Content Delivery Isn’t Instruction but it’s Still Important to Do Well

A Western Bluebird adult feeding chicks in a n...
Spoon-feeding content is not a bad thing– it’s one small part of a balanced learning breakfast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I religiously read Audrey Watters’ Hack Education blog, often finding that I agree with her in principle and then disagree about the details of how to put a plan into action.

Content Delivery is one of those disagreements– she rightly cautions us not to replace boring in-person lectures with videos of boring lectures just so we can “scale” them online. She rightly blasts educators who think that this kind of content delivery equals online education. She paints the one-way monologue of the lecturer as a direct opposition to the value multiple voices and perspectives (especially marginalized ones) can bring to the learning process through vigorous discourse.

But this is not an all-or-nothing debate. At some point in the learning process, students still need to read/watch/listen to high-quality source materials if they’re to understand the good thinking that has come before them. There’s no whiz-bang tech innovation or progressive pedagogy that’s replaced good ol’ fashioned reading — it’s still a great way to initially consume information so you can stimulate critical thinking around it. Video and audio, too, are great tools for delivering content in ways that facilitate this initial consumption stage of learning, and can potentially add value to the process. While consuming that information shouldn’t be the end of instruction, it still has an important place in the student’s process of making meaning from content.

Tech Adds Value to Content Delivery

Technology can add value to this content delivery stage by making it more efficient, convenient, accessible, appealing, and/or comprehensible for learners at the very moment when they’re exposed to new ideas for the first time. The problem with too much “content delivery” in online ed nowadays is that it’s not done with enough care or professionalism– rambling 90 minute lectures filmed with bad video and audio are a symptom of a larger problem that the people responsible for producing them (often just the teacher, alone) don’t have enough time, expertise, or support to create a high-quality learning object. The answer, in my opinion, is a diverse team of professionals working together to create professional-quality assets that rival what we see in popular entertainment– that or strangers, empowered by copyleft licenses, building upon each other’s learning materials to make them ever more clear, enjoyable, and easy to comprehend.

TED-Ed: Talented Strangers Improve Learning Materials Together

TED-Ed talks are a great example: these are lectures that start off as a simple spoken performance by a subject-matter expert. An animator then develops compelling motion graphics to clearly illustrate the central concepts of the lecture. When done well, these animations not only boost the appeal of the content but add to the overall comprehension of it.

Enriching the medium that content is delivered in gives students multiple ways to access the content according to their preferred learning styles, and prepared them for more rigorous critical thinking tasks to follow. The accompanying lesson offers students some comprehension and basic critical thinking questions based on the video presentation, but of course teachers can extend the post-consumption learning based on this content by weaving it into group projects, personal learning reflections, or classroom discussions. My point is that this is a great way to access unfamiliar content for the first time, as a jumping off point to deeper learning.

Course Curators Lead the Way

Teachers can also support students in accessing content by sequencing it well, suggesting a coherent path through the unfamiliar learning content (while also freeing students to explore in ways that make sense to them). Blogs, YouTube playlists, Evernote notebooks — many online tools give you the ability to suggest a sequence of links for students to move through in order, while also offering a sitewide search feature that will bring up exactly what students are looking for– whenever they want it. Sadly, most LMSes still lack this ability to allow students to search ANYWHERE in a course for the information they want, so you may want to use 3rd party tools and plugins to create a searchable knowledge base.

Course Reading? Have it Your Way

You have many tools at your disposal to enrich content delivery– try offering key course readings with accompanying audio or video narration (or even text-to-speech synthesis) so students can choose to read, listen, or both. This is great for supporting struggling readers, busy students, and auditory or kinesthetic learners who prefer being active while learning. Similarly, giving students required readings in a social annotation app like Diigo lets them share their highlights, comments and questions right inline with the text, embedding social interaction right into the task of learning.

Lynda.com: Content Delivery that Delivers

One needs only to look at a Lynda.com lesson to see how “one way” lecture monologues can be rich, appealing, accessible in a variety of learning modalities, and thoughtfully sequenced. Professionally produced videos supported with relevant screencasts, “work-along” exercise files, and auto synchronized text transcription are a great way of accessing unfamiliar content for the first time. Students enter a thoughtfully sequenced “course” but can access any of the discrete modules they want in any order that they like.

These lessons are attractively designed and can be accessed on any screen from a smartphone to a flat screen TV, adding flexibility and convenience for learners.

This is what content delivery looks like when it’s done right.

Beyond Content Delivery

The lessons above are excellent examples of how professional-quality presenting, multimedia production, and web design can actually make learning new content easier, faster, more enjoyable, and more convenient. So what more do you want?!?!

Opportunities to Make Personal Meaning

Watters is right on when she stresses that content delivery (no matter how good) is not sufficient for student learning. Students learn by making personal meaning from content– not just consuming it but actively fitting it into their existing worldview. Once students have successfully demonstrated basic Recall and Understanding of key ideas, move them up Bloom’s Taxonomy towards critical thinking by designing lessons that challenge them to Apply, Evaluate, Synthesize, or Create new works using the new information.

Multiple Voices and Perspectives

No matter how good these lesson materials are, they still reflect the perspectives, assumptions, and contexts of their respective authors. This can be problematic if those perspectives conflict with students’ worldviews or fail to encompass challenging or marginalized voices. It still falls to the teacher or course designer to curate lesson materials and promote class participations that reflect and honor diverse perspectives. The same way English teachers should select a variety of novels from different perspectives on a central theme, you can take that same approach with any learning unit you offer. This works best when you know your learners well, listen to them, and evaluate new learning materials with them in mind specifically — or better yet, ask them to give you suggestions!

Guidance Towards Mastery of Competencies

I feel like a broken record, but the best way to transcend the simplistic view that education is just a process of content delivery is to clearly communicate with students about the expected learning outcomes in your course, and then tenaciously support them in reaching those expectations. If Competency = (Knowledge + Skills + Attitudes) + PERFORMANCE, then your focus needs to be not just on the content you’re giving students, but what they’re able to perform to show you that they’ve got it.

Content Delivery GOOD, Student Mastery BETTER

Summing up, I believe your job as an educator isn’t done until students can demonstrate that they possess the skills and knowledge they’re expected to master in your course. However, that learning journey begins with attractive, engaging, comprehensible learning materials that students can access in a variety of ways.

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