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Posts Tagged ‘content

One of my least favourite sayings is “content is king”. This might be uttered in the context of media sales pitches.

However, it still is an insidious idea that providers of content and learning management systems (CMS and LMS) and educational portals sell to administrators and decision makers. Not only do the latter groups not realise that co-creating content is a powerful learning experience, they might ignore how content is nothing without context.

Take this example: Singapore mathematics books were sold as superior solutions in some US schools. But our names, examples, spelling, and metric measurement system are contextual barriers to learning. They had to be recontextualised for them to make sense.

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Here is another example about the importance of context. I listened to a Daily Show With Trevor Noah: Ears Edition podcast. In the episode, Chris Hayes, an MSNBC news host, illustrated how context matters when establishing facts.

He cited two examples (starting at the 30min 44sec mark).

The first was an open repository on the after effects of COVID-19 vaccines. Reporters who wished to say that many people died after getting vaccinated could cite that content source. They misled their followers about vaccine effectiveness by excluding context, i.e., when you have millions of vaccinated people, thousands will die anyway of various causes. The context helps you question the content — you cannot claim that vaccinations result in all those deaths.

Hayes’ second example was how a racist website might feature cases on how black men — and only black men — caused crimes. That these men were guilty and charged for these crimes is factual content from official databases. However, this ignores the larger context that men of other races also committed the same crimes. Ignoring context and selling selective content is one way of stoking hate and fear.

Those examples were societal and systemic. But the principle that you cannot teach content without context should also apply in schooling and education. After all, content is drawn from context. And yet some of us in this arena still seek to decontextualise content. 

Why? My guess is that it makes teaching easier. But this also means that learning is superficial and driven by absolutes. This does not gel with a world that is nuanced and subjective. The sooner we teach students to embrace complexity, the better prepared they will be. We might start by teaching content that is anchored in meaningful and original context.

Here is one thing I dislike about how local rags often write their headlines and tweets — their taglines are about one thing while their content is not.

Take the initial daily COVID-19 case reports, for instance. They often list the number of community and imported cases, but the articles do not actually tell you about the cases and are often reminders about safety measures [example].

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Another example is the video above about a possible review of Secondary 5 for what is currently the Normal (Academic) stream. The review is timely given how the new PSLE will stratify students differently and how polytechnics have through-trains.

Hidden from the title of the video was the news that two arts institutes are combining to offer an arts-specialised degree. A journalist asked if this was a relevant move given how those in the arts were not doing well now. The Education Minister countered by pointing out that modern jobs required people with wide ranges of experiences and interdisciplinary outlooks.

This video had a “hidden” message in that it was not indicated in the title. That second message was equally important. However, lazy titling, a lack of video splicing, and indiscriminate sharing did not do the message justice.

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If I was still a biology teacher, I would use this video to teach content and nuanced thinking.

The content is plain: Even though yeast consumes nectar, it does not deprive bees of nutrients. The nuanced thinking is going beyond the idea that yeast is a competitor to bees.

According to the science, the yeast is consumed by the bees. Yeast also warms flowers up so that nectar flows more easily and this makes the nectar easier for bees to consume.

This is why I like SciShow videos. They not only present investing factoids, they also provide seeds for nuanced thinking. That is the sort of thinking students of science need to learn. It is not good enough to learn about science, it is more important to learn to be a scientist.

Today I reflect on the importance of appreciating context.

I probably watched more than my fair share of streaming video programmes during lockdown. I watched several shows that were not in English, e.g., Dark (German), Kingdom (Korean), Money Heist (Spanish), various Miyazaki animations (Japanese), and more.

I listened to the soundtrack of those non-English shows in their original language and had the benefit of English subtitles. I could have activated the English soundtracks, but I found them oddly disconcerting — they did not seem to suit the context.

It was more difficult to watch while reading subtitles, but I was experiencing the narratives in context. The voiceovers seemed to remove expressions and nuance. Think of it this way: Imagine watching the Singaporean comedy series Phua Chu Kang as voiced by British voice actors!

Not appreciating shows in the language they were originally spoken is like like travelling overseas but not taking in the local customs and food. You can insist on having your own way, but what then is the point of travelling?

How is this relevant to learning? Just about anything worth teaching and learning has context. Such context should precede content. But in our rush to cover curriculum (whose root word means “to race”) we focus on content at the expense of context. Context focuses on narratives and the reasons for learning that context.

Since teachers often do not bother with context (or perhaps do not even know the context), I wonder if there might be a way to subtitle teaching as it happens online and electronically. I am not just talking about hyperlinking interesting talking points. I am thinking about subtitles that run like chyrons so that context enriches content as it is delivered and discovered.

One of my pet peeves is how some people confuse correlation with causation. Sometimes I cannot blame them because they were taught to think that way.

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The SciShow video above highlights one common example. As a former biology student (and teacher), I was taught (and taught others) wrongly that aching muscles are due to lactic acid buildup.

Not only is the buildup due to lactate — a base that accepts protons — aches are only correlated to the buildup. The lactate might build up, but it does not seem to cause the aches; the actual cause is not yet known for sure.

