Content is a print concept

I’ve been saying annoying things like “I don’t believe in content” and “what do you mean course ‘content?’ I don’t even know who’s going to be there” for a number of years now. There’s a part of me, as George Station will attest, that just likes the sound of certain words put together.

The bigger part of me has always struggled with the word.

There are fundamental claims made, I think, when we use the word content. We have decided what someone ‘needs to know.’ I always think back to the forklift driver’s course that I took when I worked at the lead/silver refinery. They taught us the ‘correct’ way to drive a forklift – a driving method I’d never seen anyone use before…nor have I seen it since. While there are good legal reasons for teaching us the government approved approach… I’d probably be fired if I tried to ‘thoroughly look over my forklift’ every single time I was about to use it. Those lessons were the content that needed to be covered, though. To what end, I wonder… and when exactly did we start thinking of courses as having ‘content?’

I have this idea (totally unverifiable) that our current educational use of ‘content’ came to us from print – that it is a concept that only makes sense when arguments are, as Socrates would say, ‘no longer able to defend themselves.’ When they are written down. I might use the word ‘content’ when talking about a conversation I had with someone, but I, at least, would never use it to describe what was going to happen BEFORE the conversation had happened. A conversation, ideally, is the coming together of two or more people’s ideas. What comes out of that conversation is to some degree always going to be a surprise.

Why don’t I say writing, you might ask, instead of print? I think of writing as being partially to blame, but not the real culprit.

When Europe starting peeking its way through the veil of the dark ages, one of the first things we hear about learning comes from the court of Charlemagne. Turns out the large majority of priests in his day couldn’t really speak Latin. This did not stop them from ‘saying’ Latin phrases. Those phrases did things like make marriages official and make sure babies didn’t go to hell… so they were important phrases… but the priests were speaking them from memory. Turns out Charlemagne thought God could only speak Latin, and figured that if they said the phrases wrong the wouldn’t work. So… he figured he would take a shot at fixing that.

You can totally see why he wanted to make sure people did EXACTLY as they were supposed to. I mean, if you believed as he believed, there were people GOING TO HELL because they were mis-speaking Latin phrases. So he released the ‘Charter of Modern Thought’ that led to all kinds of things, including better education for bishops, enforced education for priests and, eventually, schools to be opened at monasteries for kids. We don’t know exactly what happened at those schools…but there is one slightly terrifying story of one pupil who burned down the monastery to avoid being disciplined for a now forgotten crime. In almost every case, however, they’re all still learning about things God said and things other people (Boethius, Plato, Augustine) said.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, we see the vague beginnings of the modern university. We see, at almost the same time, the birth of thought control at universities. There is one school of historical thought that sees the birth of universities as directly tied to the desire for thought control. In their version, the church/local rulers encouraged their formation to avoid the tedious problem of local smart people educating people at random and causing trouble (see Peter Abelard). Aristotle’s Physics were banned at Paris, for instance, because they taught an origin story that conflicted with church teachings.

The desire to repeat things exactly and the desire to control what people learned met their perfect weapon in the printing press. Not only did it mean we were now not going to get those irritating errors that keep cropping up when one (sometimes illiterate) person tries to copy someone else’s copy of a copy of 20 or 50 thousand words, it also meant you could create bunches and bunches of them. It also meant that things less important than Augustine and less important than the Bible could get turned into a book.

We take up our incredibly brief history of content in 1798 with my favourite educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He had a dream… and what a dream. He wanted to teach the entirety of Switzerland to read (and rite and do rithmatic). Tricky problem… he didn’t have any teachers to work with. In his book “How Gertrude teaches her children” he talks about his crazy solution. Imagine, he says, if we took all the things that people needed to know and broke them into small pieces. Pieces so simply defined that ANYONE, whether they understood what they were doing or not, could teach someone else how to do something. Lets just go ahead and call it a ‘textbook’.

We’ve gone from
‘oh my god they better just memorize it so no one goes to hell’


‘lets make sure we figure out what they’re teaching so people don’t get funny ideas’


‘lets dumb this down to the point that anyone can understand it’

From there we have the splintering of learning into different disciplines, and an ever increasing % of the population learning. We move from people talking about things as learning – a discourse (our boy Socrates) to learning being an accomplishment of specific predefined tasks. Tasks that could only be defined in this way because they could be written down. Tasks that form the ‘content’ of learning designed in a schoolbook that as Pestalozzi would say “is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one].”

So… here’s the think piece.

Content is a print concept. It requires replication in the form of the printing press. It requires authority/power in the form of a government/agency/publisher deciding what is ‘required’ to learn. It is a standardization engine for learning, both to allow for spreading of authorized messaging and to allow for ‘uninstructed teachers to teach almost as well as an experienced one.’

