RED Distance Education Journal. Preprints of the special issue «Transition from conventional education to online education and learning, as a consequence of COVID19» 
Ronei Ximenes Martins. firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicole Santana Gomes. email@example.com
Daniela Simone Azevedo. firstname.lastname@example.org
Formats of digital teaching material for different purposes
The evolution of educational materials that are utilized in distance education courses is categorized in different generations and is closely related to technological resources available throughout each historical moment. Such evolution happens as a consequence of technological developments, but mainly because of the acceptance of methodologies that innovate the pedagogical mediation. Knowing how to conciliate technological resources and the methodological innovation in the process of teaching can bring forth new strategies to organize the formal education curriculum also may be used as a source of data to guide educational actions in the international context of Coronavirus.
The organization of courses whose desired learning can take place in different places from where the teaching structure is located requires pedagogical mediation provided by digital information and communication technologies (DICT), as well as competent actions by teachers, students and support professionals (Moore, 2011). With the technological improvement of digital artifacts and the increase of communication velocity that occurred the last decade on the web, the pedagogical mediation started to be grounded predominantly on devices that are connected to the Internet.
Laptop or desktop computers, cellphones or tablets are examples of technologies that increasingly become more accessible and, since they present constant innovations in their functions, they constitute themselves as a fertile field for the pedagogical mediation that currently happens with integral support of digital technologies. Facing innovation and the many possibilities the Internet and its means provide, the challenge of exploring the DICT for advantage of educational processes is recognized. In this sense, it is assumed that not only the instructional design of the courses mediated by technologies must align itself to the offer platforms, but beside that, the didactic materials must be thought according to the following concepts: usability, adaptability, connection, quickness, readability, loading time, lightness, plainness and others. How like is being observed in current times, the offer of educational contents about these new devices is predominantly formed by learning objects, which conceptual base and creation methodology (Willey, 2002; Amante & Morgado, 2001) determine that the information should be divided in small units of texts, videos, images and other audiovisual resources that will be identified as Microcontent in this work.
Buchem and Hamelmann (2010, p. 02) have described Microcontent as an information published in short form, with its length dictated by the constraint of a single main topic and by the physical and technical limitations of the software and devices that we use to view digital content today. For them, the Microcontent, when utilized within a Personal Learning Environment can be easily customized and distributed, allowing a high degree of control over learning and empowering the students to shape their own learning.
Microcontent has arisen by the need to fragment the contents to make them suitable for mobile devices and other technological artifacts, according to Silva, Vieira, Pereira and Braviano (2015). According to them, “[…] Microcontent emerges as innovative elements of pedagogical practices of these new learning models” (Silva et al., 2015, p. 03). Mobile devices, such as cellphones and tablets, meet the demands of fast and dynamic life rhythm and can accomplish multitasks. Because of these characteristics, Microcontent can be composed of a text, a video, audio, a picture, a diagram, a drawing or a photo; but also, by the varied combination of these items with each other.
The partitioned content in reduced fragments “[…] is not restricted to an idea of measurement of size, but rather to a unit, a module, and as such is dependent on the context in which it is inserted” (Silva et al., 2015, p. 03). Therefore, the Microcontent is defined by the subject topic that it approached and by the characteristics of where it is inserted.
Microcontent can be used as a strategy for continuous professional development like Buchem and Hamelmann argue (2010). According to them, with modern technologies, the so-called “didactics design” is currently organized with the student as a focus. Like so, the online study environment needs to be stimulating and organized so that it is initiated and administered individually by the student, rather than just a sequential proposition of steps and previous instructions that should be strictly followed by the students. It is therefore comprehended that the content would be “[…] co-created, modified and used by students […], distributed and both inside and outside of Learning Environment. This mobility of content across various platforms is supported by its light format” (Buchem & Hamelmann, 2010, p. 06).
Learning can be the result of the fractioned content offer, according to Gabrielli, Kimani and Cartaci (2006), as long as they allow the contact with the information and also the experimentation and the access rhythm control for the students. However, the Microcontent predominance can, hypothetically, bring forth the mitigation of the study deepening and, consequently, of the content comprehension, if the students do not seek to deep to studying by other sources. Added to this, much has been discussed about the ideal quality and quantity of online information, mainly for communication companies and producers of journalistic content. In the scope of these discussions, digital journalism has inaugurated an alternative to Microcontent, denominated LongForm. This format is characterized by offering deepened information, composed by images, videos, links and infographics, beside texts, which provide, according to Longhi and Winques (2015), a more immersive and deeper experience of the covered content.
