Sunday, June 15, 2014

Creating vs Curating Content in (Online) Course Development

As I finalized plans (and the development budget) for creating an online version of my Intro to Ancient Rome course, I've devoted a lot of time and thought to the issue of created vs curated content.  I've also thought about how this issue might have different answers for a blended or hybrid course vs an online course.  In my course design, the guiding principles have been "good enough" and "narrative flow."  In other words, there needs to be a coherent, sensible narrative (and authorial voice--even if the author herself is relatively invisible); and the priority is always student learning rather than bells and whistles for their own sake.  I am working with a relatively small budget of $150,000 (small enough that I can afford to pay myself AND the team of students helping me; we also have to pay the instructional costs for the first semester out of this budget).  Animations, elaborate simulations, even video-taped lectures are expensive to produce.  On the other side of things, with every passing month, more and more content becomes available on Wikimedia, YouTube, and other sites.  Most recently, as part of their Smart History series, the Khan Academy has begun to post short content videos on major pieces of ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture (e.g. the Capitoline Brutus bust). 

These videos are not without their flaws; but they are good enough for my purposes.  The same is true of the many documentaries on topics like the Punic Wars, Caesar and the Civil Wars, Spartacus, and the Julio-Claudians.  Sure, there is some truly awful stuff out there, for instance, this "documentary" on Caligula.  All of the documentaries take our ancient sources like Suetonius and Tacitus at face value when it comes to the supposedly "mad" emperors Caligula and Nero.  Still, these can be great starting points for talking about the problem of creating a reliable historical narrative from biased written sources, and offers a chance to introduce students to some of the methods that real life scholars use (e.g coinage, inscriptions, other kinds of material evidence).

In deciding whether it makes sense to invest precious resources in the creation of some new piece of content, I ask the following questions: how much will it cost?  Animation can be excellent, especially for demonstrating complex social processes like voting or patronage; but truly excellent animation is time-consuming and very expensive.  What is already available and how good is it?  Can it be integrated easily into the course?  Can I create something that is so much better than what is already out there that it is worth the cost?  Or, would it somehow disrupt the flow of the course to curate rather than create content?  Finally, do I want to take the risk that this free content might someday disappear (YouTube links are constantly disappearing.  It is usually possible to find the same documentary elsewhere, but that means updating links every semester and being ready to deal with links going away mid-course).

Overall, for the online course, I've opted to curate rather than create content whenever possible.  This decision is partly time and budget driven; but it's also because I'm curious to see whether it matters.  When the class runs, it will have an instructor who is not me. It will have lots of opportunities for students to interact with the instructor and one another.  I suspect that it will matter little to them whether they are watching a clip from a documentary to learn about the Siege of Saguntum instead of hearing me talk about.

In my blended class, I've taken a different approach--I do use video clips and other online content to supplement or illustrate my class presentations, but I also assign pre-recorded lectures rather than collections of clips.  I do this precisely because, for my campus course, the students see me as the instructor and would find it very disorienting if I were to completely disappear from the stage.  For better or worse, they are still accustomed to a "sage on the stage" model of instruction in large courses.  It's possible to resist that role of sage, but it has to be done carefully.  As well, many of us who teach blended classes have found that students prefer content to be created by us.  It gives them the sense that we care, that we aren't "outsourcing" our job (which many of them still see as, primarily, delivery of content).  I have a sneaking suspicion that online students will come at the course with an entirely different set of expectations, and that their expectations will allow for an approach that privileges curation over creation.  The challenge is making sure that we carry out that curation thoughtfully, and that all the disparate bits are tied together into a clear narrative that students can follow. 

In Fall  2014, when both the blended and the online versions will be running, I'm going to be paying a lot of attention to this issue.  We are going to make the library of content lectures available to the online students, but they won't be necessary for success in the course.  I'm very curious to see how the students use them.  I am also excited to see how they use the different pieces of curated content and whether they view the created content differently from the curated content.

It seems to me that one of the key issues in online course design is knowing when to create and when to curate, especially as more and more content becomes freely available online.  It makes no sense for every course designer to reinvent the wheel, yet there are clearly times when new content needs to be created and it is worth the cost.  I suspect that, over times, some sense of best practices around this issue will emerge for different kinds of course content.  As well, if consortia like Unizin materialize according to plan, it seems that one benefit will be instructor access to high-quality digital assets that are created and shared by partner institutions.  For many disciplines, this has already been done to some extent by textbook companies (just not for my own of Classics).  But I can certainly imagine a not too distant future in which colleagues around the country share animations, simulations, etc. as well as draw on commercially-produced educational content (e.g. History Channel documentaries).

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