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Designing computer-based learning materials – review


Title: Designing Computer-Based Learning Materials
Author: Alan Clarke
Publisher: Gower, Aldershot
Format: Hardback, 196 pages
ISBN: 0566083205
Price: £45

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For a long time, there has been a need for accessible books in real English (rather than the American variety) about the design of learning materials and experiences (or instructional design, the rather stern and unappealing American term). Over the past decade, the subject has become an important part of the teacher training curriculum, and all trainers need to be familiar with both the learning theory and the basis of the different technologies involved. There are plenty of books about the technology – although actually not all that many about specific CBT tools such as Authorware and Director compared with other areas of software. However, most computer books available in the UK are written in the USA with American terminology, American examples and the usual plethora of American things that are irritatingly different (letter sized paper instead of A4, 12 hour instead of 24 hour clock and so on).

Alan Clarke’s Designing Computer Based Learning Materials is therefore a welcome change. It’s a well written and easy to read account of all the different areas involved in the conception, design and production of interactive multimedia learning materials and experiences. Quite properly, the book starts by looking at theories of adult learning, and the importance of interaction. There are different ideas about what constitutes “interaction” in multimedia – does interaction with the computer count, or does there have to be some real human stuff involved? In a classroom or training centre, this could mean groupwork or trainer led activities – in distance learning, the interaction can come through various forms of computer conferencing. Clarke also stresses the importance of feedback and the need for it to be positive, immediate and linked to earlier responses. It’s disappointing how much current computer based learning – for example, many of the learndirect offerings designed by market leaders such as NETg and SmartForce - offer only the most perfunctory of feedback.

The introduction stresses that this is not a “how to … book”, and consequently there isn’t a great deal of technology in it. Anyone looking for detailed instructions on how to produce interactive multimedia materials will be disappointed – but that isn’t what the book is supposed to be for. It’s probably of more use to the training manager who feels the need to understand a bit more about computer based learning before commissioning an expensive online course, or the non-technical teacher / trainer who needs to know how to make effective use of resource based learning materials.

Later chapters cover all the different areas involved in designing or using CBL – storyboarding, screen design, the uses of text, graphics and moving images, building in assessment, and evaluation. Each chapter contains plenty of bulleted lists, and ends with a helpful summary of key points. There are plenty of diagrams – unfortunately, they are not very good examples of inspirational learning design being monochrome, and full of squares, straight lines and stick men. A few colour pictures would have been welcome – or at least some live screen shots or extracts and examples of good (or bad) practice from real CBL programs.

There are a few more limitations. It’s all very well being non-technical, but there’s a danger in an area like this of becoming out of date too quickly. For example, the book talks about video tapes and CD ROMs but there’s no mention of DVDs or the use of streaming media. The section on online learning is more really about website design. There’s no bibliography apart from a few references at the end of a couple of chapters. The index (two sides) is inadequate. For people who buy their own books, it’s a lot of money for less than 200 pages. If you really need to know how to design computer based learning materials, buy something else. But if you want a general overview of the area without being blinded by science, this book wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

David Evans
E-Learning Consultant
Financial Projections Ltd


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