The need to look for an alternative to Microcontents appears not only in the education area but to all that utilize digital media to broadcast information. The media corporations, great users of Microcontents in its websites and portals, are among those who have been looking for other ways to spread their news. Given that the online communication industry works to gather audience by clicking, joining, sharing and engaging with its readers, communication is always innovating and improving the methods of making information available to the audience. In this sense, it is worth noting which movements that digital communications have made and also trying to use the success cases in digital mediated education.
LongForm format emerged in this scenario of searching for media innovation to a new audience. The term, defined by Longhi and Winques (2015), surpasses a simple long text, as the name seems to suggest. LongForm is a content presentation with the abundance of texts, images, videos and any other features that can offer a “[…] quality, accuracy and context rescue” (Longhi & Winques, 2015).
The abundant features of the LongForm format, which are also called multimedia elements should compose the informational material in a coordinated manner. You can insert textual elements with different fonts, various font sizes or information boxes; images highlighted by their size, color treatment, galleries or movements (e.g. GIFs – Graphics Interchange Format); videos longer or shorter; animated or non-animated infographics and links that lead the reader to other content that complements the presented subject.
Productions that use the LongForm format present, besides multimedia items, other characteristics highlighted:
- a) a long and deep text, with a lot of content;
- b) the use of HTML5 technology to merge screen media;
- c) nonlinear reading;
- d) responsive design, in which the material is adapted to the media that the user has chosen to consume.
According to the education evolution mediated by digital technologies of information and communication, of various user profiles, of new available devices for the mediation between learner, content and teachers, presentation characteristics, potentialities and limitations of each format, it is considered that, in hypothesis, LongForm can be a viable alternative to Microcontent for educational materials production for online courses.
Each digital educational material can, along with its organizational structure, propose a sequence of paths for student navigation, starting from early stages to more complex ones. Depending on the proposed navigation path and the resources utilized in the production of the didactic materials, students may have more or less complex distance learning experiences, whether they are mobile mediated or not.
Studying through hyperlinks, distributed throughout the educational material, allows and also requires that readers choose the information they want to interact with. Still, within the analogy of self-service, readers will choose at least one among many proposed informative contents, even if at the end of the studies they are not very satisfied with their choices and realize that more choices have made than they could assimilate. Interacting with a computer system involves understanding it, making decisions, solving problems, storing concepts and processing them in order to achieve knowledge.
Teachers, designers and other professionals that work in designing courses and developing digital educational material should, therefore, make sure that hyperlinks have a thematic link with the original content; that they are distributed according to their categories and functions, that range from the presentation of the information about the subject to the deepening and exploration of the offered content; that they appear embedded in the text, highlighting its most important data through colors, keywords or media; and that they are clearly highlighted at the end of sentences or texts, avoiding noises in the process of reading.
Based on above, a question arises about what possible contributions the LongForm application, today directed to the journalistic content production, can bring to the production of educational content if compared to the Microcontent format, which is a base for online courses content. The LongForm is considered to be better adjusted to the necessities of working with more complex educational themes, owing to its architecture and composition, that is concerned with density without losing sight of the usability and to the lightness adapted to more recent information and communication technologies, especially that of mobile devices.
In this paper, part of extensive research, there is the presentation of a comparative analysis of Microcontent and LongForm formats applied to the production of materials that are utilized for pedagogical purposes both in Distance Education and in support to the face-to-face courses.
In order to compare the use of LongForm and Microcontent formats, applied for the study of the educational content, exploratory research was designed in a quantitative-qualitative approach, with the initial hypothesis that LongForm is best suited for use in most complex educational content. The research aimed to compare the experiences of using the two models, the participants’ behavior and, consequently, to identify the adequacy and the inadequacy of each format for complex content.
Courseware in LongForm and Microcontent formats respectively referred to as Model 1 and Model 2, were elaborated addressing the same content and these materials were used as study activities in an undergraduate discipline offered in the hybrid course. The research took place in eight undergraduate courses at a private university located in Minas Gerais state of Brazil that has, besides its headquarters, four other campuses in cities of the same state.
The educational material denominated Model 1 has used several resources, so-called multimedia elements, to compose the content about water subject, that the students would have to dominate. The items found in a journalistic article published on the Internet by a Folha de São Paulo newspaper were inserted in the material, which were the textual elements of differentiated fonts that contained various sizes of letters and subtitles, images highlighted by their size, colors and galleries, infographics, information boxes, and video (Figure 1). Authorization to use the journalistic article website was granted by the newspaper research department.
Figure 1 – Longform used in Model 1 educational material.
