Learning Objects R.I.P.

Rip Lo

Did you catch the obits?

Teemu Leinonen, one of the members of the FLOSSE Posse has bravely cast out the notice in “Learning objects – Is the King naked?”. He argues that the IEEE definitions of “any entity, digital or non digital hat may be used for learning, education or teaching” is broad enough to mean nothing, or that if everything is a learning object, what does that mean?

Because any entity in the universe – digital or non-digital – can be used for learning, education and teaching… I know that many people are using the term “learning object” when they talk about pictures, graphics, simulations, piece of texts, video and audio clips that are specifically designed for learning purpose and can be combined together to build up larger learning material units. This all makes sense. But why should we call them “learning objects” and not just learning content, or pieces of learning content?

I could not agree more. All the piles of effort to define what us a “learning object” has gone back and forth across the academic papers and presentations, but in the end, I must bring up the ghost of Clara Peller to inquire, “Where’s the Beef?” Meaning, where is all the content that has been created form the re-use of all the things piled up inside the “repositories”? Where has a so-called object been “recontextualized” with a set of others into something new? I’ve been looking for a while and coming up empty.

Submitted to perusal is the New Conceptual Framework Learning Object, heralded as:

This learning object helps students struggling to create a conceptual framework or concept map for a major project or thesis. It includes narratives, examples and resources to guide students through a 5 step voyage of learning. The roughly 2 hour experience with this object will be time well spent by students or teachers struggling with the challenges of grounding their research and developing questions in an appropriate research framework.

I am not leveraging any criticism at this piece of content- it is nicely done with a consistent map/voyage metaphor, and is rich in media. Again, I like the content. I might see linking to it or recommending it to someone. Check it out first: http://innovation.dc-uoit.ca/cloe/lo/cf/.

What I find curious is a great del of self referential statements in the so-called learning object aiming to reinforce it’s existence:

This learning object has been designed so that you can navigate through it in two ways. You may follow the prescribed route as indicated on the map or you can jump from island to island in whatever order you desire. We strongly recommend that the first time through you follow the suggested sequence.
You should use the navigation buttons provided in this learning object and avoid using the “Back” button in your browser.

What can I do with this “object”? How can I re-use it? How can I “recontextualize it”? What is it exactly I can do with it?

Here is the big answer.

I can link to it.

It is a web site, a pretty one, one with a variety of media, but it is really a nice piece of content. If it were published 15 years ago as a HyperCard stack, or 7 years again a CD-ROM, would we call it a “learning object”?

I see nothing about it’s billboard sign declaring “I AM A LEARNING OBJECT” that lends itself to any more re-use than any of the other say, 10 gizzillion things on the net (again, I am NOT leveraging criticism at the media, the content).

Well the point has been labored to death here.

What I see, think this is going is more in line with the presentation made by Richard Baraniuk (Rice University) at our Ocotillo Retreat last week, “Open-Access Publishing in Education – Building Communities and Sharing Knowledge”. While a good chunk of his presentation was meant to stimulate controversy and discussion over his end of the Cretaceous Era prediction for text book publishers (duck, dinosaurs!), in reference to his vision and efforts with the Connexions Project, he refers to not “learning objects” in “repositories” but “learning content” deposited in a “commons” (deliberately with ties to Creative Commons). For more, see the PDF version [2.3 Mb] of Richard’s slides.

Maybe I too am just arguing over naming conventions, but it is no wonder audiences and faculty groups I work with are still fuzzy eyed when I try to described “learning objects”. What have we gotten for all the expended energy?

I do have to acknowledge the expertise and perspective of Scott Leslie (see his take on the FLOSSE decree), that regardless of the road we take, keeping or putting a fork in learning objects, to not forgot the original reasons behind the LO movement

But my small fear is that in throwing out these terms, we’ll also throw out many of the problems they were supposed to be trying to solve – namely enabling learning content to be shared and found through means that were otherwise unavailable (e.g. searching on pedagogically useful terms that were either not directly part of the resources themselves, or else for resources that weren’t served well by conventional web search engines), and having formats for learning content that allowed it to be reused by as many systems as possible without major alterations (there are many more problems they were supposed to address, I know, but let’s leave it at that for now).

