RIP-ping on Learning Objects

There have been lots of articles around the blogosphere of late ringing the death bell for learning objects. It’s hard to tell if they’re right or not, because no one can agree about what a learning object is (although I enjoyed reading that a urinal apparently qualifies). And perhaps that very statement is all that needs to be made.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these declarations since they started appearing, and I’ve come to the somewhat troubling conclusion that I don’t think I care if learning objects are dead or not. My primary interest always has been, and I suspect always will be, in increasing access to educational opportunity to people who have been denied that right for any of a variety of reasons. I loved the learning objects idea because the “write once, use anywhere” idea had a lot of economic appeal – once an object had been created for whatever reason, we could copy it (for free) and send it (for very close to free) almost anywhere around the world to be employed in the exercise of an individual’s right to education.

For a very long time now (in 1999, in 2000, and heck, NSF even gave me a CAREER award founded on this criticism in 2002) I’ve been saying that the idea of LEGO-like assembly of resources simply will not work from a learning perspective. The role of context is simply too great in learning, and the expectation that any educational resource could be reused without some contextual tweaking was either naive or stupid. I will here attribute learning objects’ inability to live up to the incredible hype and investment they received to the fact that the premise of the possibility of simple reuse was simply wrong.

An example.

The ultimate success story in the “write once, use anywhere” history of educational materials is the textbook. However, you will notice in this long and storied history that there has never been any confusion over whether or not a collection of algebra, algebra ii, geometry, trig, and calc textbooks could be “simple sequenced” and presented to a learner without additional contextualization and support. Or that the sections in one of these books could be simple sequenced (to become the textbook) for use by learners without significant contextualization and support. As I enjoy saying frequently, “libraries would never have evolved into universities” if all that education depended on were preexisting, high-quality resources.

So if learning objects are dead – and they may be – what is it that we should care about? As instructional technologists interested in further empowering people to exercise their right to education, what should be the focus of our design and research efforts? In a previous JIME article Stephen left the idea of learning objects behind and encouraged us to think simply about “resources,” and get away from the jargon of learning objects. There’s something to the idea of simplifying things that I like quite a bit. However, for my purposes (and I readily recognize they may not be your purposes) I have a need for something more than just resources. As I’ve thought about that need, I think it is best expressed as easily localizable resources.

In the first round of learning objects definition wars, I contributed “any digital resource that can be reused to mediate learning” as my best shot. In retrospect, the primary weakness of this definition was supposed to be the keyword it all hinged upon: “reuse.” Because the systems that authored, managed, and delivered learning objects were all software systems, the majority of the people doing the actual work on learning objects implementations were software engineers (or people parading as software engineers). “Reuse” was almost unanimously interpreted by this group as “technical interoperability” with no thought for the pedagogic, semiotic, or other contextual dimensions of the term. The whole learning objects field of work turned into a giant software engineering exercise aimed at answering the question “can your content send scores for true / false items to my management system?” Because the term reuse (as used by many more people than just me, I’m certainly not trying to hoard all the blame here) was only partially understood, learning never really got into learning object systems. If anything, they were “technically interoperable content systems.”

Now, for my money, the technical interoperability of content doesn’t need to go much further than “can be properly rendered by most web browsers.” (IMS or SCORM Content Packaging is nice since it gives us a way to move metadata around with content, but my last statement was about content.) When you really believe that reusing educational resources is a contextualization or localization exercise, and not a matter of intelligently slapping a “Next =>” button somewhere on the object, it turns out that you don’t need much more in terms of technical interoperability than what every good students knows at the end of an HTML course. Create your content in such a way that it will render properly in most browsers and don’t purposefully futz with your source code so that people have a hard time seeing what you’ve done (WebCT’s HTML, anyone?). Feel as you may about the GPL, WebCT and others might do well to remember its language here:

Accompany it with the complete corresponding machine-readable source code, which must be distributed…on a medium customarily used for software interchange…. The source code for a work means the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it. For an executable work, complete source code means all the source code for all modules it contains, plus any associated interface definition files, plus the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable. GPL

What if all the effort and money spent hyping and building technically interoperable content systems had gone into better understanding the process of localizing educational materials, and developing whatever new tools were necessary to support that process? <sarcasm>Of course, there’s very little market for these processes and tools, because when you’re talking about supporting people who have been unable to exercise their right to education, you’re obviously talking about “poor people,” and how would you make any return on products developed for “poor people?” I mean, after all, how are they supposed to pay?</sarcasm>

So whether learning objects are dead or not, I couldn’t say. And to some extent, who cares? As long as people are willing to (1) openly share (2) educational materials that will (3) render properly in most web browsers, and they also (4) provide access to the unobfuscated source for the materials (especially for Flash files, Java applets, Photoshop images with many layers, and the like), I certainly don’t care. Argue about what to call them all you like – I’ll be busy trying to help someone somewhere figure out how to localize some of these things so that they can actually derive some value from them – maybe even improve their lives some. Won’t you help, too?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • D'Arcy Norman January 9, 2006, 11:13 am

    THANK YOU!!!