In turn, Model 2, followed all the characteristics of Microcontent, offered the students a page with five links, a list of short news, combined together, which overall approached the same themes of Model 1 with great similarity, but independent of each other. The following contents was organized in Model 2:
- a) A distribuição da água no mundo – Mundo Educação site.
- b) Brasil e as mudanças climáticas – WWF site.
- c) Reservatório da Cantareira atinge menor nível em 39 anos –Folha de São Paulo journal.
- d) Clima urbano: Grandes cidades são ilhas de calor – – Universo OnLine portal.
By offering these links, which were organized on a single Home Page that has hinted that all addresses should be visited, the individual participation of each student has occurred.
Microcontent, when used for educational purposes, especially in more complex content, was considered a very demanding process for students, making them active, explorers, collaborative, attentive readers, and smart digital navigators, in order to search within the various Microcontents that address the same theme, which are complements to their studies.
This research had like participants those students enrolled in the course that authorized the use of their personal and browsing data while reading for data collection, and who have answered the following question: “When you be studying, your actions on this page will be monitored for academic research, do you agree?”. This question has appeared on the screen via a pop-up message in the first access to the course. Thus, with these authorizations, individual data regarding utilization, preference, and navigation were automatically collected by Bots inserted in the teaching material pages of those students.
However, data from students enrolled in the course, but who were not performing the assessment activities within the time frame provided in the institution’s Academic Calendar were excluded from the research, and also the data from those who have not wished to be part of the study or those which have not authorized by clicking on “Disagree” in the authorization message.
In the quantitative step, the bots collected the following: (a) from Model 1 – LongForm: data regarding reading time, media items on which the student clicked – such as image gallery, video, next page access button – and video retention time; (b) Model 2 – Microcontent: data for the five links the student clicked, in other words, if he clicked more than one link or all of them. The objective was to identify, in the first model, if the student explored all the resources offered and, in the second model, if the student was interested in exploring one of the available links or if one item of news information was enough.
In the qualitative step, whose data were obtained through descriptive answers to questions presented to the student after the end of the activity, it was possible to identify the utilization perception of students on the experience of using the models.
The analysis of quantitative data was performed using descriptive statistics and qualitative data were analyzed by the content, inspired by Bardin (2010), with a categorization of approximations and distances in both formats, the LongForm and the Microcontent.
Of the 488 students enrolled in the surveyed courses, 67 students agreed to participate in the survey, which represented 13.72% of the total. Greater accession was expected, but the nearly 70 participants formed a heterogeneous group, through which it was possible to identify different perceptions of use regarding the offered materials. Of the 67 participants, 19 students used Model 1 – the LongForm, and 45 students used Model 2 – the Microcontent, and three agreed to participate, but they did not respond to the activity, giving up their participation in the survey.
Microcontent and Longform: each format has its purpose
Considering of the limits that are necessary to concise a paper published in a journal, the discussion presented in this section has been focus on the main differences found between the LongForm and Microcontent formats based on statistical results and content analysis of the participants responses. The responses to the questionnaire were quantified and categorized based on perceptions of difficulties or facilities encountered during the tasks proposed in Models 1 or 2.
In Model 1 (LongForm) the answers were grouped into the assumptions described below.
- Extensive and tiring teaching material.
- Long and confusing text.
- Difficult to understand what was requested.
- No difficulty in performing tasks;
- Clear text, objective and audiovisual resources that assist;
- Reading holds attention.
In Model 2 (Microcontent), the assumptions resulting from the groupings of responses were as follows.
- Short time available to access all links;
- Extensive task.
- Difficult to understand what was requested.
- Many important items within one didactic material with several links.
- Teacher support was lacking.
- Access to the content of the links helped in the study.
- Although restricted, the content offered was sufficient.
- Simple task;
- Didactic material very simple and clear.
Regardless of the format used (Model 1 or 2), it was observed that biggest challenge to study was the digital reading ability of each student. Mastering technologies to the point of using them as a facilitating tool in the knowledge construction is an individual process, and a result of their own experiences and skills. Therefore, the person when is studying needs to know how to deal with these tools, to know how to access the contents and to master the languages, something that would require proactivity. It would be necessary to know the digital resources, identify and make the correct use of equipment and controls, to finally using the technologies in the learning process.
Through the research application, it was possible to realize that the biggest challenge to study and to compare didactic materials for online study is not necessarily related to the organization format, but the digital reading ability of each student. After all, mastering technologies to the point of using them as a facilitating tool in the process of building knowledge is an individual process, the result of their own experiences, skills, and competences. Regardless of whether the material that the student contacted was LongForm or Microcontent, that student would need to be able to read online.
