This month’s post is by Phil Bird, who imagines the perfect authoring tool for digital content. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.
An authoring tool wishlist
It takes a skilful writer to produce great digital content (to find out more about that, read this e-book by Jeremy Day and Pete Sharma). However, along with skilful writing, authoring tools are a key part of the process. Having written digital learning content and managed teams of people doing the same, I’ve seen how these tools can very easily become sources of frustration. To counter that, I wanted to imagine what the perfect authoring tool would be like, what features it could offer and how it could help writers produce great content. I would love to hear in the comments what your thoughts are – what do you think authoring tools should be able to do?
How much freedom should writers have to tweak the user interface? This is a point for discussion – good writers are not necessarily good designers. The solution is to have a well-designed set of templates. Since designers are not necessarily good ELT writers either, my utopian authoring tool would have templates that have been well road-tested with learners to make sure that they work (and will probably address some of the issues in the ‘Media handling’ and ‘Feedback’ sections below).
While we are looking at templates, we should also consider activity types. A perfect tool would have more creative options for activities; how many people have really dragged and dropped themselves to language proficiency? I would want some simple game-like options that could take a more playful approach and introduce some aspects of competition (time limits, high score tables and so on). The tool should also display more creativity in terms of the questions that can be asked – labelling sections of video and audio recordings, for example. I think there is an awful lot that both content writers and authoring tool designers should learn from the world of UX (for more on that, read ELTjam’s post on Learner Experience and watch the accompanying webinar).
Linked to the idea of template design is how authoring tools present different media items. How can texts be best displayed for reading? What size works best for images and video? Will learners be able to control the playback of audio or video recordings? How will questions be displayed along with media sources? The web editor on one project I worked on pointed out that ‘learners just click on the shiny thing’ (more on that here); let’s make sure that authors can make the important bits ‘shiny’ and ensure learners focus on the right content.
The perfect authoring tool would also have a couple of simple editing features to let writers boost the volume of audio recordings that are too quiet, choose the parts of video and audio recordings that they want to show, and crop images that are too large or the wrong shape for the template. The perfect authoring tool would also provide a genuine preview of what the final published version of the activity will actually look like when it is published (not magically changing font sizes when the resource is published, or other such changes).
Feedback is crucial in digital learning; authoring tools have a big role to play in supporting this. The perfect authoring tool would give options to provide meaningful feedback on all activity types, and where there are a number of different options (for example, with multiple choice questions), there should be the opportunity to give different feedback on different answers. It can be a challenge to write succinct and effective feedback for learners, but it would be much easier if we could include images, audio and video (‘shiny’ things again).
Automated checking tools would be very useful. Firstly, the perfect tool would check that our content actually fits in the template; it would warn authors when their text strings are too long for the template and are about to be clipped. It would also be really useful to have a warning to let writers know when an activity is so long that learners are likely to have to scroll to access all of it (at particular screen resolutions). It could also check for some other UX aspects, like making parts of the resource autoplay to cut down on the number of unnecessary clicks learners have to make.
There should also be an accessibility compliance checker, which would be useful to highlight potential accessibility issues with newly written activities. Obviously the outputted activities should all be compatible with screen readers and similar programs. It would also be useful if learners could be given simple options to change text and background colour, font size, and so on. If there are any other helpful features that would improve accessibility, please suggest them in the comments below.
For writers, it would be very useful if they could easily copy and paste content from other sources. In a similar vein, the perfect authoring tool would be able to produce templates that could be completed in Word and then imported. Finally, the perfect authoring tool would automatically save our work as we went along and would let us go back easily when an earlier draft was better.
So those are my thoughts on the perfect authoring tool. Please use the comments below to let us know yours. What should authoring tools be able to do? What particular frustrations have you found? Are there any tools that you think approach perfection? Is the secret of a good writer being able to write around the restrictions?
Day, Jeremy and Pete Sharma (2014) How to write for digital media. Oxford: ELTteacher2Writer.
Phil Bird is an ELT project co-ordinator, editor, writer, trainer and teacher. He has worked as a co-ordinator for the British Council’s English My Way and ESOL Nexus projects and teaches adults and teenagers in London. His website and blog can be found at classroom201x.wordpress.com
Hi Phil. Great suggestions! (And thanks for the plug of the ebook). Most platforms I’ve experimented with over the years are a nightmare to use, and your suggestions would be a massive improvement.
The thing I’d definitely add to your wish list is the ability for the writer to change his/her mind midway through writing an activity. Say you’re writing a matching exercise and suddenly you realise it’d work much better as a drag-and-drop gapfill. Wouldn’t it be nice if the platform allowed you to do that without starting again from scratch? (A simpler version of the change-your-mind functionality would be for the platform to save your content to a clipboard, allowing you to copy-paste the content into the next template.)
However, my experience of working with developers on online platforms is that their time is a lot more expensive than ours :(. Is it worth spending a few days of developer time to save a writer a few clicks? For most publishers / platform owners, probably not.
My dream is to have a platform where the writer is treated as the customer. This already happens in the world of self-publishing, where ease of use for the writer is everything. A truly writer-friendly platform for self-published ELT courses? Might be nice, huh?
I really like your suggestion about using content to in different activity types – that would be great. I’ve recently started using Quizlet with my students and I love the way it lets you use the data you input in lots of different ways.
However, I think that you might have hit the nail on the head with your point about the cost of developers compared to writers – it’s a fair assumption that the features that ‘just’ make writers’ lives easier are unlikely to make an appearance any time soon. I am hoping though that there must still be a motive to produce authoring tools that can be used to create more pedagogically sound activities.
Or do we need to learn to become developers?
Interesting post. The thing that comes to my mind is – how much of this work should the writer be doing? It is the writer’s role and responsibility (or, indeed, the editor’s) to reformat images, to check the appearance on different screen resolutions, to decide on the audio volume?
Writing tools give us access to more of the techy bits, which used to be off-limits when we were writing in Word and having a shady IT person magically transform it into a screen page (often misunderstanding what we wanted and upsetting the pedagogy). And let’s be honest, when you’re stuck on how to write/edit something, resizing photos is a fun diversion. But I wonder whether a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing – not all writers are as tech-savvy as you and Jeremy. Is it fair to expect them to be? And does it distract them from their writing?
From an editorial perspective, I agree that understanding how it will look when published is very important. But I’d be worried if there were too many options for the writer, because that could lead to inconsistency in presentation.
As for wanting more feedback to learners: I’m all for that. But only if the writer DOES write it before handover (don’t get me started on how many answer keys I’ve written, as an editor …).
Maybe I was thinking with my editor’s hat on when I was thinking about editing images etc – it’s probably just because I’ve had to do it. It is an interesting question how much of each task is allocated to each role – and obviously that has implications for the skills need to carry out each of them. Do those who work in the sector need to look at our own skillset and think about how we can improve it? Or do publishers need to consider the best way to divide up tasks given existing skill profiles? [I haven’t got any answers to this, by the way – if anyone does, I’d love to read your comments 🙂 ]