Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Content, context, and cost

Over at Iterating Toward Openness, David Wiley offers a brief discussion of the reusability paradox. Here's the paradox--that the more "re-usable" a piece of content is, the less likely it is that that content will lead to learning. The reason is relatively simple: people learn new things by connecting them to things they already know, believe, or have experienced--context. But for a piece of content to be used frequently and in many settings it cannot contain context. If it does, it will exclude potential users for whom that context does not apply.

This is a big issue for fans of open content who hope that by making lots of content freely available it will lead to lots of learning. Wiley is skeptical. Lots of access-yes, but learning is less certain.

The paradox also has significant implications for campuses. American higher ed has tended to respond to this problem by making faculty masters over content, and by imagining that the course is the context (we can call this the content breeds context model). In other words, we tend to ignore what students bring with them to class, and instead encourage students to make sense of content within the context of a particular class. While this leads to a certain sort of learning, it also leads to compartmentalization of knowledge, so that what a student learns in one class is difficult to transfer to another.

If campuses move to an open content model in order to reduce costs, the paradox will be even more challenging, because in such a setting faculty control over content is limited, and so it is more difficult to grow context out of content. One possible response is to encourage each student to bring her/his own context to the subject. In this model (the "my context isn't your context" model) faculty members become coaches, working individually with students. This may lead to good learning, but it doesn't make education cheaper.

So it strikes me that if a campus wants to use open content to lower cost, it has to figure out the context problem--both how to know what contexts students bring with them and to help create a common context.

I'd like to suggest that the best way to do this is through a more structured co-curriculum. In this model (let's call it "shared context") students would be expected to have the same type of experience at the same point in their academic careers. Orientation and service-learning in the first year, for example; study abroad in year two, undergraduate research in year three, etc.

There would be three valuable results to a common context: 1. by rationalizing the co-curriculum campuses could control costs in these areas, 2. faculty and students could assume a similar set of experiences as the basis of a common culture, and 3. the common context would make it possible to get around the reusability paradox. Open source content could be reusable because the context is common.

No comments: