A new methaphor for e-Learning

I’m convinced that we have to find a new metaphor for e-Learning in order to bring e-Learning to the next level. The old book-metaphor with chapters and pages is well suited for linear courses, but it doesn’t work for more flexible individual approaches of e-Learning. I made it my and easygenerators goal for this year to find and implement a new metaphor in such a way that it is as easy to use as the book metaphor, while offering the learner much more flexibility in finding her way through the course.

At the moment I’m looking at a lot of different examples in order to learn from them. In this post I will share some of them with you.

I want to start outside the world of e-Learning with Flipboard, one of the most valuable apps for the Ipad. It uses the metaphor of a newspaper to present blogs, Twitter Facebook and a lot of other stuff.

The 'paper' metaphor of Flipboard
The 'paper' metaphor of Flipboard

It works brilliant, especially for blogs and tweets. The beginning of a post or a tweet is presented, so you can quickly scan them. If something attracts your attention you can open the complete post with one touch. This way of presenting this information really adds value. It enables you to scan all this post in a faster and more attractive way.

Another cool application of a metaphor is the music app Planetary. It uses the Galaxy as a metaphor to present your music library. Your artist are start, their albums are planets, and the tracks are presented as moons. A great way to present this mass of information to you in a whole new way.

The music aPP GALAXYAs you can see I’m a David Bowie fan, this images zooms in on the ‘star’ David Bowie.

E-learning metaphors
Looking at e-Learning courses I found a lot of metaphors. They either offer the learner a certain context or they will represent the content in a graphical way.

Context: Floorplan

Using a ground plan to give context to the learner.This example is created by one of easygenerators Dutch partners (Atrivision). It’s a medical course where nurses have to learn how to solve certain cases. The floor-plan gives them context, but also makes it possible to make a selection for the place where you want to perform your next action. By selecting a certain room, you also limit the possible options that you have.

Content: Tube map
Another example I liked a lot was the tube map. It is used to represent the content of a course.

The subjects are represented by the lines, stations are certain topics. I like the stations that are connected to more than one line, you can switch from subject there, because they are connected. This example is made by an other Dutch partner (ISM Learning). Both of these examples are custom made for a specific course. This is a lot of work when you create them, but even more work to maintain them. This gives me two  requirements for the new metaphor. First it must be as generic as the book metaphor. The second one is that it must be easy to create and maintain.

Learning maps
One of the metaphors I’m very interested in are the ‘learning maps’; a geographical map as a representation of e-Learning content. If you combine such a map with a navigation tool, you would get a very rich environment to present learning content, giving overview and control to the learner and providing information on possible learning routes. The ‘Fraunhofer Institute’ in Karlsruhe has done extensive research at this metaphor. I will visit them in February. I hope to learn from them and I hope that we can work together at the new metaphor.

I will present on learning metaphors and learning maps at the ‘Learning solutions’ conference in Orlando in a concurrent session (#311, Wednesday, March 21, 2:30 – 3:30). I hope to share my ideas in more detail and get feedback on them and hopefully will receive some suggestions on the direction to take. In the meantime I will keep my eyes open for other possibilities. If you have examples or ideas you want to share with me, that would be great. You can contact me through this blog or at Mail@KasperSpiro.com. I will keep you updated on my findings about metaphors in future posts.

See also:


  1. Great article! I really enjoyed reading it and I couldn´t agree more with the idea of “finding a new metaphor for eLearning in order to bring it to the next level”. Checking out different sources and tools, as you´ve done here, is a great way to find new inspiration and get new perspectives on how to present the learning content. So, thanks for sharing this!


  2. Interesting, but i think you are more talking about different ways to navigate through content than actual e-learning. Of course that is what technology can provide. But you can also read a book in many different ways, e.g. start at the end to read the plot or conclusion and then start from the beginning. The brains of human beings have not really change in milliions of years. The best way of learning seems to be a combination of learning by absorption, learning by doing and learning by interacting with people. How can e-learning support that in the best possible way?


    • Hi Goran,

      It not only about navigating. It is presentingbthe information in a way that gives the learner insight to thencontent and relations. E-learning content becomes more and more a network like collection of information and the book metaphor doesn’t provide enough information to enable the learner to go freely through the content in the best way possible.


