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DigitalThink and Electronic Courses

As most of you probably know, along with TidBITS, I also earn a living writing books, the best known of which is Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. What’s ironic for me as an Internet book author is that the Internet I’ve helped to popularize has seriously altered the market for computer books. Books are sold online, books are advertised online, and some books are even published online in their entirety.

One of the reactions to these changes has been for people to rethink the purpose and marketing of books. Many computer books are essentially tutorials – they purport to teach a set of skills, ranging from how to achieve certain effects in Photoshop to how to find things on the Internet. Book-based tutorials go beyond the computer field though. What are most cookbooks or gardening books, if not tutorials on how to perform certain tasks? And, might there be better ways of publishing tutorials, perhaps using the Internet?

Some companies are taking the kind of tutorial content you’d find in a book and turning it into an interactive electronic course. Of these, I’m most familiar with a small San Francisco startup called DigitalThink, because they’ve adopted an interesting way of differentiating their content. They don’t have just anyone write a course – they specifically look for best-selling authors who have proven that they know the subject matter and how to explain it.


I recently spent a few months creating an interactive electronic course called "Living with the Internet" for DigitalThink. Obviously, since the course is delivered over the Internet, it assumes you’re already connected and have a basic grasp of using a Web browser. However, there’s a lot more to using the Internet than the essentials of a specific program, and that’s the focus of my course. I have high hopes for DigitalThink, because I think they’re on to something genuinely useful and new. If you’re interested in online learning and interactive courses, read on for details on how it all works.

Course Makeup — I said before that these courses were interactive, and I think that’s an important requirement for them to succeed. Just putting a set of steps to follow on a Web page has not only been done, it’s pretty much uninteresting. Instead, DigitalThink has come up with a number of systems for introducing interactivity into a course. Students are meant to interact not only with DigitalThink’s server, but also with others enrolled in the class and the instructors.

A DigitalThink course consists of five or six broad modules, each of which in turn holds between six and twenty lessons. Each lesson has a goal (DigitalThink’s research showed that people liked having goals). Lessons also contain the lesson text, which is generally short since people don’t like reading much online, and optional sidebars for related information, exercises, discussions, chats, and quizzes. These final elements provide the interactivity needed to give the online course some pizzazz.

Lesson Text — The most challenging part of writing the course was keeping the amount of text I wrote to a minimum. Tali Bray, my producer, initially recommended that I aim for about 400 words per lesson, but when that proved unworkable with the conceptual size of my topics, we worked on moving lesson portions into sidebars to include the information in a less imposing setting. Tali’s overall goal was help me to distill the necessary information into its most fundamental form, since that’s what online training has to deliver, especially in contrast to books.

DigitalThink addresses the issue of limiting online lesson text to fundamentals in other ways as well, by having required book-based reading for many of the courses and by encouraging interaction between students and between the instructor and the students.

Exercises — Another part of writing each lesson involved coming up with an exercise. Some exercises are as simple as asking students to visit a couple of Web pages, read their contents, and think about the implications. Others are more complex (for instance, requiring students to rate the Internet programs they currently use so the scores can be compared with overall ratings from other students.)

I had fun with some of the exercises – there’s nothing that says a course has to be boring. For the lesson that explains client/server computing, there’s an optional exercise that entails going out to dinner with a friend. And then, when I discuss how email actually works on the Internet, the exercise involves the use of small children, assuming you have access to any.

Quizzes — Courses generally need some form of testing. Students submit answers to some of the exercises, but the main way that DigitalThink’s electronic courses test knowledge is via quizzes. Most of them are multiple choice, although true/false questions also pop up from time to time. Once a student submits a quiz, DigitalThink’s server shows which questions were answered right or wrong, and explains the answers, sometimes providing additional information in the process. Whenever you’re in a course, you can click the Scores button to see a graph of your total quiz scores next to everyone else who has taken the class.

Discussions and Chats — Exercises and quizzes force you to interact with DigitalThink’s server, and although that’s a good first step in providing a compelling interactive experience, there’s no substitute for live people. Because of that, most lessons have a discussion, and each module has at least one live chat scheduled. The discussions work a bit like Usenet news, with messages posted one after another. Online chats use the iChat plug-in.

As the author, I show up for a few hours a month in the course, participating in the discussions and perhaps an occasional chat, although I generally avoid online chats because they’re hard on my hands. I seeded each discussion with an initial post, and each lesson also has questions for students to consider. Along with everything else, I’m trying to help people think about the Internet and the issues that surround it.

Whether in the discussion forum or the online chats, DigitalThink’s hope is that encouraging students to interact with one another and with the instructor will not only make the course more fun, but will also make it more instructive. Some recent research has shown that the interactivity involved in online instruction can make it even more successful than traditional classroom instruction.


The Overall System — DigitalThink’s technology for providing these courses goes well beyond basic HTML. I don’t know all the details, but I do know that they have developed a proprietary system that tracks all the parts of a course and all the students. That’s how it can grade quizzes instantly and update scores immediately. Students can also click the Classmates button whenever they’re in a course to see who else is taking it. As a nice touch, though, DigitalThink gives each student a special DigitalThink email address that forwards to the student’s real address. That way, students can contact each other, but still maintain a level of privacy.

The unfortunate side-effect of this mechanism is that it relies on JavaScript for the course syllabus and discussions, and currently Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 for the Mac doesn’t support JavaScript (although Explorer 3.0.1b1 just added JavaScript support; see TidBITS-373). Other technical requirements include the Shockwave plug-in if you want to listen to my dulcet tones at various points throughout the course, and the iChat plug-in that’s necessary to participate in chats.

Students’ personal information is maintained in their lockers, which contain information about their courses and any other information they wish to give out. For instance, my Bio field reads merely "Carbon-based." After you’ve enrolled in a course, you go to your locker every time you revisit the DigitalThink site to continue with the course.

As I understand it, DigitalThink is hoping to meet the needs of people and companies who can afford a one- or two-day seminar but don’t have several days to devote to full-time instruction. Courses are designed to take about 25 hours to complete, and students can spread that out over time, working as quickly or slowly as they want, within reason.

Courses — Currently, DigitalThink offers a number of courses in the three main categories of Internet, Computer Science, and Multimedia. Some titles include: Object-Oriented Programming with C++, Home Sweet Home Page, Advanced Perl for the Web (part of the Perl for Programmers Series), Building Graphical User Interfaces (part of the Java for Programmers Series), and Hands-On Photoshop.


DigitalThink has two new sections which should be available by the end of April, Finance and Lifestyles. As you’d expect, Finance covers personal finance software, investments, and so on. I’m looking forward to the Lifestyles section, which will have subjects that aren’t work-related, such as wine-tasting. That should prove interesting, although quizzes might become significantly more difficult if you don’t spit during the tasting exercises.

Course fees vary widely, depending on the type of course and its length. Introductory courses are only $45, but the range goes up to $275 for the full-length, advanced Computer Science courses.

If you like going to seminars and taking short classes, check out the DigitalThink Web site and the course offerings, especially Tali’s free course on searching on the Internet. I enjoyed creating the "Living with the Internet" course more than my major book projects thanks to the way it helped me rethink the way I explain the Internet. If that’s true of the other DigitalThink authors too, I can only assume that their courses will have benefited as well. Who knows, these sort of electronic courses may be the future of certain types of computer books.

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