How Confirmation Bias Creates Challenges In eLearning

Ellen DeGeneres said, “Be open to learning new lessons, even if they contradict the lessons you learned yesterday.”

What if we assumed that students approach every course they take with prejudices that may affect their academic success? What can educators do to break through that “confirmation bias” to help students learn more effectively?

Assistant Professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College defines confirmation bias as “accepting information that reinforces a predisposition, belief or attitude.” I would expand that definition even further to describe confirmation bias as “an irrational prejudice in favor of preconceptions that we prefer to believe, even when they are incorrect.” Nyhan also points out that the reverse side of this is “disconfirmation bias—people tend to be unduly skeptical of information that contradicts some previous position they have, or point of view.”

It’s a common human failing to disregard facts and adhere to the information that reinforces what we already believe. People have sentimental, religious, political, ideological and psychosocial reasons for doing this, and our role as educators is not to judge this predisposition, but acknowledge it and be aware of how it can affect the students we’re teaching.

Here are 3 ways confirmation bias can impact eLearning, along with an approach that can help educators mitigate the effects of it. Educators can take these into consideration to help ensure their students have fewer impediments to learning.

1. Students May Presume That They Have An Exclusive Learning Style

While not an actual example of confirmation bias, this illustrates how educational folklore with no basis in formal research can create psychological barriers to learning. Many students have heard or been taught that each person has their own style of learning that helps them learn better. For example, some people will insist they are “visual learners” and then use that folklore to rationalize why they are having trouble learning from textbooks or audio.

In fact, recent research has shown us that many people have learning preferences that they choose because they enjoy a particular type of learning media, such as text, audio or video, but their preferences don’t mean that they are incapable of learning in other formats as well. It may only mean that they enjoy one learning style the most and will be more motivated if that learning style is presented. For educators, there is no pedagogical need to assess learning styles, but they can consider providing more options on eLearning platforms to enrich the learning experience. To find out more about this research, read “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” in the December 2008 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

2. If It’s An Instructor-Led Course, Students May Display Confirmation Bias Toward The Course Content Based On What They Know Or Think They Know About The Instructor(s)

In an eLearning course facilitated by an instructor(s), students are usually provided with an instructor’s bio and background. Of course, they’re not limited to that—students often Google their instructor’s name(s) to find out more about them. While studies have been conducted about instructors showing race and gender biases toward their students, student biases toward their instructor and/or the course designers can often impact the learning experience, even in the case of an online course.

Students who have racial or gender biases toward their instructor(s) or who disagree with the political, philosophical or religious beliefs their instructors seem to espouse, may become resistant to learning or even withdraw from a course on that basis, even if the course content itself is not an issue. Conversely, student confirmation bias may lead them to only seek out courses and instructors that seem to support their preconceived beliefs rather than attempting courses that may challenge their beliefs or expand their knowledge.

3. Students May Have Preconceived Ideas About The Course Content

Confirmation bias can negatively impact the way students perceive their course content. If they are strongly biased against some or all of the course content for personal, political, religious or ideological reasons, or simply because they were previously misinformed about the topic, they may consciously or subconsciously resist learning from the course. Or they may decide not to take the course or drop the course partway through.

While there’s value in aligning our educational goals with our core values, the drive to market and monetize eLearning may lead some students (or companies seeking courses for their employees) to over-consume bespoke eLearning courses—an education buffet that allows students to select the information they want to learn. However, if they self-select learning content based on their confirmation biases, they may not benefit from more balanced and comprehensive learning that has been designed by educators.

How Educators And Educational Content Developers Can Mitigate Confirmation Bias

Everyone brings their biases into their lifelong activities and experiences, including their education. The exercise for both educators and students is to become more self-aware and transparent about those biases so that we can declare them (even if only to ourselves) and ensure we are open to learning ideas that challenge our way of thinking rather than allowing our confirmation bias to “cherrypick” what we learn, thereby limiting the scope of our knowledge.

