Nicholas Jones

Thinking through Content

Blog Post created by Nicholas Jones on May 12, 2017

Recently I've been working with a few different faculty to move their first classes from traditional to strictly online. Its been a great learning experience for them and me both — they get to start digging into topics like accessibility, I get to step into someone else's design process, and we all get to see exactly what Canvas is capable of. Its also helped expand my thinking in terms of how to articulate and examine my own design assumptions. One pattern I've noticed is how the actual delivery of content gets translated from face-to-face to online. Although I'm burying the lede a little here, my main goal in writing this post is to try and wrap my head around how people conceptualize content delivery. It seems like most people rely on one of two metaphors to think through how they deliver content:


  1. The Lecture — In this metaphor, everything in the online course anchors on what the instructor is communicating to a hypothetical student. How to use worksheets or readings are provided through direct, timely communication from the instructor in the form of announcements and emails. When Powerpoints are included, they are designed as supplements to the voice of the instructor, which talks directly to the listener. Although literal lectures fit in this, the "lecture metaphor" applies to content organization that relies on the direct intervention of the individual instructor to maintain coherency.
  2. The Textbook — Another metaphor is to think of the course like a fully contained textbook. The static content itself explains how to move forward through the course. If Powerpoints are used, the instructor's audio supplements the visuals, instead of the other way around. When the instructor is speaking, it is short and focused. The presence of the instructor is just another building block of the overall course instead of the principle organizing force.


Another way of looking at it: if the instructor was kidnapped today, how long would the course continue to function? It has been my experience that for many instructors, especially with their first fully online class, their course would fall to pieces in exactly one week, right when the students would be expecting another long email from the professor telling them what they had to do next week. I guess I can't help but see one of the goals of course design is self-sufficiency; the course I build will continue to function without my direct intervention. To me, this frees up the instructor to do all the things they got excited about when they were studying pedagogy, instead of the things they actually end up doing when they perform pedagogy.


The whole topic also makes me think of how people use different theories of mind. Perhaps I should've called this "theories of content." I wonder what other metaphors can be used to think through course content, or what assumptions I've made?