The University of Practice : Rethinking The Role of Content

Graham Doxey, the Founder-CEO of Knod*, oft-repeats this one statement, that Content does not drive Learning Outcome. (Full Disclosure: I am currently employed by Knod) 

This is counter-intuitive. The usual conversation about education revolves around the title of this award or that, and the laundry list of topics that is covered by them. Course validation meetings are all about the details of what goes in the courses, and the related textbooks and library resources. The big story in educational innovation since we started talking about it with some urgency was about the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which were principally about opening the content from the finest universities in the world to general public, using digital technologies. Khan Academy, which is about learning videos, got headlines all over the world. Lion's share of private investments in education went into companies producing content, and the most eye-catching deal in the space in the recent years was the acquisition of, a website offering learning videos on various technical subjects, by Linkedin. 

Indeed, Graham does not mean that content has no role to play in education, only that our faith that better content, everything else remaining the same, would lead to better learning, is misplaced. This sounds common sense, but such an assumption indeed lies beneath most of the course design activities I know of (which are essentially content design activities), all those companies working to create better videos with cleverer features, across the mini-industry that was spawned to fit the MOOC videos to structured curriculum. The investors, though often weary of content businesses because they need continuous investment to keep updated, see these as sure bets, as they are driven by the assumption that people are essentially buying content when they buy into an education. 

This is not true, even if one disagrees on what education is for. On the narrow, For-profit side of things, one may see education for a job or a profession to be the main thing, and on the other, more aspirational middle class sense, it may be about finding one's way in the world (or more, as Amity University in India used to advertise, a place to study and make friends for life!). Buying into education, for the student, is always about the buying into the outcome of education. Indeed, one could say that the outcome of education is knowledge (though one may disagree, and use words such as competence or ability instead), but even knowledge is not driven by content. A better lecture does not automatically make one knowledgeable, competent or able. It requires a lot more, connection, motivation, relevance etc that creates the learning.

What drives learning is the Experience, which is greater than the sum of its parts! While I am still quoting Graham, this is something that has been emphasized by education thinkers over and over again, and has a distinguished lineage that would include Dewey, Friere, Kolb, Donald Schön, to name a few. Patricia Cranton argued for careful design of learning experiences even for adult learners, and Diana Laurillard, in her excellent Teaching As A Design Science (where she explores the possibilities presented by Digital Technologies), sought to reframe the role of the teacher into a designer. However, these voices, arising from inside the academia, were often taken to be arguing for better design of content (as is the case Gilly Salmon and her excellent books about Online Learning), rather than the whole learning experience.

Graham's Equation puts Relevance as the principal driver of this experience, which is a reflection of the priorities of his business - that of bridging the Education-to-Employment gap. From that standpoint, the big issue with content-driven education is the relatively slow-moving nature of educational content as contrasted with rapidly changing requirements of the workplace. One could possibly argue that the focus on relevance, and the context of fast-changing nature of knowledge, is an overtly technocratic emphasis. However, even if one is designing an education for a different goal than technological employment - say, social leadership - relevance would still need to be a part of the equation that creates the experience (how often we hear the refrain that school was not relevant!). One could also argue that relevance is really an attribute of the educational content, rather than a factor of its own contributing to experience. However, this would miss a central point - and this is precisely why the issue of relevance is not limited to technological field - that relevance is the learners' own validation of the educational content, and may arise from his/her life experiences. In that broader sense, it is about opportunities to apply the learning - in case of learning for social leadership, actually meeting people and connecting with them (think of supervised psychoanalytic practice, an example used by Schön, or rounds in the hospital for trainee physicians).

In a sense, the limitations of language is apparent here. The word Relevance obviously have narrow, technocratic, connotation, and it is easy to believe that it is only needed for certain disciplines with technical knowledge - but it is not central to educational experience. On the other hand, in the broad sense - the opportunity to apply - the most common word is Experience, which leads to the apparently nonsensical expression of Experience being a function of Experience! This is not just a word play, but something that has implications of learning design, and something that was regretted by Dewey himself towards the end of his life. (See my post on Dewey here) Despite the growing realisation of centrality of living experience in learning, it still remains an outside discussion, primarily because of our search for a particular kind of truth in learning (a rather pristine Cartesian truth, as C S Pierce would call it) - and, if I am allowed to add, the particular assumptions of power and privilege that we ring-fence learning with.

So, here is my big conclusion - we want to allocate the central role in learning to content because we really do not want to democratise learning. The whole Higher Learning ecosystem that we have built is driven by the fact only certain people, in certain professions, need to think. Yet, such assumptions are challenged by trends such as globalisation and automation, and while our initial formulation of Knowledge Society was based on the motto "knowledge is power", we are increasingly pushed, by the intelligent machines and global trade and associated discontents, to understand that a certain kind of knowledge, tacit, ever-evolving, local and emotional, is what makes us human. There is no content that can prepare the students for this world. Hence, the big conversation in education needs to move on beyond content.

* While I usually attribute statements without clearly identifying the person concerned, this stance is distinctive and called for an unambiguous attribution.


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