, he didn’t even think to check the style of quotes used in the Prolog code.

Consistent can’t be optimal

The lesson (for me at least) is that you can’t be consistent across all the courses in a university, while at the same stage claiming to provide an optimal learning experience for students.

This quote from Dede (2008) picks up on why this is a problem (or you can listen to the man himself)

Educational research strongly suggests that individual learning is as diverse and as complex as bonding, or certainly as eating. Yet theories of learning and philosophies about how to use ICT for instruction tend to treat learning like sleeping, as a simple activity relatively invariant across people, subject areas, and educational objectives. Current, widely used instructional technology applications have less variety in approach than a low-end fast-food restaurant. (p. 58)

And it’s not new

Here’s a quote from Jones (1996) – yep I had a bug in my bonnet about this almost 20 years ago and here I am again

With traditional on-campus teaching academics generally have complete control over what they teach and how it is presented. In CQU’s distance education model the subject matter’s presentation is controlled by DDCE. This results in significant tension between the desire to operate standardised systems for production and distribution of courseware and the desire for course designers to be creative and imaginative (Mark, 1990).

‘It’s like deja vu all over again’

There’s a paper or two here.


Dede, C. (2008). Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. In J. Voogt & G. Knezek (Eds.), International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education (pp. 43–62). New York: Springer.

20 Mark, M. The Differentiation of Institutional Structures. Contemporary Issues in American Distance Education, Michael Moore (ed), 1990, pp 30-43

4 thoughts on “Contradictions in adjectives: You can’t be consistent and optimal

  1. Pingback: The edc3100 “inspirational posters” | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  2. Hi David, what are your thoughts on consistency within the book format? I’ve been thinking about this, and there are billions of books (I don’t really know how many books there are) in circulation which encompass a wide range of topics and genres. Some are more formal and academic and some are completely fictional. The content of each can take you on extremely different journeys. Some you wouldn’t even read from cover to cover, but use to find the information that you need and move on. However, books follow a very consistent format: title; publishing information; contents; content of the book; bibliography; and index. This format allows anyone familiar with it to go straight to the information they need and access parts of the content quickly, while still being able to read through the content if they wish. Why not put the publishing details up the back of the book, or place the contents in the middle of the book? Obviously, this is ridiculous, but imagine how you would feel opening such a book and searching for the contents pages only to find they are not in the “normal” place.

    I’m not defending anything in particular, except perhaps consistency and standards in a web sense i.e. the helpfulness to the user in using terminology and element placement that a user would be familiar with more broadly across interfaces and the internet.

    1. G’day Tara,

      You are right. There is a level of standards/expectations with any medium that makes sense. Going too far from the standard – be it books, design of cars etc. – is counter-productive, if not plain silly. But if you picture the absence of standards as one silly end of the spectrum, then there is another silly end of the spectrum where standards are taken too far.

      The print-based distance education story that I tell above is an example of the other silly end of the spectrum. The standards there not only required the use of a particular sort of quote, but it also include extreme requirements like font-sizes being strange sizes e.g. 11.3pt (I can’t remember the actual figure but it was something fractional)

      What would you think of making every book in the world use exactly the same style and size of font?

      What do you think of having a large website that can’t be searched with a search engine? Doesn’t that break the standard expectations you’d have of the web? It strikes as silly as having the ToC for a book in the wrong place.

      This is just one of the problems I have with the direction of consistency in e-learning. Rolling out consistency in the form of sameness is often becomes the focus so that a more difficult problem can be ignored. In this case, the difficulty of putting a search engine over a Moodle install. Not to mention the broader problem of how to help teaching teams develop course websites that meet the expected good standards of web and and instructional design when the institutional tools that have been provided don’t make it very easy.

      Then there’s the bigger problem touched on by the Dede quote above. Learning is inherently diverse. Methods borrowed from marketing and enterprise information systems are ill-suited to that diversity.

      One last thought experiment. Does it make sense to mandate to all staff that they should have exactly the same computing device with exactly the same software on it when at work? Would it make sense to push the same mandate for students?

      If we wanted to make sure they had a consistent experience, surely that would be sensible?


  3. Pingback: Are our institutions digital visitors? What are the impacts on learning and teaching? | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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