Is Content Infrastructure or the Residue of Social Learning?

I love Vanessa Genneralli, let me get that out of the way up front. Her laugh can sail a thousand ships, and her infectious, joyful energy makes talking to her akin to waterskiing on Skittles. But enough about her, let’s talk about me! 🙂 I was actually interviewed by Vanessa yesterday for a P2PU course she is creating, and we talked about designing for open. This is something I have some experience with as a result of ds106, and explored that craziness for the first eighteen minutes.

At about 18:36 vanessa asked a question about the role of content in an open, online social experience like ds106. What follows was for me the best part of the twenty minute discussion. One of the ideas I was riffing off was David Wiley’s assertion back at the 2007 Open Education 2007 that “content is infrastructure.” Read the linked article because his argument around this claim is solid, and I don’t want to discount that. However, more and more I am finding with my own teaching content is not so much infrastructure as the residue of the learning happening as a result of the course.

In other words, the Internet Course, and ds106 before it, were not designed around pre-determined content, often packaged as textbooks (so much of the open education movement is still premised on this idea of the authoritative text), but rather on an open educational experience. For example, in ds106 students could choose from a series of assignments, create their own, and navigate a series of resources other shared, etc. But that wasn’t a text in any strict sense, content as a concept was far more elastic and slippery that this hulking, unmoveable metaphor of insfrastrucutre. It was constantly negotiable, remixable, and fluid in its relevance. In the Internet Course there is no pre-exisiting syllabus or readings,  rather the students in the course immediately start brainstorming a set of topics and then start researching and reinforcing what was what. Content plays a crucial role, no doubt, but it’s not predetermined or pre-existing in it’s layout like this idea of infrastructure. It’s malleable and part of the larger negotiation of the course. And, I would argue, once that course works through the content, digests it, and comes to terms with it, it becomes a by-product of the learning that happened.

I guess the point I am exploring here is that the infrastructure, when it comes to content for teaching and learning specifically, might better be imagined as a product of the interactive experience of learning than the foundation on which it’s all built upon. It seems counterintuitive, but more and more the oral and narrative forms Wiley discounts undergird a sense of what makes the classroom experience so powerful for learning (more on thsi in my next post). Whether or not all the infrastructure we are creating in the form of open content as textbooks is even being used remains one of the biggest questions of the whole movement, and I wonder if the focus was on experience and relationships as a negotiation of the pre-exiting content as an exploration rather than a deleiverable challenges some of these assumptions around content as infrastructure. I write this, because seven years on I am still struggling with that idea.

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31 Responses to Is Content Infrastructure or the Residue of Social Learning?

  1. Kate says:

    I’ve taught this way for a few years — no weekly readings, no text book. It can be a bit hardcore, especially when submitting your syllabus for quality checking (as we have to as a pre-flight procedure in Australia), and when your syllabus is subsequently used as a proxy for what happened (as often happens in retrospective quality audit in Australia). From this I’ve come to learn that the systems we work in regard the sheer volume of assigned reading as an indicator of something like quality learning, so the pressure is on to stack the shelves. I suspect this is also the way that academics get trapped into using their syllabus as a way of demonstrating expertise, so it becomes like a references list at the end of an article: see all this stuff I read? And the thing is, this is often absolutely spirit-crushing for students: you mean I’m really meant to read all that stuff before I can learn from you? but what about the other stuff I read or know that I could share?

    To me, the exciting opportunity of the empty room as a learning space is that it immediately makes us turn and become attentive to one another — to learning from one another’s stories, and from what we find, somewhat uniquely, in that particular instance of the course.

    I find WP blogging is the most powerful support for this, given the social depletion of LMS discussion tools. But the practical design challenge is making sure there’s enough time, and sometimes enough structure, to let students examine and absorb all the things brought to the potlatch.

    Lovely post, Jim, thanks so much.

