I threw together this quick scenario to show some of the issues I've been stuck on lately: the tyranny of curriculum (and testing), teachers' desire to control learning, the value of for-fee online content, and student motivation in self-directed learning....
Let's say I'm designing a piece of educational software teaching high school students about self-employment. In my initial research, I find out that students want to know which small-business opportunities can make them the most money in the shortest amount of time. In sharp contrast, I find that educators want the software to align with the administration's career-development standards and they want students to learn the step-by-step process of setting up a business. So students and teachers have different goals, and I only get paid if teachers buy the software.
The majority of our teacher/customers say they want a specific structure, preferably sequential with limited navigation options so students stay on-task, which isn't constructivist at all, but keeps them sane in the computer lab. It seems that they're happiest if we create a digital textbook that satisfies prescribed outcomes, with a few multimedia elements for so-called motivation. The students are just jumping through hoops, because they can see from the very first screen that they're probably not going to get what they want...at least not any time soon.
Instead of engaging in the carefully-designed step-by-step interactive business plan module and "learning" about business licensing, a student can do a couple of searches in Google (which she already has open in another window) and gradually figure out which entrepreneurial opportunities have the best time-to-profit ratio.
The student starting down this path in Google is in control of her learning, more motivated, and more likely to retain what she learns. She probably won't learn about the nuances of business licenses in her exploration, but if she's motivated enough by what she finds and actually pursues it further, she'll eventually do another search (or find someone who knows something about it) and learn about licensing at exactly the right moment. Same information, but more likely to be learned, valued and applied. The only problem in a school setting is that this urge to check it out is unlikely to occur when the education system demands that she check it out, which either erases the possibility of it ever occurring, or she'll do it on her own time.
The secondary issue is the role and viability of commercial learning materials. In a virtual classroom where students learn how to find their own sources, weigh their credibility, and design their own paths to knowledge on the web (and through networked experts and collaborators)....why would they need to pay for content?