Articles | How much stuff do you need?


A portrait of desk clutter


One of the late George Carlin’s funnier routines involved a riff on stuff. In the routine, Carlin describes how our entire lives are taken up with finding, buying, storing, and transporting our stuff. Carlin lampoons the way that we view our stuff, and how we tend to stress out when we have to transport or get rid of stuff. The truth of it is, we don’t want to get rid of stuff because we like it and, well, it’s ours. And let’s be honest, regardless of its usefulness, we tend to think that our stuff is better than other people’s stuff.


Over the last decade, the Internet has become something of a surrogate storage locker for our stuff, digital stuff, but stuff nonetheless. Apparently, we no longer have enough space on our smartphones, laptops, tablets, hard drives, zip drives, flash drives, and portable usb drives that we have to store our stuff in a cloud. The cloud. It sounds so infinite. I like to imagine the cloud as a sort of endless digital storage facility replete with CCTV, unusually large rattraps, and those carts that balance on the two wheels in the middle and are hard to push.


Unfortunately, online courses have also taken on this surrogate storage locker role. For some reason, we assume that online courses are just another place to stash stuff. As George Carlin would say, “we got more places than we got stuff, we’re gonna have to buy more stuff” (Byers, 2013). So we pile content into items, items into folders, folders into other folders, folders into modules, modules into units, and units into links until the course resembles swollen storage locker.


And of course, we are passionate about the stuff in that online course turned storage locker and want to show it off. So, like a bemused museum curator, we parade disoriented students through our online stuff thrilling with each dusty finding we unearth from the pile only to encounter disinterest and disengagement from the students. Which is just typical of students, am I right?


But we need to keep in mind that the quality and organization of the stuff in an online course must reflect an understanding that today’s students are different than students from 30 years ago. (Evidence seems to support this, even if it is only anecdotal.) The hour-long monotone voice lecture followed by the 25-question exam may not be the best stuff to have in a course, especially an online course. Instead, an online instructor might want to try adding a short 10-minute lecturette, followed by an interactive simulation, a no-fault quiz, and a robust and engaging discussion board. Basically, an online course needs activities and assignments that encourage collaboration between students and meaningful interaction with the content.


Karen Worley (2011) pointed out that “the purpose of education is to produce learning, not deliver instruction” (p. 35). If we think about it that way, then all of the stuff placed in an online course should be there for the sole purpose of producing learning, not just because it looks good on a shelf, or a screen as the case may be.


Often, what many online courses need is someone to come in and organize stuff, like an interior decorator. So instructional designers are the interior decorators of the distance-learning world? Sure, IDs are excellent at determining where you should place the ottoman, why you need to get rid of the old black and white tv, and whether you should sell the armchair you only sat in once. For example, the assignments might need to be shortened and better aligned with the learning objectives; the modules may require more logical organization; and the activities could involve more interactivity and collaboration among students. Of course, there are some courses that even an interior decorator cannot help, these courses need a demolition crew, but that’s another issue.


In the end, an online course should not resemble a bulging storage locker or hoarder house filled with a jumble of stuff. An online course should be neat, clean, and navigable with achievable objectives, clear assignments, and intelligent assessments. Luckily, unlike the pain involved in cleaning out the stuff in your house or storage locker, the stuff in your online course can simply be deleted and replaced with more meaningful, collaborative, and engaging stuff.



Byers, F. (2013, July 9). George Carlin on “stuff” (censored) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://


Worley, K. (2011). Educating college students of the net generation.Adult Learning, 22(3), 31-39. doi: 10.1177/104515951102200305