Issue: There are several important debates happening in higher education at this point in history, but none is concerned with how we best go about producing, financing and distributing better quality instructional content. 

Social and/or Content

Content is at the root of much of what defines a university. These institutions produce, accumulate and distribute information. Faculty members are hired and rewarded on the basis of their subject matter knowledge.

The institutions go to great lengths to promote their capacity to generate new information, which is then passed on to students who come to these institutions to sit in lecture halls – clearly designed to facilitate the broadcast of this information.

Today, content is regularly contrasted with concepts such as “collaborative”, “interactive”, and most regularly  “social” – as in “all learning is social”. In deliberate contrast, content is labeled as one-way communication; a passive, isolated learning experience.

Obviously, learning is social. But the simplistic distinction made between content and social aspects of learning is both misleading and counter-productive.

First, people do learn in isolation. A book, maybe the most common of all types of content, is static and one-way. It is also a powerful way to learn for many people.

But then the act of reading is not actually an isolated, asocial experience, is it? Reading is powerfully influenced by social factors. The reader’s choice of books, the motivation to read the book in first instance, how they interpret the book, and what they ultimately do with the book’s information are all shaped by social conditions. Reading – and other forms of content – are not isolated at all.

Second, the definition of content regularly used to dismiss it is far too narrow. Content should include any material from which people can learn. It includes not only what gets broadcast or written by academics or textbook publishers, but also the content that is generated by students – in response to content and in response to other learners. It’s interesting that professionals in other sectors, such as marketing, include user interactions as part of the total content mix, but higher ed tends to draw a sharper line between the content created by the expert (academic) and the end-user (student). Not surprising, I suppose – given the relatively top-down structure of the institution.

Education is not alone with this current emphasis on “all things social”. In business, professionals are told by management gurus to increase productivity by organising people into teams, for example. While there’s no doubt value in this approach, it’s driven by intellectual fashion as much as it is by actual evidence of its’ value. (For a humorous take on this trend, watch author Susan Cain’s TED talk, during which she calls for a break from the relentless emphasis on teamwork and a recognition of the value of isolated, contemplative work.) “Stop the madness for constant teamwork. Just stop it!”

I suspect that there is a political component to the rejection in higher education of the value of content. When the importance of quality content is rejected it is not merely in terms of how it is or isn’t important to learning, but also  – and with the greatest intensity, I’ll argue  – in terms of the academic’s role and responsibilities. Academics contend that they are not merely content-holders, “shovelling content”. Rather, their focus is designing and facilitating a learning process – this is what makes them and universities so valuable. (To witness this discourse in action, read most any article on higher ed teaching and the comments from readers that follow.) From a tactical perspective, the academic community’s distancing itself from content is understandable. To be defined in 2012 as someone that distributes knowledge is akin to holding up a sign that reads, “Soon To Be Obsolete”. The vast majority of the information distributed within our institutions at the undergraduate level is readily available from other sources. As so succinctly captured in Good Will Hunting, “You spent $150,000 on an education you coulda got from a buck-fifty in late fees at the local library”. (Now, via free online learning). But it also bears mentioning that these same faculty that are now stressing the social aspects of higher education are not formally trained for crafting these social learning experiences, nor is this the function on which their credibility in the profession is typically based (i.e. research productivity).

The third (and possibly most irritating misinterpretation of content) is simply a result of limited imagination. Great digital content need not be one-way, passivity-inducing or isolated in the least. There is no reason to believe that technology and digital media won’t soon provide a rich, truly interactive, experiential and dynamic style of learning. I continue to be stunned by people that describe digital learning in terms of the pushing of static content over the web, as if this is the limits of what is possible. That the greater potential of digital learning isn’t obvious as of 2012 is, itself, a by-product of the fact that higher education has managed to suppress significant improvements in digital learning by refusing to focus on student outcomes; by only incorporating those aspects of technology and digital media that fit within its traditional institutional model – designed for classroom education and scarcity of information. A focus on student outcomes will drive the expansion of new ways of learning that will require that the institution fundamentally change how it operates. Brilliant educational media on par with flight or surgery simulations, for example, can’t currently be built within our academic institutions due to a lack of talent, funds and incentives.

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