Free counter and web stats Literature study: Guidelines for WWW-Based Support Environments for Education Professionals

Guidelines for WWW-Based Support Environments for Education Professionals

Literature Study according to the requirements of the Faculty of Educational Science and Technology at the University of Twente, The Netherlands.

 

 

Note: Almost all links to external websites don't exist anymore since the creation of this paper at 1998.
Therefore I have made only the still existing links clickable. If you could provide me with the correct links, please send me an e-mail.

by Elka Remmers

Email: elka@erconsulting.nl
This site: http://go.to/designwebepss
Homepage: http://www.elkaremmers.nl
Company site: http://www.erconsulting.nl

 

 

 

 

Supervision:
Department of Educational Instrumentation (nowadays called: Media)
Faculty of Educational Science and Technology
University of Twente

Lifelong Learning Institute Dipoli
Helsinki University of Technology
    Ms. L. Tuomi
Enschede, January 1998




Logo Dipoli
Logo UT





 

 

Table of Contents

List of Figures

Preface
Summary
1 Introduction
1.1 Why a WWW-Based Support Environment for Education Professionals?
1.2 Central Research Questions
1.3 Overview of the Study
2 Guidelines for Electronic Performance Support Systems
2.1 Goals and Benefits of an EPSS
2.2 Components of an EPSS
2.2.1 Task- and situation-specific information
2.2.2 Customized tools
2.2.3 Task-oriented training
2.2.4 Expert advice
2.3 Structure of an EPPS
2.4 User Interface of an EPSS
2.5 Viability of an EPSS
2.6 Summary of Guidelines for an EPSS
3 Guidelines for World Wide Web Environments
3.1 Features of a WWW Environment
3.1.1 Multiple perspectives
3.1.2 User-control
3.1.3 Self-contained
3.1.4 Authenticity
3.1.5 Ease of use
3.1.6 Cost-effective
3.2 Structure of a WWW Environment
3.2.1 Linear structure
3.2.2 Grid structure
3.2.3 Hierarchical structure
3.2.4 Web structure
3.2.5 Empirical structure
3.2.6 Structure of the information model
3.2.7 Guidelines for the structure of a WWW environment
3.3 Navigation in a WWW Environment
3.4 User Interface of a WWW Environment
3.4.1 Screen design
3.4.2 Cognitive load
3.4.3 Perception
3.4.4 Formulation
3.5 Summary of Guidelines for a WWW Environment
4 Guidelines for WWW-Based Support Environments for Education Professionals
4.1 Education Professionals
4.2 Synthesizing the Guidelines to WWW-Based Support Environments for Education Professionals
4.2.1 Usage and functionality aspects
4.2.2 Usability aspects
4.3 Further Research

References

 

List of Figures

Figure 1: Linear or sequence structure of a WWW environment
Figure 2: Tutorial format (Source: James, 1996, URL: http://www.lmu.ac.uk/lss/staffsup/desmeth.htm)

Figure 3: Grid structure of a WWW environment

Figure 4: Hierarchical structure of a WWW environment

Figure 5: Web or network structure of a WWW environment

Figure 6: Empirical structure of a WWW environment

Figure 7: Summary of structures of a WWW environment (Source: Lynch & Horton, 1997, URL: http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/sites/site_structure.html)

Figure 8: TREE - an EPSS that helps teachers plan, organize, and manage their work (Source: TREE, 1997, URL: http://www.pcd-innovations.com/infosite/contest97/fsu.htm)

Figure 9: DISTED - a WWW-based EPSS that empowers educators on the systematic design, delivery and evaluation of interactive distance education (Source: DISTED, 1997, URL: http://www.epss.com/hm/s/contest/third.htm)

 

Preface

This literature study is the basis of my masterís thesis in my study Educational Science and Technology at the University of Twente. The masterís thesis is called "Design of a World Wide Web Support Environment for Mentors, Managers, Counsellors, Tutors and Learners Active in the EuroPro Programme" (Remmers, 1998). In this thesis, a description is given of how a WWW support environment for mentors, managers, counsellors, tutors, and learners was designed, developed, and evaluated. The literature study gave me insight in the characteristics, goals, benefits, components, structures, and the user interface of a WWW-based support environment which I have taken into account in the design of the WWW support environment of my masterís thesis.

I have gathered the literature for this literature study by searching on the World Wide Web with the known search engines (Infoseek, AskEric, Pica, Education-line, among others). The keywords which I especially used for the search were: Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS), World Wide Web (WWW), hypertext, hypermedia, user interface, teacher, mentor, counsellor, and combinations of these. The most used resources are popular scientific journals, such as Educational Technology and Performance Improvement Quarterly; the book Web-Based Instruction by B.H. Khan; and the WWW sites epss.com! (www.epss.com) and The EPSS Info Site (http://www.tgx.com/enhance/).

I thank everybody who took an effort to support and help me with writing this literature study. Many thanks go particularly to my supervisor Betty Collis, who provided me with her expertise and who stimulated me to continue in the right direction, as well as many thanks to my other supervisors Jef Moonen and Leena Tuomi. I also want to thank the people from the epss.com! Performance Support and Knowledge Management Forum (especially Bill Miller). They provided new information and insights in Electronic Performance Support Systems. And finally William van Dieten who was so kind to comment on prototypes of the literature study. Thanks!

Enschede, January 1998

Elka Remmers

 

Summary

The WWW-based support environment discussed in this literature study can be defined as a set of WWW pages which provide an integrated, on-demand access to information, tools, advice, and/or training to enable a high level of performance of education professionals, such as teachers, tutors, mentors, counsellors, etc. The literature study addresses the following research questions: How can a WWW environment be used to support education professionals in such a way that it improves their ability to perform their educational tasks? How should this WWW environment be designed to be as usable, functional, and effective as possible?

As the WWW environment will be used to support performance, it can be conceived as a type of Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS). The goals, benefits, components, structure, and viability of EPSSs are therefore first discussed. An EPSS enables employers to achieve required levels of performance which result in higher productivity and quality of service. In order to achieve this, the EPSS should include components such as task- and situation-specific information, task-oriented training, expert advice, customized tools, etc; which should be ideally available on demand at any time, any place, and regardless of the situation.

Next, attention is paid to one particular type of environment in which an EPSS can be designed, namely a WWW environment. Features of WWW environments (such as multiple perspectives, user-controllability, self-containedness, authenticity, ease of use, and cost-effectiveness) are discussed, as well as the possible structures of a WWW environment (linear, hierarchical, grid, web, empirical, and combinations of these) and when to use which structure. Navigation aids (such as overviews, advance organizers, embedded menus, and search engines), help the user of the WWW environment to answer the questions: Where am I? Where did I come from? Where can I go to next? And what can I do here? And finally user interface specifications with regard to screen design, cognitive load, perception, and formulation are dealt with.

After describing the tasks and work activities of several education professionals, the previously mentioned EPSS and WWW topics and guidelines are synthesized into a set of important guidelines which could be applied to WWW-based support environments for education professionals.

     

    1 Introduction

    This introduction chapter starts with a description of the utility of WWW-based support environments for education professionals (Section 1.1). The section discusses why a WWW-based support environment for education professionals could be useful. Next, the central research questions of the literature study are stated (Section 1.2). The chapter ends with an overview of the study (Section 1.3).

       

      1.1
      Why a WWW-Based Support Environment for Education Professionals?

      Influenced by the rapidly changing technology and the high rate of unemployment during the last years, an increasing need for continuing education, also called lifelong learning, exists (Remmers, 1997). Stimulated by the current state of network and computer technology, this lifelong learning is more and more taking place in the form of distance education or telelearning. Not because the technology is simply there, but mostly because education and learning at a distance can be more flexible than traditional education. This means that the student has more freedom to learn whenever and wherever he or she wants.

