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E-Learning: Do You Have a Content Problem?

Sebastian writes another interesting piece called Do You Have A Content Problem? that plays directly into a number of my own experiences. He states in the article, " I cannot help it ... but loads of people still appear to be obsessed with problems and questions around "content" or "content delivery." Learning objects here, instructional design patterns there... oh, and then let's not forget about ontologies (when and why did the tech folks nick this term from philosophy?)" A fundamental problem with e-Learning, and education for that matter, has been the kinds of obsessions Sebastian refers to...

We have a tendency to think of content as information that has been captured by a technology. For example, a book contains information captured by the technology of print. In education and training, we think about a curriculum as containing information that has been captured and sequenced for delivery to the masses via a technology we call instructional design. It doesn't matter if we are talking about education systems, training programs or e-Learning, the problems with content that Sebastian describes are strikingly similar. The serious weaknesses in this design assumption are all too apparent and need not be revisited here.

Unless designers (curriculum, instructional, e-Learning, etc., etc.) change the core assumptions of their own design process, they will simply continue to spin out variations on the same old theme.

When assumptions about content are equated with forms of information, we soon become mired in old patterns of thought regardless of how well we might dress them up in the technology of the day. This is precisely one of the core problems with current notions of "e-Learning" - a term that has little relationship to learning but a great deal to do with traditional ideas about training.

Do I have a problem with content?

If by this we mean finding information resources on my own the answer is, "No, I don't." Developing skills in locating and using secondary information resources are hardly so complex that they require years of education, unless of course that education is lacking. However, the real content with respect to information is in the creation of primary information resources or information created and designed by an individual. This is not mystical stuff reserved for experts.

If by having a problem with content we mean using predetermined forms of information as the primary source of design in education and training, then the answer is, "Yes, I do." Spending twelve or more years in a system designed to impose predetermined forms of information via curriculum and instructional design is, to my thinking, a mistake. There is no single package of information that we can all consume via instruction and assessment that will "prepare us for the world in we will live" - or some other such platitude. To believe that surrounding the primacy of content with fancy simulations or embedding "learning objects" with whatever the database flavour of the day is constitutes better design is an exercise in phantasmagoria.

Sebastian goes on to say, "So, I keep asking myself: what is wrong with you? everybody else seems to be really concerned about quality content and its delivery... what kind of distorted mental world are you living in?"

Quality content. That word, "quality." It seems to me that the underlying criticism here focuses on the possibility that well defined notions of "quality" with respect to antiquated ideas about content are detrimental? Quality can, of course, be debilitating as much as it can enlightening. If educators and trainers want to continue the information delivery parade in the absence of life values, then they are free to do so. But let's not equate that with learning.

One of my more recent personal discoveries is Tamarack: An Institute for Community Engagement. Here I have found ideas about learning that embrace life values through ideas such as vibrant communities. Once the summer holidays have finished, I plan on meeting with the organizers to find out more. Of course, there is a great deal of information to be found on this site, but the real "content" of learning here are the dynamics of community. And we "interface" with community by walking the streets and talking with the people in it, not with mouse and keyboard tippy-taps. In this sense, a community is a kind of "classroom" in which potential information resources are, by default, primary in kind. Individuals only familiar with the use of secondary information resources would likely feel somewhat dislocated.

One question we can use to get to help us understand the value of content is, "Whose content is this, and why should I believe it matters to me?" I can recall in my school days reading novels that were truly enjoyable and inspiring, yet in order to be "educated" I had to do a plot analysis, or some other kind of analysis. This is easily the quickest and most efficient way to ruin the work of an insightful author and to eliminate the possibility of helping a reader/student to create meaning and relevance. In the end, it wasn't the author and his/her ideas in relation to my own life that mattered, it was the ability to amputate certain kinds of information in order to fufill the demands of the curriculum. Somehow, in ways I completely fail to understand, this had something to do with the development of literacy.

So, do I have a content problem? Yes... and no. Sebastian closes his thoughts with a quote from Cybernetics, e-learning and the education system in which we read:

"For universities especially this inability to exploit the powerful new discursive capabilities of the internet is of concern. As Diana Laurillard points out [24], higher learning is concerned with worldviews, with the acquisition of the concepts and distinctions of a discipline, its discourse; and this is best learnt through practice, though engaging in the discourse. This requires a form of cognitive apprenticeship [25], where a rich conversational engagement between learners and teacher can take place; it cannot be achieved just through the learning of facts. The internet provides new tools to support this, but the leading VLEs [virtual learning environments] are not exploiting them. Thus there is a mismatch between what people are doing on the internet, and what leading learning environments are providing. The internet empowers people by giving the possibility of control over content and organisation; many VLEs shift the locus of control further away from learners and teachers to institutional management... [Oleg Liber]"
  • For me, the "discursive capabilities of the Internet" is more of a question mark than a conclusion.
  • Ideas about "rich conversational engagement" - or just talking openly with each other - are hardly new.
  • The implied distinction between "learners" and "teachers" is a false distinction, since what it means to be a learner emcompasses students and teachers (and professors) alike by default.
  • A "learner" is something higher in significance than the traditional definitions of what it means to be a student or teacher.
  • And a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is really an Almost Learning Environment (ALE), a slight modification that provides me with an acronym that is more appealing to my Irish/Scottish heritage.
  • The complaint about making teachers and students subservient to insitutional control is valid but tired, whether it refers to traditional classroom delivery or Disneyfied online content.

One of the more difficult problems is that web of power and authority that constitutes the "educational institution" has difficulty in doing what it attempts to promote, and that is rich conversational engagement leading to fundamental change. And never mind higher learning, for what precisely constitutes "higher" remains a mystery.

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