Tame the Content Monster

Should information transmission be put at the centre of what teaching is about?
Knowledge may be essential to learning and teaching, but should it be their end?

In Why Don’t We Teach the Telephone Book? we are reminded that what learners want to know really is how to acquire and how to use content, and they are only indirectly interested in content itself. This is a good reminder for when designing online teaching.

You are a 'content expert' in a field that your students have chosen to study. So it is tempting to think that by covering content our students are well-served. Hence the importance of having a good content list and to aim at covering a good deal of that content. However, in an online teaching world, where content is very accessible we need to pay attention instead to what makes good content, and how to apply it. We also need to learn whether there is anything else that generates and sustains student satisfaction in online learning environments, 'a place' we need to inhabit but that is still not so familiar.

Wright (2015) helps us to know more about what makes students tick in the online world of learning. She discusses three issues of student satisfaction in online learning, and how the Community of Inquire framework -with its roots in Pragmatist philosophy-, identifies three elements that contribute to "a sustainable and effective online learning experience". Of those three elements, it is teaching presence, "the role of the online teacher in creating a sustainable online community and the facilitation of social and cognitive presence initiatives" (Garrison, 2007) what seems key for "student satisfaction, perceived learning, and sense of community” (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007).

Wright (2015) also points at social presence: "identifying with the community, communicating purposefully in a trusting environment, and developing interpersonal relationships” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010) and at cognitive presence: "the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse" (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007) as the other two important elements, but none would work properly if the teacher presence is not working. However, it is worth noting that Liu et al, (2009) declare social presence 'a significant predictor of course retention and final grade in the community college online environment’. Which indicates that, in practice, it is very difficult to neatly separate those three elements and to accurately know a priori their true impact of any of them on a given module. We need to take care of all three.

So when we design and structure content we should do it considering that to make our teaching work, content is just one of three things that matter. Social presence does not take care of itself, and in online teaching this has to be planned into our design. One obstacle in online teaching environments is that it can be harder to build rapport, and it may indeed take more time. Activities that support in-group socialisation and collaboration are therefore to be one of the pillars of our teaching. To build rapport will require a design that allows for more emphasis on discussion and hands-on exercises to encourage discovery, autonomy and students' voices to emerge. To facilitate that, content should not be something we give to our students, but something that we help them to build. In that approach, we should convey mainly absolutely essential threshold concepts, the cornerstones of the content. In that context we are less instructors or experts than coaches or facilitators. We will have to develop the art of asking questions and of redirecting, we will let students talk, but we will be making sure that these exchanges are meaningful.

Garrison et al., (2001) estate that successful teaching presence include the "regulation of the amount of content covered, use of an effective moderation style in discussions, determining group size, (and) understanding and capitalizing on the medium of communication". In an online teaching environment, we become content curators and use our expertise to identify or create learning artifacts and learning experiences. These "collections" we curate are not made just of content. As curators in an online world, we illustrate what is relevant to the topic, what is reliable and accurate and most importantly: why. But also we have to carefully structure our delivery in a way that it is really conductive to the teaching experience we want to support: one that is based on participation.

Reduce content delivery and you will gain time to implement the new forms of constructivist teaching that needs that time. We can still concentrate on developing the skills that are relevant to the discipline, and the analytical thinking to help our students develop into autonomous content curators themselves.

If we really teach with learning outcomes in mind, we could start presenting them to our students with concrete examples. Then spend the remaining time giving them the tools and the opportunities to reach the outcomes in their own ways, and as a community of inquiry. This combines forward-thinking with backward-design. And most importantly, it will make student participation a necessity. Only by fostering quality interactions among our students we will help them to achieve their learning goals. So, let's tame the content monster!


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