On the inanimate nature of learning objects

One of the risks of writing things is that your readers will, whether through ill-will or simple misunderstanding, completely miss whatever message you’re trying to communicate.

Such is the case with my RIP-ping on Learning Objects post. I must have read ten blog posts or emails now thanking me for putting the nail in the learning objects coffin. Are people even reading what I’m writing? Let me quote myself:

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…. 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…. So whether learning objects are dead or not, I couldn’t say. And to some extent, who cares?

Now, I may not be able to understand my own writing, but this does not appear to be a sweeping victory for the people who came to my site hoping for a learning objects eulogy.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll try a more explicit approach to explaining my feelings:

  1. Learning objects are neither alive nor dead. They were not chucked out of the Garden of Eden. They will not be reincarnated or resurrected. They will neither burn in the seventh level of Hell nor bask in Paradise with seven virgins. They have not taken on a life of their own, and they haven’t given up that life either. They’re inanimate parasitic design memes, and this makes them completely indestructible.
  2. Anyone who foresees the day when I am no longer interested in educational resources that are reusable across pedagogic contexts should take out a slightly damp cloth, rub their crystal ball in small, circular motions, and then look into it again. The pedagogic reusability of educational resources is at the very core of the idea of open education, to which I fully expect to dedicate my entire so-called career.
  3. To all those who gloried in the struggle to answer the question “what is a learning object?”, or to those who asserted their manhood against the only slightly less unanswerable “how big should a learning object be?”, and who want to continue on, I say: go right on ahead. You keep going down that road. It was nice knowing you. If I ever see another taxonomy of learning objects (including my own), I may throw up.
  4. It may be true that people are finally waking up to the realization that engineers are not going to solve the hard learning objects problems – that issues of context are far more complicated than issues of technical interoperability – but this doesn’t lessen the core value of learning objects, which is reusability across pedagogic contexts.
  5. It may be true that talk of automated, intelligent, adaptive, some-virtual-Harry-Potter-waves-his-phoenix-feather-core-wand assembly of learning objects was “somewhat naive.” But this doesn’t lessen the core value of learning objects, which is reusability across pedagogic contexts.
  6. It may be true that one day we call them Crumple-horned Snorkacks or Vermiciuos Knids instead of learning objects. But that won’t lessen their core value, which is reusability across pedagogic contexts.

So say whatever you want, but don’t attribute it to me. I’m as firm a believer in the value of reusable educational resources as I ever have been. Actually, my feelings have not changed significantly from those I expressed in the conclusion to my 2000 paper Getting axiomatic about learning objects: In defense of the by-hand assembly of learning objects:

It has been the goal of this paper to tear down the notion that the automated assembly of every learning object with every other learning object – even when “learning object” is defined narrowly – is possible, and to demonstrate that non-automated solutions to learning object assembly are not only legitimate, they are desirable.

We need people in education. People and learning objects are a powerful mix. And call them what you will, digital reusable educational materials *will* eventually revolutionize education. You might want to actually read my RIP-ping on learning objects post to see how.

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  • Zack B

    David, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    I know that learning objects were alive at some point because the spaghetti monster wouldn’t have created them to be some inanimate mass as you describe them.

    And by the way, I once was able to secretly observe a learning object for about 15 minutes and was pretty sure it would fit inside my bread box. I tried to show it to a friend of mine, but it seemed to get really sickly when more than one person looked at it at the same time.

    I assume all the other learning objects are the same size or smaller; if not, I could just squish them until they fit in the bread box, even if that might injure it; I like bread boxes. And if I did find a bunch of them, I’d force them to hold hands in a specific order and sing Kumbaya. Then you’d realize they are alive.

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  • Brilliantly prosaic words– one could not get more clear on your position. Maybe it could be the last thing that needs to be said.

    I am fairly sure last time I was in Idaho Springs, in a dark corner booth at Tommyknockers, I saw a Learning Object drinking a Butt Head Bock with Sasquatch. They were both kind of toasted, but alive.

  • I’m glad I found this rectification of yours. I too was at first misguided by the others reinterpretation of your RIP-ing article but after re-reading it a second time, I could just not justify their conclusion.

    My own experience with the “Learning Object” concept looks like this :

    For 14 years, I was a practitioner in the “Multimedia” industry where I designed and directed educational CD-ROM multimedia products and later Web-based educational content that became to be known as “e-Learning”. In my group, when we first heard the expression “Learning Object”, the vision we all shared about what it meant was immediately clear because during all those years of developing interactive educational material and solving what we now know as the “sequencing” problems, we developped a vision of what an object-oriented “intelligent” interactive content should be and each new product was a strive to push further into that direction.

    Today, I’m a consultant, and I meet people, mostly educators, whith very little experience in technically implementing interactive educational material. The expression “Learning Object” can mean anything but not what it means to me. The multitude of meaning that a “Learning Object” can have makes it confusing to use and frazzles the communication. And I find the experience gap between my own implementation-side experience and the others content-side experience makes it impossible to even start explaining what the promises behind the expression “Learning Objects” truely meant when I first heard it. This is not surprising to me because this experience gap is something we always kept on strugling with when we were developing our products while working with content specialist.

    So I came to the conclusion that “Learning Object” was a usefull concept only when the people using it were all implementers. Since then, with the advent and diffusion of the LOM and the corresponding explosion of the number of people of much varied origin, culture and experience, meeting the expression “Learning Object”, trying to make sense out it based of their experience, I keep reading new “better” re-definitions, re-interpretation or re-paradigmation of what is a “Learning Object”. It just doesn’t make any sense anymore.

    So in this context, I would vote for droping the usage of “Learning Object” for the time being. Time have not come yet for its usage. The technology and the theory to support the vision of the “Learning Object” is not yet there anyway so what would be the point of diffusing a concept that cannot be implemented anyway. The majority of the people that are currently meeting the concept are not ready either. I still have to regularly explain, that the metadata is different from the learning object, that exposing the metadata does not expose the learning object, that the metadata repository server is not necessarily the same as the LO content server. We are just starting to diffuse/popularize the concept of content granularization. We are very far from being at a point where we can start popularization of the “Learning Object” concept.

    But this doesn’t lessen the core value of learning objects, which is reusability across pedagogic contexts.

    And I believe that sometime in the future, we will have developped the theories, their associated technologies, tools and infrastructures to make and support true “Learning Objects”. Then will be the time to use this expression in a truely meaningfull way.