I can certainly see where it’s useful. Particularly when you are only invested in surface level understanding of something. I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it. Our current connectivity allows us to actually engage in discussions at scale… can that replace content?

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

30 thoughts on “Content is a print concept”

  1. Or, instead of controlling thought or enforcing the proper pronounciation of magic spells, content might be used as shared context for a community of learners. Content doesn’t have to be “Content™” – it can be anything that can support dialog/reflection/scaffolding. This blog post is content, which could be used to trigger learning moments. And this comment is also comment, but with fewer fancy words.

    1. Could be – and a lot of it depends on how we parse the word. As long as your meaning of ‘content’ includes ‘darcy made a comment on dave’s post.’ As long as we’re keeping the ‘content’ as a record of a discussion that HUMANS had, then i would say we agree but think of the word content differently 🙂 My usage of the word is more about how it gets used to stabilize ‘what two dudes were talking about’ into ‘KNOWLEDGE’. It’s about keeping the connections on a people to people basis.

      1. Sounds more like a distinction between authoritarianism and not-authoritarianism than between content and not-content… “Content” isn’t the problem – it’s just artifacts of culture. If the culture is based around ‘what two dudes were talking about’, that’s something that can (and should) be worked on. Avoiding ‘content’ won’t change that.

          1. Correlation does not preclude causation either. 🙂 You’re not convinced, and that’s cool. That’s why we think out loud.

  2. People used to make records
    As in a record of an event
    The event of people playing music in a room
    Now everything is cross-marketing
    Its about sunglasses and shoes
    Or guns and drugs
    You choose
    We got it rehashed
    We got it half-assed
    We’re digging up all the graves
    And we’re spitting on the past
    And you can choose between the colors
    Of the lipstick on the whores
    Cause we know the difference between
    The font of 20% more
    And the font of teriakiyi
    You tell me
    How does it… make you feel?
    ~ Ani DiFranco, Fule

  3. It seems like you laid the foundation for the argument that ‘content’ (described as reproducible, standardizable, requirable, and maybe add measurable) became a useful tool for maintaining the status quo or advancing the needs of the existing power structures. Smart enough to get to heaven and dumb enough to want to get there?

    Seems like ‘content’, as a reproduced, standardized, required, measurable thing, emerged organically as it proved itself useful to the task of advancing the needs of the existing power structures. If you are suggesting we open up the definition of ‘content’ to include forms of content like discussion and creation that cannot be ‘pre-built’ but that emerge, we will need to consider if those forms of emergent content will also become standardizable, requirable, and measurable and also serve the needs of existing power structures. Or is the nature of emergent content different enough, if we embrace it, that it will take us down a different road?

    1. Another awesome comment. That is certainly a risk. I’m becoming more and more sensitive to the ways in which the ‘community’ starts to build orthodoxy as a mechanism to identify belonging. There might be more/diverse forms of power at work in the emergent content model, but I agree with you they are certainly there. And i totally agree on the addition of ‘measurable’.

  4. As a Quaker by osmosis (rather than a scholar of the Reformation), I have often heard that the printing and dissemination of the Bible in English gave a lot of people the opportunity to read and interact with the text for themselves, discuss it among each other, and not rely on interpretations handed down by the clergy. Quakers also emphasized continuing revelation: the printed Bible was not the last inspired word, but God could speak to or through anyone at any time. I’ve often heard it said that Quakers abolished the laity, not the clergy; we are all understood to be ministers. Direct experience, and listening for “where the words came from,” was and still is more highly valued by Quakers than any fixed content (such as you describe here). We also tend to pose queries, and many of the writings from early Quakers are journals, or epistles to specific individuals or groups that assume an ongoing conversation and interest in learning from each other.

    The kind of learning I’ve experienced among Quakers is different from much of my other learning, and I would be curious to hear from others who have experienced anything like this.

    1. That’s a very cool angle on this discussion. That sounds like learning to me… but not so much what we normally find in ‘Education’. The bible itself, however, is a collection of stories and not what I would call content. The vast majority of those stories are still tied to the people who told them. Whether you believe they are ‘revelation’ or ‘history’ or ‘fables’ they are certainly stories of what people have learned/not learned.

    2. Sounds like we’re still living through the schism of Reformation. Francophones often talk about Charlemagne as the reason we have compulsory education (we have songs about that). Anglophones (especially Prostestants) often talk about the Printing Press as the key turning point in the history of Civilisation.
      Our technolibertarian world is much closer to the latter than the former. So are transhumanists, as opposed to posthumanists.

  5. ‘content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it’

    so i’m wondering.. why have a course. what is a course. what’s the purpose of a course.

    1. It’s a shorthand for calling people together and to start the creation of a social contract. It could get called something else I suppose.