      This flexibility can also be of value to those who support students, for instance teachers, tutors, study counsellors, and mentors. Many times these education professionals carry out educational tasks as an addition to their "other" tasks such as management in an organization or research at a university. When they can get flexible support in carrying out their educational tasks (for example in the form of a WWW-based support environment), they may be more effective and efficient in their tasks and performance. Making support available over time and distance contributes to more flexibility in the work of the educational-support professionals. They can consult the support environment whenever and wherever they want. Besides contributing to more flexibility in the work of the educational-support professionals, a WWW-based support environment may also contribute to more efficiency and more enrichment in their own work as well as the educational process in which they are involved.

       

      1.2
      Central Research Questions

      This literature study is the basis for the masterís thesis "Design of a World Wide Web Support Environment for Mentors, Managers, Counsellors, Tutors and Learners Active in the EuroPro Programme" (Remmers, 1998). In this thesis, a description is given of how a WWW support environment such as described in Section 1.1 was designed, developed, and evaluated.

      The literature study addresses the following research questions:

      How can a WWW environment be used to support education professionals in such a way that it improves their ability to perform their educational tasks?

      How should this WWW environment be designed to be as usable, functional and effective as possible?

      A WWW environment can be defined as a set of WWW pages which are an integrated whole and which serve a common goal. This goal includes in this case the support of education professionals, support which should result in an improved performance of these professionals. Educational professionals are people active in the education profession, such as teachers, tutors, mentors, counsellors, etc.

      A WWW environment is usable when it is operational, easy to use, and explicit (Remmers, 1998). It is functional when it contains correct information, when the WWW pages are relevant for the task or the situation, and when no important artefacts are missing. Finally the environment is effective when it solves a previously stated problem and/or it accomplishes an (un)expected payoff (Collis, 1996b).

       

      1.3
      Overview of the Study

      A WWW environment which will be used to support the performance of education professionals can be conceived of as a type of Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS). Therefore Chapter 2 discusses EPSSs. The chapter starts with a determination of the goals and benefits of an EPSS in general (Section 2.1). Then it gives an overview of the typical components of an EPSS, namely: task- and situation-specific information (Section 2.2.1), customized tools (Section 2.2.2), task-oriented training (Section 2.2.3), and expert advice (Section 2.2.4). Next, it describes specifications of the structure of an EPSS (Section 2.3), discusses briefly the importance of the user interface (Section 2.4), and considers the viability of an EPSS in practice (Section 2.5). The chapter ends with a summary of guidelines for EPSSs (Section 2.6).

      The subsequent chapter addresses various aspects of the design of a WWW environment. It starts with a description of the different features of a WWW environment (Section 3.1). Next, guidelines are formulated for the structure of a WWW environment (Section 3.2), for navigation aids (Section 3.3), for the screen design (Section 3.4.1), for the cognitive load (Section 3.4.2), for the use of visual and verbal signals (Section 3.4.3), and for text formulation (Section 3.4.4). The chapter concludes with a summary of guidelines for a WWW environment (Section 3.5).

      These two lists of guidelines from the previous chapters are synthesized in Chapter 4 and applied to the target group of education professionals. The chapter starts with a brief description of the tasks and activities of education professionals (Section 4.1), which is followed by a synthesis of all the guidelines into a set of eleven argued as the most important guidelines for education professionals (Section 4.2). The chapter as well as the literature study ends with suggestions for further research (Section 4.3).

     

    2 Guidelines for Electronic Performance Support Systems

    In the information age the production rate, the creation of information, and employee turnover are all increasing. In order to compete, workers have to be able to quickly find the information they need (Sleight, 1995). A new kind of support system is therefore emerging, a form which provides employees with access to the information, tools, training, and advice they need for their jobs at their workplaces and when they need it. These systems are called Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSSs). EPSS is the term most often used, although systems like Performance Support Systems (PSS), Just-in-time Knowledge Performance Support, etc., have similar goals and functionalities. This chapter describes the goals and benefits of an EPSS (Section 2.1). It discusses the different components of a typical EPSS including several derived guidelines in Section 2.2. Next, a general guideline for the structure of an EPSS is given (Section 2.3), attention is paid to the importance of the user interface (Section 2.4), and the viability of an EPSS is discussed (Section 2.5). Finally all stated guidelines are summarized in Section 2.6.

       

      2.1
      Goals and Benefits of an EPSS

      Gery (1991) defines an Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS) as an electronic system that provides integrated, on-demand access to information, tools, and methodology to enable a high level of job performance with a minimum of support from other people. According to Raybould (1995) an EPSS is "the electronic infrastructure that captures, stores and distributes individual and corporate knowledge assets throughout an organization, to enable individuals to achieve required levels of performance in the fastest possible time and with a minimum of support from other people" (p. 11). Stevens and Stevens (1996) describe an EPSS as a computer application that can provide on-demand, task-specific skills training; task- and situation-specific information access; expert advice needed to solve unusually difficult or non-routine work problems; customized tools for job task automation; and embedded coaching, help, and validation tools, which together can improve human performance in the workplace by improving productivity, quality, and customer service.

      From these definitions one can conclude that the primary goal of an EPSS is to enable employers to achieve required levels of performance which result in higher productivity and quality of service. In order to achieve this, the EPSS should include components such as task- and situation-specific information, task-oriented training, expert advice, customized tools, etc; which should be ideally available on demand at any time, any place, and regardless of the situation (Gery, 1991).

      Cote (1996) sums up four benefits of an EPSS, namely: (a) no delay between refresher training and the moment the knowledge is required, (b) the employee has always access to the latest information and procedures, (c) expert and detailed advice is always available, and (d) large potential savings are gained for an organization when the company has employees in many different locations. A feature of an EPSS which differentiates an EPSS from other types of systems or interactive resources is the degree to which it integrates its components such as information, tools, and advice for the user. This integration clearly makes it different from for example a help system available from within a closed software product or an interactive online reference system, although either of these could be part of an EPSS (Gery, 1991). Also Collis and Verwijs (1995) mention this integration as a difference between EPSSs and other educational software, as well as the scale and the range of resources and tools capable of being accessed by the user through one front-end. Sherry and Wilson (1996) claim that expertise is developed earlier through the use of an EPSS and that the scaffolding or "training wheels" of the EPSS can be removed or ignored whenever users feel that their performance has become viable on its own.

       

      2.2
      Components of an EPSS

      An EPSS typically includes the following components: (a) task- and situation-specific information, (b) customized tools or job aids, (c) training resources, and (d) expert advice.

        2.2.1 Task- and situation-specific information

Employees cannot be expected to remember all of the information that is vital to their and hence their organization's performance (Cote, 1996). By providing just-in-time and just-in-place performance information, the time and cognitive effort that would otherwise be required for an employee to commit these facts and procedures to memory can be reduced. An employee could use this information to perform the task for the first time or to fill-in memory gaps (Miller, 1996a). Just-in-time and just-in-place information includes quick and easy access to the right information when you need it and where you need it. These considerations result in the following guideline for an EPSS:

    • The user must be able to access appropriate information at the very moment it is needed and at the place it is needed.

But this immediate and on-demand access to information is not enough, EPSSs must be designed to meet the unique demands of the work environment and the job-specific situations (Stevens & Stevens, 1996). Examples of task- and situation-specific information are: technical schematics; trouble-shooting instructions; online documents; reference materials; case-history data; lists of persons, prices or locations; etc. Another guideline is therefore:

    • The user must be able to access information which is specific to the task and the situation of the user.

The user must be able to access only the specific, discrete information needed at that instant, instead of having to sift through loads of irrelevant information to find a few details. This sifting not only delays the user, but can result in confusion as well (Sleight, 1993). Therefore a guideline which could be applied to the information component of an EPSS is:

    • The user must be able to access only the specific information needed at that instant, which means that irrelevant information must be excluded or hidden.

