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Is the Academy Ready for Learning Objects?

Are the academic culture and instructional infrastructure of higher education ready to deliver and embrace learning objects? The answer is yes, but not at a level that suggests massive institutional transformation—yet. The promise remains too tenuous, the risk-reward ratio too high, and the sense of urgency too low for the majority of faculty to change their current practices. Nonetheless, learning objects—right-sized content that may be re-used, re-contextualized, and re-purposed—bring with them small seeds of change that likely will grow vigorously in the future.

The learning object landscape encompasses a wide range of topics—the disciplinary context for knowledge, publisher practices, re-constituted faculty roles, and learner-customized content. The speed and direction of learning objects deployment will be driven by a diverse set of players, policies, and protocols.

Learning Objects as TRUTH
At the January 2003 Ohio Learning Network conference held at Ohio State University (OSU,, faculty and staff from six campuses gathered to determine whether they could design learning objects that met their multiple needs. Attendees fell into two camps: enthusiasts or skeptics. Enthusiasts were prepared to de-contextualize learning objects and trade them freely across disciplinary boundaries. Their metaphor for a learning object repository was the dictionary—an organized set of words easily combined and re-combined into multiple, meaningful sentences. Skeptics held that knowledge exists primarily in context and if learning objects are words, they lose meaning when extracted from the cover of the book, the typeface that nuances their presentation, and the community for which the words were intended. Speaking as a skeptic, James Anderson (2003) argued that knowledge communities operate from incommensurable assumptions, different political economies, and seek different learning goals. Interdisciplinary enthusiasts countered that knowledge grows as outsiders review what has become invisible within a traditional discipline.

The skeptics defined learning objects as TRUTH, but with this ironic twist: Teaching Resources Used in The Humanities. They posited that "learning objects" was simply a trendy term for reference materials, "repository" a library, "metadata" a catalog record, and "structured sequence" a course syllabus. They concluded that knowledge is the subjective experience of a community of learners, not an object that can be transported from its disciplinary setting.

The enthusiasts used an analogy to George Gilder's (1993) account of the rise of cellular telephony—a history he subtitled: When short and weak conquered long and strong. In the late 1940s, AT&T positioned a powerful radio antenna atop the Empire State Building; its 360-degree omni-directional pattern divided into 30-degree sectors. Each "radio channel" carried a single voice and New York City was able to support 12 simultaneous mobile conversations within its population. Today, roughly seven million distinct voices travel over New York's cellular infrastructure. This remarkable increase in efficient and effective "telecosm" use parallels its division into smaller and smaller communication "cells." By connecting small cells along multiple paths, many more conversations are supported.

If we take the "long and strong" parentage of disciplines and organize their structure as learning objects, within lessons, within courses, we are not engaged in reductionism. Rather, we encourage diversity, knowledge organized in multiple ways as the dendrites shorten and synapses increase in number. Learning objects invite new contexts, extended meaning, discovery, conversations across chasms. The "knowledgecosm" and Gilder's telecosm are of similar character. The context for learning objects is their juxtaposition with other learning objects. They may well be used within a discipline, but their generative power is in novel combinations rather than disciplinary lineage.

Publishers' Fear of Starlings
The publishing world also is conflicted about the proper level of aggregation (context) for its intellectual property. A textbook is a self-contained content collection with a privileged sequence of presentation—a classic case of long-and-strong voice. Yet, a textbook is really a portable library of learning objects, chapter sections, illustrations, and charts described individually and stored digitally. Only later d'es SGML (standard graphical markup language) pull them into sequence and freeze them in ink on paper. Tradition and lack of economic incentive prevent publishers from unbundling this content for dynamic re-organization by faculty and students.

