Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Content Construction vs Content Delivery

Confession: I hate the term "content delivery"; and I especially hate being characterized as a deliverer of content.  Whenever I hear this phrase, I can't help but cringe and imagine myself in some kind of uniform with a package that I hand over to my students.  Or to imagine myself as an animated, embodied textbook.  The notion of professor as deliverer of content also causes me to fixate on all the ways that this delivery process goes awry, all the packages that get lost in transit between instructor and student.

The primary tool for content delivery is the lecture.  xMOOCs, with their heavy reliance on lecture, are an excellent example of reducing teaching and learning to content delivery and content receipt.  Students in MOOCs don't do a lot of content construction.  Rather, they watch as the instructor constructs and packages the content for their consumption.  The Connectivist MOOC, or cMOOC, shifts the construction of content to the learning community and is very much the model for my Online Rome course. 

For a narrative discipline like ancient history, however, it is challenging to figure out how to create a connectivist learning environment that provides adequate support for the students.  In a for-credit course for students who typically have no previous experience with Rome or ancient history, I can't simply throw the students into a virtual room and hope that they come out of it three months later with a good understanding on Ancient Roman cultural and political history.  Most likely, they would have no idea where to start, would wander down far too many dead ends, and would come out at the end angry and thinking that I hadn't done my job and they didn't get what they paid for.

The challenge comes in creating and supporting a connectivist model of learning while providing enough guidance and structure that the students feel oriented enough to engage in good faith. I devoted a lot of energy to thinking through this problem--and especially, thinking about how to recast the instructor in the online environment as a "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage."  In some ways, I think the online environment might make this recasting of the instructor's role in the learning relationship a bit easier.  It's an unfamiliar environment for most of the students; and, because most of the course will be asynchronous, most of them will experience the class largely as a kind of 1-1 tutorial rather than a typical, synchronous classroom experience. When students walk into a lecture hall with 199 other students, they (for the most part) come with the expectation that the professor will profess and they will dutifully take notes, memorize content, and regurgitate it on exams.  They are not sold on the idea that they will work together with the instructor and other students to construct knowledge.  I will wager that these same students will come to an online class with different expectations and, I think, more willingness to actively construct a narrative of ancient Roman cultural and political history.

The difficulty is creating a learning environment that requires students to construct knowledge but also anticipates the kinds of support they will need as they go about this task.  It is about asking well-written, guiding questions that send the students to content sources (e.g. the textbook, ancient historians, documentaries, maps, even pre-recorded lectures).  It is about using lecture as sparingly as possible, so that the students break the habit of looking to lecture for the "right answers."  It is about creating internal navigation features that encourage the students to draw connections between different parts of the course--but does not tell them what connections they should be drawing.  Most of all, it requires embracing the idea that the students can and should construct their own narrative rather than digest one that is provided to them. When I explain this model to the students who are building the modules, I tell them: imagine that you are handing out an exam at the start of a unit and telling the students to go find all the answers to the questions.  That is what we are doing.  Instead of providing the content, we are providing the questions and asking the students to provide the content, in the hope that this will lead to better learning.

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