This video is not just useful for highlighting how scientific facts change, but also how scientific thinking takes place. It is the latter that creates content and changes it. It is the thinking that needs to be modelled and taught, not just the content.

I like watching videos where experts either explain difficult concepts to learners of different ages or just to kids. The video below is one of the latter.

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Explaining to an adult how to create bioluminescent plants from firefly DNA is challenging, much less kids. The two content experts from MIT were not quite comfortable teaching kids and their attempts illuminate some concepts about how students learn and what an effective teacher looks like.

When one content expert tried simplifying the concept of transferring bioluminescence, she ran into some trouble.

Expert: “…we just ask them to give us some chemicals”.
One child: “Do you tell them?”

Expert: “We just borrow the light from the fireflies…”
Another child: “Do you mean like real borrow or do you just keep it?”

The expert was visibly stunned by the kids’ questions and their teacher intervened with timely and appropriate answers.

An effective teacher is not just knowledgeable in content, she should also be a child and learning expert. As information mushrooms and knowledge needs to be constantly negotiated and updated, being the latter type of expert is critical.

The other expert got the kids to participate in a hands-on activity where they simulated bioluminescence by mixing chemicals in small vials. Instead of hearing about bioluminescence, they tried and saw for themselves.

This is not about appealing to different “learning styles” — which is a myth anyway — but to teach and reinforce with multiple methods and modes. That said, kids generally learn best by what stems from natural curiosity, i.e., experiencing and asking.

The teacher as a child and learning expert asked a critical question at the end of the experiment: “What do you think this could help solve?” She did not provide answers to her learners, but got them to generate answers that required them to think actively about what they just experienced.

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There are lots of takeaways from this video. One is this factoid: From 5000 BCE to 2007, the estimated amount of information stored by the human race was 300 exabytes; in 2013, that data had grown four times to 1,200 exabytes.

The information explosion is a key reason why we cannot focus on just teaching and testing for content.

You might argue that what students learn in school is a limited set and that some curricula are reduced to accommodate shorter terms and more tests. If you do, you are missing the point.

The focus on content does not necessarily require learners to deal with the growing mountain of information. Students resort to learning GIGO — garbage in, garbage out — resulting in short-term learning.

What the learners of today and tomorrow need to know and do is how to process such information. This means knowing how to seek, collect, analyse, and evaluate information and then collating, curating, creating, and critiquing so that it makes sense.

These skills are not new, but they are even more important now that we are in the midst of an information explosion. To deny this or teach otherwise is to be blind and irresponsible.

… is another man’s poison.

That was the saying that came to mind when I read this student’s feedback on teaching.

A reporting officer or an administrator might view this feedback on teaching negatively.

A teacher who focuses on content as a means of nurturing thoughtful learners might view this positively.

I am not describing a false dichotomy. I am summarising reality.

I never thought I would ever type this: There are valuable lessons in Trump’s tweets.

I am not referring to learning how NOT to be inflammatory. I am thinking about how his tweets are good for discourse analysis. I am doing this thanks to this insightful video by Nerdwriter1.

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The video creator did a great job of chunking Trump’s tweets by type and nuance in numbers, and analysing their design and impact.

I might use this video as a resource if I get a chance to work with a group of teachers who need to learn how to do discourse analysis for the purpose of narrative-style reporting and research writing.

If I do, this will show how one might learn from something negative.

A little over a year ago, I reflected on the three dimensions of educational technology: IT, ICT, and IDM. These evolutionary dimensions focused largely on technology affordances.

This year, I reflect on another three dimensions, this time from the social and pedagogical perspectives.

In the era of IT, teachers and media folks used technology to create content. We leverage on technology to do that to this day. This might be why Bill Gates declared “content is king” when predicting the ascent of the Web in the 90s.

While content is important and will not lose relevance, how policy makers, school leaders, teachers still treat it with reverence is passé. We can comfortably declare that we now live in an information-rich world. We need to question if any content we create is new or if it adds any value (to the next dimension, context).

However, schools now still largely process and reprocess old content. Teachers are evaluated on their ability to recreate such content, get students to practice it, and test how much content students retain temporarily.

What matters more is context. It shapes why we need content and it makes learning meaningful. Context also provides an authentic platform for practice and application. If teachers and lessons are labelled as not being relevant, it is because they are poor or lacking in context.

These contexts provide learners with opportunities to connect with knowledgeable others in order to create new content, context, and connections.

The technologies that kids embrace today, e.g., video games and social media, are not just places for learning content. Teachers who think inside their content box and try to create cool lessons are only partially reaching their students.

Video games and social media are also the platforms that provide context and connectedness.

One example: The content behind the skill of being able to make a prediction is learnt in-game as well as practiced and negotiated in that context.

Another example: Fans learn Korean by watching K-pop on YouTube or English as a Second Language learners watch English game play videos; YouTube as a platform is an authentic context for learning, conversing, and connecting.

Technology becomes educational not just when teachers create content with it, but especially when learners can do the same while in context and in connection with each other. To do any less is to provide a disservice to our learners and not do our job as educators.


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