On Learning Objects

The MERLOT conference provided an excellent opportunity to share ideas with other educators, and listen to some thought-provoking presentations on the subject of learning objects. Rather than rehash my favorite presentations (since the materials from all the talks will be available within the next few weeks on the MERLOT website), I would like to share some thoughts about learning objects with an audience that might not have heard of them.
A good starting place would be the definition of a learning object. A learning object can be defined as being made up of a core consisting of a content object (which could be as small as a single image or video fragment, or as large as a set of books), wrapped in a layer that contains information relevant to its educational use (e.g., pedagogical goals, knowledge prerequisites, forms of assessment), with this information structured in standardized fashion. The core need not be digital – it could be a physical book, or a particular geographic location for use in an ecology lesson – but since the wrapper is digital, all sorts of fun things regarding the collection, sharing, and evaluation of these learning objects can now take place. It is important to realize that learning objects are defined by their pedagogical purposes and context – a famous painting by itself could form the core of a learning object, but would not be a learning object by itself. A more detailed discussion of the structure of learning objects can be found in this paper by Larry Johnson.
Simple as the concept might seem in theory, quite a bit of work is needed to make it become a reality in practice. Among the things required are standards for semantic annotation, tools for creating learning objects, databases for storing and searching these objects, ways of sharing the objects, and structures for evaluating the pedagogical quality and effectiveness of those objects. MERLOT is one of several institutions providing a framework for the sharing of research on learning objects, as well as a repository for learning objects and their evaluation. Many other projects have taken on the task of providing end-to-end solutions for the creation, storage, and sharing of learning objects. One of the most interesting in this regard is eduSource Canada for its comprehensiveness, thoughtfulness, adherence to open standards, and (particularly important, in my view) the attention they have paid to scalability – this bodes well for the products of this effort being usable by institutions and individuals without massive financial and hardware resources.
The learning objects movement is still in its infancy – for instance, the wrapper and evaluation tools provided for most objects on the current MERLOT website are primitive at best – but development is proceeding rapidly. There are many potential and unique advantages to be realized by the use of learning objects, but also (unfortunately) some pitfalls. From these, I would like to highlight five key advantages, and three potentially perilous pitfalls.
Aiding in the democratization of learning: wealthy institutions (e.g., MIT) are now sharing their course materials with the world. Learning objects provide a way to make these products available, usable and digestible – the materials for a full MIT course might not be particularly usable in raw form, but could be readily incorporated by other institutions into their teaching practice if broken down into learning object-style components. At the K-12 level, where instructor training and materials creation can become a particularly pressing problem in less wealthy institutions, the use of a learning object-type approach would allow for instructors to use well-evaluated components, while simultaneously reducing the problem of content creation and training to manageable scale.
Assuming a (truly) creative role for the learner: the structure of learning objects is such that learners are not restricted to using objects passively, but can create their own learning objects to share with others as part of the educational process. A simple yet powerful example of the type of tool that can assist in doing this is given by Pachyderm – templates of the type used in Pachyderm would allow learners to express their understanding of the material in ways that are both deeper and more active than standardized testing. In fact, the very process of choosing among, using, discussing, and evaluating learning objects by learners can be viewed as an essential portion of the learning object creation methodology – a recent presentation by Ulrich Rauch and Warren Scott (summarized by Sarah Lohnes here) argued just this point.
Providing a basis for real discussion: the creation and use of learning objects implies a “theory into practice” approach – any given object is intimately tied to a particular point of instructional practice, but requires clear understanding of its related theory (as, for instance, when creating its semantic tags). This could have a very salutary effect on pedagogical discussion: theoretical conversations in the area of pedagogy without actual examples tend to devolve into fluffy wordplay with little or no relevance to actual teaching practice. However, the choice that is frequently made to schematize or omit relevant theory results in narrowly technical solutions that are copied across institutions with little understanding and less success. Learning objects sidestep the divorce between theory and practice, and could provide educators with tangible objects for productive discussion.
Respecting flexibility in learning styles without sacrificing content: in some applications of current pedagogical thought, differences in learning styles have been mistakenly taken as the equivalent of exclusion from areas of knowledge. I have been present – although not silently, I can assure you – at meetings where instructors insisted that “student X, being primarily a visual learner, could not be expected to understand mathematical abstractions”. This is dangerous, condescending, elitist nonsense, and a thorough misrepresentation of the research conducted into learning styles. Learning objects allow for the creation of multiple approaches to the same objectives, which the learner can choose to tailor by selecting different paths based on their individual learning style – a superb example of this was presented at the conference by Laura Franklin as part of a joint talk with Cathy Simpson.
Allowing for greater potential integration of content across levels (K-12, college, adult learners, etc.): because learning objects need not be tied to a given course or lesson plan, they can be recontextualized by different instructors and learners at different levels in varying fashion. For instance, the learning objects on the senses on Tutis Vilis’ website could be readily used (with varying degrees of instructor contextualization) by learners of all levels.
The pitfalls I see as not emanating from anything intrinsic to learning objects, but rather from the fallacies that can arise when enthusiasm for a tool crosses over the line to zealotry. In all fairness, I have not heard these voiced frequently within the learning objects community – but I have heard them voiced often enough to be worth the cautionary note. The three fallacies are:
The fallacy of the LEGO™ bricks: this can best be expressed as “snap a course together from learning object bricks – presto, you’re done”. The LEGO metaphor for learning objects can be useful in conceptualizing their interchangeability and multiplicity – up to a point. When taken too literally, it implies both an excess of structure and passivity in the instructor/learner roles. Additionally, learning objects lack the right features to be literally LEGO-like: the scope of any given object is not uniform, different objects may overlap or leave gaps between them, and the objects themselves need not be immutable objects. The only way to make LEGO brick learning objects is to artificially constrain the production of these objects, and the learning contexts within which they are to be used in ways that are, if anything, less interesting than the least creative aspects of current teaching practice.
The fallacy of the experts: summarizable as “ok, I’ll put in the content, you put in the usability, they put in the accessibility, someone else puts in the semantic markup – presto, a new learning object”. This viewpoint is far more widespread than the previous one – even some people who acknowledge that this type of super-specialized multiple expert development is probably financially infeasible seem to be nostalgic for it. Beyond financial considerations, however, I view this as an example of the malady of overspecialization that affects many sectors of the educational establishment. As someone who has taught courses in usability and accessibility, I can assure you that the material in these areas required to create learning objects does not demand years of study – one or two courses of the same scope and duration as those routinely taken by teachers for recertification will more than suffice. Additionally, a well-designed learning object requires attentions to all aspects of its construction from the start – while it is possible to “bolt on” a tolerable interface to a learning object where usability was not a primary design concern of the content creator’s, it tends to yield mediocre results at best. The experts should be able to focus on those tasks for which deep expertise is required – the creation of tools for the creation of learning objects, research and development in particularly difficult areas of user accessibility, etc.
The fallacy of authoritarianism: which can be simply put as “this is the only worthwhile way to do things – join us or be marginalized”. Whenever I have heard this viewpoint expressed, it has had a particularly dramatic chilling effect upon its listeners. I can think of few things that can kill off a promising pedagogical tool faster than this type of attitude. Learning objects have great pedagogical potential – but only if combined with a broad range of other new and existing tools, and an equally wide scope of critical opinions – none of which are likely to flourish in a “do it my way or else” type of atmosphere.