Connectivism and the tyranny of print

Digital Pedagogy Lab : Prince Edward Island : Second Reflections

Delegates at a conference
Welcome address at Digital Pedagogy Lab : UPEI

The recent pedagogy lab on Prince Edward Island was split into two tracks, Digital Literacies and Networks. My experience was mostly with the network track, focusing on the nature of digital networks and network-building. Although, with a dedicated unconference space there was a lot of crossover, as you’d expect. And that crossover was with a diverse group including representatives from government (provincial dept of education), graduate students, senior managers, learning technologists, heads of professional services, and of course lecturers, teachers, and researchers.

One of the key reasons for my attending the lab was to inform the discovery phase of new work we may be undertaking at Jisc around the “next generation of learning environments”, and some work that James Clay is leading on “smart campuses”. During my debrief back at work, I was asked what the key takeaway messages were. This is one of them.

Education should be process not content

We worked through a great post of Dave Cormier’s “Content is a print concept” hence the title of this reflection.

Content is a print concept. It requires replication in the form of the printing press. It requires authority/power in the form of a government/agency/publisher deciding what is ‘required’ to learn. It is a standardization engine for learning, both to allow for spreading of authorized messaging and to allow for ‘uninstructed teachers to teach almost as well as an experienced one.’

Education, learning, should be a process– it sounds obvious, but when we look critically at the learning environments we have developed thus far, there is strong element of students engaging with content, not people. This is especially true in digital contexts.

Sundi Richard wrote a post after #DigPed about her niece starting her freshman year and wanting to do extra classes.

“… the real heartbreak came when she told me that she was really disappointed that she had to take her literature class as an online course. She was disappointed because she was most looking forward to the discussion that could be part of it. And sadly, I knew she was most likely right. That her online course was most likely a cookie cutter online course that focused on getting the content in a flexible way during the semester and not much else, because that is a lot of what is out there.”

Education should be a process. The mapping of digital capabilities in this networked reality, this connectivist educational world, gives both staff and students the opportunity to move beyond mere content being presented and reacted to, but to engage in effective (and messy) educational practices. So what is preventing this from happening? Is it the structures of the institutions or the structure of the systems we use? Are most of us used to broadcast media without the engagement? And if that is not true, why then do we not expect or build it into the learning context? The discussions around connectivism and the potential that it has for education, the way we think about learning and teaching, could be the most important thing we consider when we look at new technologies. We must ask if they are serving the content or the process, do they just allow the option of engagement, or is engagement central to the point of the technology?

On Assessment in connectivist spaces

So, if we start thinking about the process being the goal, what does that mean for assessment? How do we reach the goal of assessment being concerned with the learning process , rather than the acquisition of content?  How do we achieve an environment that is predicated on the learning taking place within the network and through the interaction?

Linked to this post: Red Roads and Connectivism

In the meantime here is a singing Mountie, Hockey Player and a Beaver


  1. “Content is a print concept. It requires replication in the form of the printing press. It requires authority/power in the form of a government/agency/publisher deciding what is ‘required’ to learn. It is a standardization engine for learning, both to allow for spreading of authorized messaging and to allow for ‘uninstructed teachers to teach almost as well as an experienced one.’” – Maybe I’m missing the point here, surely digital networks allow us all to be content creators so therefore the art of the curation of information (or content) is king? Content is information as information is content, information is all around us, the nature of information is now plastic. The art of curation (of content = ideas) delivers new understanding, digital ‘connectivism’ doubly so. The art of the curation of information and thought defines space and education. To understand/define content as ‘print’ is a 20C concept (industrial thinking) we now live in a post industrial age (and have done for quite a while) – digital is transformed by analogue representations so analogue (spaces) should be allowed to transform digital. To differentiate between the two is highly problematic.

    Education has always been a process (no change there!) – the problem is defining what you mean by process (?). The notion of academic identity delivered through multiple digital artifacts and the curation of those artifacts (however complex) may be the key – educator as an engineer in information and aesthetics (read Katherine Hayles).

    1. There’s a bunch here… so I’m not sure I entirely understand your position. I’ll clarify my point and see if that firms up your opposition or moves the discussion forward any.

      The content of a course, that is the information that is decided on as part of a course, is a print concept. The idea of deciding, ahead of time, what information should be present during a planned educational activity, is tied to the technology of print. Before print, there was no way to ensure this level of replicability. An ‘education’ was something that happened in discussion, in observation, in story – an orality. Print (scaled up from writing, which did similar things for religion) allowed for the standardization that makes the transition from orality to what you seem to be calling ‘information’. This puts the power of deciding what is real/useful/appropriate/necessary/better information in the hands of a small number of people. It also can decentralize the very critical literacy of sifting through story to find meaning. As we no longer have to prepare for a course by buying stacks of paper months ahead of time, we can include a level of flexibility in our classrooms that was not possible before. The idea of content as ‘what a thing does contain’ restricts this flexibility. My claim is that we can’t even imagine a general ‘what it does contain’ before print.