    • Reverend says:

      Who says it all better than you? #NOBODY! My problem is I don;t reflect that much about it, save on this blog at times, I just barrel throuhg. The thing that has been different lately is I’ve been teaching with a colleague I met through ds106, Paul Bond, and he is far more deliberate in doing just what you frame above. Empowering the students to use their own experience as part of the learning discovery. Absencing oursleves from the center of the class, which was unbelievably hard for me. I’ve been going through a transofrmation of sorts, and as you so eloquently note above. The idea of a syllabus as a work cited page is really interesting to me, it didn;t dawn on me before, but that’s exactly right. Paul got the idea for the Internet Course we’ve been working with from Michawl Wesch, so there’s a lineage of this approach, and I am really loving it.

      Ona separate point, the idea of calling content infrastructure aloshints to the only thing Universities, at least in the US, will invest in: infrastructure: buoldings, tech, grounds, etc. People on the other hand? Tenured faculty?! There is a paralle there worth pursuing, I’m just too lazy, cause when it comes to content, all cats are gray. So why the investment in things?

  2. I’d again suggest that this is an area where discipline and subject comes into play. There’s quite a good bit of evidence that in many disciplines sequencing and presentation has a big effect on competence. And there are many disciplines where core content does have to be covered.

    My daughter’s on a track toward calculus in high school. Now, I think the calculus track in high school is the wrong emphasis (stats is where it’s at) but she has had great teachers and had really poor teachers. And what has separated the two has mostly been clarity of presentation and a flexible pacing that makes sure the students have mastered the week 2 concepts before they move onto week 3.

    And for that, content is invaluable. And content writ large — not just textbooks, but the sort of stuff Dan Meyer’s group puts together around activities that work and ones that don’t.

    By the same token, why on earth would you EVER have a textbook in a English Lit class? The point here is not sequencing. The point is really that you keep doing the same cluster of things over and over and get better and better at them. You write a shitty essay on Chaucer on week two and by the end of the course you’re writing a decent essay on Wordsworth.

    But it’s essay, right? And as any English teacher will tell you, essay is derived from the French for “attempt”. A series of attempts with better and better performance.

    As you know, I get really tired of the Talbert/Campbell debates. “Why don’t you teach math like literature?” says one. “Why don’t you teach literature like math?!?!” says the other.

    Come on, people, are we really that dense? Are you going to teach your kid to read with ds106? Are you going to teach them to create digital media with phonics-style software?

    Do we sit around and ask “What is the One True Infrastructure for Transportation?” (“Cars!” “No, Planes!”, “But I can’t fly to work, so planes are bullshit!” “Oh, so I suppose you make your employees DRIVE to all their conferences, right? Hypocrite!”).

    [OK, I realize I’m not really replying to you, but it’s Friday, I’m tired, and I’m venting. Charge it to the account.]

    Learning is not a thing. Learning is not a thing. Learning is not a thing.

    Learning isn’t a thing like walking. We see a person walking and we say, hey, that person is walking. We know that becuase they are doing the things we associate with walking.

    And if we say, hey, what shoe suits walking best, we can have some sort of rational conversation because walking is a thing.

    Not so with learning. Here’s what learning is.

    (Where I want to be) – (where I am) = learning that needs to happen.

    And whatever gets me from point a to b is learning. So we talk about it like it was an activity, like walking. But it’s more like transport, where widely divergent activities are classed as similar in that they get you from one point to another point. There’s walking, map-reading, flying, planning, wandering, taking each left turn to get out of a maze (or is it right? Oh, crap), building a bridge, finding a bridge someone built for you, booking passage on a ship and learning to sail a ship. Sinking a ship maybe.

    So the thing is, I don’t think what you’re saying is counterintuitive at all. It’s absolutely true that many course need to loosen up and embrace a more emergent design.

    But why pit it against the idea of content infrastructure in general? Why do we act like these ideas are in opposition? Are walking to lunch and using a map to plot a road trip orthogonal to one another? Or is it just that we are labeling two widely divergent sets of needs “Transportation”?

    My Christmas wish is that everybody learn the phrase “In the domains I tend to work in, I find students work best like X — tell me about the domains YOU work in?”

    Again, this is not really a reply to your blog post, more a reply to the endless back and forth on this stuff I see on the net, so you can tell me go home, you’re drunk if you want ;).

