Chapter 6: Building an effective learning environment
6.4.1 The importance of content
For most teachers and instructors, content is often the key focus when designing courses. Content includes facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures. A great deal of time is spent on discussing what content should be included in the curriculum, what needs to be covered in a course or a program, what content sources such as text-books students should access, and so on. Teachers and instructors often feel pressured to cover the whole curriculum in the time available. In particular, lecturing or face-to-face classes remain a prime means for organising and delivering content.
The case for balancing content with skills development is made several times through this book, but issues around content remain critically important in teaching. In particular, instructors need to ask themselves these two questions:
- ‘What specific content will add value to the overall goals of this course or program?’
- ‘What content is essential for meeting the learning outcomes for this course, and what desirable but not necessarily obligatory?’
6.4.2 Goals for content
Especially in post-secondary education, instructors tend to take content for granted – this is what we teach. However, it is important, when designing teaching for a digital age, to be clear in our goals for teaching content. Why do we require students to know facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures? Is learning specific content a goal in itself, or is it a means to an end? For instance, is there an intrinsic value in knowing the periodic table, or the dates of battles, or are they means to an end, such as designing experiments, or understanding why French is an official language in Canada?
The question is important, because in a digital age, some would argue that learning or memorising content becomes less important or even irrelevant when it is easy just to look up facts or definitions or equations. Cognitivists will argue that content needs to be framed or put in context for it to have meaning. As content is now so easy to access, do we need only to draw on content as and when needed, such as to solve problems, or make decisions? In many cases, of course, skills depend essentially on prior knowledge, so it is not an either/or question.
Probably more important than the teacher or instructor being clear on why content is being taught is for the students to understand this. One way of stating this is to ask: what value is added to the overall goals of this course or program by teaching this specific content? Do students need to memorise this content, or know where to find it, and when it is important to use it? This depends of course on having very clear goals for the course or program as a whole.
6.4.3 Quantity and depth
In many contexts, instructors have little choice over content. External bodies, such as accreditation agencies, state or provincial governments, or professional licensing boards, may well dictate what content a particular course or program needs to cover. However, the rapid growth of scientific and technological knowledge increasingly challenges the idea of a fixed body of content that students must learn. Engineering and medical programs struggle to cover even in six or eight years of formal education all the knowledge that professionals need to know to practice effectively. Professionals will need to go on learning well past graduation if they are to keep up with new developments in the field.
In particular, covering content quickly or overloading students with content are not effective teaching strategies, because even working harder all waking hours will not enable students in these subject domains to master all the information they need in their professions. Specialization has been a traditional way of handling the growth of knowledge, but that does not help in dealing with complex problems or issues in the real world, which often require inter-disciplinary and broader based approaches. Thus instructors need to develop strategies that enable students to cope with the massive and growing amounts of knowledge in their field.
One way to handle the problem of knowledge explosion is to focus on the development of skills, such as knowledge management, problem-solving and decision-making. However, these skills are not content-free. In order to solve problems or make decisions, you need access to facts, principles, ideas, concepts and data. To manage knowledge, you need to know what content is important and why, where to find it, and how to evaluate it. In particular there may be core or basic knowledge or content that needs to be mastered for many if not most of their professional activities. One teaching skill then will be the ability to differentiate between essential and desirable areas of content, and to ensure that whatever is done to develop skills, in the process core content is covered.
Another critical decision for teachers in a digital age is where students should source or find content. In medieval times, books were scarce, and the library was an essential source of content not only for students but also for professors. Professors had to select, mediate and filter content because the sources of content were extremely scarce. We are not in that situation today. Content is literally everywhere: on the Internet, in social media, on mass media, in libraries and books, as well as in the lecture theatre.
Often, a great deal of time is spent in departmental or program meetings on discussing what textbooks or articles students should be required to read. Part of the reason for selecting or limiting content is to limit the cost to students, as well as the need to focus on a limited range of material within a course or program. But today, content is increasingly open, free and available on demand over the Internet. Most students will need to continue learning after graduation. They will increasingly resort to digital media for their sources of knowledge. Therefore when deciding on content we should be considering:
(a) to what extent does the instructor need to choose the content for a program (other than a broad set of curriculum topics) and to what extent should students be free to choose both content and the source of that content?