      2.2.2
      Customized tools

Customized job-support tools are "cognitive artifacts (Norman, 1995) that extend [the userĎs] cognitive ability by abstracting the procedure or task from irrelevant details, and that extend [the userís] memory by relieving [him or her] of the necessity of remembering details, or even of the necessity of learning" (Sleight, 1995, Job support tools). Examples of such tools are: job-task automation, online help, custom-designed templates and forms, checklists, online calculators, spreadsheets, statistical-analysis packages, programs that control industrial robots, and so on. Also a database can be categorized as a tool. Although a "database" itself is a structure for data storage, tools are needed to turn the data into information.

The guidelines given in Section 2.2.1 can also be applied to the tools in an EPSS: just-in-time job support tools should be available at the time and place when needed, the tools should be specific to the task and the situation of the user, and irrelevant tools must be excluded. But most of all the tools must be customizable or user-defined. Customized tools can namely provide automation of selected work activities (Stevens & Stevens, 1996) which results in improvements in efficiency. This puts forward the following guideline for an EPSS:

    • The user must be able to access user-defined or customized tools which can provide automation of selected work activities.

When creating a document in a word processor for example, the word processor can be programmed to present a series of dialog boxes that prompts the employee to enter particular types of information. This way the employee does not need to know how to format documents or select the most appropriate formatting technique (Miller, 1996a). Another example is the use of scientific visualization tools which enable engineers to overcome difficulties in understanding the abstractions, formalisms, and quantitative terms of equation-based data representations (Sherry & Wilson, 1996).

      2.2.3 Task-oriented training

When people have a lack of skills and knowledge, for example when they are placed in jobs for which they have inadequate prerequisite skills and knowledge or when a job is re-tooled, criterion-referenced performance-based training could rectify the problem (Stevens & Stevens, 1996). Examples of training tools or instructional resources are: a video showing a procedure, simulations of tasks that allow the user to practice, computer-based training such as interactive multimedia, tutorials, and scenarios. To consider any tool a training tool it should provide some kind of interaction that gives corrective feedback to the user and collect or follow up some form of data about the end userís degree of mastery or learning achieved by the toolís usage.

Furthermore, training should be task-related, as should be information and tools. Providing small units of training related to one task or element prepares the employee for his or her (new) job (Bastiaens, 1995). In this way the training time can be reduced to a minimum (minimal training). This minimal task-oriented training could, however, build up a fragmented knowledge base. Employees wonít get an overview of the larger picture of their work, which could lead to them not relating their separate tasks (Bastiaens, 1995). Thus, the following two guidelines can be applied to an EPSS:

    • The user must be able to access small units of task-oriented training (minimal training) at any time, as many times as required, at his or her own pace, and just enough.
    • The task-oriented training should include a minimal description of the relation of the task at hand to the rest of the work of the employee.

A balance must be found between a minimal task-oriented training episode and a training experience extended to relate to the larger picture of the overall work of the employee.

      2.2.4 Expert advice

Most learning occurs on the job through the process of consulting fellow employees as well as supervisors (Miller, 1997). An EPSS could be able to help reduce the amount of informal training an employee may need, and thereby enable experienced employees, the experts, to devote more time to their own jobs and activities and less to coaching new employees. It is also possible that experts may not be available on a particular shift or may leave an organization (Stevens & Stevens, 1996).

Expert advice may be a common component of an EPSS which is used for problem structuring, decision support, analysis, and/or diagnosis (Gery, 1991). This advice can exist in many forms and can be invoked by the user when needed. The advice could be an expert system that asks the user questions, then suggests the most appropriate procedure or step to do next, or an interactive expert system that uses case-based reasoning or coaching to guide users through decision-making processes. These expert systems are created using special data-gathering and validation techniques to transfer the knowledge of a human expert to a computer (Stevens & Stevens, 1996). This knowledge consists of two components: a body of facts and statements which form the knowledge base, and a set of rules which define how an expert uses the facts to solve problems.

By integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities into an EPSS, intelligent advice and coaching can be provided (McGraw, 1994). Intelligent Tutoring Systems, for example, compare user performance to a knowledge base of expert performance to determine the appropriate level of advice to give, to diagnose learning problems, and/or to provide customized suggestions for training. The more intelligent the expert system, the more the EPSS simulates the advice a human coach would provide (Leighton, 1996).

However, AI or other expert systems are not always necessary or feasible. In some situations a decision-support system could be effective enough or more appropriate. Furthermore the expert system should provide access to information to assist the user to respond to system queries, otherwise the system does little more than help the users get to inadequate conclusions faster (Gery, 1991). A guideline for EPSSs that could be applied to expert advice is therefore:

    • The user must be able to get or consult expert advice, which should:
    1. structure problems and/or support in decisions, analyses, and diagnosis;
    2. be integrated with the other components of the EPSS;
    3. be correct and not distract the user by asking the wrong questions or give the wrong support.

 

    2.3 Structure of an EPPS

Sherry and Wilson (1996) claim that the more the designer filters and structures the data in an EPSS, the more "canned" it is, and the fewer options the user will have to tailor the information to match his or her own situation or task(s) at hand. The EPSS must be flexible and appropriate for people with different needs. People may not need someone to decide what information to give them, but they may need better ways of getting at the information available. That is why it is probably a good solution to make not all information directly visible, but make it accessible via for instance search tools - tools that enable end users to find precisely the information they need, when they need it (Sherry & Wilson, 1996).

The structure of the information which is viewable by the user should be focussed on the working and thinking patterns of many different users, and should be organized in ways related to the individualís daily work practices rather than by predetermined instructional routes and sequences (Collis & Verwijs, 1995). Stevens and Stevens (1996) address the importance of an EPSS structure being complemented by strategies which reflect the nature of the work of end-users. The approach that Sivertsen (1996) suggests for designing task-centered WWW pages for a Performance Support Intranet could be seen as a example. Workflow diagrams can be used to capture the employeeís tasks and then the navigation design for the EPSS can be modeled from these.

After determining the main components of an EPSS, the content of these components should be structured as well. According to Stevens and Stevens (1996) the userís needs should drive the ways in which information is located and used in an EPSS. For instance when designing a product database which describes product features and benefits and shows images, the designer must determine how users refer to the products. If most people refer to the products by product names, by product number, by customer group, or by combinations of these, the database should have a reference field which tracks the products accordingly. Another guideline for EPSSs could therefore be:

    • The structure of an EPSS must be customizable for different groups of end-users and must reflect their work situation and needs.

 

      2.4 User Interface of an EPSS

      The success of an EPSS depends mainly on the user interface of the system (Gery, 1991). The user interface should provide user-defined access to all the components in a straightforward and consistent way as well as to the relevant components so that the user can work in a whole and meaningful context. The user interface typically will make available options clear to the user and may include functions such as backward and forward navigation. A person will use the interface information to select options or actions. An interface design could be labeled successful if most users select the options or actions that are appropriate for a given task (Miller, 1996b). The user interface of an EPSS depends to some degree on the type of media which is used to design the EPSS. As this study is focussed on WWW-based environments, a further discussion of user interface aspects is deferred until Chapter 3, when WWW environments are discussed in more detail (see Section 3.4, "User Interface of a WWW environment").

       

      2.5
      Viability of an EPSS

When determining the degree to which an EPSS will be viable in practice, it is necessary to first have identified suitable opportunities in an organization for an EPSS to be used. When will an EPSS be the most appropriate solution for a problem or when will the EPSS contribute to an (un)expected positive payoff? To answer these questions other questions should be answered first, for example: "Is there a performance problem in your organization? Is there a gap between the best and worst job performers? Are employees suffering from information overload? Is employee turnover or fast-changing job requirements resulting in inadequate performance levels? Are you staying ahead of your competitors in terms of expertise? A Ďyesí to any of these [questions] would indicate an opportunity for an EPSS to help improve performance" (Raybould, 1997, URL: http://www.epss.com/lb/faqs/faqs.htm#A10).

