How Digital Media Unfreeze the Learning Flow

Not only is e-mail where knowledge goes to die (according to Luis Suarez) but PDF’s are where entire articles go to die. This is a re-publication of an article I wrote that was originally published in April 2006 for ADETA, but is no longer available on their website. Considering the subject matter, and my comment that was published with the article, it’s a bit ironic.

Author’s Note: In developing this article, I have realized how limited the print medium is, especially when transferring what was originally a series of blog posts to create the basis of what is written here. Added hyperlinks are now more natural to me than using the APA format, which I have used for many years, but I now view as a relic of a bygone era. What originally flowed is now just a piece of stock. As a blog post [] this article built on previous posts and was open to comments and additions. With this article, it seems as if the conversation, and my learning process, have been frozen in time.

Learning Flow

The ubiquitous digital content found on the Web today is the raw material that younger generations especially are using to create unique perspectives on popular culture. One of the new evolutions in the digital content area is the mashup. “A mashup is a website or web application that seamlessly combines content from more than one source into an integrated experience … via a public interface or API” (Mashup, 2006). The Creative Commons, an organization promoting flexibility in copyright laws, even has a special license for these types of media., called Sampling ( New Web 2.0 technologies like blogs, wikis, podcasts and video blogs, combined with the availability of digital content, have changed those who were previously consumers of information into co-creators. Apple Computer’s famous marketing tag line of “Rip, Mix, Burn” can become “Construct, Deconstruct, Reconstruct” when put into a web-based learning context. The learner is able to interact with the learning media in a way never possible with the print medium.

Let’s take a look at how digital media may be changing the field of instructional design, a technology with its roots in the Second World War and the need to quickly train thousands of personnel.

Digital Media Types According to Lefever

Business blog consultant Lee Lefever has defined two distinct types of digital media – stock and flow (Lefever, 2005).

Stocks = Archived, Organized for Reference (e.g. web site,
database, book, voice mail)

Flows = Timely & Engaging (e.g. radio, speeches, e-mail, blogs)

Interacting with Digital Media

Lefever specifically comments on the changes that are happening within television. TiVo (TV on demand) is changing the television medium from one of flow (and therefore engaging) to one of stock (and therefore of less value). He also says the reason blogs are so popular at this time, with over 30 million on the Internet, is because they allow flow.

Consider the whole notion of digital content in education. Stock is like product – it has a shelf life and over time its value is reduced. In education you need flow to provide value (context), enabled through social interaction. For instance, MIT’s open courseware initiative ( ) makes the stock, in the form of course content, available for free, but, you have to pay to participate in the flow (class membership and a degree from MIT). Flow keeps the learning conversations current for the changing needs of learners.

Will Richardson, an educational blogger, has discussed the changing needs of learners in a networked world (Richardson, 2005)

For instance, now that we have access to people and knowledge, learning is ‘network creation’ and that we can learn through ‘collaborative meaning making’. And the idea that we no longer need to learn everything in ‘advance of need’ resonates strongly with Brown and Hagel’s idea of push vs. pull learning [where learners become networked creators of knowledge], that we can pull information from a source when we need it, not have it pushed upon us in case we need it.

Impact on Instructional Design

Because the Web allows anyone to connect with everyone, as well as provide immediate access to information, it is an environment more suited to just-in-time learning (e.g. performance support tools) than for linear academic or training courses. Courses are stock, and learning on the Web is moving from stock to flow. I think that there will be a rapid decline in online course development as better models of web-based collaboration and just-in-time knowledge are developed. As online information and knowledge in all fields continues to expand, it will be more and more difficult to design a traditional course following instructional design methodologies that stands the test of time.

Another issue is finding, controlling, and updating the ever increasing amount of digital resources. Relatively in-depth studies do not give us answers on how to control all of the learning stock that is being created. The UK’s JISC Pedagogical Vocabularies Project recently released two reports and a series of recommendations on structuring learning content for the web but was only able to recommend more study of the field (JISC, 2005). The reality is that the field is expanding too quickly for us to capture and re-use the objects that we create.

In this environment of increasing digital information, more control will not address our information management needs. After perusing the 121 pages of the two JISC reports, I came away with the feeling that trying to control chaos is a losing game. My suggestions for dealing with learning stock are:

  • use the simplest of basic structures, such as the Resource Description Framework (RDF) [Standards built on RDF describe logical inferences between facts and how to search for facts in a large database of RDF knowledge – ],
  • build better search into online learning applications (try to be like Google),
  • only build taxonomies, ontologies and controlled vocabularies based on a specific user need, not “just-in-case”,
  • give learners and facilitators more tools to manage their information (tags, tagclouds, smart search, etc), and
  • focus on tools to surf the chaos, not control it.

In learning, you could say that much of the flow is really communication. It is through communication, often conversation, that we attempt to make meaning. Dave Pollard has developed a table that compares several communications methods – written, audio, video, live – as to their cost, impact, value and cost/benefit (Pollard, 2006). This is a good decision support tool for learning environment designers to consider before creating educational media, and as Pollard says, it’s open to revision.

Pollard also lists his principles of human learning preferences

  1. People like information conveyed through conversations and stories because the interactivity and detail gives them context, not just content, and does so economically.
  2. People hate talking heads, and are increasingly intolerant of them.
  3. People no longer have the opportunity for serendipitous learning and discovery — everything they read and learn is narrow, focused, bounded, and the tools they are given in their reading and research reinforce this blinkered approach to learning. The consequence is the intellectual equivalent of not eating a balanced diet — a malnourished mind.
  4. People do not know how to do research, or even search, effectively. They think these two things are the same, which they are not, and they have never been trained to do either properly. It’s a good thing the search engines are so smart, because our use of them is mostly dumb.
  5. People search as a last resort. They prefer to ask a real person for what they want to learn or discover, because it’s faster and the answer is more context specific. And if there is a single good browsable resource on their subject of interest, readily at hand, and they have the time, they will usually prefer to browse that resource rather than looking at a bunch of disconnected, often irrelevant, search engine matches. (Pollard, 2006)

Stories are an excellent example of learning flow. For millennia, humans have learned through stories. Pollard’s listed preferences also indicate that learners need better tools, such as tag clouds [a visual depiction of content descriptors used on a website with more frequently used words depicted in a larger font], to enable serendipitous learning (Point #3) and that better built-in search is critical for finding good learning resources (Points #4 & #5).

These principles support the idea that we should put more effort into contextualizing online learning and less on cataloguing information and learning objects (Point #1). Instead of building more stock, learning professionals should concentrate on enabling flow. Having a lot of meticulously catalogued and tagged Stock (learning objects) is of little value without the contextual Flow (conversations & stories). There is lots of stock to choose from, and with Creative Commons licensing, more being created that is simple and easy to use for learning design. So, let the learning flow.


JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) Pedagogical Vocabularies Project, Retrieved 24 March 2006 from

Lefever, L. (2005). Re-introduction to stocks and flows in online communication. Retrieved March 23, 2006 from Common Craft web site

Mash-up (web application hybrid). (2006). Retrieved March 23, 2006 from

Pollard, D. ( 2006). The economics of communication and effective learning. Retrieved March 23, 2006 from

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