Rissing, an evolutionary biologist, recounts this curiously related story: In isolated places like Hawaii, small populations of birds were shaped over evolutionary time to occupy various bird niches. In modern times, exotic species like European Starlings can float in on a boat and more successfully occupy those niches. It's unlikely that the small, indigenous Hawaiian families of birds ever could have evolved to a starling-equivalent; they did not have the genetic variance to exploit optimally the environment's resources. This is an example of the evolutionary biology concept of "multiple adaptive peaks." A globally dominant species, able to adapt better to a new environment, displaces a once-dominant, local species.

This concept of multiple adaptive peaks applies to publishers. Today's learning content environment—organized as 1,000-page, $120 textbooks—sustains the publisher, supports the faculty member, and engorges the student. Although the faculty selects the text, students are required to purchase the equivalent of discipline-specific hard copies of The Encyclopedia Britannica, and then only consume a small part of the resource. Rissing estimates that only 27 percent of his introductory biology text is covered in any one quarter. The many learning objects that make up the text could be combined in multiple subsets, introducing pedagogical variation to flourish in niche course environments.

As a harbinger of starlings on the horizon, a 2002 summer offering of one of Rissing's courses replaced a $105 textbook with learning objects selected from XanEdu's digital content library. For $28, each student received a code that unlocked a digital reading pack in three sections—universal course readings, readings specific to students in different groups, and access to a search engine to target course content to individual research topics. The model equates course content with the economic notion of "utils." Each student draws equal utility ($28 worth), but from different subsets of the library. Although each sale returns less revenue, the lower price and greater value encourage more sales of the publisher's content. One year later, use of digital course packs on the OSU campus has increased by 300 percent.

Some see the starling as a big invasive bird; others as an example of the history of natural selection. Publishers see learning objects in both roles: fearing potential disruption of their profit base, at the same time metatagging ever-smaller units of content in their digital repositories for self-displacement. Just as Apple Computer's micro-pricing of songs in its iTunes Music Library intermediates a more user-centric value proposition than pre-packaged CDs, learning objects are better adapted to serve individualized delivery preferences of faculty, focus the attention and fiscal resource of students more successfully than the textbook, and offer rich new ecologies of learning for both. When publishers decipher util-based economics and derive proper pricing formulas, they will sell their content from learning object repositories that maximize value to both the intermediary and the end user. The resource-wasteful world of the textbook is subject to predation, or more likely cannibalism.

Re-Constituting the Faculty Role
Webster and Robins (1986) offered this contrarian thesis: Ned Ludd, a weaver who destroyed technology and by doing so became a symbol and namesake of irrational impediment to progress, simply was acting in his self-interest. Looms introduced into the English textile industry of the early 1800s wove more cloth by breaking the holistic efforts of the weaver into mechanically assisted, smaller, repetitive tasks, gaining efficiency, but to the detriment of the weaver's work satisfaction.

Many faculty today fear the deconstruction of their teaching role into components: knowledge creation, knowledge packaging, knowledge delivery, and student assessment. Stephen Downes (2000) observes: "There is very much a tension between those who create the knowledge and who jealously guard their monopoly over its propagation and distribution, and those who must consume that knowledge to get a job, to build a life, to partake fully in society."

Like Ned Ludd's reaction, faculty resistance to deconstructing their role into component parts is perfectly rational behavior. The emergence of a "learning objects economy" will change the life of faculty and not favorably for those insisting on a bundled existence. In spite of the social cost, and arguably to the detriment of the individual, the faculty's role is more secure with their expertise internalized as subjective wisdom, rather than externalized as "objects of learning."

Learner-Centered Content
While most faculty members are comfortable as creators, packagers, and deliverers of their subject matter expertise, some have grown dissatisfied facing diverse learners with a single, long-and-strong voice, regardless of its eloquence. The notion of teaching and learning connected within a repository of learning objects, with content in multiple modalities, appeals to these faculty. Their new subjective wisdom and source of job security is packaged as skills in finding relevant materials, sequencing them for students, and inventing more targeted assessment strategies that are as much diagnostic as they are evaluative.

