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Can ‘learning objects’ transform the way we learn?


Continuing our investigation of learning design, Jim Flood, Director of Learning at COROUS, looks at the design of e-learning in terms of objects and of process, and finds that there's more to it than assembling discreet elements of content.

Imagine a future in which you want to learn something; you will log-on to your personal website which has already identified your preferred learning style and mode of delivery. This website will know your learning history and what you need to learn in order to progress your interests in work or leisure. Furthermore, at the touch of a button, it will access a vast database containing chunks of learning materials and pull them together in a form that meets your needs at any point in time. The materials will be in the form of a learning experience which is tailor made for you. Dream on!

There is a long-standing tension between learning as a process to be made more efficient along the lines of industrial production (a form of educational Taylorism), and learning as a personal experience in which success is measured by challenges to the status quo.

"I only feel that I have succeeded as a teacher when my students rebel against my teaching". Herbert Read

Learning for change

So, where do E-learning objects fit in along a continuum of teaching and learning as a more efficient delivery system for the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed by industry, commerce or a vision of society held by politicians – and a view of teaching and learning as a subversive activity?

A learning system based on linking together groups of objects can be seen as one which aims for conformity with the designed outcomes. Although it might appear to be flexible and individualised, the process aims at system efficiency rather than learner development. The aim is a more efficient process with an improved and more uniform (and measurable) output and a resulting improvement on the return on investment.

The scenario, based on the belief that learning is reducible to a set of objects, is yet another example of the mad seductive dream of learning as an industrial process and, in this case, an infinitely flexible manufacturing process which will produce any shape or size of model required. The scenario is also predicated on the assumption that learning is a process of understanding knowledge, rather than the process of how individuals come to terms with what that knowledge means to them. Alternatively, can E-learning objects provide learners with the tools and knowledge which will change, rather than reinforce, existing cultures?

Learning Objects

The development of learning objects has its roots in object-orientated computing which aims to organise computing language components so that modules (objects) can be re-used, lego-like, in different structures to produce new programs. So, can teachers, trainers and lecturers apply the same idea to planning and delivering learning experiences and, in particular, via E-learning?

The answer is “Yes, but…”. Clearly it is advantageous to have access to banks of learning resources when putting together a learning package, and more so if the data bank has a sophisticated search facility which is capable of identifying relevant material. For example, many teachers and trainers now search the Google image library for pictures to enhance learning materials. However, there are two significant ‘buts’ to the process: one is that, in spite of SCORM specifications, there is no clear agreement on what constitutes a learning object.

"The old saying that ‘If you’re not thoroughly confused then you don’t understand the situation’ applies in spades to Learning Objects." John Naughton

The other problem is that learning content needs to be ‘glued’ together to form a pedagogic structure that is likely to differ from that of the source from which it was originally extracted. In contrast to learning objects as a process, albeit an ill-defined one, resource based learning (RBL) has a long established history which includes much debate on the strengths and weaknesses of learners choosing their own resources.

One example of this is the way that some E-learning providers have been developing online courses by re-using existing teaching and learning materials that are appropriate for use by independent learners. The skill of authors and designers is in identifying relevant material and in reprocessing it for use in new contexts.

For example, an online learning environment requires a different approach to that of a text-based environment and will be quite different if it is aimed at new, rather than experienced, participants. A learning experience is more than the sum of its objects; it is a journey of discovery for designers and writers as well as for the learners.

In spite of the current frenzy of interest, it is perhaps misleading to associate the term learning object with that of value-free educational building bricks or even a grain of educational sand. It might be more sensible to use the well-established term ‘learning resource’ to describe the range of materials which are selected to illustrate and support a learning narrative.

For example, some authors and developers now have access to high quality learning materials including text, audio, video and multimedia simulations. In addition, they are skilled in the development and use of the communication tools which learners use to explore and exchange ideas. The challenge is to classify and catalogue these resources in such a way that a trawl or mining operation provides relevant and appropriate material. This is much more about the development of a knowledge management system than the generation of learning objects.

One model being developed by a large multinational company is based on 20 minute learning ‘Nuggets’ which are mapped to competencies in the organisation’s leadership framework. Although not learning objects in the sense of how the term is currently being applied, they are modular and Nuggets can be flexibly grouped to meet the needs of individual learners and different constituencies. These are not simply 20 minute learning experiences, but catalysts for further work-based learning activities which are organised through a tutor-led online conference, and include reflective assignments which provide evidence-based assessment of the total learning experience. From Nuggets as the basis of a number of courses, the organisation is moving to Nuggets as the basis for individual exploration and discovery.

The Nugget production process demonstrates an alternative model of learning objects. In this case the purpose of each ‘object’ is specified in terms of the specific purpose that it plays in the learning experience. For example, the ‘overview’ is seen as a necessary component which keys the learner into a set of expectations about what they will experience. Some components are mandatory and others, such as ‘self-assessment’, are optional and writers use their professional judgement in deciding how necessary these are to the learning context of each topic. This provides a structure for the writer that specifies the essential and optional learning components and gives word limits for each so that the total text can be loaded into predesigned templates. The difference in this process is that the objects are specified in terms of what they can do for the learner, it is the writers who decide the content.

Can learning objects transform the way in which we learn?

It would only be possible to answer this question if we knew more about how learning takes place. We know that for each individual, effective learning is a complex function which includes changing dispositions, perceived emotional barriers and self-belief. To provide effective learning we need to address the total ecology of the learning process rather than simply provide a mass of ‘pick-and-mix’ objects from which learners choose.

"I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living". John Dewey, 1897

It is important that as learning designers and managers we have greater access to materials which we can adapt, and that we develop flexible structures into which these can be integrated. We also need to facilitate the development of independence in learners so that they have greater confidence in deciding what they will do with the knowledge and skills they gain, and are able to decide how much more they need to learn and the means by which they will achieve this. Learning objects as a concept is not the answer, but it does raise questions which move the debate forward. These are questions which have been around for a lohg time.


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