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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition

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Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Micro-content Generation Framework as a Learning Innovation (János Horváth Cz.)

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János Horváth Cz.

Micro-content Generation Framework as a Learning Innovation

1.  Introduction

Young people today have established a new content consumption culture by the active, everyday use of content sharing sites. The time dedicated to particular content items has decreased, while the number of texts, images or other media items viewed in a given unit of time has increased. Technology poses no limit to “information gluttony”: state of-the-art Web 2.0 technologies facilitate connection to a continuous news feed. The basic economic principles also work here, however, as the value of ample resources is low. To compensate for the inflation of information value, an experiment was initiated to examine the potential of micro-content to add value to education. Micro-content generated for the purposes of higher education are well structured, have limited volume and can be managed as units, while the validity of the information contained therein is guaranteed by the involvement of named authors, feedback by the community and proofreading provided by teachers. In this paper we discuss the latest phase of a work process started earlier to renew micro-content. Using software that operates in a Web 2.0 environment, participants can create and publish their own micro-content collections. Each micro-content receives a unique identifier and authors’ data are preserved, facilitating the free copying of collections and their components into other micro-content collections. I offer the conclusion that in using this method, student communities may create their own knowledge assets on their own merits, which in turn lead to better learning results.

2.  The Early History of Micro-Content

Micro-content (Lindner–Hug 2006; Lindner 2007), as their name suggests, are created to convey information in the most compact form possible (Nyíri 2010). Text-based micro-content are characterised by a concise, straightforward style and a complete lack of “verbal fluff”. One of their important features is the low cognitive load associated with obtaining and understanding a given unit of information, compared to other media such as news, novels, radio interviews, etc.

Micro-content cannot be strictly defined according to their size only, as size may depend on time, location and application, or the relevant agreement within ← 171 | 172 → a group of users. The tool used to transfer the content also influences the size and quality of content. Conventional postcards, for example, could only convey messages limited in size, representing an early form of micro-content.

The short message service, still popular today, limits messages to 160 characters. We might think that this limit was due to technological limitations at the time when the GSM telephone system was being standardised in the 1980s, but actually, if the related press information is to be trusted (W1; W2), it was based on the decision of a single person. Twitter was supposed to be the short message supplier of the Internet, initially allowing 140 characters for a user message. However, Twitter policy has radically changed since then (W3), and unlimited messages can be now accompanied by pictures, too. Hence, this representative of micro-content has ceased to exist.

A message may not only be defined as micro-content using the number of its written characters. Snapchat allows a maximum of 10 seconds for viewing an image or video sent by a user, and you cannot replay it. In this case, users should phrase straightforward messages that can be perceived and understood in the given time frame.

Magyar Virtuális Enciklopédia (Hungarian Virtual Encyclopedia; W4) was developed relying on the micro-content approach, supervised by Kristóf Nyíri. Its fifteen hundred entries, of an average length of 1400 characters each, were written by acknowledged experts and they are heavily interlinked. Entries are concise, yet they are efficient in informing the reader about scientific achievements in several fields (e.g. law, environment, EU, learning, health, etc.)

At the Visual Learning Lab (VLL) of Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Kristóf Nyíri and András Benedek supervise the work of research teams that focus their efforts on the modern-time exploitation of visual communication with special regard to everyday teaching processes in higher education. Research also includes micro-content.

Another good example of practical micro-content applications is SysBook, developed by Tibor Vámos and his team. At the moment, SysBook can display 140 content units optimised specifically for small screens. Though these content units essentially form a sequence, there are six interpretation levels associated with each unit (image, text, mathematical demonstration, demonstrations from everyday life, theory, and education). These interpretation levels may be displayed together, facilitating comparison.