Let’s get to the content!

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Totally agree. Lord knows I was swept up with this stuff. It’s about the CONTENT, stupid! Let’s get away from the acronyms, and back to figuring out what we can actually DO with content, now that we’re not constrained by things like shelves and boxes…

  2. Oh my! After three years of teaching our deans and provost and librarians to (repeat after me) say ‘learning object’ without giggling or sneering or worse, now it’s time to start re-educating them to yet another new vocabulary.

    Were those hypercard stacks and all those dusty director cd-roms learning objects during the time when we were all saying learning objects? Sure. Why not!

    We’re still spending a lot of time and energy making stuff that for the time being we will probably keep calling learning objects. Once the dust settles and a new vocabulary emerges, we’ll gladly call them whatever is the term du jour. I think the new vocabulary was useful in getting people to think about how they could create stuff that could be used beyond the confines of their own particular classroom, and it got them to think about design and usability and working collaboratively with people that they don’t normally collaborate with. And we think the students benfit, both on our campus and on the campuses that can figure out that our stuff exists.

    — mike

  3. The learning objects foolishness is a wonderful example of the price you pay for sloppy thinking.

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  5. Much ado about nothing! Everything we read, see, do, hear, touch, etc. is a “learning object.” The fact that we package small amounts of learning into comsumable bundles and name it a “learning object” doesn’t change the fact that people learn in chunks.

    One of the weaknesses of training professionals seems to be the desire to argue over semantics an academic theories rather than how different approaches drive business results. And as Yoda so eloquently said, “And that is why you fail.”

  6. Actually learning objects (or different kinds of digital learning resources/materials etc., whatever they are called) itself are not good or bad, but the ways to implement and the learning environments created around them determine the pedagogical value and usefulness of LOs. Due to LO’s flexible nature, they can be used to support almost all kinds of instructional strategies, methods and learning theories – both sophisticated and reductionist ones.

    The LO approach offers both tremendous promises (like cost-effective production, maximal sharing and reusability, flexible adaptability, technical interoperability etc.), but also at the same time very serious shortcomings and fundamental problems. These problems are mainly related to flawed views of knowledge, learning and teaching, which are underlying the LO approach. Therefore it’s essential that every educator should evaluate the ways they are using (or planning to use) LOs in their teaching and reflect what kind of teaching and learning activities they are promoting with LOs. LOs need sound pedagogical grounding, because LOs itself won’t improve teaching and learning practices.

  7. That’s nicely said and nothing I would argue with. However, it still pre-supposes that there is a uniquely identifiable entity of what a learning objects is, so I can distinguish from say a door knob object or a french fry object.

    What I think I heard was learning objects depend on their context

    I sm astill waiting to read someinthfg more specific that provides a case study where ordinary teachers built content out of different pre-existing learning objects and actually did save the alleged time, money, hair loss, etc.

    Bottom line, in my book, is that there is nothing special about these things we cannot identify, so why bother promiting more vagueness? If it is content and context we are talking about, then let’s talk about that.

  8. Dear Alan,
    Indeed, it’s all about the content and the context of use as you said – in addition to the pedagogical methods and ways to implement LOs in that context. There is no use for empty and too broad definitions of LOs (like the IEEE definition), but the essential issues are sharing and reusing of exisiting digital learning materials/resources. In my opinion two most important factors in the whole LO movement are 1) pedagogical implementation and 2) sharing of materials. Through material sharing we can increase the use of ICT in schools, and maybe even decrease the effort and time required by the teachers in preparing her/his teaching. Even so, strictly prescribed standards and definitions of LOs are only neccessary for computers and automated LO systems; humans are able to (re)use existing materials flexibly and meaningfully to meet their current needs. However, the save of time and effort when teachers are building new teaching materials(either starting from scratch or making new combinations/variations with existing materials) is more a fantasy than a real thing. Creating something new is always laborious, but then the value may come from reusing that material again.

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