So What Else Are You Doing At The Moment?

I was intending not to write any more posts this year, but this post struck a nerve – What’s Competing for Internet Users’ Attention? (via Stephen’s Lighthouse) – so here’s a quick “note to self” about something to think about during my holiday dog walks…:

What else are out students doing whilst “studying” their course materials?

Here’s what some US respondents declared when surveyed about what else they were doing whilst on the internet:

A potentially more interesting thing to think about though is a variation of this:

In particular, the question: what other media do you consume whilst you are using OU course materials?

And then – thinking on from this – do we really think – really – that contemporary course materials should be like books? Even text books? Even tutorial-in-print, SAQ filled books?

Newspapers are realising that newsprint in a broadsheet format is not necessarily the best way to physically package content any more (and I have a gut feeling that the physical packaging does have some influence on the structure, form and layout of the content you deliver). Tabloid and Berliner formats now dominate the physical aspect of newspaper production, and online plays are increasingly important.

OU study guides tend to come either as large format books or A4 soft cover bindings with large internal margins for note taking. Now this might be optimal for study, but the style is one that was adopted in part because of financial concerns, as well as pedagogical ones, several decades ago.
“what arrived in the post today” – Johnson Cameraface

As far as I know, the OU don’t yet do study guides as print-on-demand editions (at least, not as a rule, except when we get students to print out PDF copies of course materials;-). Print runs are large, batch job affairs that create stock that needs warehousing for several years of course delivery.

So I wonder – if we took the decision today about how to deliver print material, would the ongoing evolution of the trad-format be what we’d suggest? Or do we need an extinction event? The above image shows an example of a recent generation of print materials – which represents an evolution of trad-OU study guides. But if we were starting now, is this where we’d choose to start from? (It might be that it is – I’m just asking…;-)

One other trad-OU approach to course design was typically to try to minimise the need for students to go outside the course materials (one of the personas we consider taking each course is always a submariner, who only has access to their OU course materials) but I’m not sure how well this sits any more.

Now I can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper whilst at home and didn’t go online at least once whilst doing so, either to follow a link or check something related, and I can’t remember the last non-fiction book I read that didn’t also act as a jumping off point – often “at the point of reading” – for several online checks and queries.

So here’s a niggle that I’m going to try to pin down over the holidays. To what extent should our course materials be open ended and uncourse like, compared to tighly scoped with a single, strong and unwavering narrative that reflects the academic author’s teaching line through a set of materials?

The “this is how it is”, single linear narrative model is easier for the old guard to teach, easier to assess, and arguably easier to follow as a student. It’s tried, trusted, and well proven.

The uncourse is all over the place, designed in part to be sympathetic to study moments in daily rituals (e.g. feed reading) or interstitial time (see Interstitial Publishing: A New Market from Wasted Time for more on this idea). The uncourse is ideally invisible, integrated into life.

The trad. OU course is a traditional board game, neatly packaged, well-defined, self-contained. The uncourse is an Alternate Reality Game.

(Did you see what I just did, there?;-)

And as each day goes by, I appreciate a little more that I don’t think the traditional game is a good one to be in, any more… Because the point about teaching is to help people become independent learners. And for all the good things about books (and I have thousands of them), developing skills for bookish learning is not necessarily life-empowering any more…

[Gulp… where did that come from?!]

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

4 thoughts on “So What Else Are You Doing At The Moment?”

  1. Curse you for making me think this hard when I should be easing into an all-too-short period of holiday and relaxation!

    I agree with everything here, but am alarmed by it. Because books still matter. They are still a valuable learning technology. And students do not, on the whole, acquire the skills necessary to use them well in primary and secondary education. So part of what higher education has to offer must be the critical reading/grokking skills needed to analyse any and all media and environments – and books are still a key part of that. There is still no adequate substitute of which I am aware for reading Leviathan or Capital or Discipline & Punish.

    The question then becomes how to integrate books effectively into our learning ARGs, how to make time and mental and social space available. They have a niche, along with all the other rich sources of information our students must learn to navigate. What shape is it?

    And compliments of the season to you.

  2. The way you describe how you flit between media means you rarely stop thinking so good to have this post. I also think you inadvertantly show the need for having much the same material but if different forms. Books and eBooks are superficially similar but the latter enable much more serendipitous moving around which is even more pronounced when the content is scattered around the web. But people still like hard copies – why do they still buy the CD or DVD when they also download or go to the cinema. So I don’t think it is either or but how I prefer it in this context for that purpose. However that does make for interesting developments for learning design and course structuring and who does what (teacher, learner, other?).

    BTW We don’t have massive print runs we store in warehouses – more and more stuff is printed on demand not for individuals but individual cohorts for particular presentations, and delivered direct to students from the printers so never coming near the OU. But things may chnage more when all contnet is in multiple formats as on OpenLearn and folk may be able to select which they want including large print, Digital Talking Book.

  3. Shurely many steps to becoming an independent learner, and, for some, a journey that is never begun? Using more than one source might be seen as a pre-requisite for anything calling itself scholarship, but is that alone what OU students seek? Horses for courses ;-)?

    Some personality types/people at different stages of maturity as learners may need the reassurance of ‘the Canon’. But requiring students to use more than one source means that they cannot just regurgitate course material from the Book; they have to process the info, and that’s really where the learning takes place – all else is just a feat of memory, made easier if you can follow the thread of the argument. . . Hence, gotta be a Good Thang.

    So: All good stuff, basically, but how would it work in practice? If you were to leave assessment/ratification out of it, things would become ohoal easier!

    Ease of assessment certainly affected by students’ accessing multiple sources through the web. Requires more work by assessor, harder to use computer marking?

    (Interestingly, copyright might be less of a problem if students go out & get stuff themselves? (as long as they’re taught how to reference appropriately). Need new model of intellectual property, in which use of one’s ‘ip’ is to be desired (achievable by text marking methods). One has to think of TB-L as prime ezample.

    So many levels of convolution!! Have to help students to evaluate sources; thankfully, this is now being taught in schools, at least to fertile/prepared minds – stonier ground may be completely bypassed, however.

    Bleagh. You see, my mind does not work in straight lines, so it’s v hard for me to compose this. Tell me an app. that will allow me to mind-map or something instead. I thought Hypertext was the answer to all my dreams

    – And apart from ‘taught courses’: who would want to read a research paper as pdf rather than as a hyperlinked document?? (only if you’re on the train without mobile internet?)

    Remember the days of trawling around the library with armsful of weighty tomes, never quite being sure whether any of them would contain the nuggets you were after? Now a quick flit around gets an almost instant answer to any query [still doesn’t avoid those annoying paperchases where people quote their last paper as a ref. instead of the original source >gripe<].

    (btw, I had to look up the meaning of ‘grok’ (being a right newbie), and my conclusion is that people who need to recognise grokking with a word have never truly grokked :-]! I think I will never use this word again, as it completely offends my Indo-European-rooted sense of the fitting word. perhaps, if I ever take up nKung! bush language I might be able to feel differently . . . }

    That’s enough burbling for now – [Ed.]

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