Bastiaens (1995) categorizes the same kind of questions into three groups: organizational context, target group, and nature of information processing. Questions with regard to the organizational context include: Do the training expenses have to be reduced, while the training level should be kept up to a given standard? Is improvement of quality and effectivity one of the main goals of the organization? Questions about the target group include: Is there a large turnover of employees? What is the nature of the work of the employees, which tasks are being carried out, which tools are being used, etc.? And finally some questions with regard to the information processing of the organization include: Is information public and accessible for every employee? Does the information have to be continuously accessible during the work of an employee?

It is important to emphasize that there is no perfect answer to the question "Is an EPSS suitable for our organization?" But the following guideline describes situations in which an EPSS could be effective:

    • An EPSS could be effective for an organization when:
    1. improvement of quality and productivity are among the main goals of an organization, and/or
    2. there is a gap between the best and the worst job performers, and/or
    3. there is a high employee turnover and every employee has his or her own expertise, and/or
    4. the employees need a continuous access to information or tools during the performance of their work.

This guideline does not intend to present an exclusive list of situations in which an EPSS is effective, but only demonstrates a set of example conditions in which an EPSS could be suitable.

Once it is concluded that an EPSS is a possible solution, the EPSS has to be designed, implemented, and maintained. According to Sivertsen (1996) maintenance is a key factor. The planning of a WWW-based EPSS project for instance that involves only a few WWW pages is not sufficient. A process has to be planned which will produce the same result time and again. An outĖofĖdate or inaccurate EPSS which is accessible by the entire organization will not be credible or useful. It can even result in dangerous situations, subject the organization to expensive legal liabilities, or result in lost sales (Sivertsen, 1996). Answering the following questions will determine the readiness of the organization to use and maintain an EPSS: Is the business-unit management committed to maintain the information current on the EPSS? Is there a procedure, policy or instruction that assigns responsibility for updates (timely content) and maintenance (changes or additions)? Who will approve for distribution the material that will be put on the EPSS?

 

      2.6 Summary of Guidelines for an EPSS

The guidelines stated in the previous sections are synthesized in this section. The guidelines which related specifically to the information component of an EPSS are expanded to also apply to other EPSS components such as tools, training, and expert advice.

    • The user must be able to access information, tools, training, and expert advice which are specific to the task and the situation of the user.
    • The user must be able to access only the specific information, tools, training, and expert advice needed at that instant, which means that irrelevant information must be excluded or hidden.
    • The user must be able to access user-defined or customized tools which can provide automation of selected work activities.
    • The user must be able to access small units of task-oriented training (minimal training) at any time, as many times as required, at his or her own pace, and just enough.
    • The task-oriented training should include a minimal description of the relation of the task at hand to the rest of the work of the employee.
    • The user must be able to get or consult expert advice, which should:
    1. structure problems and/or support in decisions, analyses, and diagnosis;
    2. be integrated with the other components of the EPSS;
    3. be correct and not distract the user by asking the wrong questions or give the wrong support.
    • The structure of an EPSS must be customizable for different groups of end-users and must reflect their work situation and needs.
    • An EPSS could be effective for an organization when:
    1. improvement of quality and productivity are among the main goals of an organization, and/or
    2. there is a gap between the best and the worst job performers, and/or
    3. there is a high employee turnover and every employee has his or her own expertise, and/or
    4. the employees need a continuous access to information or tools during the performance of their work.

After thus considering the goals, benefits, components, structure, user interface, and viability of an EPSS, in the next chapter attention will be paid to one particular type of technical environment in which an EPSS can be designed, namely a WWW environment.

     

    3 Guidelines for World Wide Web Environments

    The World Wide Web, with its infinite collection of networked information, resources, and communication possibilities that can be accessed all over the world, provides an excellent foundation for building educational EPSSs (Kirkley & Duffy, 1997). The characteristic features of a WWW environment (Section 3.1), such as the support of multiple perspectives on the information available via the site, the high level of user control available via the hyperlinking options, the self-containedness, etc., fit many of the requirements of an EPSS. The structure and navigation of a WWW-based EPSS depend largely on the structure possibilities and navigation aids of WWW environments in general (Section 3.2 and 3.3). The user interface of a WWW-based EPSS depends to some degree on general guidelines for user interfaces of multimedia as well as to guidelines of user interfaces of WWW environments (Section 3.4).

     

      3.1 Features of a WWW Environment

      The features of a WWW environment particularly relevant to EPSSs are the characteristics of the environment related to its hyperlinking capacity and the access that can be provided to conferencing tools, email, listservs, newsgroups, and audio and video communication and resources. The impact of these features is dependent on the quality and sophistication of the design of the WWW environment (Khan, 1997). In the following six sections, design considerations relative to six particular features of WWW environments are commented upon.

        3.1.1 Multiple perspectives

        The hypertext, networking, and multimedia characteristics of the WWW provide the user with multiple traversal routes or perspectives through the domain of information in a particular WWW site (Yang, 1996). This can stimulate the transfer of knowledge and skills beyond the initial learning situation (Cognitive Flexibility Theory; Spiro, Feltovitch, and Coulson; 1997). Knowledge and information can be presented in multiple contexts (multiple themes, multiple intellectual points of view, analogies, metaphors, etc.) and these contexts can be related to one another by hypertext linkages. These multiple contexts can lead the users to reflect more on the multifaceted nature of complex knowledge and to appreciate these multiple perspectives (Yang, 1996).

        The networking or computer-mediated communication features available in WWW environments support the social construction of meaning, characterized by the potential process of continual negotiation and communication among the users of a WWW environment (Yang, 1996). Through collaboration, conversation, discussions, and exchange of ideas users are exposed to multiple opinions on a given topic. Novices in a specific field can benefit from the expertise of experts in that field if such a discussion develops.

        A WWW environment can also support different perspectives on information by making use of the strengths of different media (text, graphics, audio, video, simulation, animation, etc.) and by presenting the information in its most powerful and appropriate form. To improve listening skills in language courses it is for instance effective to present the information both in text and in audio. However, limited bandwidth and large file sizes limit the speed of downloading the multimedia elements (Khan, 1997) and thus at present limit the potential of these elements to an EPSS.

        3.1.2
        User-control

        The users of a WWW environment are able to determine the order or sequence of the WWW pages they would like to pursue, the pace with which they navigate through the WWW pages, and the time when they want to consult the WWW pages. This allows them to transform the presentation of information into personal or individual representations or constructions of knowledge (Yang, 1996). The users can control their own learning or usage of the environment.

        The hypertext feature of a WWW environment forces them to actively seek out rather than passively absorb meaning. When users are actively participating in the construction and organization of knowledge they will acquire and retain knowledge better than when they are merely browsing and using it (Jonassen, 1991; Winnips, 1996). However, this user-controllability of a WWW environment could also lead to the user getting lost or disoriented. The user doesnít know where he or she is, where he or she came from, where he or she has been already, and/or where to go next. The user may not find the hyperlinks he or she expects or doesnít know how to get to familiar territory. This could result in the user missing relevant sections or fail to see the relation between parts of the knowledge base (Winnips, 1996). The problem may be solved when the environment is more and better structured (see Section 3.2), when effective navigation aids are used (see Section 3.3), and/or when the number of available hyperlinks is constrained (see Section 3.4.2 and 3.4.3).

        3.1.3
        Self-contained

        A WWW environment can be totally self-contained whereby everything that is needed can be put online. The environment can be an integrated environment of information, reference material, course material, exams, records, feedback, tools, discussion and collaboration systems, simulations, links to other related WWW sites, etc. The user can be provided with online resources that aid in instruction or serve as information facilitators if the users encounter unanticipated technical problems or questions on the course content, such as FAQs. It is possible for users to send and receive work, assignments, reports, and exams confidentially. The environment can be designed to be all-inclusive, requiring no resources outside the WWW (Khan, 1997). However face-to-face meetings may be a valuable addition to the use of a WWW-based EPSS because of richer interpersonal and social contact and non-verbal communication that occur (Romiszowski, 1997). But in compensation for the benefits of real-time communication, asynchronous forms of computer-mediated communication can contribute to time-and-place independence. The users can read messages and respond to them in their own time, taking as long as they need to think out their responses.

