Beyond Engagement

A bubbly and cheerful presenter, Dr. Bonk describes the instructor as entertainer and learning as audience-centered reception activity. This view, however, conceals the complexity of the interaction between the “keeper” of knowledge and the learner, whose enthusiasm for learning is typically inversely proportional to the complexity of knowledge. This approach to education is characteristic of the current phase of ed-tech, and is well-suited to low-level complexity exercises for introductory undergraduate courses, corporate ice breakers, and other quick public speaking solutions, but has a limited application for cases where a more profound engagement with learning is required, such as graduate-level work.

Engagement is a concept bandied about without much explanation, taken as a given. For the YouTube generation, engagement means being able to hold the attention of a viewer throughout a whole video without clicking away, followed by consuming more videos from the same channel. Sustained engagement with learning is different – it is a lonely affair that forces a transformation in the learner, and transformation is always a site of struggle – not entertainment.

This present talk was about how podcast / video / MOOC-type content allows for information to be presented in more open, low stakes ways, to more people. Besides using the podcasts for what they contain, Bonk proposes interesting ways of meta-organizing them to allow students to play around with the concepts, to re-arrange them by theme, to re-edit them by including their own commentary, and in this way to practice critical thinking.

Podcasts, and other related episodic and serialized content are popular for a variety of reasons:

  • For independent learners, they allow learning to take place around a work schedule (flex time)
  • Self-directed learning (heutagogy)
  • They are intended for the common learner
  • Addressing up-to-date (or “just-in-time”) topics, podcasts as well suited to the “60 year curriculum” (andragogy), although the topics they touch upon may prove to be ephemeral and quickly lose their relevance.
  • Thanks to “Open University” connections, these media allow a global reach.

Dr. Bonk is what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a “maven,” a type of influencer whose greatest contribution is the ability to bring together key actors from various industries and research fields. Someone who “knows people.” The accumulation of content, and with it the accumulation of “podcast capital” (that is, a growing collection of influential figures talking about the important subjects of the day) prevails over a more careful consideration of sustained learning, confounding knowledge with information. There is content that is truly revolutionary and remains relevant across time; then there is content that is well produced and entertaining but that does not age well (many TED talks and most YouTube videos are a part of that genre). Finally, there is content that anyone can generate, and that makes up the vast majority of what is out there, mostly ephemera. All of these are attempts to recruit the viewer’s attention in various ways. Where does learning end and engagement begin? At what point do podcasts cease to provide new information and become self-promotional vehicles? There certainly is no direct correlation between learning and engagement, although engaged learning is the desired result. Engagement often leans on cognitive tricks that stimulate perception, but without a robust educational substance it becomes simply an attention-grabbing and holding device. On the other hand, a “boring” lecture even if delivered in a clumsy and uninspiring way may contain information that is crucial, useful, and can lead to further development. I do not mean to suggest that boring lectures are better than engaging ones, but that engagement alone is not a reliable metric.

In many ways Dr. Bonk’s work is coloured by globalist outreach projects which aim to establish a universal common sense about what learning ought to be. This common sense is described in courses such as Motivating and Supporting Online Learners and its companion textbook. In his own podcast series Silver Lining for Learning | Conversations about the future of education, Bonk’s attention drifts between topics such as the melting of the polar ice-caps, English as a second language, the benefits of rotating copyrighted crops in India, extinction of the krill, the correct history of the Ukraine, African techno-utopianism, the meta potentialities of Facebook’s Meta U, a particular focus on Chinese exchange students, and so on, generously peppered with US-centric political opinion. Such diversified learning interests suggest the ideological creation of the well-rounded global commoner whose expertise may not extend very far, but who can reliably call upon a breadth of information resources at the touch of a button, in a technologically-assisted proletarian rendition of the renaissance-era polymath. It is the job of educational influencers and learning “facilitators” to ensure that sources are curated and directed in specific, frequently political ways. The “curation of content” was among the principle messages of this presentation. With curation comes the power to leave things out, as well as to manage the archives of future generations. As Jacques Derrida writes of the archontic principle, curation is the privilege of those who administer access to knowledge. We cannot do without it, but we must be aware of its tendency to “coordinate a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration.” This, in turn, can easily begin to feel as “common sense” and to become an orthodoxy impervious, and even hostile to self-reflection and criticism.

Yet the tips and tricks of the engagement and attention economies are not to be neglected, and neither are the lessons gained about online learning during the 2019 pandemic. Media creators and education influencers have clearly tapped into something that traditional higher education lacks, and is struggling to catch up with. The 10 to 18-minute length of a typical TED talk was based on observations from neuroscience and professional public speakers, who understood that there is a limit to how much cognition can be loaded in one sitting, on one topic. For similar reasons, according to the Social Media Examiner, YouTube videos that range between 7 and 15 min. in length typically “perform better.”

The reality is that engagement at the early stages of learning does allow one to get a sense of the potential depths of a topic, but this does not translate to more advanced levels of learning because of the shifting nature and motivations of learning. It is easy and convenient to keep the scope of interests broad, because students can be kept perpetually “engaged” at the introductory stages, but they will fail when the learning curve steepens unless they know how to connect to the material in ways that go beyond engagement. In his blog, educator Paul Murphy comments that what is meant by engagement is more accurately described as “involvement” in a topic that the student cares about. The fallacy of engagement then comes from the idea that student performance is a function of engagement, which is the job of the instructor: if a student does poorly, this is because the instructor has failed. Not so, suggests Murphy. What is engaging for one student is not likely to be the same for another, and this may vary as much among individuals as among cultures. Baseball references and “attention-grabbing devices” related to that sport may resonate with North American or Japanese learners, for instance, but may be completely unhelpful with Brazilian or Bulgarian students where soccer is the popular sport. The more crucial point, however, is that in order for deep learning to take place, the student must care about the subject matter beyond engagement, long after the “whizzbang” effect of the first encounter with the topic has faded. This is why any TED-style presentation that goes beyond the 18 minute mark risks becoming yet another typical “sage on the stage” lecture that many would reflexively characterize as “boring.”

Presentation details:

How to Use Shared Online Videos, Podcasts and Webcasts to Engage Online Learners
with Curtis Bonk  
Description: The global disruption wrought by COVID-19 has given institutions, faculty and instructors an unexpected gift: the opportunity to re-imagine teaching and learning to create an equitable, humanistic learning ecosystem for all. Structures that have resisted much-needed change now have the chance to pursue transformative improvements through more authentic learning and apprenticeship with experts in the real world. Shared online videos, webcasts and podcasts offer a unique knowledge portal to the most adventurous and productive pioneers in most fields and disciplines — and interviews of leaders and emerging scholars in their respective fields serve as a historical roadmap of the progress made as well as exciting trends seen firsthand by people with decades of experience. In this session, Dr. Curt Bonk, professor in the School of Education at Indiana University, details a range of innovative pedagogical uses for shared online video, webcasts and podcasts. (Talk available from Contact North webinars)