As an educator or as a creator of eLearning content, it may be important to consider the demographics of your students and be transparent about any biases your educational content may present, but also be willing to:

  1. Challenge students in the course outline or introduction to be aware of their own biases for or against the content.
  2. Engage in dialogues with students throughout the course and help them identify where their biases may be creating a resistance to learning or even leading them to abandon or withdraw from a course simply because they can’t reconcile their preconceived ideas with what they are learning.

There’s no value judgment in this approach—the goal is to foster open-minded learning with critical thinking skills that allow students to gain the greatest value possible from their learning experiences.

Originally published by eLearningIndustry.com

Why Facebook Adopted Social Learning: How to Set Up a Social Learning Group on Facebook

A Guide to the Social Learning Group Type for Facebook Groups 

One of the largest and most influential companies in the world made its first strategic move into eLearning, and hardly anyone noticed. In April 2019, Facebook introduced a social learning feature for Facebook Groups that allows any group administrator to format the content into structured units so that groups can author and deliver courses to members.   

This small but significant enhancement to the Facebook Group functionality and user experience may seem incidental, but it’s all part of the social media kingdom’s master plan. An April 30, 2019, article on Bloomberg.com, said “Facebook Inc. unveiled a redesign that focuses on the Groups feature of its main social network, doubling down on a successful but controversial part of its namesake app — and another sign that Facebook is moving toward more private, intimate communication.”

Even Facebook’s detractors have to admit that the company is crafty—it makes mistakes, but it operates strategically—so the new social learning feature in Facebook Groups is not a random foray into eLearning or a McRib-style marketing miss. Almost certainly it is a carefully considered move into the social learning trend, enabling Facebook Group users to author courses in a quick and dirty way without intimidating them with too many features. It’s a beta test without being in beta mode. The social learning functionality in Facebook groups is not meant for eLearning professionals as much as for the average group admin with little experience in instructional design and course authoring who wants to teach something that can be accessible via a private or public group.   

For several years, people have been using Facebook Groups as part of their eLearning, but not as an eLearning platform itself. The last time I taught my four-week Social Media Strategy course at Royal Roads University, I asked students to create a private Facebook group to share content and promote discussions. Course developers also publish media such as videos on Facebook groups for their students. Facebook has been observing this uptake in eLearning and has received many suggestions from users about new features they would like to have added to Facebook groups. 

It makes sense for social networks to support social learning in a more integrated, responsive and fully interactive way. That’s what Facebook’s social learning features are beginning to do, and we can expect that as the functionality becomes more sophisticated, professional course developers will start using Facebook Groups more frequently as a course authoring tool and learning management system.   

There’s solid, this-decade research that shows how social media can be highly effective in powering social learning. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1977) anticipated the rise of social media in the 2000s by proposing that people learn from one another through observation, imitation and modeling. Then in 2012-2013, social network analysis started emerging when researchers began to study people in online social communities such as Facebook as well as non-tech social networks such as clubs, families, friendship groups, hobby groups, professional associations and political parties.

How It Works

Facebook’s social learning format is easiest to use when setting up a new group, rather than trying to retrofit a thriving group. Facebook Help explains how the social learning options work:

A social learning group is like a regular group except:

  • Admins can organize posts into units and change the order in which they appear.
  • Group members can click I’m done to let the admin know they’ve interacted with the unit.
  • Admins can view group insights and see details on unit and post completion.

Source: Facebook.com  

Step 1: Create a New Facebook Group

After you login to your Facebook profile (you need one in order to create a group), select the Create link in the blue bar at the top (beside the Home link) and create a group by following the step-by-step instructions. You’ll be choosing whether to designate your group privacy settings as Public, Closed or Secret. After you make this selection, your group will appear will mostly default settings. 

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Step 2: Select the Social Learning Group Type

Here’s where you’ll be able to select the social learning group type. Go to the …More button and select Edit Group Settings.

