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Learning object is a controversial concept. “The learning object remains an ill-defined concept, despite numerous and extensive discussion in the literature.” (Churchill, 2007:479). At a very general level, a learning object could be defined as a pedagogical resource (including tools).
In the main-stream "old school" e-learning literature, there is some kind of agreement, i.e. one can find definitions like:
- Small (relative to the size of an entire course) instructional components that can be reused a number of times in different learning contexts.
- "digital entities deliverable over the internet" (Wiley, 2000, p.3)
- Learning objects are supposed to be reusable learning objects (RLO)
There are other definitions in other subfields of educational technology. E.g. Oren Zuckerman (2006, in preparation) defines a constructionist learning object as “ specifically designed to promote learning through hands-on interaction”. These are popular materials in early childhood education, at school and at home. See the constructionist learning object article. More recent approaches to technology-enhanced learning like learning design, CSCL script rather focus on the concept of reusable pedagogical scenarios. Finally, generative learning objects may represent some kind of compromise between the content-centered "learning object approach" and more activity/scenario/cognitive tool-oriented approaches.
We suggest the following very global definition: A learning object is a resource. This definition is not very operational, but at least compatible with learning design models that usually distinguish between resources (of various sorts), services (tools) and learning activities (scenarios) as the building blocks for educational designs. Tools may of course include learning objects. E.g. a wiki is a tool, but its entries may play the role of learning objects. Also, student productions may become learning learning objects and that idea goes beyond student projections of contents. E.g. in some CSCL models, communication becomes substance and therefore an object one can learn from. In conclusion, as a social scientist, I'd say that learning object should be defined by their function with respect to a given set of similar instructional design models. A global definition doesn't make sense. - Daniel K. Schneider 09:58, 21 April 2009 (UTC).
What is a learning object ?
“It appears unlikely that any of existing definitions can serve to align communities with diverse perspectives (e.g. traditionalist and constructivist educators, or instructional product designers and school teachers as learning designers) around any common understanding leading to advancement in education and learning outcomes through technology integration.” (Churchill, 2007:480).
Instead of a single detailed definition, Churchill (2007:484) defines a learning object as “a learning object is a representation designed to afford uses in different educational contexts”. He then proposes a typology of several kinds of learning objects which then could be defined in more precise terms:
- Presentation object
- Direct instruction and presentation resources designed with the intention to transmit specific subject matter. E.g. simple e-learning presentations as defined in the IMS Content Packaging framework
- Practice object
- Drill and practice with feedback, educational game or representation that allows practice and learning of certain procedures
- Simulation object
- Representation of some real-life system or process
- Conceptual model
- Representation of a key concept or related concepts of subject matter
- Information object
- Display of information organized and represented with modalities
- Contextual representation
- Data displayed as it emerges from represented authentic scenario
Content-based e-learning objects
“The purpose of learning objects and their reality seem to be at odds with one another. On the one hand, the smaller designers create their learning objects, the more reusable those objects will be. On the other hand, the smaller learning objects are, the more likely it is that only humans will be able to assemble them into meaningful instruction. From the traditional instruction point of view, the higher-level reusability of small objects does not scale well to large numbers of students (i.e., it requires teachers or instructional designers to intervene), meaning that the supposed economic advantage of reusable learning objects has evaporated.” (D. Wiley also at edtechpost)Another version of this reusability paradox can be found on the connexions web site, retrieved 17:42, 16 August 2007 (MEST)
According to Hodgins (2000) as described in MODWiki, the hierarchy of modular content can be divided into 5 levels:
- Raw Content
- The most fine-granular level consists of raw media elements including media types like text, audio, illustration, animation and others.
- Reusable Information Object
- From raw media elements, information objects are formed. They describe a certain procedure, process or structure, define a concept, present a fact, or provide an overview on some subject.
- Reusable Learning Object
- The third aggregation layer combines information objects circumscribed by a learning objective. The objects at this level are called learning objects.
- The fourth layer groups learning objects around a more encompassing outcome or terminal objective to create aggregates like lessons, chapters, learning units etc.