    • Maha Bali says:

      Hiya Mike – i know we can take a metaphor too far but i actually think we can use the walking metaphor in more complexity: which walking shoe is best depends on your terrain (sand? Grass? Uphill?), your feet (size, shape), your preferences (could be aesthetics), how long you’re walking, whereto (e.g. Not sneakers if ur walking to a business meeting). But i def agree that when we talk about edu we need to specify our context, as you said “in the domain i work in, x works w my students” – i always always clarify what i teach and at what level before i talk about what i do (e.g. At faculty development workshops).
      It is often an issue when people say, “but how do i apply x or y to teaching math or engineering or accounting?” And the answer should be, “i am not sure it would work for all areas of those disciplines, but let’s think it through together and see if we can come up with something, then you can try it if it makes sense, and let us know if it works for you” (unless there’s already loads of research on it that you can learn from before embarking on it…

      • Reverend says:

        But content and texts are pretty unviersal across disciplines, right? So it doesn;t seem to require context, it has become an assumpiton and a reality all at once.

        • Maha Bali says:

          Hey Jim, not sure what you mean by your response here… I think you mean that it is universal that syllabi are planned around content, right?
          I am saying, I think, that whether or not that “works” to promote learning is contextual, depends how the content is chosen, what you do with it, how much it responds to learners, etc. some disciplines need more of a content focus than others (or traditionally do anyway). Buuuuut I still think the learning, the foundation of learning, is not the content, it’s the human interaction aspect of it, which can be with content or with people (unless you start counting everyone’s words/actions as “content”, in which case this is difficult to even discuss, right?)
          Open content is so problematic in so many ways but also has so much potential…

          Anyway, i tweeted to you and Mike this great article by Kris Shaffer on The Critical Textbook which you may like

    • Reverend says:

      Are you all right? 🙂

      Fair enough on the pitting, but one of the things that strikes me about content is infrastructure is it is akin to the question of investment, like at Universities right now, what are we investing in? Infrastructure, not people and jobs. So the idea that content is infrastructure strikes me on a poltical/financial level. We get funding for infrastructure in the form of open textbooks, not people re-imaginging relationships in the classroom. And Wiley, who pushed hard on this diea, turns around and says “all cats are gray,” which is jsut as bad as pitting two ideas against one another. I guess the issue for me on this is so much of the money we are investing ine ducation currently is still premised on a very single, authoritative, textbook driven logic of education. Meanwhile, that has made the teacher replaceable, further taxed the student, and impoverished the learning possibilities.

      • Well, that’s a question of what type of infrastructure you build though, right? Different infrastructures promote different values.

        If the textbook infrastructure is personless as portrayed, it’s all the more reason open content as infrastructure is important. Because open becomes about people.

        You often say a lot of people spent money on tech, and didn’t invest in people. UMW adopted free/open/low-cost tech and invested in people.

        In this case by addressing the infrastructure question in a certain way you were able to use the infrastructure to foster community instead of kill it.

        I think, particularly in the sciences, this is the same place we are with textbooks. The closed textbook is the Blackboard of the equation. The open textbook is the WordPress of the equation. If you want to build community is this area, you’ve got to change to cost and focus of infrastructure. I guess I just don’t see how the two things are different?

        • Reverend says:

          Who are the people behind open textbooks though? They are not part of the process, realy, the text should be residue, not infrastructure, it is the way we attack the problem as a ledger rather than an experience wherein the uestion begins to breakdown. Also, the elephant in the room that no one really wants to talk about, and you have been honest about for years is who is using any of the open content that is getting produced for something, rather than as a part of something. Content is still an industry approach to learning. And sure we can suggest there are nuances and contexts, i buy that, but most unviersities still frame their syllabi and course identity around a series of pre-defined texts defined by the professor. As for the sequencing and order paradaigm, I’m not so sure I buy it, but I’m gonna save that for another post 😉

          • Well textbooks are residue — they are residue of classes the writers have previously run. The stuff faculty created in a series of classes that worked over time.

            And in some cases that’s curation — the Ted Nelson video you used in your class is content, for example, and the fact you used it (Or at least I think you did) and shared it on the web has made it much easier for other folks to put a kickass Internet course together.

            In other cases there’s content which is difficult to get through simple curation and there you need either production incentives or a solid infrastructure for collaboration and iterative improvement.