        3.1.4
        Authenticity

        Accessibility to world-wide information brings realism and authentic learning experiences to the users of a WWW-based EPSS, regardless of their educational levels (Kearsley, 1996). It is possible to explore and learn about distant cultures and civilizations (Khan, 1997), which however can also lead to the distribution of trivia, misinformation, bad manners, hostility, and stupidity, which is not unlike real life (Crossman, 1997) and these are not necessarily a negative feature within the contents of an EPSS.

        3.1.5
        Ease of use

        The hypermedia environment of the WWW, if properly designed, makes it easy for the users to explore and discover information and resources which best suit their individual needs (Khan, 1997). With its graphics and hyperlinks, it is fairly easy to use. However, if the user doesnít have a clear conceptual understanding of the structure and function of the particular WWW environment, the environment is not user friendly which may lead to ineffectivity (Reushle, 1995). Also, information may not always be available and thus not be accessed (or very slowly accessed) because of technical problems related to the WWW servers.

        Teachers or instructors can update course materials with relative ease, provide support synchronously and asynchronously, without being limited to a classroom and office hours. However, using the WWW means often adjusting to a new medium, which can sometimes be challenging (Khan, 1997).

        3.1.6
        Cost-effective

        The use of a WWW environment can be cost-effective for the users and the organization or institution in which the users are working or studying (Khan, 1997). For example, if the WWW is used to support distance delivery of courses, studentsí and instructorsí traveling costs are minimized, as well as the costs for buying textbooks and printing syllabi or handouts, to the extent that these can be made available via the WWW. For the institutions involved the operating costs may in the future decrease if the cost of physical facilities and maintenance is lowered on a large scale. Furthermore, replication time and costs are minimal (Reushle, 1995), because information on WWW pages can easily be updated and added. This is especially practical for fields of knowledge which are often subjected to changes. However, the initial cost of computer equipment and connectivity may be prohibitive for some organizations and people (Khan, 1997).

       

      3.2
      Structure of a WWW Environment

      The structure of a WWW environment is considered to be the visible sequence of and relationships between the WWW pages which form together the WWW environment or site. Lynch and Horton (1997) distinguish four site structures, namely a linear, a grid, a hierarchical, and a web structure. These four, plus an additional type, are discussed in Sections 3.2.1 - 3.2.5.

        3.2.1 Linear structure

        The linear structure (also called the sequence structure, see Figure 1) is the simplest way to organize WWW pages. The WWW pages are presented in a linear narrative. Linear ordering may be chronological; a logical series of topics progressing from general to specific, from simple to complex, or from abstract to concrete; or even alphabetically sequenced, as in indexes, encyclopedias, and glossaries.

         

        Figure 1: Linear or sequence structure of a WWW environment

         

        More-complex WWW sites may still be organized as a sequence, but each page in the main sequence may have one or more pages of digressions, parenthetic information, or (external) links to additional information at other WWW sites or environments (Lynch & Horton, 1997). Kearsley (1988) and James (1996) have such a structure in mind when they discuss respectively the "Tutorial approach" and the "Tutorial format" (see Figure 2).

         


        Figure 2: Tutorial format (Source: James, 1996, URL: http://www.lmu.ac.uk/lss/staffsup/desmeth.htm)

         

        In a linear or sequence structure of WWW pages the user must often read the information on the pages from the beginning and follow it through sequentially to the end (Jonassen, 1988). In this way the user wonít get distracted by other information on external WWW pages and can get through the information in small pieces, in a way that he or she wonít get overloaded with information and choices. A side effect of this WWW site structure is that the users are expected to follow the authorís style and organization of the information (Jonassen, 1988) and there is a risk that they will only passively consume the information.

        3.2.2
        Grid structure

        A second form of structure for WWW sites is the grid structure. The individual units (see the top row of WWW pages in Figure 3) in a grid structure must share a highly uniform structure of topics (which often have no particular hierarchy in importance) and subtopics (Lynch & Horton, 1997). Lynch and Horton (1997) give the following example of a grid structure: "[The disease] "tuberculosis" is not more or less important a diagnosis than "hilar adenopathy," but ideally both case descriptions would share a uniform structure of subtopics. Thus the user could follow the grid "down," reading about tuberculosis, or cut "across" the grid perhaps by comparing the "diagnostic imaging" sections of both hilar adenopathy and tuberculosis " (URL: http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/sites/site_structure.html).

         

        Figure 3: Grid structure of a WWW environment

         

        The main disadvantage of the grid structure is that the user must have a basic understanding of the topic and its organization, and thus he or she must recognize the interrelationships between categories of information. A grid structure can probably best be used when the audiences have considerable expertise in the topic.

        3.2.3
        Hierarchical structure

        In a hierarchical structure (see Figure 4) more-general concepts are divided into more-specific ones, which are in turn divided into individual events or objects. In this structure the user must move up and down through the hierarchy to reach related WWW pages. Higher relationships and subordinate relationships are pointed out to the user (Kollen, 1991). Information hierarchies are especially suitable when the information is complex and are particularly well-suited to WWW sites, based on the recommendation that WWW sites should always be organized as off-shoots of a single home page (Lynch & Horton, 1997).

        Figure 4:Hierarchical structure of a WWW environment

         

        Most users are familiar with hierarchical diagrams (tables of contents in books, pull-down menus in applications such as Word, Excel, etc.), and thus should find this hierarchy metaphor easy to understand as a navigational aid. Especially in corporate and institutional life people are familiar with hierarchical diagrams, which may help users to build mental models of the site. However, a problem with hierarchical structures such as illustrated in Figure 4 is that the user canít directly go from one subtopic to another subtopic in a different category (although the subtopics from one and the same category can be related as is shown in Figure 4. In this case the structure becomes that of a layered hierarchy, also called a pyramid, Geest, 1993). The user must first go back to the main or home page (the top page in Figure 4) and then go to the different category before he or she can reach those subtopics. This can be solved by making links on every page to the home page and/or to the main categories (the second level of WWW pages in Figure 4). This however makes the structure a combination of a hierarchical and a web or network structure (see Section 3.2.4). Also the home page must contain links to the WWW pages which are the main categories or concepts and the distance from the home page to any other WWW page should not be too large (Bra, 1996). This reduces the load of choices facing the user (see Section 3.4.2) and the time it takes to arrive at a certain (sub)topic.

        3.2.4
        Web structure

        Within a web or network structure (see Figure 5) the user has almost an arbitrary entrance from one WWW page to any other WWW page which are related to one another (Kollen, 1991). The goal is often to mimic associative thought and free flow of ideas, whereby users can follow their interests in a pattern unique to each person who visits the site (Lynch & Horton, 1997).

         

        Figure 5: Web or network structure of a WWW environment

         

        The web structure stimulates the user to think comparatively, the user is able to compare one concept directly with another by going back and forward through the WWW pages (Kollen, 1991). The main disadvantage of this structure is that the user could very easily get lost or disoriented. Because the user controls his or her own path through the WWW pages, it becomes easy to get distracted by less important information which leads him or her to WWW pages far away from his original path of substantial information.

        3.2.5
        Empirical structure

        A structure which has not been distinguished by Lynch and Horton (1997) but which is slightly different from the previously mentioned structures is the empirical structure. An example of an empirical structure is the metaphor of a building with a lobby, classrooms and practical rooms (Winnips, 1996). Like a hierarchical structure this type often shoots off from one home page (which could be the main entrance or the lobby of a building, see Figure 6). From the lobby the user can enter various rooms, from which he or she can enter again other rooms or go back to the lobby. By "walking through" this virtual environment the user could in theory get a better understanding and a less-abstract view of the content of the WWW pages, which in turn can stimulate the transfer of the knowledge and experience to new situations. The problem with the structure as shown in Figure 6 is similar to the problem with the hierarchical structure: the user must first walk through a lobby or room to get to another room. This again could be solved by linking the home page and the main rooms to every available other room, which is however different from real life.

