Be Brief… Or Don’t

3 mins reading

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is seldom the soul of education.

There’s a lot of emphasis on making learning materials short and snappy in curriculum discussions these days. Phrases such as ‘digestible’ are thrown around quite a bit when taking into account audience expectations, capacity, and behaviours. Judgements about ‘short attention spans’ – I prefer the term divided attentions – make this a vexed issue, and there is admittedly no easy answer. Confronting this issue requires a tricky balancing act.

Books by Martijn de Visser (CC BY-NC 2.0).jpg
Books by Martijn de Visser (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the last few years, I’ve heard conversations about how many pages of reading can/should be expected of students per week. Such thoughts I’m sure would never have been paramount at the time I was studying Dickens’ Great Expectations, Scott’s Waverley, and other literary monsters back in 2002. By the time I was teaching Literature as a casual tutor several years later, the weighty Study Guides that accompanied these texts had been reduced to HTML pages that took 5-10 minutes to skim through… I was skeptical of this change at first; and then I wasn’t.

These days my teaching is in Digital Media and my practical approach to this sees less (but still some) focus on engagement with reading materials. Even so, I’ve always rejected the proposal put forward in a few student evaluation comments to condense my 6-8 pages of ‘Study Notes’ documents to a single page of dot points. Substance (as distinguished from length) always needs to be the priority.

Study Notes screenshot
Part of a ‘Study Notes’ document

These days my teaching is in Digital Media and my practical approach to this sees less (but still some) focus on engagement with reading materials. Even so, I’ve always rejected the proposal put forward in a few student evaluation comments to condense my 6-8 pages of ‘Study Notes’ documents to a single page of dot points. Substance (as distinguished from length) always needs to be the priority.

That said, I put a great deal of effort into including visuals and interactive links to other media in my Study Notes. I’ve also stopped making the text font size 14 and now use size 12 in case in an attempt to keep the page count down (students access these PDF files electronically so zooming is easy enough). And I don’t mind pointing out to my students that what I provide is significantly less than what was mandated in equivalent first year units some years ago. Checking out the replies to this tweet is highly instructive!

With all of that said, brevity certainly has its place. Media form and platform are crucial to take into account when considering the length of learning resources. Importantly, this tends to shift over time. The duration of my teaching videos has dropped, while the imperative of making content ‘snappier’ through more varied footage and faster editing (i.e. making more complex videos) has grown.

In 2013, the weekly ‘meLectures’ I uploaded to my YouTube channel, which were shared in 1-3 parts, typically consisted of between 10 and 15 minutes of content per video. In other words, I was sometimes providing between 30-40 minutes of viewing per week – almost equivalent to a 50 minute lecture, although engaged with far more than a standard lecture recording.

Screenshot of YouTube vids.png
A glimpse of a younger self, talking for longer…

By 2018, my videos were between 6-8 mins long, and I was generally providing only two of these per week. My increasing use of a SoundCloud teaching account made up the difference in time; however, by that stage the podcast form was proving to be a more viable (and convenient) avenue for disseminating long(er) form content.

Micro media has its place as well – particularly for non-essential content that prompts student interactions or reiterates key messages. I regularly make short videos for Twitter, live broadcasts with Periscope, and have even found value in making 15 second audio messages with VoiceByte.

So don’t get me wrong, there is most definitely a place for brevity in contemporary education, but it needs to evaluated on a case-by-case basis – and re-evaluated frequently. On the one hand, those earlier times of comfortably expecting students to spend endless hours reading have changed. On the other hand, there is a need to push back against an overarching discourse and desire around ‘the shorter the better’ (perpetuated by multiple stakeholders).

Learning can be manageable, engaging, and authentic without becoming fragmentary and haphazard, although it’s always going to be a tricky balancing act – and probably one that will only get trickier with time. But working this out is all part of being a teacher – if we wanted an easy activity, we’d have just joined the circus… 😀

Circus Smirkus - Hand Balancing by hbp_pix (CC BY 2.0).jpg
Circus Smirkus – Hand Balancing by hbp_pix (CC BY 2.0)

 

Featured image: Photo by Morgan Hjelm (free use via Unsplash)

 

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