I wish to discuss here two earlier experiments of mine related to the use of micro-content in education. The first one is an early, yet fully operational micro-content editing system that was used by the students involved in the experiment ← 172 | 173 → to generate compacted visual and textual content in fields they were interested in. These were saved on a computer by means of a browser software (maximum width of images: 300 pixels; maximum number of characters for texts: 1024). Students were expected to generate blocks of content that can be interpreted individually while also forming a coherent description of a given topic. The figure below illustrates a few solutions from the several hundred we received:

Figure 1: An early micro-content editing system

image17

(source: students’s projects, Budapest University of Technology and Economics; authors: János Horváth Cz., Ákos Czurkó, no author indicated [W5], Balázs Brosch, Boglárka Szili) ← 173 | 174 →

In our next experiment, we developed a system to display student activity as micro-content, based on colour codes, in the framework of Moodle (a course management system used by the Department of Technical Education):

Figure 2: A micro-content experiment, based on colour codes

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(source: Moodle, Budapest University of Technology and Economics; screenshot taken by the author)

In Figure 2, each square represents a student in the Moodle system. The colour of a square corresponds to the time interval between the “present” as represented by the date of the survey and the last time the student was active in Moodle. Green squares mark currently active users while the colour red means the last time a given user logged in was rather long ago. The hues between these two extremities represent intermediate intervals. In this experiment, we looked for a way to display a relatively large number of states on a limited screen. As the figure illustrates, colour codes represented an ideal solution.

3.  Typical Contemporary Ways of Content Use

Since these experiments, technical conditions have changed a lot and fast. While users’ screen size, computing performance and the speed of data transfer used to be important limiting factors that rendered the compaction of information unavoidable, these limitations are no longer relevant. Currently used mobile devices, while being much smaller than PCs used to be just a few years ago, have much better performance parameters than those. Improved performance has led to changes in user behaviour. ← 174 | 175 →

According to the relevant references (Törőcsik 2013; Carr 2010; Howe–Strauss 2000; Ollé et al. 2013), the group born between 1995 and 2005 (known as Generation Z) is different from older generations in several aspects. One of their distinguishing characteristics is their taking the Internet as a readily available resource. Accordingly, Generation Z considers connection to the network essential and promptness has become a more or less basic requirement. Generation Z people prefer being preoccupied with many things; however, they are not able to devote much time to a particular topic. This behaviour, also known as multitasking, presumes the division of attention; however, its efficiency is dubious. These people search for information all the time and become frustrated if this demand of theirs cannot be satiated. Although they continuously hunt for new bits of information, organising these into some mental framework may often represent quite a challenge for them.

In his book, Nicholas Carr (2010) details the way various devices providing access to information can change the mental processes of users, sometimes in a really short time, including changes caused by Internet use. This uniqueness of Generation Z gives rise to the question whether there is a device that can be used both by them and the older generations.

4.  Micro-content Organised into a System

In the previous sections we discussed the unique ways Generation Z approaches the processing of information. At our department, we educate the experts of the future who will have to work with this generation of students as relatively old teachers. Our students, specialised in the teaching of a particular course, experience difficulties when trying to understand young people, so it is a challenge to organise lessons that can grab their attention and facilitate efficient teaching.

We realised that information management based on micro-content is a good way to practice “tuning in to Generation Z”. To support this “tuning,” we developed the Web 2.0 version of the micro-content editing system, under the name MEdit. MEdit facilitates the generation, limitless storage, thematic organising and sharing of compact content. Our goal was to facilitate easy and prompt use, both when generating and receiving content, reducing the burden related to the application of this information, known as cognitive load. ← 175 | 176 →

Figure 3: Examples of image and text based micro-content in the MEdit system

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(source: MEdit; screenshots taken by the author)

Figure 3 shows examples of image and text based micro-content units. We should note here that micro-content units always have their own names, information about the author is always maintained and content may also be labelled.

Figure 4: Mass preview of micro-content

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(source: MEdit; screenshot taken by the author)

Figure 4 provides a preview of micro-content uploaded into the MEdit system. When clicking on any given compact unit, its actual content can be viewed. Compact units containing images have a stamp-like preview. In the case of text based ← 176 | 177 → units, however, the preview gives a colour combination generated by a method developed by ourselves, thus facilitating distinction.