         

        Figure 6: Empirical structure of a WWW environment

         

        3.2.6
        Structure of the information model

        The structure of a WWW environment is concerned with the sequence and relationships between the WWW pages. In contrast, the structure of the information model underlying a WWW site describes how the information itself is organized within the WWW environment. Besides deciding to develop for instance a hierarchical WWW environment, the designer must determine how the information will be divided into main topics and subtopics.

        According to Jonassen (1989) the structure of the information model depends on the nature of the task for which the hypertext will be used. Jonassen (1989) identifies a number of structures, namely: (a) conceptual structures (consisting of formally established relationships as written in taxonomies); (b) task-related structures (resembling the accomplishment or simplification of a task); (c) primary-task structures (central is the search for information, such as in information-search systems and instruction systems); (d) knowledge-related structures (based on the knowledge structure of the expert or the user); and (e) problem-related structures (stimulating solving the problem or making decisions).

        3.2.7
        Guidelines for the structure of a WWW environment

        Figure 7 summarizes the four basic organization structures described by Lynch and Horton (1997) against the linearity of the narrative and the complexity of the content. The empirical structure could probably be best placed just left of and below the hierarchical structure (see the black dot in Figure 7). The empirical structure is somewhat more linear, because on the WWW pages of this structure the user often has only one WWW page to immediately go to (such as a room often only has one door). The empirical structure is somewhat more simple, because it reflects the real situation familiar to the users.

         


        Figure 7: Summary of structures of a WWW environment (Source: Lynch & Horton, 1997, URL: http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/sites/site_structure.html)

         

      From the above considerations, the following guidelines could be applied to the structure of WWW environments:

    • A linear structure could be an effective way to organize a WWW environment when the content is not too complex, when the users are novices in the field, and when the information is instructional in nature.
    • A grid structure could be an effective way to organize a WWW environment when the contents consist of individual units which share a highly uniform structure of topics and subtopics and when the target group has already a basic understanding of the topic and its organization.
    • A hierarchical structure could be an effective way to organize a WWW environment when the information is complex, it is possible to divide it into topics and subtopics, and the target group is novices in the field.
    • A web structure could be an effective way to organize a WWW environment when the information is complex, the users are experts in the field, and when the pieces of information are highly interrelated.
    • An empirical structure could be an effective way to organize a WWW environment when a less-abstract view of the content is needed and when the users are novices in the field.

      Lynch and Horton (1997) conclude that most complex WWW sites share aspects of the linear, grid, hierarchical, and web structures. A hierarchical and a grid structure could for instance be combined when (a) the information is complex, (b) it consists of topics and subtopics, (c) the target group has already a basic understanding of the topic and its organization, and (d) the topics share a highly uniform structure of subtopics.

       

      3.3
      Navigation in a WWW Environment

In order to navigate through a WWW environment successfully, users need to be able to answer the following questions (Fischer & Mandl, 1990; Geest, 1993; Morariu, 1988): Where am I? How did I get here? What can I do here? Where can I get to? How do I go there? One problem is continually reported by users: they feel themselves to be lost in "hyperspace" (Bra, 1996; Geest, 1993; IBM Incorporation, 1997; Marchionini, 1988). Three factors particularly influence this problem: the structure of the WWW environment (see Section 3.2), the navigation aids provided by the WWW environment, and the browsing strategy employed by the user (Bra, 1996). Possible navigation aids are: titles, headings, signal words, illustrations, analogies, metaphors, overviews of the structure, advance organizers, introductions, lists of contents, backtracking, text- and time marks, sneak preview (information about the destination of a link), bookmarks, history lists, indexes, guided tours, embedded menus, tables of contents, filtering, and search engines (Bra, 1996; Geest, 1993; Kollen, 1991). Besides keeping the user from getting lost, the goals of such navigation aids are to keep the userís attention focused on relevant tasks within the environment while suggesting navigational options available to the user; to provide a contextual overview of the content and organization; and to enable the user to access the type of support, the richness of support (amount of information, number and form of examples), and the representational form (media choice) of the support he or she may need (Stevens & Stevens, 1996).

Titles, headings, and image maps keep the user informed of the section, category, chapter, or room, etc., in which he or she is. The user can answer the question: Where am I? This leads to the following guideline:

    • Each WWW page of a WWW environment should show the user clearly and in a consistent way where he or she is; this can be done for example by the use of titles, headings, and image maps.

Text marks (for example highlighted links), history lists, and titles and subtitles (for example such as used in the software tool Windows Explorer in the form of folders containing documents) can answer the question of how the user got to a certain location. This leads to the following guideline:

    • Each WWW page of a WWW environment should show the user in a consistent way how he or she got there; this can be done for example with text marks (highlighted links), history lists, and the use of titles and subtitles.

Overviews (textual; in the form of image maps, also called hypermaps; or embedded menus), advance organizers, and introductions can tell the user what there is to do at a site and where he or she can go. They also activate the foreknowledge of the users, as do metaphors and analogies (Meij & Loenen, 1992). Overviews of the complete WWW site or environment can also exist in the form of indexes, tables of contents, and image maps. The user can use these overviews as well as the so-called search engines to search the WWW environment. Keyword searching however is problematic for novices who need to learn and apply what is ostensibly a new language (Oliver & Oliver, 1996). If the user decides just to browse the WWW environment, signal words and illustrations are important to get the attention of the user. In summary of these points, the following guidelines can be generated:

    • Each WWW page of a WWW environment should show the user what there is to do and where he or she can go; this can be done for example by overviews, advance organizers, and introductions.
    • The user of a WWW environment should get a clear picture of the overall structure of a WWW environment; this can be done for example by overviews and clickable image maps.
    • The user of a WWW environment must have possibilities to search the WWW environment taking into account his or her level of expertise; this can be done for example by search engines, overviews, indexes, and table of contents. The user must however not be confused by too many search possibilities.

 

      3.4 User Interface of a WWW Environment

    The interface of a WWW environment determines to a great extent if people will use the environment or not (Beltrán, 1996). An interface is the way a screen looks: the position of elements on the screen, the amount of information and choices on a WWW page, the use of verbal and visual signals and colors, and text formulations. An interface decides how and where the user will navigate as well as how the user will find and retrieve information.

        3.4.1 Screen design

    To make the screen appear as a collection of smaller identifiable elements, the data on the screen should be grouped (Carlow International Incorporated, 1992). The grouping could be according to importance, frequency of use, topic, chronology, alphabet, tasks, etc. Particularly important and frequently used data elements should be displayed on the top of a WWW page (Carlow International Inc.,1992; Jones and Farquhar, 1997). This may be effective because of the observation that only 10% of WWW surfers ever scroll the pages they visit and they sometimes have to wait while the WWW page loads (Lynch & Horton, 1997). When the elements are used in the same style and at the same place consistently, the user can rely on the meaning and place of every element on every WWW page. The following guidelines can thus be applied to the screen design of a WWW environment:

      • The information on the WWW pages of a WWW environment should be consistently organized according to a principle(s) of sequence (e.g. importance, frequency of use, topical, chronological, etc.).
      • Important or frequently used information should be placed on top of WWW pages of a WWW environment.

    A "scan column" along the left of the WWW page can have several functions: it provides space for local links to related material, it provides a space for subtitles, and it gives visual relief by narrowing the right text column to about 60 - 70 characters per line (Lynch & Horton, 1997). Also, when reading short lines of text it is easier to jump from the end of a line to the beginning of the next. This process requires less eye-movement than with long lines of text, and it is easier to jump to the right line, especially when adjacent lines start with the same word (Bra, 1996). A guideline concerning the line length on WWW pages is therefore:

      • The line length of texts on WWW pages of a WWW environment should be around 60-70 characters.