            And yes, I’d argue that eventually you want a radically different sort of text to help teach your class, something in between a blog and a wiki, where people learn to rewrite for *reuse* and *refactoring*– the same way bloggers developed idioms for quotation, etc.

            And such a text would be decentralized but connected, like the stuff we’ve talked about with the DoOO materials (and if content isn’t infrastructure, then why is the DoOO documentation part of the DoOO infrastructure?).

            So no — I think textbooks still exist in what Dan Meyer calls “airplane mode” and we need to build them up as connective experiences. But just as getting a hackable tech infrastructure was key to reimagining interaction, getting a hackable content infrastructure is the first step in reimagining content.

            In some disciplines, that easy — the process of text selection has always been curation. The humanities are in a good position here.

            But in other disciplines the leap is just too great with out hackable content.

          • And you know I have to argue with you Jim, because the people on this thread are the only people left blogging anymore. There’s no one online left to disagree with.

            • Maha Bali says:

              Speaking of, can we ask David Wiley to come over and let us know what he meant? Maybe we’ve misunderstood him or he’s changed his mind or something…

  3. Maha Bali says:

    Shoot, i wrote a long commet and just lost it before posting because i went to get a link. Oh well. In brief: agree with you, disagree with David, and I don’t think he has a solid argument, actually, but i should probsbly blog about that later. Meanwhile, arguments against pre-determined content are stronger in the age of abundance, internet and OER (easier for learners to find and remix and create), but even without internet, pre-determined content is problematic on micro and macro levels, as I summarize here (second half of post:

    But i am not sure if David meant pre-determined content, per se. I’ll need to re-read his argument again to make sure.

    So what is the infrastructure of learning? Somewhere between our brains and our processes of learning, no? And that combo is the community of learners, but can sometimes be a connection between my brain and the author of whatever i am reading, with whom i have no “community” relationship…

    But yeah, Mike”s poimt above of course makes loads of sense: not all disciplines at every level could or should be taught the same way. Content is more central for some areas than others. I still think process is more important long-term for all learning, but in some areas, at some point in time, content is central, and all sorts of external factors (exams, accreditation, pre-requisites) get in the way of the best pedagogy for the context.

    How about “context is king”?

    • Mike C. says:

      Yeah, that’s exactly right. Context is king. Or in the word of Justin Reich, education tends not to exhibit “law-like” behavior. We need to learn to live with that!

      And Kate — I do have to agree for non sequential stuff — the flat circle of the humanities — the potlatch approach is underused. Of course, I’ve also seen teachers for whom the model is less intuitive botch it pretty badly, so a piece of this is about how we transfer tacit knowledge teacher to teacher (answer: model incessantly and openly, probably).

      And Mahi — we need to talk on your blog someday! Why should The Bava get all this traffic while we slave away at the issues!

      • Maha Bali says:

        lol Mike you’re so funny 🙂 I’ll blog about this soon and pingback to here so we can take away some of Jim’s traffic 😉 and “reclaim” 😉

      • Kate says:

        My thinking is that sequencing structure is key, so if the structure is weekly for other reasons, then weekly search tasks can gradually build up a collection of things that can be used in review for the next activity.

        I’m designing a syllabus at the moment that uses this approach. We’re at the “it looks fine on paper” stage.

        Learning and walking: I’m really interested in the difference you’re suggesting between walking and transport. When I think of myself driving, or being driven, I can see a real difference in how I experience the road. But me walking and me driving seem more similar, and in both cases perhaps more like learning for me, because the interaction between the road and me—speed, direction, care for others—is my responsibility.

        I’m having a big think at the moment about walking, pilgrimage and social/vernacular paths. Thanks to Bonnie Stewart I’ve been reading “We Make The Road by Walking” (Horton and Friere), and thinking a bit about curriculum as path made by those who walk it.

        Not sure if this helps, but it got me thinking about how you and Maha say “traffic” here. Traffic, trafficking: what are we doing as educators?

        • Reverend says:


          Didn’t you write a post about leanring and walking that was pretty brilliant Oh yeah, you did, I even commented on it. So much for me hogging all the commenting traffic, Mike and Maha. SUCKAS!

          • Kate says:

            Why thank you.