Pearl, an OSU professor of statistics, leads the Statistical Buffet, an instructional research project supported by the PEW Foundation and the Center for Academic Transformation. The concept is deceptively simple—students consume learning but all have specialized tastes. The role of the curriculum is to provide a wide variety of nutritious choices, and allow the student to put together a palatable meal of concepts and application skills. Pearl's neo-Luddite philosophy: "The loom is precisely the technology that takes those shiny pieces of yarn and integrates them into a fabric. The Luddites fought against looms that were controlled solely by the mill owner who used them to mass-produce the same sterile fabric over and over. The 'looms' of today need to be designed to produce a quality 'fabric' under the control of the individual [faculty and student] seeking to achieve their own sense of style."

The Statistical Buffet categorizes students using Felder and Solomon's (1999) learning styles inventory (active-reflective, visual-verbal, sensing-intuitive, global-sequential) and context preferences (large group lecture, small group problem-solving, online individual work), packaging modular course content into equally rigorous, student-selected tracks. The project builds on Norris' (1995) notion of mass customization: create a prodigious amount of different content/context relationships and allow individuals to maximize their learning by finding the best fit. Learning is not a "main effect" of delivered content, but an interaction effect between different learners and different representations of concepts.

The Autumn 2002 Statistical Buffet delivered the course as three customized tracks and showed an aggregate increase of 3 percent (.5 letter grade) in student performance on a common midterm and final. Further, more than 90 percent of the students were enthusiastic about selecting their preferred learning environment. The course redesign also will save approximately $200,000 per year in delivering the course to 3,250 students (Pearl, 2002).

Achieving these results requires tools for identifying student needs and competencies, and faculty willing to mix and match small units of learning content to capitalize on these differences. The Statistical Buffet demonstrates "one size d'es not fit all," and that learning efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved with curricula targeted to different student profiles through technology.

Next Steps
Figure 1 invites the reader to consider additional educational implications of learning objects. It indicates a visual learner in the field of design working toward meeting a course objective of understanding learning objects. His profile searches content metatagged by learning objective, learning style, and critical thinking level modified from Bloom (1956): Level 1—describe and explain; Level 2—apply and analyze; Level 3—evaluate and synthesize. The course goal is for students to achieve critical thinking skills on individually constructed scaffolds. Several next-generation learning management systems are working to accommodate competency-based and customized learning style content delivery requirements.

Figure 1: Amod's learner profile from a graduate course taught by Acker and Bracken (2002).

Norris, Mason, and Lefrere (2003) describe one of many transformations in the learning environment as a move from content silos to interpenetrating content, context, and community. We remain in the early stages of this transformation, but models are emerging to assist faculty wishing to adapt their practices to new learner expectations and technology-supported opportunities.


Acker, S. & Bracken, J. (2002). Digital learning objects: The building blocks of online course design (Journalism and Communication 850C, a graduate course offered Autumn quarter, 2002). An archival copy of the course available for public review is available at

Anderson, J. (Jan. 23, 2003). "The Challenges of Collaborative Knowledge: Character, Communication, Community." Presentation to the Building and sharing assessable content Ohio Learning Network conference. Available at

Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, (Ed.). New York: David McKay Company Inc.

Downes, S. (May 23, 2000). Learning objects. Retrieved May 13, 2003, from

Felder, R. & Soloman, B. (1999). Learning styles and strategies. Retrieved May 13, 2003, from

Gilder, G. (March 29, 1993). The New Rule of the Wireless. Forbes ASAP, March 29, 1993. Retrieved May 13, 2003, from

Norris, D. (1995). Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Society for College and University Planning.

Norris, D., Mason, J., & Lefrere, P. (2003). Transforming e-Knowledge. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Society for College and University Planning.

Pearl, D. (2002). Center for Academic Transformation Pew Project Interim Report. Retrieved May 17, 2003, from

Webster, F., & Robins, K. (1986). Information Technology: A Luddite Analysis. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing.

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