Intent of Content

In response to a recent post, corrie raised some questions about the value of connections: ” But connections connect things-of-value. Without those things, the connections are useless.”

Stephen Downes replied, stating “But what we remember, what is significant, is the relation between the things. Why? Because our perception of the thing changes. We see it in different light, from different angles, in different contexts.” Essentially stating that content changes. If we are connected to content – we will continue to grow and learn…as a result, the connection is the point of value.

This discussion opens a question that was re-enforced while attending the Beyond Boundaries conference today. The keynote presenter mentioned developments in online education – MIT OCW, connexions etc. The focus was heavily on the content aspect of education. I’m not ant-content. A learning network consists of nodes (content) and links (connections). The network is useless without both.

In the history of human knowledge we have generally favored content – because creating connections was high-cost (1 instructor 30 students). Content was much easier – scrolls, books (go printing press), libraries, etc. Time and space, however, limited the capacity of (and opportunity for) connection forming. Essentially, the content/connections debate is lopsided. Our perception of content is too prominent in the learning process. In fact, when most people talk learning, they think of content – book, course, program, audio, and video.

The internet and it’s child – elearning – changes that. Suddenly connections are possible. With anyone. Almost anytime. Developing collaborative technologies are continuing to extend our potential to connect to content and people. But in the process, it also alters content. Content development pace increases. What is the impact? We need to continually reference back to content, due to rapid changes. But this is a big challenge – our tools and approaches aren’t very friendly towards quickly changing content – we still have to “go to” a website to see if it has changed. RSS changes that…and many newer “web 2.0″ tools fill out the connection-based landscape. Essentially, learning networks are correcting the existing deficiency of connections (in relation to content). In part, connections need to take a prominent role – because connections permit the formation of new content (i.e. content is sub-servant to connections).

With that stated, what then is the value of content? Or connections? At best, they should lead learners to reflection and interaction. Learning is not content consumption. Learning happens during some process of interaction and reflection. Content, then, can be a lead into learning…or it can be a by-product of the learning process. In the end, in our world today, we MUST focus on creating connections first (when I speak to learning designers, the first focus in design (after profiling learners) is to seek or create content. Why? What about content makes people think that it’s learning (or even the start of learning)?).

Connections, on the other hand, are a more direct lead into learning, simply because connections are more vibrant than content. By this, I mean that connections are more social and action-oriented than content. Blogs are a great example. When I read Stephen’s, Maish’s or Will’s blog…I take their content…reflect on it, and incorporate it into my own thinking and blogging. While I value their content, the greatest value is the RSS feeds that connect me to their content (or in Stephen’s case – his daily email as well).

Transfer this thinking to corporate environments, what’s more important – what is currently known (existing content/knowledge) or our capacity to continue to know more (connections)? Social, collaborative tools – blogs, wikis, groupware, listervs, live/online meetings, mindmaps – all provide individuals with the capacity to continue to know more. Connection-forming tools will always create content, but their value lies in our ability to reflect on, dialogue about, and internalize content in order to learn. Put another way, content is knowledge frozen at a certain time (i.e. a magazine article), whereas a connection is a pipeline to continue to flow new knowledge.

5 Responses to “Intent of Content”

  1. You write… “content is knowledge frozen at a certain time”
    better would be: “content is communication frozen at a certain time”

  2. Hi Stephen – yes, you’re right – I was thinking courses as I typed :) . thanks for the comment.

  3. corrie says:

    The conversation has been a great example of why semantics is important. It’s both-and, not either-or. I agree that the focus has been on content for the past several centuries, for precisely the reason you state – it’s been easier to create the content than the connection.
    But connections have always been possible as well. You can go to a library (Carnegie, university, monastery, Alexandria). Read books and articles. Go sit at the feet of great teachers. Go do original research. Publish it. Get feedback. Rewrite, remix, feed forward.
    That’s all been possible since ancient times. What’s new, now, is that it’s easy, cheap, and fast. Ridiculously so. We make connections at the speed of light rather than at the speed of text.
    What I’m still trying to work out is whether this represents a fundamental change.
    People are still people. Mazlow’s ladder applies today as surely as it did to the slaves of Rameses, the beggars outside Solomon’s palace, or Siddartha Gautama. Technology does not change the things we do – only the ways in which we do things.
    Thanks for the link to my site. Now I’ll have to post there more often. :-)

  4. Marc André says:

    “In the history of human knowledge we have generally favored content”
    Actually, that is not really true. In the (fairly) recent history of civilisation, maybe, but if you look at how knowledge was, and still is, passed on in cultures like the Fula people, as examplified in Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s books, it is mainly a question of connexions. Connexions between people, and facts. The oral tradition is not only about what is transmitted, but also how.
    Way back when, when someone from another region, or another village, would come to your home, you would welcome them, feed them and give them shelter in return for stories, for knowledge.
    As Corrie pointed out, “What’s new, now, is that it’s easy, cheap, and fast.”

  5. George, first, thank you for your learning theory for the digital age. Second, I want to make sure I understand this clearly in its application to K-12 education.
    Your idea of a knowledge ecology is powerful. I understand this as the power of nurture, of the culture in which personal learning networks are constructed. It is critical that this knowledge ecology embody our values as educators and invite students to build their networks within this ecology.
    I write that because students are taking advantage of other ecologies–toxic ones, IMHO–to build their networks in. These ecologies include virtual spaces like, Flickr, and other spaces with inappropriate content.
    What are your thoughts? A longer blog entry on this appears at:
    Thanks in advance for your feedback and thoughts,
    Miguel Guhlin