      • Hi Kasper,

        I’m enjoying this thread. Following on from what you’ve said above – it seems to me that when considering a new metaphor one should focus with the notion that form=content. Most of your interface examples will give users a nice tool to help navigate contents, but the test is do they also increase understanding? Maps are more powerful than words to understand geography. Colour coded maps can describe geology, or demography. Perhaps a map of the contents which will change its colour coded display in relation to certain criteria?


    • I agree that the metaphors suggested are more about the process and tools of navigation than how to transform ample unknowns into a desirable outcome. I think the e-learner metaphor is a sandbox and determining what works best is based on the learners’ objective – castle or roads, alone or with others. There are infinite possibilities so how can e-learning strategies and tools assist with the sandbox transformation?


      • Good point. I believe that limitation is a part of the solution. If you have unlimited possibilities it is hard to choose. So I would not mind it when a metaphor set’s some boundaries and limitations.


      • So the metaphor for the practitioner is an Active Sandbox which gives the user choices tied to learning styles, desire for social engagement or pure serendipity and, of course, selection of content. Good luck with your learning map exploration and subsequent presentation.


  3. It’s time for this. However, I think we need to look at a number of metaphors: one is the metaphor for navigation with sync/async experiences, and the other is delineating the differences between learning, teaching, and training.

    Learning happens all of the time. Some of the best ways to learn something are to explore on your own because of your own interests, or to fail at something. But these are costly in terms of time, learning tool development, and effectiveness measures.

    Teaching began as a way to shorten the learning process by providing a guide to the content. It’s still a good metaphor for complex subjects like critical thinking, physics, and language. The best teachers know that, since learning happens all of the time, the student leads the teacher as much as the teacher leads the student.

    Training is, in the business world, much more about simplifying a specific skill set/process and helping people experience it so they learn how to do something new. Time is of the essence, so the closer training can get to enabling people to get real work done while they learn, the better for the learner’s and the company’s bottom lines.

    This links to the navigation metaphor, because the more interested the learner is in getting the information, the more “sticky” the information is. The challenge to a new navigation metaphor is that those who don’t think it through believe the navigation is the e-learning experience. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the source of learning either. That, I still fervently believe, entirely depends on the content, the learner’s needs, and the objectives.


    • Hi Laurie,

      I agree with you. the metaphor is only part of the learning experience. The content, the objectives remain key. I do believe that giving insight to the learner in the content and how it is linked and how it relates to the knowledge, skills and objectives is very important. The way you present the information plays a key role in this.


    • Thanks for your response. I do believe that we need to have several metaphors all serving their own purpose.And of course a metaphor will only help to navigate the learner through the content, the quality of that content will remain key in the learning experience.


  4. The book wasn’t a metaphor for learning so much as the structure of thinking in a physical sense: intro, beginning, middle, end, bibliography, citations, etc. Metaphors and analogies only work so far and then they break down. Maps and floor plans are pretty literal ways of thinking about thinking and the one thing they do not imply is deep knowledge. Both maps and floor plans are surface thinking. If you want something that learning maps to both literally and figuratively it is the game: roles, rules, goals and sacred space. See Huzinga.


    • I’m not sure if games are the best way to present learning. In certain cases they are but not in all. One of my requirements for the new metaphor is that instructional designers should be able to use it without any scripting, just drag and drop. Although I would love to create a game interface for that I believe we are not ready for that yet. For now I would settle for a ‘simpler’ metaphor.


  5. Hi Kaspar,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this important question. Much of our perception of non-written text in Western culture is dictated by our history of writing. The grammar of hand writing from the top of the page and working from left to right follows the natural muscular control for right-handed people. Sensibly it avoids dragging your hand through the work you have completed, originally with pen and ink.

    Default narrative styles follow, partially, from this linear process with an orientation/problem/solution/comment or conclusion, down the physical page. In academic writing ritual this is expressed as introduction, body, conclusion. Again the linear movement that you identify.

    The same grammar influences things like movies that reflect written traditions in their expose of narratives. Likewise TV interviews and game shows often place the ‘known; interviewer on the lefthand side and the ‘new’ interviewee on the right. We bring old cultural frameworks to new technologies. To paraphrase Marx, we are condemned to create the future with tools of the past.

