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Building a Fence (real object) and Building Things out of Learning Objects

Last weekend I built a fence around a vegetable garden in our yard. I am not really much of a craftsman, but this project came out pretty nice. Working with the hands got me thinking about (reaching for the metaphor) building things out of learning objects.

garden fence

I have harped before that there has been way too much emphasis on the creation of the “repositories” and the piles of meta-data, and the search tools- and almost nothing on the craft, the art, the magic, of building something out of the things inside the collections.

Last week at one of our faculty instructional technology meetings, we were trying to get some commitment to taking on the learning object issue. There was the usual tired, over-trodden attempts at definitions, a lot of shrugging, and then the often worded desire for some sort of magic, point and click tools that would assemble LOs into meaningful learning activities.

As the line goes in the hilarious Australian comedy The Castle:


But as I worked on that fence I thought about what an un-realistic, un-attainable, expectation this dream places on technology…

It goes back to what good teachers have always done.

The know their field of expertise, they look at and review materials from a wide variety of resources (books, articles, films, other projects, newspapers, libraries, etc), and then they assemble something new by hand— there was never a push button lesson planner for the classrooms of the 1960s why would we expect a dumb computer to do it now?

When I was building my fence, I had to define in my mind what I hoped to create (objective). I made measurements, drew up some plans, made some sketches, looked at a bunch of existing fences. I went to Home Depot !a tremendous repository of objects!), and sought out what I thought I needed, making changes because they sold 2x4s in 8 foot sections rather than 10. Maybe our learning object collections need some helpers in orange aprons.

Working on the fence, I had to adjust also when things did not work out, or where I got a better idea how to join the boards, or realized that some caulk would really be good for sealing the corners.

Do you see how iterative a process it is? How un-automated? How it is not just about the objects? How much I sweated because it was 105 degrees?

Sure I built this fence out of simple pieces of lumber, deck screws, hinges, paint, but these objects alone do not make a fence. And yes, I could have gone an easy route, and paid someone to build it, but where is the pride or growth in that?

Learning too cannot be built at the click of a button- we put something of ourtselves into things when we build it by hand, when we craft it.

So get out your saws, hammers, drills, etc. It is time to get to work and out of the dreamland that a bunch of lego blocks are going to string together a learnign experience.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at 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. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. But isn’t the point not so much that objects should be easy to build the first time, but that once built, unlike your fence, they can be re-urposed and re-used umpteen times with much less effort than it took to build initially? Are you saying the raw lumber you got at home depot are equivalent to ‘objects?’ Maybe, but it seems more likely to me that, to stay within your metaphor, the objects are more like the 4 individual sides of your fence, and that it would in fact be easier to create, for instance, a fence for a smaller garden out of this one by simply shortening up two of the sides. Had you decided to make each side of your fence a different height, though, not only would it have been more difficult to make your initial fence, it would likely have been just as difficult to make each subsequent one too.

    Do you think the metaphors taken from physical space are coming up short here? I think it might be so, but I do appreciate the attempts to translate the issues into other realms that we are maybe more accustomed to. Cheers, Scott.

  2. Well, Scott, you’ve nit me over the head with the danger of metaphors- I was less trying to deal with what the fence represented as to what building the fence meant.

    Many things in the fence could have been objects, yes. Actually, Home Depot had some pre-constructed 6 foot fence sections, but they were solid and 6 feet high, so to re-purpose that would take a whole lot of cutting and be awkward.

    So maybe I will hang up my object building hat and spend my days cutting and nailing, etc.

  3. You know what, I re-read your piece, and while I think my first comments still have some merit, I do think I was reading it in not totally the right spirit. As you say, you were focusing less on the ‘objects’ and more on the process.

    And from that perspective (and I don’t know that the two can be separated, which is perhaps at the core of some of the recently observed ‘paradoxes’) I think you’re absolutely right. The creation of learning ‘content’ for others is in fact a learning process in and of itself for the content creator. It’s of value both in learning more about the process of creating content and also in learning more about the content itself – by having to wrap your own mind around the various ways to try and explain or demonstrate something you ‘already’ understand you end up with a deeper, or at least quite possibly different, understanding of it, especially in cases where real empathy has been extended to appreciate that not all people come about understandings in exactly the same ways.

    So apart from all of the challenges to mechanistic approaches to learning objects that one can levy because of paradoxes with granularity and re-use or learning designs and contexts or … whatever … what I take away from reading your post again is that there’s a real valid challenge to be made against mechanistic notions of objects and their re-use because this fundamentally discounts the value of process to both the end product and to the people involved.

    Anyways, I am going off on a rant here and I better stop now and take my medication. I really do appreciate your posts on these topics as they come from a place of real practice. So don’t stop trying to find metaphors to grapple with these things – the very act of doing so out in public helps us all. Cheers, Scott.

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