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
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,
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),
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
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.
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.