What Counts as Content?
Dave Cormier asks, “…what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there?” Easy-peasy, the content of a course is simply what it contains. That’s what content means isn’t it? Dream up some learning objectives, concoct a curriculum with the bricks and mortar of texts, handouts, slides, videos, lectures, tutorials, build the course and Bob’s your uncle!. That’s what’s goes into the course so that’s its content.
But what’s coming out? One learner’s saying, “Wow! – I got a lot out of that course – great stuff!” while another didn’t get anything much at all. Yet another has language difficulties but at least he improved his English comprehension. Someone else, was on Facebook most of the time during lectures but she was greatly inspired by one of the set texts. All were very concerned with one part of the so-called content, the examinable part. They persistently questioned the lecturer about it but she was strangely reluctant to pinpoint parts of the ‘content’, that slide or this video, that Must Be Known.
Of course classifying the bricks and mortar of a course as content is wrong-headed! Bricks and mortar are there to support something else, but what? The content of a course is pretty much a subjective thing and that’s at least part of the problem. Maria from West Side story who knows her subjectives says, “…it’s true for you, not for me”. What’s in a course for you is one thing but what’s in it for others, including the designers of the course, can be quite different. What the designers believe they’re putting into a course can bear little resemblance to what you take out of it.
Is this so surprising? Read a book or look at an image on a screen or a painting and what’s in it for you is certainly not the paper, the pixels or the paint and maybe not even what the creator of the work had in mind either. A course is like a work of art, as open to as many different interpretations as there are spectators. The designers of a traditional face-to-face course fondly imagine that their own interpretation(s), encoded as learning objectives, will prevail. They hope to accomplish this by carefully selecting participants – culture, language, age, exam requirements, prior experience and so on – but even with sharply focused sets of learners, can their learning objectives ever be more than square pegs in round holes? Give the same course out of context with a distinctly different set of participants, maybe of a different culture and who knows what they’ll get out of the would-be course content – the wrong end of a stick? (‘Learning objects‘ designed to fit a wide range of larger instructional structures suffer from similar contextual shortcomings.)
In MOOCs, where little or no participant selection is the norm, the mismatch between learning objectives imposed by course designers and the multifarious objectives of self-directed learners is much more acute and this is barely recognised by MOOC providers that follow traditional instructional models. Their published objectives can be wildly out of tune with what many participants actually get out of these xMOOCs. The vast majority of participants are often labelled ‘dropouts’ because they don’t jump through the given hoops although at least anecdotal evidence suggests that many still benefit educationally one way or another.
So what lives under the word ‘content’? I’m with the Beatles here. To misquote:
Do you believe in learning from MOOCs?
Yes I’m certain that it happens all the time
What do you see when the content is free?
I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm I get high with a little help from my friends
Oh I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends
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