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Next, select one of four Group Types, then select the Social Learning option. If you happen to select the wrong one by mistake, don’t worry—you can go back to Edit Group Settings and select Change Group Type. 

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Step 3: Select the Options You Prefer

You’ll see two options for the Landing Tab—the main tab that appears when people see the front end of your group. One is for Discussion and one is for Units. A Unit is a way of dividing, ordering and structuring all your posts. You can create as many Units as you need in your group and the Units can later be re-organized, too.

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Basically, the Discussion option lets Facebook organize the order of your posts, usually chronologically, so you might prefer to select the Units option instead so you can manually choose how posts are organized and ordered in each Unit.  

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Other options on the Group Settings page include a Description of the group (essential!), a geographical location (optional), tags (important for Public groups to help people find your group when they are searching by topic or keywords) and add Apps (not many available yet).  

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You can also link an existing Facebook page related to the group or create a new Page, select a limited number of colors to use for the group theme (design elements) and select a custom web address so that the URL is more human-readable when you share it.

Most importantly, you can add new Social Learning Units to your group and use the Instant Games feature to allow members to discover Facebook’s Instant Games and help gamify your social learning (a little bit). 

After you create each Unit, do NOT select Make This Unit Optional as you won’t be able to follow the progress of members as they complete each Unit. 

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You will also see additional options to Show Progress (to the member who is taking the course), Allow Members to Share When They Complete a Unit (if you think this is an option members would like), and Re-Order Units (if you need to do so).

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Back to the main Edit Settings menu—there are other standard group settings such as Chat Permissions, Membership Pre-approvals, and Posting Permissions and Approvals, which can always be altered later. 

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Don’t skip the instructional design process just because it’s so easy to set up one of these social learning groups. Even with a simple course in a Facebook Group, it’s important to plan and implement your course using instructional design principles.

Step 4: Launch your Group and Share it With the Public or Invited Members 

As you can see, even a fairly junior league LMS provides many more options than what you’ll find now in Facebook Groups, such as scoring and weighting, but the Social Learning format is interactive enough to allow users to indicate when they have completed tasks in each Unit and then enable the Admin to see their progress. And Facebook’s Group Insights provides additional metrics about Group activities.

Those who want to be early adopters and try the Social Learning format in Facebook Groups will likely be rewarded for their efforts because Facebook will be eager to listen to feedback from admins and will most likely add many more social learning features over time. You’re also engaging the mighty engines of social media by having your course embedded in the world’s most prolific social network. 

For more assistance in setting up a new Facebook Group, consult Facebook Help, which also provides help with the Social Learning format


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Borgatti, S. P., Everett, M. G., & Johnson, J. C. (2013). Analyzing social networks. SAGE Publications Limited.

Facebook (2019). What is a social learning group and how does it work? Facebook Inc.

Prell, C. (2012). Social network analysis: History, theory and methodology. SAGE Publications Limited.

Scott, J. (2012). Social network analysis. SAGE Publications Limited.

Wagner, Kurt and Selina Wang (April 30, 2019). Facebook Unveils Major App Redesign With Focus on Groups. Bloomberg.com. Report this

How Our World Can Beat Plastic Pollution

In the world of tomorrow, plastics will certainly call the tune.”

That statement from a 1950s documentary on the new age of plastics is worse than ironic; it has become tragic. Back then, the promise of plastics for the world of tomorrow was about replicating everything that used to be made with natural products and creating cheaper, plastic versions of them instead. Even pianos. Or art! In many ways, that’s what happened, but the most insidious yet seemingly harmless proliferation of plastics in the last 70 years was not about the products themselves, which were often cheaper and more durable versions of what had been made in the past. The real scourge of plastic on our Earth and its ecosystem is not as much the plastic products we use and re-use, but the plastic packaging we use and dispose; we are using durable, multiple-use petroleum-based material that never fully degrades in the environment as disposable, single-use garbage. It’s the plastic water bottles and pop bottles. The plastic straws. The plastic solo cups and other disposable beverage containers. The hard-shell plastic around our household appliances and electronic products. Our excessively packaged processed foods. Even our fresh produce, where berries are sold in plastic baskets, salad mixes are in sealed plastic bags and cucumbers are shrink-wrapped.

