Learning Objects

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Learning Objects = small bits of reusable digital content that can be used to support learning

See also MicroContent


An excerpt from an article by Stephen Downes, quoting Hodgins:

"My journey into this world of learning objects started with an 'epiphany moment' watching my children play with LEGO blocks many years ago... I began what has been more than ten years of refining a dream of a world where all "content" exists at just the right and lowest possible size, much like the individual blocks that make up LEGO systems." (Hodgins, 2002)

This early vision has undergone numerous changes since its inception, though the concept has remained the same. Learning objects are small bits of reusable digital content that can be used to support learning. How they fit together became terribly important, and so there was much debate about the correct analogy to use. Learning objects were thus more like atoms, for example. Or there should be things like data objects and knowledge objects, which would instead be combined to form sharable courseware objects. Hodgins himself abandoned the Lego metaphor, recommending instead what he called a multi level content taxonomy. (Hodgins, 2002) (http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=20)


Norm Friesen:

"The term “learning object” has been defined in a number of different but broadly congruent ways. It is significant that each definition highlights modularity as a technological and design attribute for the object and its content, emphasizing the “self-contained,” “building block” or “object-oriented” nature of the technology. Learning objects were not typically associated with whole courses, but were seen as optimally being comprised of smaller modules, units or course sub-components. The use of terms like “modular,” “digital” and “object oriented” testify to a broader emphasis on the technological solutions and standards evident in many learning object projects and publications. Technically-based interchangeability and interconnectability implied by the term “object oriented” has been an important issue in learning objects discussions over the years.

The term learning object was first popularized by Wayne Hodgins in 1994. The relatively early date of this coinage is significant: it is roughly simultaneous with the popular emergence of the Web itself. This means that the development of practical and technical conventions, technological solutions and standards for the interchangeability of these objects were the first of their kind for any type of distributed content on the Web. These path-breaking standards include the IEEE Learning Object Metadata Specification and the IMS Content Packaging Specification. The emergence of these standards specifically for education provides an important example of educational technologists being at the leading edge of developments in technology. The early development of these bleeding edge educational specifications in some ways outpaced more general legal, practical and technological developments. They consequently may have ended up creating rather than resolving problems for educators.

Some of the most ambitious visions for learning objects saw complex, interactive educational resources, whether informational or interactive and software-based, as being combined together in the context of a powerful but flexible "component architecture". "We argue that stand-alone applications are incompatible with typical production, distribution, and usage patterns for educational software. We aim to convince the reader that emerging industry-standard component software architectures "[will allow] a comprehensive learning works [to] emerge [on the basis of] contributions from many distributed innovators".

Some saw such emerging industry-standard component architectures as enabling not only new levels of technical interoperation and ease-of-use, but also facilitating the development of new communities, practices and even economies. In an industry white paper entitled Elusive Vision: Challenges Impeding the Learning Object Economy, Lawrence Johnson describes the basis for such an economy: "Commercial exchanges are the heart and soul of any market economy, and in the commercial market for learning objects, end users and aggregators purchase content under specific licenses that allow them to use the objects in clearly defined ways. This arena includes large traditional publishers who want to repurpose their content as learning objects and training companies eager to move into e-learning. Also appearing are a crop of smaller new entrants who publish learning objects as their core business. This market has some special challenges, and many issues related to licensing remain to be sorted out."

Such an economy was not visualized as being open in the sense of open source or OER. Johnson’s final observation that “many issues related to licensing remain to be sorted out” provides a clear indication as to why such an economy did not develop, and also why openness has since become much more important in discussing resources for learning and education. The issues related to licensing have ultimately proven virtually impossible to “sort out.” At the time of Johnson’s statement, many saw digital rights management (DRM) as a technical answer to questions of licensing, particularly in the contexts where modular resources would be recombined and repurposed in complex ways. It would allow uses of digital bits of content to be prescribed and controlled in great detail. DRM technologies would grant or prohibit forms of access and use of a learning object according to a legal license. These technologies have been successfully challenged and undermined in the world of popular music and video, and they have met with even less success in the world of education. This is one among many reasons why the widespread adoption of learning objects, either on a commercial or a more open basis, has not yet occurred. The innovative approach taken by the OER movement to this challenge constitutes one of its most important characteristics." (http://www.osbr.ca/ojs/index.php/osbr/article/view/911/880)

More Information

  1. An informed critique of Learning Objects, that supports the principle, but deplores the proprietary way in which educational publishers have approached the concept, by Stephen Dowes [1] at http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=20
  2. Bibliography at http://opencontent.org/docs/wiley-lo-review-final.pdf
  3. Open Educational Resources