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?