During different periods in history, people often become collectively aware of a deadly social, environmental or political issue that captivates society, propels a movement and transforms ordinary people into activists inspired to change the status quo – slavery, child labor laws, addiction, fascism, racism, nuclear proliferation, homophobia and global warming, for example. Ever since the Paris Agreement set out clear goals for participating nations to reduce carbon emissions, a new issue has been seeping into the collective consciousness and motivating individuals to change their behavior and governments to ensure that industries stop contributing to the problem. Plastic waste in our oceans, our landfills and even in the food and water we consume has become one of the most pressing issues of 2018. Stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirling in the Pacific, microplastics found in our bottled water and even a pilot whale that died near Thailand after swallowing 80 plastic bags have received an unprecedented amount of media coverage, considering that the issue is not at all a new one – it’s been around for almost seven decades now. Yet this year it has been galvanizing social change from schoolchildren, who recently participated in a plastic bag cleanup in their communities, up to governments, who are beginning to enforce a ban on disposable plastics such as bags, straws and cups, in the first stage of a cultural change that may eventually lead to bans or restrictions on other disposables such as water bottles or unnecessary packaging of foods and other manufactured products.

Today, to help us reflect and act on the United Nations’ World Environment Day with its #BeatPlasticPollution theme, here are a few massive NGO- and government-led initiatives announced in 2018.

The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle was unveiled in Amsterdam today as pressure to curb the world’s plastic binge and its devastating impact on the planet continues to grow. With nearly 700 plastic-free goods to select from at one of the branches of Ektoplaza, a Dutch supermarket chain, the aisle gives shoppers the opportunity to but their groceries in “new compostable bio-materials as well as traditional materials” such as glass, metal and cardboard. –  Feb 28, 2018, CNN World

The Ocean Cleanup …expects to bring 5,000 kilograms of plastic ashore per month with its first system. With a full fleet of systems deployed, it believes it can collect half of the plastic trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – around 40,000 metric tons – within five years. –  April 20, 2018, Fast Company

The UK is set to ban all sales of single-use plastics, including plastic straws and cotton swabs from the country as early as next year…plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges the country faces. – April 25, 2018, Forbes

A year after Kenya announced the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags, and eight months after it was introduced, the authorities are claiming victory – so much so that other east African nations Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering following suit. – April 25, 2018, The Guardian

Vancouver will become the first major Canadian city to ban plastic drinking straws, as it reduces its reliance on disposable single-use items that end up in landfills or incinerators. The straw ban, which takes effect in the fall of next year, is part of a suite of waste-reducing policies adopted this week…” – May 17, 2018, The Globe and Mail

San Diego is considering a ban on polystyrene food containers that, if passed, would make it the largest California city to do so…More than 116 cities in California have banned the product over concerns about ocean pollution and marine life health, according to the Los Angeles Times. –  June 2, 2018, The Hill

On 30 May, Chile became the first South American country to approve a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, garnering congratulations from around the world for its efforts to beat plastic pollution ahead of World Environment Day on 5 June…The ban will come into force in one year’s time for major retailers and in two years’ time for smaller businesses. –  June 2, 2018, UN Environment

Find out what you can do on World Environment Day and beyond.

“If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.”

#BeatPlasticPollution

Contentology

Contentology is a neologism I created in 2002 to describe a digital communication theory that calls for a more deeply integrated approach to content strategy. In my Contentology.com blog that I was writing back then, I defined it as “the science of content”:

Contentology blends disciplines such as information architecture, information design, usability engineering and “Webitorial” writing. Simply put, it’s a methodology for planning, developing and organizing information. 