      1. Hearing Downes talk about cohorts was quite illuminating, in this context. The course is a kind of time-limited community of experience. It specifically excludes any Community of Practice, but that’s all fine.

        In anthro, we encounter the notion of age-sets, which are actually quite similar to cohorts (typically made of people who are initiated at the same time). My friends in Mali would talk about their «promotionneurs» in both school and social contexts. In their case, the community of experience did lead to Communities of Practice, with a longterm sense of belonging and interdependency.

        So a “course” (as in “MOOC”) is something of a pretext. But, as with most social constructs, it remains useful when we don’t restrict ourselves to it.

  6. A chap called Dave Middlebrooke helps de-construct reading by breaking apart the content – and the process – here’s what he has to say on textbooks:

    “You ask about how textbooks are designed and constructed, and how this might impact pedagogy. Sometimes we get lost in the woods; we fail to see the big picture. Regardless of how many features and bells and whistles you design into a textbook, the basic bound-book form remains the same. That’s the big picture: The form of our books is what matters most.

    Scrolls take us out of the box defined by the ancient Roman codex (our bound book); they free us from a book-bound mindset and open us to a much broader range of possibilities for presenting, accessing, interacting with, and sharing the written word.

    Open a bound book and you see two facing pages. You’ll never see the whole book at once; the form does not permit this. The content inside our books is implicit (implicare) — literally infolded so that you can only see a fraction of it at any one moment. Scrolls, in contrast, can be unrolled so that the content is explicit — literally unfolded or unrolled (explicare), and thus wide-open to understanding. Bound books meter out their content in little snippets; scrolls show it all in a single, continuous, panoramic view.

    In my experience, these two very different book forms — infolded/bound and unrolled — lead to very different learning experiences. That’s design impacting pedagogy.

    — Dave Middlebrook”

  7. One more etymology: LECTURE. This was from reading out loud, back when students did not have copies of the content they could read for themselves. The noun is formed from the Latin verb legere, “to read,” which also gives us the English words legible (readable) and — surprise! — lesson (specifically, a Bible reading or Bible lesson; Latin lectio). More details at
    I’m no fan of lecture, and the worst is when the professor just reads aloud from the textbook (I had that happen in — oh irony! — a “History of Education” course I was required to take for my teaching certificate; this was back in the 1990s) or when they read aloud from the Powerpoint slides (now in the digital age).

  8. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was not apples, but content. And have you noticed in a classroom how content usually stops the conversation? If that’s the content, then what else is there to say? Just memorize that.

  9. what a great way to support my ongoing desire and discussion to help people understand that books do not equal learning and help teachers broaden their sources …. yeah baby!

  10. I find it a bit hard to follow the argument at times. Textbooks as tools for auto-didacts go back a long way, and have accomplished some remarkable things. Luca Pacioli’s 15th century textbooks on accounting are credited with making the entire Renaissance possible, due to the dissemination of the double-entry method. He didn’t invent the method, but he was the first to explain well in text. Copernicus’s treatise on the motion of the planets showed the possibility texts, and changed the world as well, as one of the early triumphs of print.

    What they both share — their content-ness, as it were — is an understanding that they must make themselves accessible to a wide variety of contexts. The reader’s context is not the same as the speaker’s context, so a new sort of prose must be made which takes this into account.

    I’m not sure that’s the same as “dumb this down so anyone gets it” — it’s more a way of saying “You don’t have followed the conversation up to now to understand what I’m about to write”. It strikes me (or has struck me previously, I suppose) that this is a form of hospitality to strangers (a term I’ve probably bastardized from Derrida and Kate Bowles) and is largely a good activity, when balanced with other activities, to engage in. What am I missing?

    1. Hi Mike,

      Well… I’m not surprised it’s confusing… it’s a thinkpiece not a finished argument. I very much appreciate the feedback from folks like you that help make the argument better.

      There are lots of things that have been written down that have done wonderful things for lots of people. It was an incredibly useful way of allowing us to replicate processes exactly. That’s great. Superuseful like in circumstances like the double ledger example that you mention.

      A quick wander through the comments here are pretty representative of the feedback i tend to get on this like this… or the “books is making us stupid” piece i did a couple of years ago. For some people it seems to speak to their own intuition that content is about power and replication and that this restricts us in some way. For others, content is a journey towards or to (depending on your inclination) perfection. Getting it explained right in the best possible way.

      It’s interesting to me how you found something so close to capitalism (double entry ledgers) to describe value in content. That’s one of the things that concerns me about the word… the commodification of ideas into things that ‘are’ rather than things that are connected to people.

