Thinking about... Content Creation

In a very long and detailed post, Tony Bates does a super job of laying out the importance of content development in the future of online learning, while also calling our attention to the fact that an actual "online course" is more than just content (see the section labeled "Disaggregating online teaching"). That is what I wanted to focus on in this post, explaining why, for the kinds of online courses I teach, it is actually student activities and learner support that are far more important than content development and delivery.

I developed my online course content over 10 years ago and I have not changed that content since then, while the student activities and learner support that I provide are constantly evolving. To show how that works, I'll provide an overview here of my class content and activities, hoping to explain why, for me, content is just the tip of the iceberg. All the real effort and energy - both from me and from the students too - is devoted to learning activities, while the content is just a kind of bare foundation on which to build.

My Course Content

I teach two different online classes, with similar content in each. Here is an overview of the content:

In the Myth-Folklore class, students choose between two reading topics each week; you can see the weekly topics on the homepage for the course. For each topic, I wrote some background material (with simple comprehension quiz questions), and then there is the reading itself, which I copied from public domain sources (also with quiz questions which I wrote). I added images throughout, both on the background page and on the reading pages. On the reading pages, there is a bit of prefatory material that I wrote at the top of each page and some "ask yourself" questions at the bottom of each page. The reading consists of appx. 20,000 words per week.

In the Indian Epics class, the public domain translations were not up to the task, so the students do have to purchase four paperback books. They are mass market paperbacks, and all four books can be purchased used from Amazon, including shipping, for a total of $21 (the cheapest price for used copies at the campus bookstore is $49). The reading consists of appx. 100 pages per week, with two review weeks in which there is no new reading. To help students with the reading, I wrote two reading guides per week, and I illustrated the reading guides with Indian art. Here is a sample reading guide.

I created all that content the first time that I offered each class (Myth-Folklore was first offered in 2002, and Indian Epics in 2003), and it did represent a prodigious amount of work, probably around 200 hours per class. I also offered for years a similar course, World Literature, with content like the Myth-Folklore class, but because World Lit. was a lower-division class and the demand for upper-division Gen. Ed. classes is so intense, I no longer offer the World Lit. class. All that content is still online, however, and often proves helpful for students in Myth-Folklore who want to do research on topics covered in that class.

Could the content I created be improved? Sure it could. The Myth-Folklore course, in particular, shows signs of its age. When I created the reading units back in 2002, the amount of public domain mythology and folklore content that had been digitized and put online was maybe one-tenth of what it is now. I would choose different topics and sources to build the reading units now if I were to do it over again. In Indian Epics, the content would benefit from a systematic harvesting of film material now available at YouTube. Remember: there was no YouTube when I created this content... that is how long ago it was that I created the courses! (I built the Indian Epics site in 2003, and YouTube was only launched in 2005.)

Yet I have not chosen to spend any time revising the content. Why? It's simple: my time is FAR better spent revising and improving the student activities; that is where the real learning occurs. Not from the passive consumption of content, but instead from actively using the content to do things, creating new content (blogs, websites, multimedia content, etc.) that is of real interest to the students themselves, student-created content that can in turn be shared with the other students (students in the same class, students in the other class, and students in future classes). It is this student-generated content which provides the real substance of the class, and I see my primary job as a teacher to design activities that can help the students to learn how to create new content and how to share it with others, and also to learn how to help their fellow students as they likewise create their own content.

My Course Activities

Here is an overview of the student activities, which are the same in both classes. The content of the two courses is different, but the learning activities are basically identical; in many ways, these really are the "same" class, but with different starting content. I've just provided the briefest overview of each type of activity here; I'll need to follow up later with more detail:

Creative Writing Blog Posts: Every week, each student chooses some story from the week's reading and turns it into a new story which they publish in their blogs. Here are the instructions for the Myth-Folklore storytelling posts for example. These storytelling blog posts are a kind of a creative writing laboratory in which students can explore the week's reading and also experiment with different writing styles.

Reflective Writing Blog Posts: There are also blog post assignments which promote different kinds of reflective writing. For example, in Myth-Folklore there is an essay blog post on the week's reading, while in Indian Epics there is a mid-week reflections post between the two chunks of reading for the week. Here are the instructions for that Indian Epics "Reflections" post for example.

Storybook Project: The single most important element in the whole course is a semester-long project called the "Storybook" in which students choose a topic and create a website with four stories that explore the topic in a creative way. The best way to get a sense of how that works is to browse the Storybooks students have created in past semesters: Myth-Folklore Storybooks and Indian Epic Storybooks. The students work on their Storybook project every week, starting in the very first week of the semester: Weekly Storybook assignments.

Student Feedback: In addition to the feedback students get from me about their writing, the students also give each other feedback, both about their blog posts and also about their Storybook project. One of my most important tasks each week is to monitor student progress and set up the responding assignments so that everybody gets feedback in ways that promote a sense of "togetherness" in the classes. This week, for example, the students are making their first comments about each other's actual Storybook websites; you can see the instructions here.

The things I have listed here as "activities" are actually complex tasks that involve a whole range of skills, and much of my work as a teacher is focused on helping students develop the skills they need to complete those tasks: writing skills, research skills, technology skills, time management skills, etc. I'll say something more about that in a future post.


So, as I said, my main development work as a teacher is now completely focused on improving the types of activities and also on providing the skills support that goes with them. While I have not made any substantial changes to my course content in over ten years, I make major changes to my class activities and support materials every summer, along with updates and improvements every week. That is why, when I look at a course platform like NextThought (and it is the advent of this platform on my campus which provoked this blog post), it leaves me completely cold. The platform offers elegant ways to convey content online, true enough, but as I hope to have explained in this post, conveying content is the least important aspect of my work as an online instructor. What really matters is developing activities that will get the students involved in the course, creating new content and sharing that content with their fellow students. To me, that is where the real power of online learning resides: not in the delivery of digital content, but in the use of the online space for students to create and share their work with one another.

Every week in my class there is some course content that all the students read, and that's important... but far more important is that every week a hundred or more NEW STORIES are created, and those stories are unlike any other stories told in the class ever before because they are the product of the students' own imaginations, driven by their own interests and ideas. And that minor miracle happens week after week after week. By creating a course driven by the students' own creativity, the course itself becomes a creative act, a self-creating experience as it were, far richer than any content I could ever produce on my own. The sense of newness and originality makes the course stimulating and exciting for me, and likewise for the students, who can be justifiably proud of the fact this is as much their class as it is mine!

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Published: September 22, 2013.