Source: Contentology.com, June 6, 2002

Contentology is about these things: The meaning, the vessel for that meaning, the channel for that vessel, and the people who exchange the meaning using vessels and channels. It’s not just about words. Words are symbols that can have varying presentational qualities. They are imbued with subtle layers of meaning, but their meaning can also be manipulated.

It’s not just about visuals, either. Graphic designs are simply another vessel for carrying meaning, whether overt (as in a financial chart) or subliminal (something that provokes an emotion or a reaction, like a photo of a mother and her child, or an image of the World Trade Centre in New York).

And in a multimedia environment like the Web, it’s also not just about audio, video, animation, software downloads, chat, IM or any interactive features. They, too, are either vessels of meaning, or channels to carry that meaning. 

Remember the definition of the word “content” from its Latin roots of “contentum” and “continere” – that which contains meaning, not meaning itself. Content is, by definition, not just something you drop into a vessel, but both a vessel and the idea within it. In other words, you cannot separate pure meaning from its container…

Source: Contentology.com, June 2, 2002 (URL unavailable)

I wanted the idea of Contentology to be as open source as possible so people would start thinking and talking about it more, so in 2003, I submitted the term to the Internet definitions in NetLingo.com, which describes it as follows: 

Contentology integrates research, knowledge and skills from all fields that focus on analyzing, developing, and designing or structuring content. Areas of interest include electronic publishing, information design, user experience design, Web design, information technology, etc.
Source: NetLingo.com

I’ve been encouraged to see that in the last 17 years, the concept of Contentology has grown wings and that in the era of social media dominance of the web, people are finally talking about online content as something that is fluid, repurposeable and able to create a powerful dynamic depending on how it is being used. The 21st century is indeed becoming the Age of Content.

Rethinking Reincarnation

Is there an afterlife, or is there a life after life? Putting aside various religious beliefs about reincarnation, many scientists, physicians and laypersons have tried to take a scientific approach to the subject by studying people who claim to have remembrances of past lives. Many of these claims are made more credible by the person’s detailed memories of events, people and even languages that they could have never known under normal circumstances. Especially interesting are stories of young children who have remembrances of a past they could have never experienced in their current lives. 

In his book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson offers a typical example: 

The case usually starts when a small child of two to four years of age begins talking to his parents or siblings of a life he led in another time and place. The child usually feels a considerable pull back toward the events of the life and he frequently importunes his parents to let him return to the community where he claims that he formerly lived. If the child makes enough particular statements about the previous life, the parents (usually reluctantly) begin inquiries about their accuracy. Often, indeed usually, such attempts at verification do not occur until several years after the child has begun to speak of the previous life. If some verification results, members of the two families visit each other and ask the child whether he recognizes places, objects, and people of his supposed previous existence.(Source: Wikipedia) 

Those who do not believe in reincarnation consider any reincarnation case studies to be the result of either a hoax, a misinterpretation, a coincidence or even a mental disorder. Some have suggested these many be cases of some form of psychic transference – information that has been transmitted psychically from one person to another – or postcognition, the opposite of precognition, where someone has psychic visions about something that occurred in the past, long before their own birth. 

One pseudo-scientific possibility is also worth considering when attempting to understand “reincarnation” case studies from a non-religious perspective, and that is “genetic memory.” While genetic memory is still on the fringe of modern science and has no reliable research to indicate it is a more than a hypothesis, even well-respected psychologists such as Carl Jung found the notion fascinating. Jung referred to it as the “collective unconscious.” 

In his article titled “Ancestral” or “Genetic” Memory: Factory Installed Software (Source: Wisconsin Medical Society), Dr. Daniel Treffert, M.D. talks about cases of savants – people born with severe developmental difficulties who, without being taught,  can “instinctively” understand and apply rules of music, mathematics or art, to name a few examples. From where did this knowledge originate? We presume that knowledge of these disciplines must be taught and learned, yet even medical science acknowledges that savants are not charlatans nor the products of charlatans. 

