Producer culture and learning objects
As always, I am just a little less radical than David Wiley. Or not. I taught adult students for five years as an adjunct instructor, which colors my views in many ways. I share Freire’s view, and agree that in the ideal, students would always be expected to act as producers–not consumers–of knowledge. I also know that, at least for the areas in which I’ve taught (and those in which my wife, a composition/literature/creative writing instructor, has taught), students still largely think of themselves as consumers. In the case of the freshmen my wife teaches, this is about habit and limited experience. With the adult students I taught, it’s very much about the economic transaction that is adult education–they are paying for an education they hope will substantially improve their lives, and expect to be given information, tools and techniques they can use in their daily lives.
Even in the field of creative writing (where students are explicitly expecting to become producers of fiction), it’s hard to move students away from their consumer expectations with respect to education. The text of tOFP courseware is partly banking concept in its approach, presenting the ten or twelve canonical topics that all writers must master before they have even the faintest hope of stringing together two decent sentences. Of course the writing exercises force students to become producers of their own education. The craftbook, though, is the element of the course that really seeks to relocate students as producers of their own education, helping them to develop tools for expanding their own understanding of fictional craft, rather than simply giving them the content as I see it. (I can see now that I should have gone the next step and asked them to create their own writing exercises to help them to challenge themselves. Teaching: The ever unfinished project.)
So if I’ve created a distance learning course that is in my own opinion partially consumer culture in its approach, how can I argue that consumer culture is the wrong approach for learning objects? I wouldn’t class the courseware for tOFP as a “learning object,” especially in that I don’t see it as more than incidentally reusable. It was designed not for wide reuse, but for use by a specific instructor with a specific set of students at a particular moment in the history of educational technology. I do think there is a group of learners out there who are able to reuse the material, but only because their educational and cultural backgrounds position them to do so. I mostly see the materials as being more widely useful for adaptation, which is to say that for those educators and students that do approach the materials from a producer culture perspective, there’s a fair amount that can be adapted for other uses.
This points again to the tension between educational technology and open sharing. I don’t think all of educational technology is inappropriate to consumer culture models–I learned Microsoft Access using a set of very consumer culture educational technology materials. The opportunity for leveraging technology for wide reuse of these heavily formatted materials (the learning object model) is simply limited by largely non-technical constraints; it’s more achievable to make lightly formatted materials available for wide adaptation, which is a producer culture model. Any formatting done beyond the minimum required to publish widely is bound to be at best only marginally helpful, and at worst can limit others’ ability to adapt the materials. So, design for what’s in front of you, and distribute as much of the result as widely as you can to educators and learners who will adapt from what you’ve done. Enough people doing just this will allow useful formats to emerge organically, rather than trying to impose one particular approach at the point of open publication. One of the things I love about Wiley and COSL’s eduCommons as a tool for open sharing is that it is relatively format agnostic. It takes a wide range of format types and makes them available with relatively low effort.