Knowledge Versus Content in E-Learning: A Philosophical Discussion!

Gonçalo Jorge Morais da Costa, Nuno Sotero Alves da Silva , Bernd Stahl, Mary Prior and Simon Rogerson


During the past three decades, technologies for educational purpose have been used to attempt to achieve better learning outcomes. Thirty years of educational research indicates that technology is effective in education. Many studies have been conducted to scrutinize interactive learning technologies in a multiplicity of forms ranging from the earliest days of mainframe-based computer to modern multimedia learning environments with accessibility via the Internet (Reeves, 1999).

There are two main valencies to using computers for educational purposes; that is, people can learn “from” or “with” technologies. When computer technologies are used to deliver preprogrammed instructional lessons, it is referred as “from” interactive technologies (Jonassen and Carr, 2000). In the paradigm of education from technologies, learners merely obtain knowledge through use of the technologies as a vehicle. They are mainly considered as forms of “media” that are conveyors of information. So, learners are unreservedly regarded as the recipients of encoded knowledge in assorted forms of instructional media (Jonassen and Reeves, 1996). In this approach, learners’ interaction with technologies is limited to inputting response and getting reply from them.

Learning “with” interactive technologies, considers interactive technologies as having an intellectual affiliation between the learners and the technologies. In other words, instead of using technologies to guide learners through prearranged interactions, learners may use technologies that function as “the mindful engagement of learners”. When students learn with computer technologies, instead of being restricted by them, they increase their thinking (Jonassen and Carr, 2000).

In that sense, we have the milestone that promotes the aim of this paper: in a virtual learning environment what is knowledge, and what is content? Such question may seem simplistic, however the answer entails into a philosophical discussion…

Dictionary definitions lend some beginning insight into these important concepts and their even more important distinctions. The first distinction is to engage the difference between data, information and knowledge; however, we may assume that “knowledge” is clearly linked with the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association, which engages a level of learning. In that sense, it is important to be able to distinguish, for ourselves, the one from the other? On the other hand, content is something contained in recipient or a language plan, which means in a communicative process we may recognize content. Considering that learning is essentially a human communicational process, in which point “pure” e-learning will deal with such reality? We oppose the idea that pedagogues plead, because they seem to concentrate their analytical focus on the learning process, without content, because they accused student of “watering down” real knowledge.

In a modest attempt at distinguishing the different conceptual levels, an iterative and recursive value-adding chain emerges: data + interpretation = information + cognitive appropriation = knowledge + collective representation and utilization = content (Budin, 2002).

And in an e-learning project, what can we define as knowledge management and content management? It is indeed a blurry distinction. Knowledge in an e-learning environment was introduced by Shulman in 1988; and Gudmundsdottir (1990), states that pedagogical content knowledge is the combination of subject matter knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, and this is what constitutes teaching expertise. In this way, “content” in pedagogical content refers to the organization of the subject matter.

In Shulman’s theoretical framework, teachers need to master two types of knowledge:

content, also known as “deep” knowledge of the subject itself;
knowledge of the curricular development.

Content knowledge encompasses what Bruner called the “structure of knowledge”- the theories, principles, and concepts of a particular discipline. Especially important is content knowledge that deals with the teaching process, including the most useful forms of representing and communicating content and how student’s best learn the specific concepts and topics of a subject. If beginning teachers are to be successful, they must wrestle simultaneously with issues of pedagogical content (or knowledge), as well as, general pedagogy (or generic teaching principles)” (Ornstein, Thomas and Lasley, 2000).

The contents, their format, localisation or type of support are the principal differences between traditional learning and e-learning (Anderson, 2004); in fact e-learning environments focus on content production, management and distribution, made with new tools and based on digital repositories. As example, the Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) provide the foundation technology for creating, managing, reusing learning content across courses, curricula, and even supply chain, or the Digital Repositories Interoperability (DRI) that allows users to search, gather and expose various learning objects that are stored in repositories. The content could be developed for use in an exclusively e-learning environment, but the need for content standardisation (SCORM, AICC and IMS) must not be forgotten to the aims to reuse and share these contents, for free or commercial proposals.

The production of content and the transfer process of knowledge (Reis, 2005), knowledge as a process or knowledge as a product (Pawlowsky, 2001; Costa and Silva, 2007), are important factors to be considered in this paper, since the form of teaching will probably influence the content (Stahl, 2002). Of course, there are cultural considerations regarding the high quality of e-learning content aligned to the national curriculum design. Another possible issue arises regarding curriculum requirements… If a lecturer has preferences on verbal knowledge, communication and oral discussions, with little or minimal documentation, the contents must be created with respect to the context and the needs of the learning environment and the cultural environment. However, the pre-determination concerning design or selectively design may raise ethical issues, or else the lecturer may become an insignificant component in a pedagogical sense.

In conclusion, in an e-learning environment content management is really about moving documents through the entire process of drafting, approval and publishing, and knowledge management is not just the document itself, but how users are interacting with that document.


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