Monday, March 26, 2012

Re-coding the Curriculum and Our Learning Content

I read with particular interest this item about Gil Elbaz, the founder of Factual, and his goal of identifying and cataloging every fact in the world.
Since its start in 2008, Factual has absorbed what Mr. Elbaz terms “many billions of individual facts we’ve collated.” Geared to both big companies and smaller software developers, it includes available government data, terabytes of corporate data and information on 60 million places in 50 countries, each described by 17 to 40 attributes. Factual knows more than 800,000 restaurants in 30 different ways, including location, ownership and ratings by diners and health boards. It also contains information on half a billion Web pages, a list of America’s high schools and data on the offices, specialties and insurance preferences of 1.8 million United States health care professionals. There are also listings of 14,000 wine grape varietals, of military aircraft accidents from 1950 to 1974, and of body masses of major celebrities.
For me, Factual is yet another example of how our information models in education (curricula, textbooks and other learning materials) are hopelessly outdated and based on knowledge assumptions that border on being comical. Just think of Factual as a new type of reference volume, only consider that it houses more than 500 terabytes of data in a local facility and even more in the Amazon cloud. For context, 500 terabytes is more than twice the capacity needed to hold the entire Library of Congress. Furthermore, there is a crew of statisticians and information scientists that constantly cleans and connects this data.

How can our "static" learning materials compete with that type of dynamic information on a big data scale? Even more importantly, how can we possibly equate learning with information absorption in a world where information, by definition, is more than we could ever master? If our learning materials (and education goals) are intended to store and convey basic information and explanations, they are inevitably obsolete and incomplete. Even in digital form, they still mirror a design based on assumptions of finite information sets that will have value that endures for a lifetime.

This, of course, is tied to our core notions about curriculum and Grant Wiggins does a fine job addressing the limitations of our current thinking in this post.
What else might follow from thinking of performance, not knowledge, as the aim of education? We might finally realize the absurdity of marching through textbooks. You want to learn English or be a historian? You would think it very foolish if I said: OK, sit down and let’s march for years through a dictionary or an encyclopedia, A to Z. Yet, that is basically what textbooks do: march through content, logically organized. Want to learn to cook? Read the Joy of Cooking all the way through its 700+ pages – before ever setting foot in a kitchen??? Yet, this is what we do and have always done in conventional textbook and lecture-driven schooling. It is also absurd to teach novices lots of technical jargon upfront, as if that will somehow have meaning and stick for later use. Yet, from Friday vocab. quizzes to almost all tests,  terminology is an absurdly major focus. We must only still do it, like medieval monks, if at some level we still think that giving things names and possessing plus appreciating (eternal?) knowledge is the point of education.
At least in the background, this kind of thinking was likely on the minds of many participants at last week's Beyond the Textbook focus groups held by Discovery Education. Dean Shareski, now with Discovery, does a good job synthesizing the discussions by participants, and says that we can simplify all the conversations by rolling them up into the three Cs: Collaboration, Curation and Creation.

Of course, this gathering was mostly focused on platform and technology, which reminds me of Stephen Downes' comment last week about how online content like the videos from the Khan Academy could serve a as "MacGuffin, something [that] provokes learning, but which isn't." Audrey Watters picked up this thread with her post on Inside Higher Ed, and reminds us that "Ed-tech objects do make good MacGuffins nonetheless. The hardware, the software, the online content -- they're all very compelling. They generate plenty of that initial intrigue and interest. ...  But the MacGuffin, remember, is just the thing that draws us in. It isn't what drives the plot forward. That requires people, human connections, processes (and okay, in the case of Hitchcock, things like greed, vengeance, and other complex psychological motives)."

The difficulty, as Watters points out, is making sure learners get beyond the MacGuffin. And part of the problem there is that, for many, technology tends to become an end as opposed to the means.
To my way of thinking the real revolution, the ultimate hack, is at a much more basic level. It is re-envisioning and re-coding the textbook itself, along with other learning content. In fact, I've been devoting a good deal of thought to this over the past month and have decided to make it the topic of my next book -- The Ultimate Hack: Re-coding the Textbook and Other Learning Materials. I have posted an initial draft of the Introduction over at e-literate, and will be housing the final versions and the accompanying open textbook here on this site.

Naturally, a big part of our content re-thinking must be around discovery. How do we structure and code our learning materials so that they are easily found and re-used by others. This was a key topic at the recent Th(ink) E-Reading Summit and, as senior analyst David Renard of mediaIDEAS put it, "the problem is how to find what products you want, but don’t know a name, just a category. 27% of buyers who bought an ebook first went to a retail store to find the book they wanted. Discovery is not just about getting someone to look at a product, but to also get them to download or use it."

Finally today, I liked this review of the different approaches to the stylus in the tablet market. It seems there are still plenty of people like me who like the notion of making "natural" notes on the screen without having to access a keyboard. Here's hoping that this movement continues to gain momentum.

Suggested Reading

Factual's Gil Elbaz Wants to Gather the Data Universe -
Beyond the Textbook | Ideas and Thoughts
The Ed-Tech MacGuffin | Inside Higher Ed
Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really. « Granted, but…
Half an Hour: Education as Platform: The MOOC Experience and what we can do to make it better
Th(ink) E-Reading Summit: Content Discovery in the Age of Tablets, E-readers and Google | TeleRead
The current state of styli and the iPad: does the stylus still blow it?


  1. Just a minor comment - the Pen and stylus are not necessarily natural - they are just another form of technology - just older than the Keyboard.

  2. Yes, that's why I put it "natural" in quotes. I meant that is is more natural for me personally. I definitely get the irony here and the generation gap it points to :-)