Thick and Chunky Learning: Cooking up Learning with Social Media
The blogosphere has definitely made me a believer in the collective unconscious, if only because I continually find that there are so many times when different aspects of the same coin are being examined at the same time without our realizing it.
Last week as I was writing about the role of the instructional designer as a digital curator, Britt Watwood was writing about "thick and chunky instruction":
One of my favorite TED Talks is Malcolm Gladwell talking about what we can learn from spaghetti sauce. He described a food industry consultant who uncovered a key secret to what eaters like. Running huge focus groups to find customers’ truest tastes, Gladwell’s hero drew a radical conclusion, an epiphany that has defined food marketing ever since. When people were asked to describe the perfect spaghetti sauce, they typically talked about runny sauces. But when taste tests were conducted, they overwhelmingly chose “thick and chunky.” At the time, thick and chunky did not exist. This consultant found that people did not know to ask for thick and chunky…but it is what they wanted. He convinced Prego to not come out with one best spaghetti sauce but dozens…and the food industry was totally changed.
The Web 2.0 world is the “thick and chunky” side of web applications of which most faculty are oblivious.
I love this metaphor. When I wrote last week about the digital curator in learning, I still felt like some element was missing from that comparison, in part because I believe that instructional design and learning is both science and art. That's why the cooking metaphor is so appealing to me--it's more organic and creative, which I think is a big part of what grows from using social media tools to support learning processes.
If you've ever watched Top Chef, you'll know that this is a show that pits talented professional cooks against one another to produce different kinds of foods under various constraints. One challenge that I vividly recall sent the chefs to a convenience food store where they had to produce a gourmet-quality recipe using things you could find in a 7-Eleven. Several of them were able to produce something of reasonable quality, but I'd argue that the average cook wouldn't be able to do much with those kinds of ingredients. They don't lend themselves to gourmet cooking and it takes someone with some serious creativity and understanding of food to be able to produce a meal that is even remotely nutritious or tasty using Cheez-Its and beef jerky.
This, to me, epitomizes what technology-enhanced learning has been prior to the introduction of social media into the mix. We've lived with limited ingredients of dubious nutritional value and have basically been doing the best we can to produce meals day after day. Some of the most talented chefs among us may have been able to produce some great meals along the way, but as a sustainable meal plan, being confined to a convenience store for our grocery shopping hasn't been very successful.
Adding social media to the menu of ingredients is like letting chefs have access to a real grocery store where there's produce and meat and a range of condiments and spices. We still need to have an idea of what we want to make, but the availability of ingredients means that we can expand the recipes we offer and we can start cooking up a broader range of learning. And those ingredients can actually give us ideas for new recipes to make, the more we get to know them and to understand how they work together to create different learning dishes.
Like all cooks, we'll need to look at both taste and nutritional value. For some learners we may need to have "blander" versions of our learning sauce, while others will want something, thick, spicy and meaty. Some recipes will always be on the menu, while others will change and evolve. Some recipes will be appetizers and some full-course meals--some may even use a lot of "pre-cooked" ingredients, like existing learning modules, videos, etc.
It's not that we haven't always been cooking, or even that we haven't always been making spaghetti sauce (to take us back to Britt's metaphor). It's that we can now stop making runny sauces and start making a broader variety of chunky sauces. And I think that as we start to serve these to more and more people, they'll find that they can never return to what they thought was "great cooking" before. In fact, what we may find is that they begin to enjoy learning even more, as it's more customized to their preferences and includes more of the ingredients they really love.
Michele, I like your idea of using VoiceThread to create short presentations to showcase skills! I would love to be included in a webinar or further discussion on this tool. Thanks for sharing it.
Posted by: Shari | February 26, 2008 at 05:52 PM
Michele...great post! I think the concept of thick and chunky vs. thin sauce gets into the whole instructional design spectrum that I've been musing about. Different ingredients and tools (translate to ID skills) are required for the creation of different types sauces.
Posted by: Cammy Bean | February 28, 2008 at 10:05 AM
Cammy, I definitely agree that there's a connection between this and that whole ID discussion (which I've been watching with fascination). For me there's a real tension with ID too because there's this big part of me that feels my major role should be to help people become their own ID specialists. I'm still muddling around with all of this, which is why I haven't weighed in. I feel like I don't have clarity on what I believe at this point, although I know that I do think that it's possible to do good instructional design without a master's degree, just as I believe that there's plenty of bad design done by people with advanced education.
Posted by: Michele Martin | February 28, 2008 at 10:20 AM
Yes, yes, yes. A degree, in some cases, is just a piece of paper. Not all degrees are created equally. And not all practitioners stay up-to-date in order to keep that degree relevant. I'm not sure if there's a way to tie that analogy back into cooking, but I'm sure you can figure something out!
Posted by: Cammy Bean | February 28, 2008 at 01:22 PM
It's also interesting to me the different analogies used by different people in this argument. Those with ID degrees talk about ID as architecture or brain surgery. That's pure science. Although a good brain surgeon would say there's a certain amount of art and subtlety involved that can't be taught at any medical school. "You've got the hands of a brain surgeon."
But there's a big difference between brain surgery and cooking. I don't need to go to culinary school to make a mean spaghetti sauce. Perhaps I had a great mentor in the form of my grandmother, or have read a lot of cookbooks and done a lot of experimentation to see what tastes good.
Posted by: Cammy Bean | February 28, 2008 at 01:26 PM