Treffert quotes famed Canadian neurologist and researcher Dr. Wilder Penfield, who said “Animals particularly show evidence of what might be called racial memory.” In other words, Penfield acknowledged the existence of a form of memory that was not experiential. Certain complex animal behavior shows evidence of a form of “knowledge” that has been acquired not through experience but through an innate process that relates to their species. 

Taking the notion of ancestral or genetic memory one step further, what if it is humanly possible not only to tap into human knowledge transferred into our DNA from our biological ancestors, but to also access individual memories from our ancestors’ experiences? Could memories become encoded in DNA strands so that they can be passed on to our descendants? Treffert maintains that although some feel genetic memory in savants may just be the brain’s ability to access certain “templates of knowledge” common to all humanity, he has concluded that the knowledge of savants may have actually been inherited from their ancestors: “From my direct observations of prodigious savants, though, it seems to me they inherit actual knowledge itself, not just the templates or scaffolding or ‘rules’ on which they can so quickly build. Thus, for me, genetic memory is inherited knowledge.” 

Returning to cases of “reincarnation” where children or adults recall specific memories and details of lives they have never lived and, in many cases, places they have never been – we have to ask whether the assumption that this is a “past life regression” is implausible even if the details of the case are verified. Could the past lives these people are “remembering” be not their own lives but the lives of their ancestors? DNA databanks that have traced people’s racial ancestry have turned up surprising results—people with generations and generations of documented European ancestry, for example, have found that their DNA markers contain clear evidence of Asian or African ancestors. Thus, it may not be surprising if someone whose family has lived in America for generations has “memories” of another life in Asia, Africa or other continents. 

If genetic memory as inherited memory can be proven, imagine how human beings could begin to tap into the lives of their ancestors. We would not be pleased with everything we could “remember,” but it could offer the human race an opportunity to appreciate how deeply we are all linked through the memories and experiences of our ancestors, and how we have a kind of immortality in the individual memories and collective knowledge we will pass on to our own descendants.

 

 

The Font of Youth

How to Select a Language for Your Language

We all know that when we use all caps, OUR WORDS SHRIEK. And when we use a script-style font, or even just italics, there is a sense of intimacy, personality and even romance. Serif fonts say art and culture, while sans-serif fonts say business and technology. What fonts do you really like? Hate? Whole websites have been devoted to the hatred of Comic Sans, and a feature-length movie has been made about Helvetica

Content is never neutral as it is always being shaped by design, presentation, context, delivery and other factors. And from the early days of monks who drew lavishly illuminated text to bloggers who write their rants in lean Verdana, the art of typography has literally given us a wealth of languages for our language. 

No doubt fonts are a kind of meta-language. Our choice of fonts for personal correspondence, business writing or website copy tells people something about us. It influences how our content communicates, and it even makes a statement about time and place, the same way wearing skinny ties and stovepipe pants conjures up images of the 1980s.   

Some promising new fonts in the last few years include ITC American Typewriter Pro, ITC Franklin, Carter Sans and Bradley Type, and there’s a list of the top 100 best-selling fonts of all time, updated daily. Vintage fonts are a lot of fun for creating a kind of textual mise-en-scène as it tells a story the instant you see it. Have a look at these free vintage fonts ― Carnivalee Freakshow, Circus Ornate, Showboat and Parisian, to name a few.

The following table lists 12 notable fonts, along with the year they were introduced. Some originated as fonts for print and conventional advertising channels, while others in the ‘90s and later were intended for screen use on computers. BTW, Facebook uses a modified version of the Klavika font.

