Digital Content – You keep using that word . . .

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Granted, it’s more than possible I have no idea what “digital content” means either. I may also be the guy walking around arguing that water is wet.

The White Whale

“Digital content” is what everyone wants as we move towards the magical BYOD-Edu-singularity. What that means is likely very different depending on the person saying it.1 I think you can divide what people mean by digital content into a few major categories.

  1. Link Lists – the venerable link list divided by your content label of choice (state standard, topic header, novel, etc.). The “new” version would likely be built using a social bookmarking solution and tagging but it’s the same concept. Context for the resources is minimal if it exists at all.
  2. PDF/HTML textbooks – no substantial changes in what we’ve always had but in digital format. The rationale usually involves things like lighter backpacks and the ability to update/correct errors.2 It is a sterile environment where you have to take what you get and integrating additional resources fluidly is difficult. Topical content integration isn’t facilitated.
  3. Augmented Textbooks – start with a traditional textbook and replace some of the pictures with movies, add self-grading multiple choice quizzes,3 and some links to internal content. Some simple tools may be integrated (think highlighter, light note taking). Interactivity and multimedia content is increased but I’m not sure it really matters. Content remains hard to change and customize with anything on the outside of the system. Topical content integration isn’t facilitated.
  4. LMS as Textbook – essentially lots of content and internal tools (discussion board, drop box, etc.) with varying degrees of imposed content structure. This system may or may not facilitate the integration of outside content and tools. This system tends to either be set up to push content in a fairly rigid format or to enable teachers to do whatever they like. It can provide an in between structure where core content is pushed in a modifiable manner and the teacher based customization is visible.

There are also a variety of ways to think about the actual pieces of content.

  1. The first is the vetted, contextualized informational content we’ve always relied on textbooks to provide. The kind of content that tells us what we need to know in a fairly condensed way so we can pass the test. It’s attractive, in part, because it’s convenient and seen as “true.”
  2. Then there are the resources (usually informational but which may also include lessons/projects/media) teachers habitually use to fill in gaps they perceive based on what the text provides. They tend to have context and are meant to be educational. This could be driven by the teacher’s understanding of the final test (their own, AP, or high stakes), personal interests/beliefs about the content, or based on attempts to engage students.
  3. Media elements devoid of textbook/externally imposed context also play a role. These can vary from primary source documents, to graphs, to maps, to images, to songs. They may or may not be intentionally educational (at all or about that topic). The context in which they are used matters quite a bit and tends to be personalized by the teacher around their particular teaching style and knowledge base.
  4. Finally, there’s the idea of topical/ephemeral content. This is the kind of content which matters in the moment but may not be (as) valuable once that moment passes.

In my own definition of digital content, I also include tools, platforms, and raw data- essentially things you might manipulate or process as well as the means to manipulate and process.

Clearly there are lots of ways to think about this content and the way both teachers and students interact with it. What I think becomes increasingly important is what we expect. For instance, if you believe that a textbook should tell a teacher who is struggling what to do- then you pursue a highly structured, very detailed, almost scripted model. That very structure and specificity is likely to turn off your highly skilled teachers.4 Maybe the goal is to provide base information so teacher don’t have to build everything from scratch. If so, that’s likely to be an entirely different type of structure and methodology. All things that seem to require quite a bit of thought and planning prior to deciding on a “digital content” solution.


In the scheme of things, it’s fairly easy to create an index of resources aligned to some set of standards. It’s not even that hard to create an online textbook.5 The textbook will certainly take more time and effort but in the end it is just a fleshed out version of the resources.

What’s more difficult is designing a structure and system that intentionally creates overlaps of structured content with alternative content types and harder still creating workflows that feed that system in ways that people will maintain. I want to prevent content in a way that encourages a lens on the world that is far broader and more inclusive than the one typically used in instruction and instructional content. I don’t know how much energy and time should be spent trying to make these connections explicit for people vs just juxtaposing content types where people might make connections themselves or others beyond what you intended.

I wonder quite a bit how the structures used to present content shape how that content is used both by teachers and students. I’m also realizing that I need to build something like this for two of the three audiences. I don’t think building systems for the lowest percentage of teachers has enough return to justify the huge amount of energy and time required. It seems you have to shoot for something that is manageable for the middle percentage but actually provides advantages and opportunities for the upper tier of teachers.

1 If it’s followed directly with a “cloud” reference, I suggest beating a hasty retreat.

2 Both of these make me fairly sad.

3 The results of which may or may not be visible to the teacher.

4 It seems it might be possible to have both simultaneously but it’s not an easy thing to achieve. I think for the most part people revert to the first scenario because most of the energy, attention, and structure is focused on “failing” teachers. I’d also argue that a truly bad teacher is not going to be fixed through scripting. You might get to low mediocrity through that kind of intervention but it’s unlikely to fix the core problems without some serious additional work. Aren’t you glad this is a footnote so you can ignore it?

5 The name is somewhat problematic but I’m going to let that go for now in a perhaps misguided attempt to avoid a long tangent.

Comments on this post

  1. Luke said on March 13, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Thanks for this.

  2. Andrew Chlup said on March 13, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Thank you for a thoughtful definition of digital content.

    Your distribution categorizations are fantastic, particularly in regards to the context of resources. My district has a tool that allows teachers to organize resources by curriculum and pacing. This is then tagged with metadata related to the type of resource (i.e. website, presentation, lesson, etc…).

    It has created an enormous amount of sharing in our district.