Relevance is the key requirement for adoption or use of virtually anything. If something is not relevant, it’s not used. Relevance can best be defined as the degree to which a resource or activity matches an end user’s needs. The closer the match, the greater the potential value.
Within education (particularly higher education), relevance is a subjective concept. I recall taking many courses where I couldn’t understand practical use. Concepts seemed too obscure to be applied to real life. Later, I often discovered that I did find value in the material – the use and application trailed behind the learning. Learning obviously has various uses and functions – some types are for direct application, others for building knowledge (which subsequently will also lead to direct application), still others for shaping frameworks that will guide and filter subsequent learning.
What then does it mean for learning to be relevant? Does it mean that the learner has to immediately see use for new information? Does it mean that the course/program designers need to include content that the learner will only find useful at some future date (but may currently be seen as irrelevant)? I imagine it’s both. A learner must be able to see relevance, but it is important for designers to communicate the components of a field in a broad manner – thereby permitting learners to see future value from the experience.
Relevance, however, is not only about the nature of content. In education, I see the challenge of relevance to rest in two areas: 1) process of instruction and learning (i.e. what does it mean to learn today) and 2) the process of ensuring currency of content/information (i.e. how to manage knowledge growth and function effectively in a diminishing half-life of knowledge environment – the time from when knowledge is gained until it is obsolete).
Higher education is largely ignoring the shift in relevance based on the two criteria mention above (process and currency). Some institutions are beginning to explore alternative models of content delivery. Elearning initially focused on simply duplicating classroom activities, so content was generally created in linear, course-sized chunks. In order to learn, a learner needed to be able to devote a large amount of time to exploring content. Learning, elearning, and blended learning are all simply models through which content of any size can be distributed. When I state “alternative models” of delivery, I’m referring to an alteration in size, manner, and point of content delivery (i.e. rather than a course, learning can be delivered in smaller, individual objectives…in a variety of formats – computer, paper-based, cell phone. The content needs to be “findable” at the learner’s point of need (as compared to learning being provided “just-in-case”)). The more closely the content is positioned to the point of doing/need, the more effective the learning process. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that learning is much more than exposure to content. Social, community, and collaborative approaches to learning are important. The very nature of what it means to learn is also worth evaluating. How does learning occur? Is learning largely a connection-forming process? Do we have to possess knowledge in order to “know” something? Or is it more important that we know where to find knowledge?
The second criteria for relevance in today’s environment is for institutions to ensure that content is current. This is a significant challenge. By nature, a “course” is prepared months in advance of delivery, and is then modified as needed based on new information. Compare the model of a course with the activity within the social tools of blogs and wikis. Courses are fairly static. Blogs are dynamic – changing hourly, daily. This is not to say that I favour blogs over courses. Rather, content designers need to understand the nature of the half-life of knowledge in their field and ensure that they select the right tools to keep content current for the learners (and that may well be a combination of course-based content and directing learners to prominent bloggers in their field). Admittedly, currency of content requires far more thinking and planning than I’ve described here. Content management systems, aggregators, intelligent search, and other tools are part of the overall structure of ensuring content is up to date. The main point I’m communicating is that the course format is at odds with the evolving nature of information in society. We need to augment our view of what is it means to be current in our fields…and how we propose to tap learners into a larger structure that continues to provide value well beyond the close of a course.