Think about how your choice of font style for your website or other digital media project may date you and your project. When these fonts were introduced they became popular, and even though most remain in the canon of default fonts found on most machines, they still hearken back to their original era.

chart of historical fonts and their design origins

Get Archived: 7 Ways to Preserve Your Internet Content for Posterity

An ocean is never the same body of water because it’s always moving, changing, evaporating and being replenished by new rainwater and runoff. Likewise, Internet content is an ocean of information with content that’s evaporating almost as quickly as new content flows into it.

We’ve heard of the deep Web and the invisible Web, private or subscriber-based databases that are not accessible to indexing by public search engines (intentionally or unintentionally), but what about millions of links that are broken when content types or entire Web sites are removed from production? Or domain names that expire?

While we might not miss “Kyle’s Frat Party” site, what about information of value to journalists, researchers and academics? For online journal publishers and academic researchers who cite Internet content in the form of URLs, this is an especially troublesome issue. In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

…a growing number of scientists and scholars who are nervous about their increasing reliance on a medium that is proving far more ephemeral than archival. In one recent study, one-fifth of the Internet addresses used in a Web-based high school science curriculum disappeared over 12 months. Another study, published in January, found that 40 percent to 50 percent of the URLs referenced in articles in two computing journals were inaccessible within four years.

ArchiveIt 2.0

One solution offered by The Internet Archive, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Web and other digital archives, is the Archive-It 2.0 service, which allows the permanent capture of Web-based information for reference and archival purposes. Existing partners in this effort include the featured collections of the University of Toronto, Indiana University and North Carolina State Archives.

Archive-It 2.0 enables digital archivists, library and museum professionals to create more tailored, relevant and search-friendly collections of up to 10 million URLs based on regular Web crawls across selected websites. Through test crawls, subscribers may see what kind of web material would populate a certain collection before actually archiving them permanently. An optional paid feature within Archive-It 2.0, Archive-It Pro, allows subscribers to not only set caps on how many web documents are collected from a website over time, but also block the collection of materials from specific websites altogether. The digital collections, as a result, are focused and more easily managed, because irrelevant materials do not find their way into an institution’s archives.

Another issue is the increasing number of sites publishing information dynamically. Unlike static pages that can be archived as a hard document, dynamic pages feature content on demand that changes based on what information is requested from a database. Most blog sites offer Permalinks so search engines can index a permanent (or semi-permanent) record of journal entries, but as the Goddard Library Web Project discovered in a D-Lib Magazine article published in Nov 2004, the Web is becoming increasingly inaccessible for archival purposes:

We encountered several problems when performing the crawl on the increasingly complex scientific web sites. The most common problem resulted from the increasingly dynamic nature of those web sites. This includes content that is controlled by Javascript and Flash technologies, and dynamic content driven from database queries or content management systems. The crawling tool is unable to crawl a web page containing a search form that queries a database.

ISO Standards for publications

While librarians and Internet archivists try to address the issue of vanishing or inaccessible Internet content, Web site owners and content developers can play a part in helping libraries and archives document and preserve the Web. On Canada’s national Library and Archives site, there’s an excellent paper on Electronic Publishing published in 2001. While this was intended for Canadian publishers, the principles can be broadly applied to any electronic publishers on the Web. This matrix explains the scope of what the document means by electronic publishers.

Serial publications

If you publish an online journal, ezine or other serial publication online, applying for an ISSN (International Standard Serial Number) is a way to assign “a unique code for identifying serial publications, such as periodicals, newspapers, annuals, journals and monographic series” (Canada’s ISSN) and “magazines, newspapers, annuals (such as reports, yearbooks, and directories), journals, memoirs, proceedings, transactions of societies, and monographic series” (the United States ISSN). For serials distributed on the Internet and World Wide Web, the ISSN should appear on the first screen of the item.

While publishers are not legally obliged to use an ISSN, the U.S. site lists the benefits of applying for an ISSN:

The ISSN should be as basic a part of a serial as the title. The advantages of using it are abundant and the more the number is used the more benefits will accrue.