(b) to what extent does the instructor need to deliver content themselves, such as through a lecture or Powerpoint slides, when content is so freely available elsewhere? What is the added value you are providing by delivering the content yourself? Could your time be better used in other ways?
(c) to what extent do we need to provide criteria or guidelines to students for choosing and using openly accessible content, and what is the best way to do that?
When answering such questions, we should also be asking whether our decisions will help students manage content better themselves after graduating.
One of the most critical supports that teachers and instructors provide is to structure the sequence and inter-relationship of different content elements. I include within structure:
- the selection and sequencing of content,
- developing a particular focus or approach to specific content areas,
- helping students with the analysis, interpretation or application of content
- integrating and relating different content areas.
Traditionally, content has been structured by breaking a course into a number of topic-related classes delivered in a particular sequence, and within the classes, by instructors ‘framing’ and interpreting content. (You can see how this mirrors an industrial manufacturing process). However, new technologies provide alternative means to structure content. Learning management systems such as Blackboard or Moodle still enable instructors to select and sequence content material, but students can access this – and other – content anywhere, at any time – and in any order. The availability of a wide range of content over the Internet, and the ability to collect and sort content through blogs, wikis, and e-portfolios, enable students increasingly to impose their own structures on content.
Students need some form of structure within content areas, partly because some things need to be learned in ‘the right order’, partly because without structure content becomes a jumble of unrelated topics, and partly because students can’t know or work out what is important and what is not within a total content domain, at least until they have started studying it. Novice students in particular need to know what they must study each week. There is a good deal of research evidence to suggest that novice students benefit a great deal from tightly structured, sequential approaches to content, but as they become more knowledgeable or experienced in the domain, they seek to develop their own approaches to the selection, ordering and interpretation of content.
Therefore in deciding on the structure of the content in a course or program instructors need to ask:
(a) how much structure should I provide in managing content, and how much should I leave to the students?
(b) how do new technologies affect the way I should structure the content? Will they enable me to provide more flexible structures that will suit a diverse range of student needs?
Similarly, when answering these questions we should ask how important it is for students themselves to be able to structure content, and whether our answers to the two questions above will further help them to do this.
6.4.6 Learner activities
Lastly, what activities do we need to ask students to do to help them learn content? To answer this question will mean returning to the goals for learning content and the overall goals of the course:
- if memorization is important, then automated tests such as computer-marked assignments with correct answers being provided can be used;
- if the aim is to enable students to draw on content such as facts, principles, data or evidence to construct an argument, to solve equations, or to design an experiment, then opportunities for practising such skills will be needed;
- if the aim is to help students to manage knowledge, then we may need to set tasks that require them to select, evaluate, analyse and apply content.
We shall see that technology enables us to widen considerably the range of activities that students can use to master content, but these need to be related to the learning goals set for the course of program. Without a planned set of activities, though, content may just enter the brain one day and leave it the next.
6.4.7 In conclusion
Even or especially in a digital age, content, in terms of things to know, remains critically important, but in a digital age the role of content is subtly changing, in some ways becoming a means to other ends, such as skills development, rather than an end in itself. Because of the rapid growth in knowledge in nearly all subject areas, being clear about the role and purpose of content in a course, and communicating that effectively to students, becomes particularly important.
- Look at the overall content in one of the courses or classes you are teaching.
- How much choice do you have over the content in this course? (In at least two ways: the choice of topics; the way content is approached. For instance often in high schools in many economically advanced countries, the curriculum is decided at a state or provincial level, but within that, teachers have a good deal of freedom about how to teach that curriculum.)
- What purpose does this content serve? Does it have value in its own right or is it there to serve other purposes (such as skills development)?
- What would be the best source of this content for students: textbook, lecture, online search, other, all of these? Why?
- What activities are provided to enable students to learn or apply the content in this course? Given the goals of this course, are the activities appropriate?
- How does the content in this course link to content in related courses (both prior and subsequent to this course)? Is it essential to what follows, does it duplicate what students have covered elsewhere? How do you know this? (e.g. is there a curriculum development process?)
- Given the goals or learning outcomes for this course, what content could be removed without compromising the achievement of these goals?
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