This week in Rhizo15 we are talking about content. RhizoDave (I think I've decided that's Dave Cormier's new nickname - or his superhero name) has asked us to stretch and pull the word "content" and see what we come up with. The phrase "content is king" has already come up somewhere in Rhizo15 - it may have been on twitter or Facebook, but I guess that's just one of those phrases that will come up sooner or later when discussing the concept of content. [warning this post may be one big, meandering, brain-dump that goes nowhere. Proceed at own risk]
It's hard to say what content is. Content is like the matrix, it's all around us (or is it like the force?). You cannot escape content because content is everywhere. Rhizo15 is content. Our twitter interactions are content. What we do and share on facebook is content. The drawings, and poems, and other non-textual productions of Rhizo are content. It's inescapable. Now, the way people tend to use content has to more to do with founts of knowledge, or cannons that we should focus on when we are working in certain arenas. So, if you are in a European history course, chances are you that you starting with some history of Greece, Rome, perhaps the World Wars, and so on. Who determines what this type of content is, or should be, is definitely something that can come from a privileged position. What knowledge you choose to prioritize is both culturally and socially based (societal pressures, traditions, and hegemonies) as well as instructor based (instructor bias, power, or empowerment).
I can't really speak to K-12, or even the Bachelor-level education because that's not my domain - I am mostly working at graduate level education. Even in graduate (MA, MEd) education though there certainly seem to be certain things that learners ought to know before progressing further. One good example of this are the things that people in xMOOCs have magically discovered over the past couple of years that those of us in online and distance education have known for more than a decade. It's new to them, but old hat to us. If our colleagues in other departments had been working with us all along on pedagogy, teaching, and learning experiments they would not be so surprised about these things they've just learned about online education. In all honesty though, it's not their fault - it's the system that we have in academia that's silo-based. We don't know what they do, they don't know what we do. What's new to us is old-hat to them, and vice-versa. If anything, more cross-discipline collaboration is key in this example.
On another strand of thought: I am getting the vibe that content is a dirty word. Maybe I am misinterpreting what I am hearing†, but I don't think that content is a dirty word. I think that content is not oppositional to free-range learning that allows learners to pick their own paths. Content is necessary, as it is all around us and we need it to make sense of the world around us, to describe the word around us, and to critique the world around us. I see content as raw materials in a recipe. You need your veggies, your spices, your meats, and your fats. This is the content of your recipe. You also need some guidelines on how to mix things together based on some previous work done by others - processes that worked out with predictable results and seem to work well. This is knowledge is both process and content. Do you have to stick to the recipe? Nope. Do you have to stick to the pre-selected raw ingredients? Nope. Do you need to know what burns, what doesn't, how things react with each other, and what the temperatures and timings for the meats are before you start? Maybe!
Now, if I were learning to cook (on my todo list for this summer btw) if I am learning on my own, on my own time-table, and some burnt food is OK - then I don't necessarily need recipes. I also have the safety net of the pizza place next to me if I fail miserably. If I am taking a course, with a certain time limitation, and with a SME to help me out, and with some sort of final assignment and grade, then yes - by all means - I would love to have all the content I can possibly have to make appropriate decisions for that final assignment. It's both about learning and passing the test. If no credit is attached to what I am doing (other than learning to be a passable cook), then I don't mind failing a lot of times (I can always order pizza as a fail-safe), but a course with a grade is different. That is what changes the field for me.
I do think that for courses, with grades and credit, we can mix both free-range learning, and more structured "content-driven" approaches. I think that certain structured strands would be helpful to meet certain required (i.e. expected) competencies, however learners can explore paths within those strands to suit their interests and needs. The main problem I see, with content-drive approaches, is that the textbook also sets the design and pace of the course. If you are requiring learners to buy a $100+ textbook for you course (or more than 1 text!) then you feel a bit of pressure to use as much of that text as you can, otherwise your learners will complain (and rightly so sometimes!). This is why I love OER and Open Access, and I really wish for OER to become more available. This way you can take from a variety of OER sources, it's free for learners, and you can mix and match content in any way that you need pedagogically valuable for your learners. Widely available Open Access resources would also enable learners, at least from a cost perspective, to explore their own paths - making each iteration of the course interesting not only for the learners who are going in for the first time, but the instructor who is teaching it for the umpteenth time :-)
† from bits and pieces of the conversation as I have not spent a lot of
time reading this week's contributions from fellow rhizoers on this
topic - they are in my pocket account though for next week