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Not Your Parents' 'Course Content Delivery'

For years, the phrase “delivering course content” has set my teeth on edge. It evokes the idea that a college or university is a store where you buy things that then make you smart. It also evokes the resulting system of monetization of knowledge that higher education uses--seat time and credits as knowledge units for students to buy as they are parceled out in tiny bits over four years. Using the phrase “delivering course content” seems to signify that you sympathize with or at least understand the business model of higher education and so you sound smart. I have heard corporate reps use this phrase proudly as a signal that publishers and IT vendors fully understand this business model, know how to talk the talk, and eagerly work to support it. It is the assembly line model of learning. And, of course, as we all should know by now, it’s a bunch of bunk. Our language and our business model have led us down a century-long benighted path toward an illusory approach to teaching and learning.

There are indications that a majority of employers are increasingly unhappy with the “products” (yes, more assembly-line speak) of this approach. Why would that be a surprise? What’s wrong with the way we do things now?

In a typical college course, students are organized to compete for grades individually; they may study together and do the occasional team project, but when it comes to crunch time--the test--it’s all individual performance.

In this typical course, students start the course with the tacit understanding that the knowledge domain the course represents is important; it must be because it’s in the curriculum. Moreover, through assignments, students also tacitly understand that the problems presented in the assignments represent the best way to think and discover in that knowledge domain. In other words, the most fundamental critical thinking (why are we doing this work and why is it important?) has been done for them.

Tests determine the grade, and students know that the best answers will be those that mirror how the instructor thinks and talks. Therefore, students learn to analyze not the knowledge domain so much as how the instructor presents the knowledge domain.

The course, in most cases, is only about how one knowledge domain understands the world. Students are then left with a compartmentalized map of knowledge. This is not 6 characters in search of an author; this is 40 courses in search of coherence.

The cost of commoditizing knowledge is college graduates who know little of the world, have little experience working on real problems, have little sense of the value of the different approaches to knowledge or their connections, have insufficient collaborative skills, but are skilled at pleasing the person in power as a way to get by. Pre-packaged knowledge--“the delivery of course content”--has never served us well, except as a business model for higher education, but now, in the digital age when this business model can no longer control how people learn, it is fraying at the edges.

The “delivery of course content,” or the commoditization of knowledge, must be re-thought in this century. This approach might have collapsed on its own anyway, but the digital age has changed the playing field in so many ways, the collapse is happening faster. Fortunately, an alternative model beckons. Digital tools don’t have the limitations of paper-based tools, nor do classroom walls block out the world any longer. It is now easier to provide more authentic and experiential learning for undergraduate students.

This is a familiar claim and, although it is true, many faculty members--perhaps most faculty members--are left with wonder about how to change their courses and how to change the way they teach on their own initiative. If the entire system is still dominated by the outworn mantra “delivery of course content,” still constricted by the terror of plagiarism (plagiarism is not the problem; the current commodity model is the problem), still instilling expectations from parents, students, and administrators that they continue to “deliver course content” as always, then how and why would they try to change?

Individual faculty members, except those early adopters and pioneers who seek risk, don’t feel they can buck the system. A system that has developed over a millennium cannot change in a few decades, except in response to a catastrophe, and we all certainly hope that no such catastrophe occurs.

So, we look instead for small steps in the right direction. Looking at the design of assignments can be one of those small steps. How can we build in elements of critical thinking? How can we get away from rote assignments? How can we start thinking of assignments as data that will be put into databases (freeing us from the severe practical restrictions of paper-based assignments)?


- Assignments can include more than one “deliverable.” An assignment can include evidence of the brainstorming or planning phase of the work, the work itself, and an informal reflection on the work.

- Assignments can be part of a larger coherent structure: For example, clusters of assignments aimed at developing a particular critical thinking skill that can be reviewed by the student and commented on at several points in the semester.

- The overall goal of the assignments could be not “covering the content,” but developing critical thinking skills in that particular field.

- A capstone assignment: Students review their own work during the semester and describe how they’ve grown or changed as a learner in that field during the course.

Re-thinking assignment design is popping up everywhere. Using online tools allows students to use not only pre-packaged knowledge, but to use their own work (because it’s now possible) as the content: The real work of the course is for faculty members to help students create the content of the course. Content does not pre-exist the course; it is not fixed; nor is it entirely the work of others.

Education is about change. Students learn to think like a physicist or an historian over the course of a few years. With digital tools, both faculty and students can gather more evidence of the change. With evidence of change, whole new perspectives open. The most memorable part of a course may be seeing how you yourself have changed during that course.

We now have the luxury of being imaginative in design of assignments. Let’s take this one small step.



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