    Interestingly in other cultures the grammars are different. In Japanese literature for instance, there is greater responsiblity on the reader and a less procedural metaphor for orientation often occurs, providing for different points of access to a narrative. Pre-printing press European stories like ‘Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,’ use the same cameo style structure prevalent in Japanese works such as the ‘Tale of Genji.’ Hence, east asian educated learners often struggle with the linear determinism of academic writing when transfering to American or European educational systems.

    East asian art is not confined by perspective – the vector of a linear visual narrative in classical western painting – so viewers can enter the picture where they choose. We see this approach in today’s magazine covers with a ‘jumble’ of images that are ranked but accessable from various start points. Japanese script traditionally runs vertically from top to bottom – some scholars say this reflects a more top down social history. Oddly – to me – the characters are written left to right (again dictated by muscular control) but the text moves from right to left. So one sees caligraphers holding their sleeves up to avoid trailing them in wet ink! Or am I trapped in Edward Said’s imperialist academic paradigm?

    To me the interesting question in developing a new non-linear metaphor for online learning is to foreground learner responsiblity and thus learner control of the page. The Facebook model goes someway towards this. Another aspect that that is crucial to learning is the social aspect of it. Learning is most effective in social contexts and the core of these are small group – pairs like learner/mentor or learner/learner and peer groups that collaborate and challenge. Watching children play sometimes gives insights into this. At my university we are struggling to de-centre the lecturer from the online course pages and move away from replication of ‘sage-on-the-stage’ paradigms to small self-organised and teacher managed groups – the latter acknowledging that good group dynamics need to be learned too!

    So maybe the new paradigm, the new metaphor, needs to account for multi-centred groupings where non-linear choices rule, an element of chaos (magazine covers), emerging tools that build on what we know but are open to constant re-evaluation?



    • Thanks for your extensive response.You are absolutely correct that culture has to do a lot with the way we are learning. That is one of the reasons that I believe we should have more metaphors. Including collaboration in a course is one of wishes. But as an authoring tool we are bounded by the limitations of Scorm. So we would need a new standard for that before we can make it happen.


  6. Great thoughts! I am also very interested in thinking of metaphors to enhance e-Learning and have been playing around with a few ideas lately. I can envision using many of the ones you have highlighted, but my favorite (so far) is the tube map. Maps in general seem like a great metaphor for learning, but the tube map is clean and easy to read. I have created a learning map using a timeline that depicts the progression from new hire to fully competent. What I have right now is more functional than visually appealing, but I think there are a lot of possibilities using a timeline, so that is what I am working on now. Thanks for sharing!


  7. I share your passion for the learning map metaphor. Focused on primary and secondary (K-12) education, I’m planning research that focuses on a Goals-based Learning Progression – leveraging the standards-based elements as goals, but breaking free of the rigid focus on grade levels in favor of competency-based frameworks. These competency-based frameworks within the Goals-based Learning Progression adhere to the learning maps metaphor, providing adaptable frameworks based on instructional strategies, learning strategies, content types and Universal Design for Learning frameworks.

    The Gates Foundation recently funded some data modeling work by a company, Applied Minds. Kurt Bollacker of Applied Minds drafted a Learning Map Data Model based on graph/object store modeling within a competency-based framework. This is a solid framework that’s worth a look.

    In addition, the US Dept of Education recently funded a research effort called Dynamic Learning Maps. You can learn more about it here: http://dynamiclearningmaps.org/

    I’d welcome the opportunity to discuss your R&D plans related to your learning map metaphor investigations.


      • Can you point to some specific examples that I might be able to experience learning maps for myself? I just started a new instructional design position supporting a sales organization and we are exploring the idea of implementing the learning map concept as we build a new onboarding program for new and existing sales people. It’s a new concept for me and I’d like to see an example in action. Thanks.


      • Hi Jesse,

        I know that an institute in Germany experimented with it, but that is not public. We are working at easygenerator on learning maps. We will launch a the first step (learning paths) in june. They are supposed to be growing into full learning maps. I will present on this at DevLearn in September


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