        3.4.2 Cognitive load

There are fundamental reasons for subdividing any large body of information into small chunks, whether it is delivered on printed pages or in a WWW environment. The cognitive load of the user must be held low: the burden on the short-term memory of the user must be minimized. The users cannot remember too much information from one (part of the) screen to another (Kearsley, 1988). According to cognitive psychologists most people can only hold about four to seven separate chunks of information in their short-term memory (Lynch & Horton, 1997). This means that a navigation menu should not be an extensive list of icons, not only because the user should be able to remember them, but also because the user should not be overloaded with too many options which could confuse him or her.

The WWW pages themselves should not contain too much information. Very long WWW pages tend to be disorienting, because they require the user to scroll long distances and to remember the organization of text and images that have scrolled off-screen (Lynch & Horton, 1997). However, when the information is subdivided too much, for instance a link that produces only a small paragraph of information, the user could get frustrated. One to three printed pages of information seem about the right length for one WWW page.

A typical example of problems involved with remembering information from one screen to another is when a WWW page contains a question and a hyperlink to the answer on a new screen display. If the WWW page containing the answer doesn't (at least partially) repeat the question, this creates a cognitive overload for the reader who must remember the question while reading the answer. Ideally, the cognitive overload which should be generated by following links is that the reader should be stimulated to read more and to discover a meaning in the way the WWW pages are linked together (Bra, 1996). The following guideline could be derived:

    • A WWW environment must have a low cognitive load, which could be realized by creating not too many hyperlinks and not too much information on one WWW page, and by establishing clear relations between linked WWW pages.

      3.4.3 Perception

When the user navigates through the WWW environment, verbal and visual signals could be used to draw the userís attention (see also Section 3.3) and to make the information easy to access (Meij & Loenen, 1992). Examples are titles; headings; font face, size, and style; numbers; and bullet lists. But also the place of the signals on the WWW page are important, for example titles which are placed outside the body of the text may be discovered earlier than titles in the body of the text. However, if too many and too many different signals are used, the user will get confused. This latter can also be applied to the use of hyperlinks: if everything is highlighted, then nothing has prominence (Nielsen, 1997). Each hyperlink should have a clear purpose, gratuitous links should be avoided (Kearsley, 1988). The following guideline can be applied:

    • The WWW pages of a WWW environment should contain an appropriate amount of verbal and visual signals (including hyperlinks), each with a clear purpose.

When a WWW environment contains icons, the same icons should be used for the same objects or actions and they must represent a single object or action (Carlow International Inc., 1992). The number of colors in a WWW environment should be limited; normally for a single WWW page four colors and for the entire WWW environment seven colors. The following color pairings should be avoided: yellow on white, blue on black, yellow on green, etc. and the following are good color pairs: darkblue and black on white; white, yellow, and green on black; white and yellow on blue. From all of the above the following guidelines can be derived:

    • Icons used in a WWW environment should represent a single object or action and the same icons should be used for the same objects or actions.
    • The number of colors used in a WWW environment should be constrained and be used in the right color pairings.

      3.4.4 Formulation

According to Eekma and Collis (1996) the user should know what kind of information he or she can expect when following a certain link. Therefore, the name of a link should be clear or some additional information should be added to the link. This applies also to icons that represent a link. The name of the link or icon should be as similar as possible to the title of the WWW page to which it refers, as well as to the other links to the same WWW page. This gives the user a clear view of where he or she has arrived.

To make the text on the WWW pages easy to understand, simple sentences and no jargon should be used (Kearsley, 1988). Sentences are simple when they are short (12-20 words), when the active voice is used, and when positive forms are used. Personal pronouns can give the WWW environment a more informal character and reduce the cognitive distance between the information and the user (Meij & Loenen, 1992). Thus, the following guidelines can be applied to the formulation of text on WWW pages:

    • The titles of the WWW pages of a WWW environment as well as their links should be named consistently throughout the environment.
    • The texts on the WWW pages of a WWW environment should be easy to understand.

 

    3.5 Summary of Guidelines for a WWW Environment

The most important guidelines stated in the previous sections are summarized in this section.

The choice for the structure of a WWW environment depends on the complexity of the content, the expertise of the users, the nature of the information, and the structure of the topics and subtopics (see Section 3.2).

The navigation through a WWW environment could be facilitated by titles, headings, image maps (which tell the user where he or she is), text marks, history lists, titles and subtitles (which tell the user how he or she got there), overviews, advance organizers, introductions (which tell the user where he or she can go to), overviews and image maps (which show the user a clear picture of the overall structure of the environment), search engines, indexes, and tables of contents (which give the user the possibility to search the environment) (see Section 3.3)

With regard to the user interface of a WWW environment it can be said that the information on each WWW page should be consistently organized according to principles of sequence. Information that is most important or most-frequently used should be placed at the top of each WWW page. Chunks of information (including navigation menus as well as WWW pages themselves) should not be too large (to limit the cognitive load). Furthermore each WWW page should show a clear relationship with linked WWW pages and should show an appropriate amount of verbal and visual signals. The information on the WWW pages should be easy to understand and should have a clear purpose (see Section 3.4).

The next chapter will combine the guidelines from Chapter 2 and 3 into guidelines for WWW-based support environments for education professionals.

     

    4 Guidelines for WWW-Based Support Environments for Education Professionals

    Just as the WWW is being used in many areas of business and higher education, decreasing access costs and increased computer power are making it accessible for adult education. People in education are using it to build collaborative networks of information, resources, and people across the world. This means that WWW environments can now be designed to serve as WWW-based performance support environments for professionals in education (Kirkley & Duffy, 1997). Because performance support environments must be customized for different groups of end-users and must reflect their work situation and needs, the tasks and work activities of several types of education professionals are discussed in Section 4.1.

     

      4.1 Education Professionals

      In this literature study education professionals are considered to be those people who support adult students in their learning activities and processes. This can be teachers (instructors, lecturers, or tutors), counsellors, mentors, etc. Tasks they more or less have in common are targeting the study processes, providing information resources and contacts, giving feedback, assessing student performances, following the developments in their own expertise area, etc. (Remmers, 1998). Most of them are content specialists, researchers, or managers, who have come to teaching, counselling or mentoring students as part of their professional work (Collis, 1996a). They have probably worked in their profession in some way before they started supporting students and many of them do not see this student-support task as the major part of their professional identity.

      Nowadays, the teacherís or tutorís duties and responsibilities include tasks that are similar to the roles of an administrator or educational manager (Orey, Moore, Hardy, & Serrano, 1997). The tasks of a teacher of adult learners include planning his or her course, selecting and assembling readings, managing student access to the materials, organizing lectures and assignments, managing facilities, providing feedback, evaluating studentsí performances, record keeping and data administration for each student, dealing with resources or students problems, etc. (Collis, 1997a, b).

      Although students often ask their tutors questions and confront them with problems outside of the area of the course content, advising and counselling are not seen as an expected part of the tutorial role (Brindley & Fage, 1992). These support services are provided by advisors and counsellors who are often in a separate department in an institution for providing adult education. The emphasis for the latter is on areas of recruitment, information provision, and advising of prospective and new students, as well as on career planning help, learning assistance, and diagnostic testing.

      Mentors are especially present in continuing education programmes. They help the student grasp the wider significance of whatever is happening in the organisation where the student works or in his or her study programme (Megginson & Clutterbuck, 1995). They help the student create a training/learning plan, communicate timely information in oral and written fashion, give the student feedback on performance levels and progress, serve as a confident in times of personal crises and problems, etc. (Newby & Corner, 1997).

      Given this overview of the target group, the synthesis of the guidelines given in Chapters 2 and 3 to the specific case of WWW-based support environments can now follow.

