Two Approaches to Content

As Unizin becomes immersed in the processes and practices of instructors and instructional designers, we are finding that our content strategy must take into consideration the contemporary and traditional course development processes. While content is still the core of every course, instructors now use it to build and develop their course in two different ways: the traditional approach and the digital approach.

The traditional approach involves teaching with subject-matter content – books, textbooks, journal articles, etc. This approach to teaching involves a very individual learning journey and assessment is tied to traditional exams and quizzes. Many institutions have used this model for decades and will continue to use it even as digital course materials become more prevalent.

The digital approach is centered on engaging content – videos, interactive courseware, games, etc. – summed up as “eLearning.” There is a rush to innovation for this type of content. Both institutions and publishers want to create more of it. This continuous evolution of digital teaching and learning is tied to a different method of teaching that involves group-based activities, social media interaction, formative assessments, flipped classrooms, and other trends.

We are at the beginning of this new approach that is fueled, not by a rebellion against publishers, but by a crisis in outcomes, maturing learning sciences, and a new wave of instructional practices. Who will own and direct this pedagogy? Universities are investing heavily in making sure they are steering the ship.

Insights gained from our Early Adopter Program and other Unizin advisory groups painted a different picture of the needs and problems in the content space from what we had previously believed. While our research did inform a sound content strategy, we also recognized the value of having more than one content strategy.

Unizin’s content strategies will respond to both of these approaches equally. The first is not going away. Teaching is rooted in traditional tools and processes. But there is overlap between the two methods of teaching that can lead to a successful blend of traditional teaching methods and new digital resources.

Two Sets of Challenges

The content needs of the traditional approach remain anchored in debates over licensing models and copyright for text-based content, ownership of data, and overall tensions in the relationship between the market and universities.

On the other hand, the content needs of the digital approach include complex divisions of labor, high investment in institutional resources and services, a common set of design practices, and a process for continuous improvement. Because all of these changes are difficult to make quickly and cost-effectively, the technology in the digital approach is underutilized.

In both cases, the core struggle is: What is the relationship between content and teaching?

Culturally speaking, the pedagogy of reading assignments and summative exams is decades old. Still, the everyday practices of instructors are firmly entrenched in that model, and the publishers control much of it. With both the traditional and digital approaches to teaching and learning, we must determine if the content is what drives how the course is taught. Universities can find success in both approaches with better relationships with publishers, alternatives to commercial content, and demand-aggregation for better pricing to ultimately best serve students.

Still, both pedagogical approaches present two sets of equally valuable opportunities. If we consider both in parallel, we can better serve higher education. There are, and will surely be more, elements of the traditional approach in the emerging one. If we strategize our content for only one of them, we serve only part of the interests of our institutions. If we strategize for both methods of teaching, we represent and serve all of their interests. A balanced approach for Unizin will be necessary for successfully combining the best parts of traditional pedagogy with edtech.