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The Rise of Student Performance Content

Move over textbooks: Spontaneous, course-generated content may be edging you out.

How much content, and what type of content do we need for a course? Will content generated spontaneously in the process of teaching and learning reduce the role of the textbook? Just as we have recently redefined our concepts of a course, a physical classroom, and books, it is probably time to think more deeply about the role of content in a course.

Predictions of the death of textbooks (John W. Moore, “Are Textbooks Dispensable?” Journal of Chemical Education, 2003), questions about the value of textbooks (Leon Fink, “Making Textbooks Worthwhile,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2005), and consortium proposals to develop open source educational software (Fred M. Beshears, “The Economic Case for Creative Commons Textbooks,” CT’s eLearning Dialogue eLetter, Oct. 5, 2005) are increasingly the focus of discussions on selecting and paying for content resources. Still, within this quietly-growing whirlwind of commentary, the textbook as a substantive, vetted collection of scholarly content is still on its pedestal as the primary source of course content.

Yet, to ward off concerns, publishers are responding with digital content initiatives and adding rich media content that is readily and easily loaded into course management systems. These strategic moves mean that the “textbook” will likely remain a significant source of course content for some time—providing significant convenience for the faculty and for learners, as well as significant revenue for publishers.

But other forces—separate from the issues of technologies, costs, and multiplying formats—may cause the textbook to move over and share its pedestal. Simply stated, the role of content in a course is shifting, and that shift is linked to the influence of the teaching philosophies of [Lev] Vygotsky, [Jean] Piaget and other “active learning” movements. Prepared bodies of content, as epitomized in the textbook, have traditionally supported the faculty-to-student communication flow. This is the same philosophy that was rooted in the belief that learning happens when students are “told” concepts while sitting in a lecture hall or reading a textbook. Constructivist and social learning philosophies posit that learners learn content when they construct and build their own knowledge in an interactive context.

This shift means that new course content that supports the re-balancing of the dialogs within a course is needed. A dialog balance means that students are actively dialoging with other students, actively working with realistic and complex problems, and generating and bringing content to the course. Younger students, in particular, want to be “doing,” and so are creating more of their own content in the process of learning. Thus, prepared bodies of content will be complemented by collections of content freely available on the Internet, combined with content that is generated spontaneously in the process of student learning.

How Much Content Do We Need?

Two closely related questions are: Just how much content do we need for a course? And, how do we achieve a closer fit of content to any group of particular students? Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development” suggests that more content choices need to be available to ensure a fit of content to students. Similarly, Piaget’s concept of the “optimal mismatch” of student and content suggests that a textbook used in a linear approach and bounded by the physical constraints of a book might be less than optimal for many students. The goal of any course is for all the learners to achieve the specified performance goals. We need flexibility and choice in the type of content and availability of content to design learning experiences that fit where students are in their learning. Let’s look at the three types of content in most online courses today.

1—Prepackaged authoritative content. Prepackaged authoritative content generally consists of materials collected into a textbook, representing vetted scholarship. Prepackaged content is generally developed with the discipline and content perspective as the primary driver; the specific learner and the learning context is abstract and assumed. Prepackaged content often contributes about 30 to 40 percent of the content of a course and serves to provide content containing the core concepts and principles of the course. This content might also include problems, tests, and quizzes for the core concepts and principles. As for format, the textbook is slowly shifting from a physical book and a CD, to a Web site and digital book. The textbooks of the future may well be digital and portable. Recent product announcements illustrate two possible formats. One format by Findaway ( combines an audiobook with its own portable player; another new format by Sony ( provides a larger text-display screen that is close to the size of a paperback book.

2—Guided learning materials. Guided learning materials are produced specifically for a course by a faculty member. They include the content written by faculty prior to and during a course, such as the syllabus, projects, assignments, discussion reviews, and feedback to questions. The content generated by the faculty includes the lecture content. In online learning, much of this content is developed ahead of time, and used for two to three cycles of a course. As this content is continually being massaged to fit particular sets of students, it is dynamic and customized. It is created ahead of time, but not by much. This guided learning material accounts for about 30 percent of a course, as well.

3—Interactive and spontaneous ‘performance’ content. The third type of content is created and identified by students in the process of learning. Interactive and spontaneous content is “what happens during learning”—or “performance” content. It is the content generated in discussion-board postings and analyses, reflections, summaries, and reviews. It is content created by individuals and teams for projects and other assignments, including test preparation. It is the content generated in the solving of problems; it is the drafts of problems, and even the wrong alleys of learning. This course content might be “found” content, including that of current news events, etc. that students bring to the course experience. The purpose of most of this spontaneous performance content is to stimulate and generate the lasting, more-permanent knowledge growth within the individual students.

Younger students want to be ‘doing,’ and are creating more of their own content in the process of learning.

This learner-generated content has always been a part of learning, but it has been much less visible. The learner-centered trends—combined with reasonably easy access to sophisticated audio, video capture and editing tools—are now bringing this content type into focus. The fact of the matter is, when using their newly developed skills to solve new problems, students are often generating new content. This “performance” content is the growing segment of course content, and will probably increase to represent about 30 to 35 percent of a course, and in graduate education, possibly even more.

Value of Student Performance Content

Should we have systems to support the use and recycling of any of this spontaneous performance content? Though we think of portfolio systems primarily as a tool for supporting student assessment, perhaps some version of portfolios might be useful for capturing and archiving significant student-generated content. Perhaps we need a feedback loop for student-created content to the open-source consortium being proposed.

Yet, content is not king in learning. Content is one of the tools to help students develop useful knowledge and skills. A small portion of student performance content—if it is new knowledge—will be useful to keep. Most of the student performance content will be generated, then used, and will become stored in places that will never again see the light of day. Yet, having said that, it is still important to understand that the role of this student content in learning is critical. The textbook content is the external body of knowledge; the student performance content is the content that shapes and molds the learner’s unique knowledge structures.

by Judith V. Boettcher

[Ed. Note: For related reading on this topic, don’t miss the Faculty Guide for Moving Teaching and Learning to the Web, by Judith V. Boettcher and Rita Marie Conrad (League for Innovation, 2004).]

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