Learning Objects

knowledge objectsThe trend that will have the biggest impact on online learning in this decade is that of learning objects. Learning objects are at the core of a whole new courseware design paradigm requiring a radical change in instructional design strategy, technical architectures, and delivery systems. Yet, who could argue with the goals of this shift in thinking?

Goals of Learning Object Design
goal description
Reusability learning content modularized into small units of instruction suitable for assembly and reassembly into a variety of courses
Interoperability instructional units that interoperate with each other regardless of developer or learning management system
Durability units of instruction that withstand ever evolving delivery and presentation technologies without becoming unusable
Accessibility learning content that is available anywhere, any time—learning content that can be discovered and reused across networks

Meeting these goals has been and continues to be a technical challenge and a major effort at persuading disinterested parties. Companies with proprietary technologies to sell and training developers wanting the assurance of continued business as technologies change have been at odds with those working to make the goals reality. Nonetheless, the efforts of academics, professional and trade organizations, and the United States Federal government have yielded the first steps of moving from the conceptual and theoretical to some initial standards and practical applications.The groundswell of activity is matched by a buzz of activity on multiple fronts. Learning objects, as a concept and as a practice, are worthy of your understanding, and this trend will ultimately demand your participation.


symbolic depiction of a learning objectWhat are learning objects?

To understand the concepts behind learning objects and to appreciate their potential benefits, perhaps it is best to look at a real world example. I shall use three fictional organizations to illustrate the use of learning objects.

The American Retro Tile Company wanted to create Web-based training for users of its products.They felt that the WBT would not only explain the proper procedures for installing their tile, but it would also add value to their products and thus increase sales and customer satisfaction. They wanted to develop courses for everyone from do-it-yourself homeowners to professional installers to tile distributors and wholesalers. American Retro has an extensive collection of photographs that illustrate the various styles and classes of tiles, their design and manufacture, and their installation in a variety of settings.The company also has video footage of the installation of their tile in a landmark building in San Francisco.Naturally, they want to reuse content as much as possible and whenever instructionally warranted.

The International Union of Tile Installers had been thinking of developing WBT courses for its apprentice program. When the union heard about American Retro's plans for courses, it felt it could save a lot of effort and cost if it could reuse most of the American Retro course content.It would just have to add a few new sections on union rules and procedures.So the union contacted American Retro to express their interest. The union also got a great deal from a popular learning management system company to host and manage the courseware for the union.

A Canadian vocational college had also been considering adding courses on tile installation to its extensive catalog of online courseware.The college operates its own Web servers and learning management system for its other online courses.It, too, expressed an interest in the course content planned by American Retro.

American Retro Tile proceeded with the project by hiring a respected training development firm, NexGen Digital Design.NexGen recommended a modular design approach that used learning objects compliant with a contemporary learning standard. This satisfied American Retros needs and it also opened the possibility of reuse by the other organizations and beyond.

Now, where do learning objects fit in? NexGen completed its training analysis and from the American Retro archive selected the best photographs, video footage, and reference text to use in the courses.Working with subject matter experts and its own instructional designers, the training developer created the list of courses, lessons, topics, and sub-topics satisfying American Retro's needs, and then it created a list of learning objects needed to construct these various instructional units.

Each instructional unit, whether it was an entire course or a very small sub-topic, included a terminal objective, instructional strategy, and assessment vehicle in addition to the instructional assets—text, graphics, animations, audio narration, and video. Each unit also included a "container" to present the assets, instructional strategy, and assessment; in this case, one or more HTML files. The collection of instructional content known to be necessary to teach the instructional unit; but absent the objective, the instructional strategy, and any assessment; would be described by Merrill (2002)—an academic leader and pioneer of next generation instructional design—as a knowledge object. Combine a knowledge object with the aforementioned instructional components and you have the mystical learning object, a fundamental building block composed of all the instructionally necessary components to comprise a self-contained instructional unit.

learning objectsLearning objects are building blocks that can be combined in nearly infinite ways to construct collections that might be called lessons, modules, courses, or even curricula. The choice of which learning objects to assemble into a collection can be a decision made in advance by an instructor/instructional designer or at the moment by a student. In the near future, as standards and learning content management systems evolve, the LCMS may add, delete, or reorganize learning objects based upon the student's real-time performance. Standards assure that learning objects "snap together" even if originating from different sources. The LCMS becomes a toy box containing references to the instructional building blocks ready for assembly in assorted configurations.

Here is one point to remember. While a learning object could be contained in a single executable file, as you might infer from the illustration, it rarely is.The assets that make up a learning object, along with the container files and the meta-data, all are maintained as separate files and linked through reference or explicit hyperlink.


Learning Objects, Learning Content Management Systems, and Standards

The definition of a learning object just presented is somewhat theoretical for in current usage a learning object contains more than the instructionally necessary components. It must also contain a complete description of itself, data about data, or meta-data. Meta-data answers many of the instructionally irrelevant though still important questions about the instructional unit: Who created it and who owns it? What is the cost for its use? Where is it (electronically) located? What are the technical requirements (plug-ins, operating systems, etc.)? To which standards version does it conform? What are the prerequisites? What are some keywords associated with this learning object? Learning content management systems use meta-data for such purposes as access control, payment processing and accounting, and content delivery.

NexGen Digital Design created the many learning objects for American Retro without knowing which LCMS they would ultimately use. It did not really matter because they developed the learning objects to the SCORM, a learning standard that is widely supported by LCMS vendors. NexGen also created special meta-data files, called content aggregation meta-data, to describe collections of learning objects assembled into recommended courses; like Installing RetroBeauty Floor Tile and Grouting with Retro Premium Grout.

The International Union of Tile Installers struck a deal with American Retro to use some of their learning objects. Next, they hired NexGen to create a few new learning objects on union rules and procedures and also new content aggregation meta-data files to describe courses they recommended, Preparation of Floor Surfaces, Cutting and Shaping Ceramic Tile, and Working with Mastic. NexGen also added a certification test learning object that apprentices could use to advance their careers. The union got great training at a bargain price and American Retro recovered some development cost while subtly promoting its line of tiles.

The vocational college followed suit by leasing the use of American Retros learning objects and creating their own content aggregations. However, they found that students from other building trade programs were just as often accessing the LCMS to study individual instructional units rather than whole courses. Students were defining their own needs and organizing their own instruction.

In this fictional scenario several organizations have a common subject interest but different learner needs. The archive of media assets became the basis for creating knowledge objects. These were then packaged as learning objects, the building blocks for pre-defined courses and student defined exploration. The learning objects had to be created only once—they were reusable. An assurance that learning objects could be assembled in any order and that they would work with any LCMS came from strict adherance to standards. Implementing such a scheme is possible today, though the technologies represented in the standards are not fully mature. There are some hurdles left to overcome, not the least of which is educating instructional designers and developers. Nonetheless, this is one trend that everone connected with online learning must take seriously.


Suggested Reading

American Society for Training & Development (1998-1999). "Knowledge Objects: Definition, Development Initiatives, and Potential Impact", Issues & Trends Report

Merrill, M. David (2002). Second Generation Instructional Design. Available: http://www.id2.usu.edu/id2/index.htm. (July 23, 2002)

Merrill, M. David (1998). "Knowledge Objects", CBT Solutions, March/April, pp. 1-11

Mortimer, Lori (2002). (Learning) Objects of Desire: Promise and Practicality. Available: http://www.learningcircuits.org/2002/apr2002/mortimer.html. (July 23, 2002)

Welsch, Edward (2002). "SCORM: Clarity or Calamity", Online Learning Magazine, Summer, pp. 14-18


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