- The top layer includes collections of lower level aggregate assemblies to form thematic courses, books, stories or whole movies.
In the A Short Course on Structured Course Development, Learning Objects, and E-Learning Standards we can find the following diagram that illustrates the relationship between context and reusability (adapted from Hodgins, 2002 ??).
Krull and Mallinson, also based on Hodgins made this slide that expresses the same principle, however this time the learning object in the narrow sense is somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy.
E-learning objects vs any teaching materials
Most commonly used learning objects are teaching materials that can be found in teacher-centered repositories. There are several categories, e.g.
- Simple Contents for learners (e.g. Web Pages, Word documents)
- Multimedia presentations and multimedia animations
- Interactive learning software (e.g. interactive multimedia)
However, it is debatable whether these are learning objects in a more strict sense. Clearly some of these are not just "raw contents", but non-standardized reusable contents at any level of granularity.
Gerry Paille defines the characteristics of Learning Objects in a more narrow sense as follows:
- Learning objects are digital
- Learning objects can be stored in a database or repository
- Learning objects can be described using a metadata standard or specification
- Learning objects are discoverable through searching a database
- Learning objects are interoperable in that they are independent of hardware, operating system and browser type
- Learning objects tend to be, but are not necessarily, small or granular in nature
- Learning objects tend to be, but are not necessarily, disassociated from context
- Learning objects are reusable
- Learning objects can be repurposed for different educational contexts
- Learning objects have an explicit educational purpose
Daniel K. Schneider thinks that in the world of e-learning, learning objects mostly refer to a set of interactive web pages, in particular standards-based IMS Content Packaging that can be imported into a LMS.
The SCORM 2004 3rd Edition Overview (p 1-6) defines "ilities," that should characterize a learning objects "economy":
- educational modelling languages e.g. other IMS standards like the IMS Simple Sequencing or IMS Learning Design that deal with the sequencing part of a learning object
- metadata standards to describe objects or its components
Formal definition of (e-)learning objects
- See the standards article for an overview and the Learning object standard article for a technical overview table
- See educational modeling languages and IMS Content Packaging for the most important faces of pedagogical e-learning standards.
Pedagogical design and learning objects
Learning objects play different roles in given instructional design models / pedagogic strategies. Ip and Morrison (2001) argue that one should clearly distinguish three main types of educational technology uses cases and that emphasize different kinds of resources:
- Learn from a computer (CBT, e-instruction, etc.): Learning objects, i.e. learning objects in a narrow sense.
- Learn with a computer (cognitive tool, writing-to-learn, etc.): Software tools
- Learn via a computer (CSCL, etc.): Communication (peer learners)
|Pedagogical Design||Nature of the resources||Need special rendering software||Resources are specifically designed for educational use|
|Tutorial, Drill and Practice||Test or drill items, (may be structured to meet interoperability standards such as IMS QTI)||Yes – directly or indirectly. Some learning objects may have embedded content and some may not.||Yes|
|Case Study Method||Teaching cases||No - cases are normally hardcopy but online cases can include video – but hard-wired to the learning scenario (see GBL)||Yes|
|Goal-based learning||Stories, or video clips, provided mainly ‘ondemand’||No||Yes|
|Learning by designing||The requirement for an artifact||No||Yes|
|Web-based role-play, simulation||A scenario & associated design of the role play, simulation resources||No, but the environment itself may be a specialist engine (Ip & Linser, 1999)||Scenario etc: yes, Resources: no|
|Distributed problem based learning||Problem for solving during the learning||No||Yes|
|Critical incident-based computer supported learning||Opportunities for learning - incidence||No||No|
|Rule-based simulation||Embedded in the software||Yes, most componentbased approaches to creating rule-based simulation will have embedded content in the components which roughly map to learning objects in this paper||Yes|
|Cognitive tool||Structured content to work with some tools, generic tools may not need any content||N/A||N/A|
|Resource-based Learning Environment||Resources||Search tool and resource discovery mechanism, e.g. in the form of support from subject gateways||No|