Ed Tech Not Keeping Up With The Rest of the World

One of the problems we face with running distance education courses is how to post corrections to online course materials… You might think this is just a case of issuing a fix, right? But it’s often not that easy.

In the days of print, books would be printed and as errata were identified they were added to a list of errata that students could print off and were encouraged to use to manually update their own copy of the materials.

In the web world, we can either fix the materials and not tell anyone, fix the materials and post a list of fixes we’ve made, or just post a list of fixes and then expect students to somehow realise that the weirdly worded, doesn’t make sense sentence on a particular URL is actually a typo and that they should look to the errata list to see if a correction has been posted.

You might think that just fixing the materials is the best route, but with students reading materials at different rates, as well as forward and backward referencing materials as they study, if we change materials whilst a course is in presentation, we run the risk of confusing students who remember reading something that has since disappeared from the materials.

Personally, I think we should feel free to change materials whilst the course is in presentation, but also put a faint coloured background on material that has changed since the course material went live and that will pop up a history of changes, as well as the original copy, associated with that update. We should highlight diffs, in other words, and make it easy to compare the current version with any previous version. And allow searching into the original, changed text, highlighting that it has been updated.

(Yes, I know…. this gets difficult if changes are over multiple pages. But for simple changes within a page, IT’S NOT HARD.)

Something else we have to cope with are broken links. I’ve argued before that we should be creating archived copies of links to materials that we refer to from course content (see Name (Date) Title, Available at: URL (Accessed: DATE): So What? and Fragment – Virtues of a Programmer, With a Note On Web References and Broken URLs , for example) but each year we address issues in the forums relating to the same URL as last year being broken in the same way it was the year before because an update never made it into master or the target page has moved again. Automating link checking and putting in place archived link replacements is a simple thing to fix and something we keep not doing. Year on year.

We use forums as one channel for students to post issues they’ve found with particular content. If we fix an issue inline in our content, and don’t highlight the fix/diff, then the student’s post is just confusing if someone clicks through on it, looking for one thing and finding another.

So how can we keep forum posted links in synch with content. Checking the Jupyter discoure site just now, where I’d posted a link as part of a response to another post, I noted the bots had quickly got to work:

The link I posted — to a particular file referenced on the current master branch of a particular Git repository — was automatically updated to a fully referenced, persistent link to the file. If the master branch is changed and the file I’m referencing is deleted from it, the link still works. There is a downside though, in that if the file is updated, my link will still be to the original version (whereas my intent might be to be to link to the most current version).


The point I’m trying to flag is that outside of education, folk are thinking about how bots can help keep web sites running and putting them to work to that effect. They see websites as their business and make it their business to ensure those websites are, and keep, performing as best they can.

As I’ve posted before (Fragmentary Thoughts on Data (and “Analytics”) in Online Distance Education), I think we tend to avoid the fact that as a distance education organisation, we are in large part JUST a web publisher and should focus on doing that bit right rather than telling our students they’re wrong…



Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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