The issue of course design and assigned readings has been occupying my deeper thoughts recently. At the start of my current course there was some talk about it, and this blog post by Kate Bowles from a few days ago has fueled some of my ideas. Kate suggests a great idea for students at the start of any given course to provide individually contextual resources in lieu of providing introductions. It’s an especially nice idea because the act of “introducing yourself” is kind of embedded in participants’ description of their context and in their contribution of resources that are meaningful to them. However, I don’t see the innovation of participant contributed resources as being mutually exclusive to instructor provided resources. It would be unwise to do away assigned readings.
Perhaps there’s not some great anti-course-readings movement out there that’s sweeping across education. But, like I said, the idea got me thinking, and I do think there’s a few important points to be made about why course readings are not evil, and how perhaps they can be salvaged while educators bring in much needed learner contribution. If assigned readings are better understood maybe it will lead to better use.
Kate describes course readings in terms of a habitual sign of expertise, and points out the risk of focusing “our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others”. These are valid points if we’re going to view the learner ↔ teacher relationship as human to human. I suggest, that with the presence of the term ‘expert’, the relationship here is primarily human to body-of-knowledge.
Now, keep in mind that non-human entities have agency and can learn. They are encapsulated processes in themselves. And, a body of knowledge is one such encapsulated process.
Bodies of Knowledge, or Topics, consist of experience (change in experience, actually, and thus I still prefer the term ‘value’, but…matters for another post), including expert decisions about how to represent that topic. Selected readings are one of the ways that learners access a body of knowledge. This may come off as habitual, as chances are assigned readings will reflect long-standing, basic information about that subject area – cores tend to be much less dynamic than fringes. To me, assigned readings are not like replicating one person’s expertise, or signing a contract (grading and measuring learning certainly are), it’s more like establishing a relationship with a body of knowledge. When an instructor decides some readings for a course they are executing that body of knowledge, representing it through the course readings for learners to initiate a relationship with.
When entities undergo relationship, it is never fully nor exhaustive. We have to encounter other entities in some way. And, to be sure, if course readings are the only way learners relate to a topic, then it’s probably a limited way to experience a topic. They’ll only experience the basics, being out of touch with the current environment. This holds true for the opposite, though – the absence of expert input will leave participants only exposed to novice contributions. They’ll experience only the contextual side, developing a mere surface appreciation for the topic. The better questions in this case are how to use various types of readings and how learners are prepared to encounter these readings (ie: how secondary schools prepare students to handle information). In including the potential for both sides, the problem of assigned readings can thus be addressed depending on what best suits the specific course.
There are some implications of eliminating assigned readings as a policy:
- Something about it just seems illogical – I want to hear what the expert has to say, especially if I’m paying for some course and, presumably, paying for access to such a person’s time. In my experience, more often than not in a class where instructor presence is particularity low (which also seems to be more often than not these days) one or two students will begin to dominate forums with resources, notes and discussion topics. Expert dominance is traded for a limited number of participant dominance.
- To strictly get rid of assigned readings enforces a Human Privileged view of learning. This may not be so bad in itself, but it does raise some concerns. Non-human entities can lean – Can they, should they be ‘educated’? That is to say, do they have intentions? Is this the same as having agency? If topics are merely at the controls of human learners, suppressing and allowing how the different sides of them that are allowed to relate, it can call into question the very idea of non-human entities being able to learn. The definition of ‘learn’ would become wide enough to simply use the word ‘change’.
- Bodies of Knowledge don’t only serve educational purposes. They serve practice. Often instructors’ lives overlap between educators of the field and participants in the field. To expect that the instructor should participate in the field from an educational perspective will shape the view of that body of knowledge in an Educational Privileged way. With practice less represented, the change in experience at the core of any topic will be more difficult to observe. It means distorting a topic because we want novices to learn in a specified way. At the very least, we have to be aware of this and be sure that this is how we want to collect and gather information for future generations.
- The structure of relation doesn’t seem to fit other emerging theories. As learners, do we want to change our environment or change ourselves? To fight our environment, or to live within it? Both are useful in different situations, but maybe this is the point…when we declare something off-limits it removes the ability to use it situationally, or to connect in such a way. We start to see and expect other objects, entities and resources as having to adapt to us, the human, rather than us existing ecologically within our environment. I realize that this is all quite theoretical, and I don’t mean to present it so dramatically, but I do think it matters.
- This issue is an example of a common occurrence in the way educational change is proceeding recently – too often rejecting the past, rather than realizing that traditional education wasn’t bad in itself, it was just limited. It couldn’t adapt to the need of so many new situations and new technological affordances. Education doesn’t need to throw away past practice, it needs to and has been adding to it greatly. We’re capable of a liberation of education here & now, not a shift. Don’t throw away stuff, we may need it. It’s all about Education from Situation.