Curate, Don't Create: Online Courses as Instructional Exhibits

By Steven D’Agustino, PhD, Director of Online Learning , Fordham University

Steven D’Agustino, PhD, Director of Online Learning , Fordham University

Direct instruction generally refers to the explicit teaching or demonstrating of content, processes, or skills. Students experience direct instruction as lectures, usually accompanied by slides. The instructor talks while students listen and take notes. Direct instruction is a common strategy in higher education due to the high student to teacher ratio, which can be a limiting factor when choosing an instructional methodology for large seminars. As a result, instructors in higher-education settings are most familiar with a teacher-centered methodology in which both students and instructors experience teaching as telling. The instructor tells students something; the students record this information, and sometime later students are assessed on their ability to recall this information.

During the instructional design process essential to developing online offerings, faculty, in their dual roles as both content and instructional experts, select the teaching style, which ultimately determines how students will learn. Faculty comfort with direct instruction leads to a tendency to focus on content creation. Content in online offerings often consists of videos featuring the instructor and are designed to transmit information – to tell. There are instructional design advantages to teacher-centered videos. Being under the ownership of the content creator, they are reliable (they do not disappear from the Internet). Instructors are confident in the accuracy of the information, which lends a high level of perceived legitimacy. Instructor created videos are directly relevant. Instructors can tailor videos to meet specific information transfer needs. Finally, videos featuring the instructor lecturing replicate the traditional face-to-face instructional setting, a quality that may provide students with a sense of immediacy, the perception that their online instructor is a real person committed to their learning.

Disadvantages to direct instruction videos of lectures appear in both the technical and instructional domains. If videos of instructor lectures will be the primary form of content, instructors and support personnel must create tens of hours of video. Often, instructors lack the technical skills to create videos on their own. As a result, creating videos for instructional purposes can be demanding, requiring time commitments from faculty (to write and perform scripts) and university media support personnel (to film, record audio, edit and produce a professional, accessible product). Such a commitment of resources logically results in a commitment to use this content in courses repeatedly. It makes little economic sense to go through all of the trouble to record video lectures and use them only once. Therefore, the more times a video is used, the more value it has generated, in a sense, recovering the costs of its creation. Unfortunately, an escalating commitment to getting as much repeated use of these videos as possible has instructional implications. Over time, these videos become less relevant as external conditions change – current events, disciplinary developments, cultural changes – can make videos appear dated. Editing these videos to update them requires another commitment of resources. Instructors can try to avoid these pitfalls by eliminating references to any contemporaneous current events, even going so far as to avoid welcoming students to a specific semester. But then, these videos can appear static, and disconnected from the world outside of the class, the opposite of what the instructor might want. Even small edits, or faculty disillusion with their initial efforts at video creation, are made impractical by the resource commitment required to make these changes. Generally, updating videos happens on a development cycle, which can force instructors to use inappropriate, ineffective, or even inaccurate materials for semesters and sometimes years.

So, if direct instruction videos are not methodologically sound when used as the sole instructional methodology, and they require a large investment of time and resources, what other options exist for developing online content? It may be helpful in answering this question to think metaphorically. Imagine a museum exhibit, in this case, an art exhibit. Art exhibits are organized around a particular artist, a period, a movement, or perhaps a theme. The curator deploys her expertise to select artifacts and arranges them in a physical space so that they are in critique and conversation with each other. Then she might create an audio tour or placards that act as a docent, to provide background information and context. Patrons of the exhibit then are free to move about, interacting with the art, the contextualizing materials and each other, to make meaning. And learn. The important point here is that the curator does not paint the paintings or create the sculptures. She creates an environment, animated by the patrons, in which learning can take place. Let’s apply this metaphor to instructional design. Instructors would be better served by acting like curators rather than artists, focusing their efforts on curating content, providing context, and creating environments where students can meaningfully interact. Refocusing in this way might be difficult for some instructors, who might be comfortable with assigning readings they have not written but can be uncomfortable sharing a video that does not feature them. This is due to their familiarity with direct instruction. Curating content employs a wider variety of methodologies, and direct communications from faculty are more likely to focus on providing context and on creating and sustaining a community of inquiry rather than on transmitting information. In this approach, artisanal videos are preferred since they are easy to make and much less formal than professionally produced videos.

The ubiquity of cameras makes it much easier for instructors to create videos on their own. Webcams and microphones built into laptops enable instructors to develop online lectures easily, rendering moot many of the disadvantages of the more professionally created videos described above. These kinds of artisanal videos, developed by faculty using the tools at hand, can have more of an emergent, personal quality and be more responsive to specific student questions, encouraging discovery rather than memorization. Unfortunately, it is difficult to scale this artisanal approach. Many faculty do not have the expertise to undertake this task, and it might be unwise to risk the fate of an online program on this strategy. However, refocusing instructor efforts on curation/ contextualization/ collaboration and de-emphasizing highly produced content will save resources, allow instructors to focus on mastering evidence-based methodologies rather than video production. This refocusing will shift university resources from technologists supporting content creation to librarians, designers and instructors engaging in faculty development, curating content and designing collaborative learning environments, activities highly correlated to positive student learning outcomes.

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