       

      4.2
      Synthesizing the Guidelines to WWW-Based Support Environments for Education Professionals

      To return to the research questions of this literature study:

      How can a WWW environment be used to support education professionals in such a way that it improves their ability to perform the educational tasks?

      How should this WWW environment be designed to be as usable, functional, and effective as possible?

      All but the usability aspects of Question 2 will be addressed in Section 4.2.1, aspects with regard to the usability of the WWW environment will be discussed in Section 4.2.2.

        4.2.1 Usage and functionality aspects

The usage and functionality aspects are synthesized in Guidelines 1-4.

      1 A WWW-based support environment could be effective for education professionals when:
    1. the education professional needs a continuous access to information, tools, advice, and/or training during the performance of their work, and/or
    2. the education professional needs tools to communicate with his or her students at a distance, and/or
    3. the tasks and work of education professionals in the same organization or across organizations relate highly, and/or
    4. enrichment, and improvement of flexibility and efficiency of work execution are included in the goals of an organization

An EPSS could be effective when the education professional continuously needs to access information, tools, communication possibilities, etc. Because of the integration feature of an EPSS and the self-containedness of a WWW environment (see Section 2.1 and 3.1.3) the education professional can use the WWW-based support environment as a starting point and a source for many activities.

When the tasks and work of education professionals relate highly, they may want to use and re-use each otherís experiences and work. This can be done for example by putting developed lesson plans online available for all users; by interchanging information on student progress (as is possible in the TREE system, an EPSS that helps teachers plan, organize, and manage their work; Florida Department of Education's Bureau of Instructional Support and Community Services and the Florida State University's Center for Performance Technology, 1997); by exchanging ideas when using a communication system; and more. Figure 8 shows the entry screen of the TREE system.

The work of an education professional could be enriched, and improved in efficiency and flexibility by using a WWW-based support environment. The education professional may be able to enlarge his or her own knowledge base ("enrichment"); his or her information dissemination and handling, personal communication, and management tasks can be executed more efficiently (Collis, 1997b) because of the availability of customized tools ("efficiency"); and he or she can consult the support environment for his or her needs at any time and any place ("flexibility").


Figure 8: TREE - an EPSS that helps teachers plan, organize, and manage their work (Source: TREE, 1997, URL:
http://www.pcd-innovations.com/infosite/contest97/fsu.htm)

 

      2 The education professional must be able to access information, tools, training, and/or expert advice which are specific to his or her tasks and situation.

      Examples of task- and situation-specific components are: planning and scheduling tools, tools to create (course)materials, methods for communicating with colleagues and students, (word)assistants to create reports and letters, computer-based gradebooks, records of student progress, etc. The needed components of the WWW-based support environment can be retrieved by needs assessments (Cote, 1996); rapid prototyping (Boling & Frick, 1997); and/or usability engineering (Dickelman, 1997). In those situations the education professionals are involved in the design process and their interests, needs, and individual styles and experiences are taken into account (Collis, 1997a).

      3 The education professional must be able to access information, tools, training, and/or expert advice at the very moment it is needed and at the place it is needed
      .

      This can be accomplished by providing a connection to the World Wide Web at the workplace of the education professional ("at the place it is needed") and make this connection as fast as possible ("at the moment it is needed").

      4 The education professional must be able to access only the specific information, tools, training, and/or expert advice needed at that instant, which means that irrelevant information must be excluded or hidden.

Because of the other occupations of the education professional, he or she needs to get a quick answer to a request. The education professional should for instance not have to search too long for particular information, news should be kept up-to-date, tools should work properly, etc.

 

      4.2.2 Usability aspects

The aspect of Research Question 2 which has not yet been answered is:

How should this WWW environment be designed to be as usable as possible?

Education professionals need to be willing to make use of the WWW-based support environment. That means they not only have to be convinced of the benefits of its use (see Guideline 1), but also the use has to be as convenient as possible. As soon as the bother overrides the potential benefit, the support environment will not be used (Collis, 1997a). The answer to the research question can be given in the following guidelines (Guidelines 5-10):

      5 The structure of the WWW-based support environment must be customizable for different groups of education professionals and must reflect their work situations and needs.

      When the WWW-based support environment is customizable for a particular group of education professionals, for example for counsellors from the same course or study, information and tools which are relevant for the teachers of that course or study could be irrelevant for the counsellors (and the other way around) and should therefore be excluded or hidden in the interface of the counsellors (see also Guideline 4). Organizations such as universities which have many different courses as well as instructors could benefit from an interface per course or per group of courses.

      6 The organization of the structure of the WWW-based support environment must take into account the complexity of the content, the expertise of the education professionals, the nature of the information (instructional, reference source, etc.), and the organization of the topics and subtopics (task-related, problem-related, knowledge-related, conceptual, etc)

      As said in Section 3.2 and 3.2.7 both a hierarchical and a web structure could be effective ways to organize a WWW environment when the information is complex (a linear structure when the information is not too complex and the nature of the information is instructional). When the education professionals are experts in their field, a grid or a web structure could be effective (a linear, hierarchical, and empirical structure when they are novices). Most complex WWW environments share aspects of all structures. Hierarchies in particular seem to be the type of structure which is often used in EPSSs, WWW environments, and other software: such as, for example in TREE, Florida Department of Education's Bureau of Instructional Support and Community Services and the Florida State University's Center for Performance Technology, 1997, see Figure 8; and DISTED, University of Houston - Clear Lake (UHCL), 1997. Figure 9 shows the entry screen of the DISTED system.

      Those EPSSs start with a menu of options (buttons, image maps, or pull-down menus), or more than one menu, and divide those available options again in "suboptions".


      Figure 9: DISTED - a WWW-based EPSS that empowers educators on the systematic design, delivery and evaluation of interactive distance education (Source: DISTED, 1997, URL:
      http://www.epss.com/hm/s/contest/third.htm)

      7 Each WWW page of the WWW-based support environment should show the education professional clearly and in a consistent way where he or she is, how he or she got there, what there is to do on the page, and where he or she can go to from that page.

      This can be done (as said in Section 3.3) by for example, using titles and subtitles, headings, image maps, text marks (highlighted links), history lists, overviews, advance organizers, and introductions.

      8 The education professional must have possibilities to search the WWW-based support environment taking into account his or her level of expertise.

      This can be done for example by search engines, overviews, indexes, tables of contents, and clickable image maps.

      9 The information on the WWW pages of the WWW-based support environment should be consistently organized according to a principle(s) of sequence (e.g. importance, frequency of use, topical, chronological etc.). 10 Important or frequently used information should be placed on top of the WWW pages of the WWW-based support environment. 11 A WWW-based support environment must have a low cognitive load, which could be realized by creating not too many hyperlinks and not too much information on one WWW page, and by establishing clear relations between linked WWW pages.

To conclude, based on the literature and the application of guidelines such as these, it should be possible to design a WWW environment to support education professionals in such a way that it improves their ability to perform the educational tasks. And this environment can also be designed to be usable, functional, and subjectively satisfying. The degree to which an organization, study programme, or even a single course is ready for and in need of such an environment is dependent of their unique situations.

 

    4.3 Further Research

At the time this literature study has been written, there was not much literature available which specifically address support systems for education professionals, let alone WWW-based support environments for education professionals. More research on the particular goals, benefits, functions and structure(s) of a WWW-based support environment for education professionals could therefore be very useful in the future. How should the tools to create (course)materials and the methods for communicating with colleagues and students relate to one another? And should they be implemented? Or does the education professional rather only use (word)assistants to create reports and letters? Do the needs of education professionals in traditional education differ from the needs of education professionals in distance education? Other topics for further research which are just briefly stated in this literature study could be: the application of needs assessment, rapid prototyping, and usability engineering, which are methods for the design and development of WWW-based support environments. And finally the relationship between the WWW environment of the education professional and the corresponding one for the students (when available, such as increasingly the case is in distance education) could be addressed in future research.

 

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