  • ISSN provides a useful and economical method of communication between publishers and suppliers, making trade distribution systems faster and more efficient.
  • The ISSN results in accurate citing of serials by scholars, researchers, abstracters, and librarians.
  • As a standard numeric identification code, the ISSN is eminently suitable for computer use in fulfilling the need for file update and linkage, retrieval, and transmittal of data.
  • ISSN is used in libraries for identifying titles, ordering and checking in, and claiming serials.
  • ISSN simplifies interlibrary loan systems and union catalog reporting and listing.
  • The U.S. Postal Service uses the ISSN to regulate certain publications mailed at second-class and controlled circulation rates.
  • The ISSN is an integral component of the journal article citation used to monitor payments to the Copyright Clearance Center Inc.
  • All ISSN registrations are maintained in an international data base and are made available in the ISDS Register, a microfiche publication which is scheduled to cease in the near future, or in “ISSN Compact,” a CD-ROM. These products are described in a document maintained by the ISSN International Centre: ISSN products

Individual publications

For individual publications, publishers should apply for an ISBN number. International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) are 10-digit standard numbers for the unique identification of each edition of a book or other monographic publication (e.g. pamphlets, educational kits, etc.), as per this information on the Canadian ISBN site:

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a system of numerical identification for books, pamphlets, educational kits, microforms, CD-ROM and other digital and electronic publications. Assigning a unique number to each published title, provides that title with its own, unduplicated, internationally recognized identifier.

As content publishers, our sites become part of the ocean of content online. We have a moral obligation to our current and future users to ensure the content we create becomes part of the Internet’s official historical record, good and bad, of humankind.

7 Ways to Keep Your Content from Vanishing

Most Web publishers, including me, are guilty of breaking links or removing content and having readers email you to ask “What happened to that (article/news item/link/download) on your site?”, but here are some steps you can take to help keep your content online and accessible (assuming you want it to be so!)

  1. Check your links! This may be obvious, but with all the content management, link verification software and other tools available to Web publishers, it’s still a stinky issue. You or your Web development staff should establish link-naming conventions (e.g. Wikipedia’s) to govern the rules of how links are named, which can be followed consistently whether they are being named manually or dynamically.
  2. Archive your links. If you really need to remove a link that is still valid, but isn’t relevant/essential to your site anymore, consider creating a Link Archive page where you can move the links so they can still be indexed by search engines and found by your users. Otherwise, create a redirect for old links so they point to a message indicating they are no longer available, or to new pages/content.
  3. Archive your old site(s). Redesigning your site? Replacing it with a new version that has new content. Consider leaving the old site on your server in a Historical Site Archive area. If you don’t want search engines to index it and return pages of outdated results to your users, try using a robots.txt file that will exclude the historical pages from spidering.
  4. Let the Internet Archive do the work. Read How can I get my site included in the Archive on the Internet Archive’s site. It’s a blast from the past to see older versions of sites going back to the mid-90s on the Internet Archive, and users can link to these pages, too.
  5. Let search engines archive your pages. Find out how to ensure that your site is search engine optimized and that pages are not being published in a way that will cause search engine spiders to exclude them from indexing. Search Engine Watch is an excellent resource for SEO, SearchTools.com has some useful information on indexing robots and spiders, and the all-important Google provides guidelines for Webmasters on how to make your site Google-friendly.
  6. Open up your content. Mirroring your content on other sites is another strategy for keeping your content alive and accessible. By licencing your content through a Creative Commons licence and/or offering it for republication or repurposing on the Internet, you can help ensure that your content stays alive and accessible. For more information, visit the Open Content Alliance or the innovative Public Knowledge Project.
  7. Use Universal Design principles. Last but not least, using Universal Design principles to ensure accessibility to the broadest range of users. It’s not only good from a usability perspective, but also from an archiving perspective.