      Texts certainly changed the world. In some very valuable ways – as you described. The textbook described (not all textbooks all the time) is one of the first places that i have seen the purposeful de-professionalization of the educator for the purposes of scale. A move from “i’m going to pass on my knowing” to “there’s this content you need to get to”. If you look at the government schools in England in the 1870s (the ones for poor people, not the rich ones) you see ‘reach this objective, reach this objective and you can go into the factories’. I think we now ‘believe’ that there is a ‘content’ that should be covered for ‘schooling’. I think we got that idea from print. When you separate the story, decontextualize it, from the human.

      1. I don’t really think that content is either a journey to perfection or power. I feel like it’s too broad a category of thing for that.

        I don’t see myself as a content-phile. My first edtech project, back in 1997, was getting students to produce their own content on the web as part of composition and history classes, and that question of how to have students create materials that are both the products of and tools for their own learning has been central to my work ever since.

        “Content” is really just conversation minus context. And while I think that makes it tempting to say, well “content is killing conversation!” it’s not really like that, because all conversation lacks some context, and probably suffers from that. Without some common touchpoints, I can’t really communicate anything to you. Assuming we haven’t been communicating for eternity that means in order to understand one another we’re going to have to consume some story-up-to-now pieces. For instance, I’d love to discuss this using Jakobson’s functional model of communication, and maybe pull in some of the history of reading, but if we’re going to do that then you’re going to need to read some content. Same with me, if you want to tap into your own models.

        The ability to do that — to jump into conversations that we have not been a part of by reading treatments that make ideas accessible to newcomers — is a great enhancer of conversation, and multiplies the effect a teacher and a student can have on one another.

        It seems to me that your problem isn’t content at all, but the idea that we must all speak to one model, because we have one textbook, and that’s the playing field we’ve drawn. No room for the teacher to lend their voice. No room for the student to bring in their experience. If that’s what you’re saying, I’m with you on that, more or less. That’s a piece of what I’m trying to impact by looking at Choral Explanations, for example, which is a simple hack to textbookism that could have a lot of benefit. (I’ve also taught content-less courses with very mixed results, which is part of the reason I’m interested in simple hacks for teachers now).

  11. Buried here is the idea of constructivism…learning is a process of reconstructing content in one’s own understanding but faith ful .let’s say meticulous copying with fidelity. .

    The post has now become an example of the kind of learning that derives from a stimulus to conversation…

    The roots of content maybe harken back to the holy scrolls of the Jews and tge Talmudic tradition as almost rippling of hypertext through out the centuries of jewish thought anyway…
    the early university in
    Bologne…came with the earliest version of ‘academic freedom’..scholars needed to be free of orthodoxy..of religion or otherwise..and that resulted in an explosion of content…

  12. The word “content” implies a container. It might contain the printed words and pictures that we call a book. It might contain the words and pictures and software and media that we call an app or web page or user experience. Either way, it’s a product built for a purpose. So like any product, it best serves that purpose by being two things at once.

    1. A tool that does a job.

    2. A user-modifiable toolkit that enables users to tweak the tool to better meet their needs. (The tweaks help the product designer how to iterate on the design.)

    I’m just channeling Eric von Hippel here (, it’s a strategy that applies to all kinds of product design. In this domain I think that suggests a way to implement the strategy.

    1. That’s an interesting way of thinking about it and speaks to my concern for ‘content’ in education. The idea that students are acquiring a product rather than growing connections of their own.

  13. One distinction that I find that I make in my head is that content is top-down, not bottom-up. Or at least if content is created by students it’s something that is canonized before it becomes “content”. So I don’t see it as a matter of it being print as I don’t see student work as course content. Maybe that’s a fault on my understanding.
    Though I do appreciate that content is sort of a tombstone. It marks the things gone by. But that makes me wonder about class wikis, though that might be related to the canonization piece I mentioned.
    I see content as less of a print concept but much more a corporate one and one that comes up more as we treat students as consumers. I think about how YouTube labels the people who create videos as “Content Creators” in which art, or reflection, or fooling around serves as a gauge or vehicle for the purposes of the platform, rather than serving the piece itself, or the community that is engaging with it.
    Rambling over.

  14. Thankfully, some elements in Canada’s Open Education scene are moving away from “using OER to counter the cost of textbooks” and into the wide field of open-ended learning.

    Especially tricky, these days, is the “content industry”.

  15. Dave, here is an example of “content that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it.”

    David Wiley recently had a wonderful post that cited an example of an open pedagogy project by Robin DeRosa ” My open Textbook: Pedagogy and Practice”.

    The DeRosa highlights a process of creating engaging content with the added bonus of involving students in the creation of the textbook as an educational activity that is part of the course so that they become co-creators. Their active participation elevates and inspires an iterative effort to improve the content through the classroom discussions and their own reflection.

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