Figure 5: Creating a thematic collection of micro-content

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(source: MEdit; screenshot taken by the author)

Micro-content units may be organised into thematic collections as illustrated by Figure 5. In this case, users may organise their own compact units in a table, using its cells. Compact units may be moved between cells or deleted.

Students participating in the trial runs needed some time to get used to the interface and to learn to appreciate the system. Once the first, well edited micro-content units had been uploaded, the majority followed the good example and started to develop their own compact units and then organise these into thematic collections. Most students processed their latest reading experiences, organising the content of rather long books into five to 10 micro-content units, thus enabling others to decide whether a particular book is worth reading or not. Some students prepared collections in their own professional fields, processing content related to topics such as boilers for domestic heating systems or raw materials for manufacturing wood products. Topics related to recreation and hobbies were also represented (e.g. Hungarian dog breeds, fish species for fishing, descriptions of one’s home town, etc.). All in all, a very diverse and valuable set of data was generated in the trial period. ← 177 | 178 →

5.  Future Work

The MEdit system is developed continuously, with new abilities added to it every now and then. An important improvement promoting daily use is supporting the use of units using content other than image or text (audio, video or binary records). Providing opportunities for users to evaluate content is an adaptation of the practice of social evaluation and, as users are free to comment on content, we expect a boost in communication between them.

Once a critical number of users has been reached, the volume of uploaded content is expected to soar. We consider the use of data mining tools an exciting option to form an increasingly accurate picture on the information recorded in the MEdit system and its changes.

The micro-content based processing of certain subjects of courses organised by our department is a novel didactic experiment. Is it possible to compact high volume curricula written according to conventional principles into micro-content units? How can the author cooperate with students in this process? How efficiently can we use micro-content for the courses held for diverse age groups (Generations X, Y, Z)? Further research is needed to answer these questions.

In this paper, essentially micro-content used in an online environment are discussed. However, these principles are viable in other forms as well.

Figure 6: Micro-content in a printed format (posters created by the author)

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The last figure shows two printed posters where micro-content are arranged on a coordinated plane, their location being determined by the information on the horizontal and vertical axes. Content in the cells are coherent texts and self-explanatory images that can be fully interpreted in themselves; however, they can also be processed following a “recommended order” that conveys the exact original message of the author.

This paper wishes to provide an overview about the rapidly developing world of micro-content, focusing on practical applications in education.

References

Carr, Nicholas G. (2010): The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company.

Howe, N. – Strauss, W. (2000): Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Lindner, Martin – Hug, Theo (2006): Human-centered Design for ‘Casual’ Information and Learning in Micromedia Environments. Austrian Computer Society (OCG) – Work Group HCI&UE – 2nd Symposium.

Lindner, Martin (2007): What Is Microlearning? Proceedings of the 3rd International Microlearning 2007 Conference.

Nyíri, Kristóf (2010): Mobilvilág. A kapcsolat és közösség új élményei [Mobile world. New experiences of connection and community]. Budapest: Magyar Telekom.

Ollé, János – Papp-Danka, Adrienn – Lévai, Dóra – Tóth-Mózer, Szilvia – Virányi, Anita (2013): Oktatásinformatikai módszerek. Tanítás és tanulás az információs társadalomban [Methods of teaching informatics. Teaching and learning in information society]. Budapest: ELTE Eötvös Kiadó.

Törőcsik, Mária (2013): Tudománykommunikáció a Z generációnak. A fiatalok fogyasztása, tartalomfogyasztása [Science communication for Generation Z. Content consumption of youth]. http://www.zgeneracio.hu/.

W1 = http://beolog.blog.beol.hu/2009/05/06/miert-pont-160-karakter-egy-sms/.

W2 = http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2009/05/invented-text-messaging.html.

W3 = https://blog.twitter.com/2015/removing-the-140-character-limit-from-direct-message.

W4 = http://www.enc.hu/.

W5 = http://web.t-online.hu/wxsd47uuhxg4/autoszereles/. ← 179 | 180 →