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A Primer on Modularity: An Interdisciplinary Concept

Posted in Ed Tech 101 on June 6, 2012 by

I’m a Knerd, but I’m also a nerd. I love learning about the history of pretty much everything from utensils to gamified learning. While researching the history of modularity in product design, I came across a videotaped lecture from Andrew Russell at the Franklin Center at Duke University.

Russell, a professor of the history of science and technology, defines modularity as a “concept that describes a particular kind of system.” In his words, a modular system consists of “smaller parts called modules that fit together within a defined system architecture.” By virtue of standardized interfaces, modules can fit into system architecture in an interchangeable fashion. In this sense, modularity is not only a design but a “strategy for confronting and managing complexity in all kinds of systems.”

Russell’s talk traces the evolution of modularity from the Depression-era building industry to the more abstract manifestations of modularity in the postmodern information age. In doing so, he discusses the language and culture of modularity and the creation of standards across disciplines.

Watch the first five minutes of the lecture here.

What, you might ask, does the 1930s building industry have to do with edtech? How can modularity as a concept be applied to course design and technology platforms?

Modularity & Course Design

Much has been made in edtech circles of the possibility of powering digital learning content that embraces different learning styles. But before any learning program can adapt to a user’s learning style, preferences, and activity on the system, it must be flexible. That is, the course content must be modular — or broken into chunks, the smaller the better — that can be recombined into courses that are personalized for individual needs. The logic behind this design is simple: the more modular a course is, the more paths there are through the content, and the better it can adapt to each user.

What’s more, modularized learning content allows for consistent feedback and reinforcement and lends itself naturally to gamification (the use of game elements in non-game contexts) which can be a powerful force for engagement.

Here are a few benefits of embracing modularity:

1. The more modular the course, the more precisely it can adapt to individual needs.

Since academic concepts can be tagged at the atomic level, corresponding academic work and assessments can be divided into smaller and smaller components. A computerized system can capture student performance and activity on all these components and analyze this data continuously. The result? Courses of study that are highly adaptive and personalized.

The more adaptive the system, the more effective it is at discovering the exact nature of student frustrations and weaknesses–and providing the necessary material to help students overcome their challenges. For example, some students may struggle with math word problems because they do not understand grammar, others because they don’t understand the mathematical concept at hand or haven’t learned about fractions or scientific notation yet. An adaptive learning system could take this kind of information into account and allow it to inform the student’s learning path going forward. (For more on adaptive learning, check out this primer.)

2. A modular course allows for improved feedback and reinforcement.

The more modular the course, the more opportunities to assess and provide feedback. The days of waiting and agonizing over a single, all-defining grade are over. Continuous feedback allows students to correct mistakes quickly, confirm their understanding on a consistent basis, and adjust rapidly for misunderstandings. This means that their work is ultimately more productive because there is less energy focused on the emotions surrounding success vs. failure or smart vs. dumb, and instead, more energy directed toward actual learning and actual improvement.


3. Modularity and gamification go hand-in-hand.

A modular course structure paves the way for gamification on top of adaptive learning. What is a game after all but a system with hundreds or thousands of paths through the same content–and countless opportunities for players to demonstrate skill, make decisions, and reflect on action and feedback?

Just as games keep players hooked by providing quick, satisfying wins, modularized content provides students with a sense of tangible progress as they earn points and badges and ramp up to new levels. If students feel that all their efforts count and are moving them toward a meaningful goal, they are galvanized to invest more in their own learning.

Gamification can incentivize long-term commitment as well. By allowing students to unlock content over an extended period of time (much as a game might unveil different worlds successively), a modular course that is gamified can generate a sense of real excitement and suspense around learning.

Want further reading on this subject?

Check out these books:

“Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen

“The Power of Modularity” by Carliss Baldwin and Kim Clark