      In your follow up comment you’ve suggested that I’ve confused ‘content’ with ‘doctrine’. I have definitely identified one with the other, though not in confusion. The difference between content and doctrine, in my thinking, is that doctrine is generally attached to a unifying vision (mostly religious though not necessarily) whereas in this case, content becomes doctrinal in millions of classrooms, through the random (sometimes purposeful, sometimes not) exercise of power at the publisher/teacher/whatever level. In order to allow for a classroom where students are truly developing ‘post industrial’ literacies, we need to allow them to take back some of that power. In order to do that, I’m thinking, we need to deconstruct the concept of ‘content’ to see how we got there.

      1. I see you point Lawrie, thank you – but I do think the crux of my argument is that content has no inherent meaning, meaning is applied through content, so to attached such weight and purpose to an adjective is a problem. Digital, gives us all, the opportunity to be creators and consumers of content – do we stop creating content ? Content creation without doubt is more an attribute of digital media than print media (I think we can agree). The nature of print media is static (fixed) – I think your argument resides there rather than in content as such (?).

        Very interesting!

        1. I’ll go further and suggest that ‘words’ don’t have fixed meanings… that we always negotiate. Where i do think I might stand on thin ice is my suggestion that the word ‘content’ as it’s applied to the idea of ‘what is in a course’ is a widespread usage. I think it is. I have no overwhelming evidence of this other than years of hearing people say things like ‘what’s the content of your course?’ ‘How do i get my content online?’ etc…

          I’m not sure i grasp your content as adjective argument… as it feels very noun-like to me. I’m not suggesting we stop creating anything… I’m suggesting the word ‘content’ as it’s applied to education – as in ‘what a course contains’ – is imbued with print sensibilities. The fact we create stuff is great. Lets go into the learning process not knowing what’s going to be created or with what. We can build that ‘content’ together. But this is growth for that word content… a new step in its etymology if we are going to keep using it.

          1. All this go round about adjectives and nouns.

            I’m a verb kinda girl myself.

            Content can be created or consumed. If a course concentrates on consumption then your students will be more likely to become consumers if it concentrates on creation then your students will be creators. I’d say mix it up – but that’s just me. Either consuming or creating can go bad quick and I would argue that many years of spectatorial culture has created a more consumers than creators… That if we are indeed entering an age of participatory culture that we will need those that can both create and consume critically…. but that perhaps this historical fact has left us with a deficit in creators.

            My 2 cents

  2. “Content is a print concept. It requires replication in the form of the printing press. It requires authority/power in the form of a government/agency/publisher deciding what is ‘required’ to learn.” – This concerns me, in that, I think you’ve confused the term ‘content’ with ‘doctrine’ (subject and vehicle). Can a ‘doctrine’ be delivered by any content driven media/medium, I would say so, if that is the case why say that content is a print concept? Content is infinite and has many forms, is it the container that is authority/power – a doctrine is contained in content.

    A question to consider: Is digital the facilitator of evermore complex configured and configurable containers where doctrine is easily disguised?

    “History is written by the victors” (Winston Churchill)

  3. I think ‘content’ comes from ‘contain’ – which essentially means ‘to hold together’ (con-tenere in Latin). So for me this comes down to who patrols the borders of whatever is deemed to be contained; who delimits in advance what that content ‘is’ (and so it’s question of ontology also – and, of course, borders and walls and ontology aren’t unrelated). So Dave is right i think to suggest this is a question of who is given or gives themselves the authority to say or delimit what and where content is; who can give (themselves) the authority to say this for others. I’d suggest ‘process’ might be a place where we think about how such borders are always-already permeable. But I’m not sure about ‘content’ being a print concept, unless we’re taking print to also refer to the manual (but also mechanical) transcription of religious doctrine (and as such where content and doctrine come together).

    This is a question about technology though, technologies of reproduction, which in turn suggests that ‘print’ cannot be tied to it’s more conventional, industrial, meaning, but should be opened into questions relating technology and materiality (what is actually impressed or imprinted when we think of the digital – is there still a coming together of force upon matter which leaves a mark or trace?). This is a messy, but interesting subject. It would make a nice paper (if I ever had time to write papers that is!).

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