    I’ve been hoping you’d wade into this with your thoughts. I have to say that i completely agree with you. I (and many of the other early-ish implementors) got so hung up on the reusability-as-technical-interoperability definition of “reuse” that we lost sight of the real goal – to have useful educational resources available. “reuse” just got in the way, since it was perceived to be the driving factor…

  • Judy Breck January 10, 2006, 3:38 pm

    The discomfort, I think, with learning objects is that they have been valued as static things. Open content releases learning objects and many other sorts of nodes into a dynamic milieu where they can be linked in all sorts of configurations. The effect is a living ecology of ideas from which meaning arises dynamically (certainly not possible in/with a textbook). Ecology seems like a better word than resources because it gives life to thinking and learning – which I believe is valid. Thanks for questioning the sacred learning object. Judy

  • Wayne Batchelder January 13, 2006, 11:21 am

    Thanks to David, perhaps we can finally bury the learning objects concepts that have failed us, and begin with fresh ideas, unburdened by the rules of standards, and discover among us the real uses of the idea of learning objects that so many of us have been working to do in our classes, and various learning environments. Perhaps also, we can refocus on the learner instead of reusability, and take advantage of the concepts we have been developing. Learning objects are dead in their complex and frustrating form, now we can re-focus our efforts on “small objects loosly joined” in a more creative direction that will as David suggests, give something of value to the learners who will use the new forms to better their lives.

  • Rory McGreal January 15, 2006, 12:56 pm

    You write:
    “I’ve been saying that the idea of LEGO-like assembly of resources simply will not work from a learning perspective. The role of context is simply too great in learning,”
    I would like to challenge this assertion as it is demonstrably untrue. Modular course design has been with us for some time. I would agree that YES context is important and that the LEGO analogy may not work when the context shifts significantly. But, if the LEGO analogy works in the same or a similar context even one time, then your statement above is False. I believe that the LEGO analogy is weak (and perhaps should be abandoned) as it does not cover the complexity of the LO phenomenon, but it can work in SOME cases, perhaps in many more than the anti-LO crowd believe. How about a LESSON in the use of the LEVER in first Year Physics? How about reusing it in other first year Physics courses? Is this not the same or similar learning context? Is this not being done now? If this doesn’t meet your definition of simple reuse – how about reusing the LO in different classes taking the same course at the same university. Is this not reuse? And what if, God forbid, another university used that lesson in their Physics course without altering it?
    Wayne Hodgins suggested the more appropriate word “repurpose” for using an LO in a different context. Using a Physics LO in a chemistry course may be more problematic. But to me even if an LO cannot be repurposed easily, it can still be valuable. Reuse is important.

    David says:
    “So whether learning objects are dead or not, I couldn’t say. And to some extent, who cares? As long as people are willing to (1) openly share (2) educational materials that will (3) render properly in most web browsers, and they also (4) provide access to the unobfuscated source for the materials (especially for Flash files, Java applets, Photoshop images with many layers, and the like), I certainly don’t care.”
    I would think that rendering the LOs (or ed materials) in a searchable format is also important, possibly in repositories where the quality has been evaluated. Would this not be useful to at least some people? How about if the LOs are interoperable in more than just the Web and the apps you list above? How about if because of those undesirable technical standards, the LOs can be made easily interoperable in ANY application without the need for any kind of technical expertise? Would that not be a good thing for SOME people? How about if some of this content is made available according to learning design principles in a lesson format? Wouldn’t this be of value to SOME learners? Maybe, some learners are not self motivated and PREFER a structured format. I come across these types of learners from time to time. Maybe some learners would prefer to “construct” their learning using professionally developed lessons rather than the open anything of the web. Maybe SOME teachers would prefer to use these instructionally designed and standards-based lessons rather than spending hours “constructing” , “contextualising” and “localising”.
    My point is that there are many ways of visioning and supporting learning that you may or may not agree with – but that does not mean as you state that “it will not work” in at least some cases. There are too many educators who believe that learning must conform to their view of how it is conducted or it does not count. I suggest that there is a place in a learning system for formal lessons designed for learning using a variety of methodologies and techniques (including lectures, interactive video, readings, rote memory tasks, etc.) encapsulated in an interoperable format – a learning object. I DO CARE.
    All the best David and thanks for pushing my buttons!