Learning Objects in Motion

Instructional designers and educational technologists often talk about the potential for learning objects. Lego-like in their utility, learning objects are the small pedagogical chunks that can be assembled in different ways to provide alternative learning paths through a course topic. Some people present learning objects as the smallest component that has internal meaning for a given course objective. This implies that a learning object has a context associated with one or more "things" that together present a coherent building block toward understanding an idea.

The image of educational Legos is attractive. Whether you're building a bridge, a spaceship, or a speed boat, you can accomplish the task with a selection of Lego building blocks. Building learning modules could be similarly flexible; with one set of blocks any number of shapes, or learning patterns, could be assembled. H. Wayne Hodgins (2000), director of worldwide learning strategies for Autodesk Inc., compares this to the revolutionary impact of early manufacturing inventions. "The power of this dynamic, adaptive, assembling of information is equivalent to Eli Whitney's invention of interchangeable parts," he says. "Information is rendered reusable, interchangeable, durable, accessible, and affordable."

Cisco Systems Inc. applied the ideas for this learning machinery in order to develop the Cisco Systems Reusable Learning Objects (RLO) model. They add a dash of psychology to a "seven plus or minus two" approach to suggest a combination of reusable elements that would support customized learning. In Cisco's view, reusable information objects (RIOs) are aggregated together in groups of seven plus or minus two to form an RLO that can teach a task based on a single learning objective. They add contextual data such as an overview in the beginning and a summary at the end.

RSS News Reader

If you're an OS-X user, as I am, you should check out the terrific news reader NetNewsWire from Ranchero Software (http://ranchero.com/). It's a great example of an RSS news reader client that culls headlines from a variety of sources to which you can elect to subscribe.

The vision is to have a common pool of small, standalone learning "chunks" that can be assembled and re-assembled in different combinations to make topical units of learning "just right." It sounds good. The outcome, in this utopian vision, is learning Legos that are, "reusable, interchangeable, durable, accessible, and affordable."

The challenge has been to identify pragmatically what constitutes a chunk that fits the definition of an RLO. The formal definitions don't offer much help. For instance, the IEEE Learning Object Metadata definition defines a learning object as: "… any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, reused, or referenced during technology supported learning … Examples of Learning Objects include multimedia content, instructional content, learning objectives, instructional software and software tools, and persons, organizations, or events referenced during technology supported learning."

Of course the issue really is in distinguishing what the component is that faculty actually find useful, which they reuse so teaching is made easier, more efficient, and their preparation time shorter. Reigeluth and Nelson (1997) note that faculty typically decompose a learning object into its constituent parts and then rebuild them to suit their own teaching requirements. Their observations point out the importance of granularity in the usefulness of chunks of learning—that is, toward their reusability.

Dave Wiley (2000) notes that reusability is a function of granularity of the learning object and its scope—how much or how little to include in it. The granularity of a learning object, he suggests, is influenced by how much effort it takes to manage the metadata that is needed to usefully identify elements incorporated in it. The idea is if you get down to small grains—the individual graphs, charts, pictures—the effort to manage the stuff will be overwhelming.

RSS and Learning Objects
Rich Site Summary, RSS, is a type of XML document primarily used to distribute news and other Web content. It was originally developed at Netscape to feed news headlines and related information to their portal pages. These so-called "channels" have become the primary mechanism by which automatic distribution of news and other event-oriented information bits are enabled, a process known as providing "syndication services."

RSS was intended to be a simple distribution mechanism, originally for text and news headlines with a link to the original article source. To set it up, a content provider creates an XML description of the news that their Web page hosts, including a URL, title, and a summary. They put these on their Web servers so "content aggregators," or service providers, can read them and collect data about that Web site. Harvesting information from multiple sources puts the service provider in a position of offering a rich source of up-to-date news items to any client that seeks to search them.

The majority of RSS headline news sites are providing text-based material, but RSS Web-based resources can also feed audio files, video files, and other multimedia objects. A group of developers in Canada recognized the potential for using this capability. The University of Calgary Campus Alberta Repository of Educational Objects (http://careo.ucalgary.ca) has assembled a repository of content that is open to anyone who wishes to join them. They have also established alliances with MERLOT (www.merlot.org), Netera Alliance (www.netera.ca), Alberta Learning (http://www.learning.gov.ab.ca), href="http://www.netera.ca/belle/" target="_blank">www.netera.ca/belle/), and CanCore Protocol (www.cancore.ca). In the United States, Maricopa Community College System (www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/mlx/feed.php) has been using RSS to syndicate learning objects .

There is much work needed to better link instructional theory, learning application design, and the component elements to present opportunities for learning to students. There are also important questions to confront: How much contextualization can and should be built into a learning object to embed a specific instructional approach within it? Or should such objects be clearly agnostic to the instructional theories that are used to assemble and implement them? How do we determine the right balance?

While we're working on these problems, educational developers are cranking out new applications and learning systems, or re-purposing ideas from other sources to provide us with tools that help make developing teaching materials online easier. Participating in the dialogue is invaluable, and keeping an eye on the horizon is essential.

References

H.Wayne Hodgins (2000). "Into the future: A vision paper", for American Society for Training and development (ASTD) and National Governors' Association (NGA) Commission on Technology and Adult Learning, pg.27.

Reigeluth, C. M. & Nelson, L. M. (1997). "A new paradigm of ISD?" In R. C. Branch & B.B. Minor (Eds.), Educational media and technology yearbook (Vol. 22, pp. 24-35). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Wiley, D.A. (2000). "Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy". In D.A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version. Retrieved March 2, 2003, from: http://reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc.

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