            I’ve been thinking about this a lot, circumstances being what they are. This morning’s lesson: the challenges of walking up a steep hill just because you said you would. There is such a temptation just to turn and go back downhill instead of up: who would know? And this is exactly the thinking that has defeated me as a MOOC participant.

            So two things propel me as a solitary walker: curiosity, and goal-setting. But something else happens with social walking, and I think this is related to my curiosity about vernacular pathways. Desire paths have to be made by more than one person (with the slightly weird exception of this artwork) but each person typically walks their contribution to a desire path alone.

            So desire paths represent something very strange: our human ability to cooperate with one another asynchronously, and by those means to come up with something stumblingly representing a plan that has real, long-term impact on landscape.

            I love all this.

        • Maha Bali says:

          Kate, i am not sure what you meant by this “sequencing structure is key” but if you meant that there are inherently “best” ways of presenting content in a certain order, I am going to disagree with you in the abstract but ask what you teach, for context 🙂
          There are two alternatives to this:
          Dewey, I think, would suggest there might be such a sequence but that learners gain more by not being ‘told’ what it is, and rather discovering it on their own. Like by experimenting thru physics
          Another approach (not sure whom its attributed to or what name beyond constructivism) would be that there are multiple approaches to the same knowledge, and letting each learner discover their own (within limits for the more ‘hard’ disciplines, but much more open for softer disciplines) can be more powerful and empowering as they gain the lifelong skill of learning to learn and finding their way. I even think this works for math, but as I said, easier for the softer disciplines.
          I think age of learner matters and what we’re trying to learn,but think of v young kids… They actually learn better without structure,right? Structure limits them. Piaget wasn’t right about everything, not all stages depend on one another, they’re more fluid (kids’ learning is kind of cyclical rather than linear).
          I used to think adult learners had naturally more autonomy than undergrads, but I just recently taught undergrads and gave them loads of autonomy, v little structure, and they took it on really well, and felt empowered afterwards, so…

          • Kate says:


            Because I don’t really deal in content, what I’m sequencing here is the topics, questions or tasks that students can respond to. And I’ve found that there are better and less good ways of using sequence to support everyone to move roughly together through a 13 week course fairly safely.

            Left to my own devices I wouldn’t be worried in the slightest about 13 weeks, and I’d be just as happy with a non-linear sequence, but in the Australian HE system I’m very constrained by the need to demonstrate that something resembling a path connects two points. So my constant puzzle is how to offer a path, and at the same time to offer students opportunities to slip away from it and adventure productively.

            I’m currently reading a bit about spirals and wayfaring, and I think that’s coming close to my sense of how design might work for me.

      • Reverend says:

        How dare you talk smack on the bava on the bava? 🙂

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  6. Simon Ensor says:

    Shall we not be content?
    Shall we not be masters in the hallowed halls of Academia?
    Dare you deny our birthright to decree the straight and narrow path to Paradise!
    Be content that you be robed thus!
    Habitus makes meme a monk(ey) king in learned dominion.

  7. Mark McGuire says:

    Your thoughts about content as the result of interactions, rather than the fuel for it, is worth thinking about further. When I read this post (and I must also read the comments), I was reminded of the early efforts to build 3D, immersive online communities (like Cybertown, ActiveWorlds and Second Life). Communities formed around the building projects as the structures (sometimes neighbourhoods and small towns) were being constructed. The building provided a project around which people collected and collaborated. After the structures were finished, they were usually abandoned and remained as ghost towns. Although buildings had rooms and furniture, and the squares had fountains, the finished structures and spaces were generally not used as sites for creating and practicing ‘community’. Visitors to these finished, but empty, buildings didn’t use them, as you would a building, they read them, as you would a book. They serve as 3D immersive stories that are taken as they are entered and traversed. And, like like Pompeii, the tales they tell are about the people who were once there but are there no more. They tell us something about history, and about what people once did, and what mattered to them. They are there to be examined, appreciated and thought about, rather than to be used.

  8. Simon Ensor says:

    @Mark Macguire
    I really appreciated your image of virtual ghost worlds, that ties in with ghost diigo accounts, ghost educational projects designed simply to get funding, ghostly memories of old text-books I used to use, ghost classrooms where students are following the text books but not really connected…. Great comment, thanks!!

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