The results bring by Model 1 – LongForm had more positive reports about didactic material. There were 58% positive responses related to the material, against 5% negative reports. Into students’ perception, reading was been easy, regardless of the equipment used to access it, considering that no restrictions were pointed out of the collected perceptions of the device, which includes usability and ergonomics. The great difference among participants who accessed themselves desktop content and those have used mobile devices centered on the reading time: 2.09 minutes when accessing their desktops and 11.06 minutes to has been accessing others via mobile devices such as tablets and cellphones.
The content offered by the LongForm model, while addressing the same theme as the content of the compared format, was all offered in a single two-page material, resulting in complex and dense content that required concentrating and exploratory reading. As a result, participants had low access (10%) to the second page of content, which was the other half of the material. Neither the media used to access and the consequent retention time they demanded for reading, not the inadequate access to the second half of the material interfered in the grades that were obtained by students, considering that the values were either 8 or 10 points. The good quality of the answers is because the “water” theme is generally known; teachers have had the opportunity to work well through the content modules that preceded the activity and, finally, by the features themselves in the LongForm model, which was enough material for the students to answer the proposed question – by offering various multimedia elements and a good amount of textual information in its first part.
In turn, Model 2 – Microcontent – presented different perceptions about the material. There were 47% of positive reports and 15% of negative reports related by participants. Students were also able to read easily, regardless of the support used to access it, considering that none of the collected perceptions were their observations related to the device, such as usability or ergonomics. The Desktop vs. Mobile Devices relation was also centered on reading time, which was of 2.26 minutes among Desktops and of 6.45 minutes among students using tablets and mobile devices. The content was better explored by students, with a more balanced number of visits among all available links, but with a gradual decline from the first to the last.
In Model 2 – Microcontent, consisting of a page with consolidated textual information and a series of sequential links, about 30% of all the students who accessed the first link clicked on the last one, a much higher rate than that of students who opened the second page of the content from Model 1 – LongForm (10%).
The navigation paths, despite being laid out, were materialized through the reader’s action only. Many items and navigation paths have been unexplored, and this reality may be related to the lack of reading habits, digital or not. This student behavior can also be linked to each person’s particular way of structuring information so that it makes sense and becomes knowledge, and therefore it is unconsidered a problem. It is likely that once the navigation path is defined by the reader, some of the participants considered that 50% of the content read – in the case of Model 1 – LongForm; and only one, two or three of the offered links – in the case of Model 2 – Microcontent, were enough to respond the activity, adding the didactic material information to previous knowledge about the subject. Even if the students have not clicked on all available tools or if they accessed the links out of order, it just proves the primary feature of digital texts is that paths cannot be predicted, they can only be available.
By searching for an alternative for didactic material production that would not simplify the contents and that would not harm the educational process, the research identified that the Microcontent format – once it needs to fragment the information in micro-units and demands that the students read more than one unit to build a meaningful comprehension about the subject at hand – remains a viable format for educational use in digital media, especially when it comes to less dense or complex subjects, like review topics and supplemental materials.
Finally, it was confirmed that the LongForm presents itself as a viable alternative for online studying because it is constituted by a single virtual space where larger texts and varied multimedia resources can be inserted to enrich the material and to allow the teacher to offer the students all the information, resources, additional items and whatever else is needed to work on the study unit in question. The students took more time to read in the LongForm, but it is inferred that this is due to the number of elements inserted in the material that require more careful reading to understand the data.
Therefore, the use of the Microcontent format is indicated to offer online learning materials intended for revision, the initial presentation of supplemental materials such as “learn more” links and for the use in minor subjects, both in extension and conceptual deepening. And it is proposed the use of LongForm – usually found in journalistic content of major reports – in distance education, in reaching didactic materials for regular study, as complete didactic modules composed of theory, examples, exercises, illustrations, videos and activity proposals; in other words, in larger issues, both in length and in conceptual density.
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 Hybrid course are names commonly used to describe courses in which some traditional face-to-face has been replaced by online learning activities.
 Bots are autonomous program on a network (especially the Internet) that can interact with computer systems or users.
 RED – Revista de Educación a Distancia, haciéndose eco de la urgencia educativa que supone el COVID19 y la transición abrupta de la educación convencional a la educación en línea entiende que, al igual que ha sucedido con la investigación biomédica, la investigación educativa debe propiciar elementos de conocimiento y de práctica que sean útiles en esta situación a los docentes, a los diseñadores de la educación y a otros investigadores.
Igualmente debe difundir los resultados que se produzcan en el mismo momento en que se produzcan.
Por eso además de convocar un número extraordinario, con este único tema, ofrecemos este blog académico para publicar resultados en progreso sin revisión de pares, sólo con la revisión editorial.