Tuesday, April 21, 2009

FAQs as Microlearning Units of Education

Despite significant advances in the use of online tools for teaching and learning, I still don't think we have conceptualized the right platform for learning online. Wikis, blogs, forums, repositories, social networks, and so on all have their place and usefulness in learning, but it is still difficult to assemble a powerful sequence of learning content and activities.

In the early stages there was much talk of "learning objects" as a basic building block of learning. Learning objects were conceptualized similar to software code objects that were designed to execute specific functions within a computer program (e.g., code for printing text) that could be used over and over again whenever that particular function was needed. A learning object was conceived as a similar unit of "learning" that could be used as needed in a teaching activity. Lots of puzzles and troubles emerged from this effort (see a summary of these problems), but gradually the idea of "learning objects" has been abandoned.

FAQs-- Frequently Asked Questions as a Learning Building Block

I think the problem is that we haven't developed the right building block for creating learning opportunities. In short, we haven't gotten the unit of production right. Yochai Benkler writes, "The number of people who can, in principle, participate in a project is therefore inversely related to the size of the smallest scale contribution necessary to produce a usable module" (The Wealth of Networks, Chapter 4, 2006, p. 101). I would suggest that whole courses, whole lectures, etc. are too big to include very many participants. Also, materials of this magnitude serve as useful resources if you are teaching similar material, but they are rarely designed in such a way that another teacher can easily incorporate the material into their own teaching/course, etc. This lowers the actual usage of such materials. The the brilliant aspects of the Wikipedia is that they developed a system that got the "unit of production" right.

FAQs as a solution to the "unit of production" problem for learning. If we start at the basic unit of learning, I think that most learning starts with a question. Whether we are thinking about the questions of a child (How did the stars get up there?) or the scientist (How did the stars get up there?), most learning begins with a question. So what if we began to create a platform in which teachers could write questions and answers (FAQs) and then there were tools for assembling sequences of FAQs into longer sequences of learning? Would this work?

A Limited Example

In a website, MissouriFamilies, I developed some limited models of this FAQ structure. For example, here is a simple FAQ, "What is the divorce rate in the United States?" Here is a longer article that is constructed from a series of FAQs about trends in marriage rates.

My own brief efforts in trying this strategy suggests that it is possible to create a series of FAQs that can be assembled into longer learning sequences.

What about Audio/Video/PowerPoint FAQs?

Although I have not tried to create audio or video FAQs it seems to me like they would be similar to text. That is, they would be short clips that answer a question or illustrate an idea. Again they might be put together in a sequence to teach a larger point.

I am less certain about how to create a easy set of PowerPoint slides for a lecture or other type of presentation from a series of FAQs. Clearly, you couldn't just string together the words or have a series of slides that had each of the FAQs. This is an interesting question to think more about.

Other Issues in Using FAQs to Building Learning Experiences

One of the biggest challenges in using FAQs is the developing an answer that is appropriate to the level of the learner. A child's question about the stars is not the same as a physicist question about the stars even if they use the same words. There is no easy solution to this problem. To build useful systems we will have to develop ways of tagging FAQs with metadata that capture the essential "learning attributes" that need to be considered with each FAQ. This will be challenging, but perhaps less challenging that to continue to create the same content for multiple efforts to teach the same content.

There are also all types of questions. One useful way to begin to think about these questions is to use the revised Bloom taxonomy of the cognitive domain of learning. (See Forehand presentation of this work.) Often this work is used to help teachers learn how to ask questions of students to encourage them to seek deeper levels of synthesis and analysis of an issue, but these same questions can be used to build a structured set of FAQs that move from basic information about a topic to a deeper understanding. Likewise, the Bloom conceptualization can be used to build learning sequences with FAQs.


I am not ready to give up on the idea of our creating learning materials that we can use and reuse in building learning activities.

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