Sunday, May 20, 2007

OK Sir - Just Step Away From The Content...

As adult educators, course content is always on our minds (well on my mind at least) - do we have enough content to support learning, is there enough course content to fill the classes, will learners get the content they need to be goes on and on.

My very wise friend Carolyn (Randommind), who is an instructional designer by day, and I have had the greatest conversations about the issue of content. Thanks to these conversations I have seen the light - LET GO OF THE CONTENT!

Let your learners discover and share course content - don't give it all to them. Yes, you can provide those bits and pieces that are the gems or classics, but for the most part let learners discover and create the course content - they will be more engaged in the learning process, and much more collaborative. I know that this is true because I have seen it in action and it was one of those amazing AHA!! moments where all became clear.

Now, it's not as simple as it sounds. In order for you to give up control of the content, you have to have well-defined, measurable learning outcomes that have been well-crafted in advance and are clearly understood by everyone - learners, faculty, and administration. You also have to support learning with authentic, clear, meaningful deliverables complete with rubrics so that learners and others know what needs to be learned. From this starting point they will discover the content. You may also find that as a facilitator you will spend some time providing (and reminding) learners with context for the content they discover and want to use.

It is a great thing to see learners develop the skills and experience to become discriminating discoverers and consumers of content, two "literacy" skills that will essential for all 21st century knowledge workers. It is a very cool process when it works, but it is very much front-end loaded (as most educational innovation seems to be).

Letting go of content takes a certain leap of faith on the behalf of everyone - faculty has to be confident that learners will engage in the discovery of content (I do that through the use of blogs, wikis, and RSS aggregators for the most part and to a much lesser extent textbooks), and learners have to be confident that they will be "guided" by their faculty to where they might start looking for content and for the validation of the content they find (although I have found that you can fade a bit once learners become comfortable with this process).

So go on - liberate your self and your learners - step away from the content...

(Photo - "Heroes Content Map" by Dan Taylor)


Robert said...

Your suggestions here may indeed work, but there are grains of salt missing. There are contexts in which such "stepping away" would lead to disastrous long-term effects on students. I am thinking specifically of the kinds of intro-level mathematics classes I regularly teach, such as calculus and precalculus. These are being taken by students who MUST attain mastery in a rather large number of content areas within the space of a single semester, or else they will be unprepared to go on to the second semester, and then they will be unprepared to go on to the subsequent math and science courses they will need later for their degrees.

A lighter touch regarding content might be a successful approach in areas in which content is not so critical -- perhaps for example upper-division mathematics courses that are not prerequisites for others -- but I think it's important to note that this is a rather infrequent situation and we should not think that this approach is a good idea in general.

Ian H. MacLeod said...

I think that the degree of "stepping away" would definitely vary form case to case. I agree that in any intro level course or foundational learning that you would have to provide more context, scaffolding, and even content. The key for me though is to not provide all of the content, even for the situation you describe. Engage the learners by getting them to contribute content, even if it is in a small way - it will better prepare them for when you do fade or "step back", or when they have to become independent learners in higher-level course or different delivery mechanisms (online, distance, etc.).

Certainly any foundational learning has to be done right or you risk the learner never getting it. Every learning environment is unique and you have to do what works. I've found that this approach has worked in my courses, but it may not be one that can or should be applied universally.

Thanks very much for the feedback.