Learning object

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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)

See also: the learning object repository article and the list of learning objects repositories

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 ?

Wiley (2003) defined a preliminary taxonomy of learning object types that expands the definition provided by LTSC working group, which defined the original LOM Metadata standard cited as:

Learning Objects are defined here as any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology-supported learning. Examples of technology-supported learning include computer-based training systems, interactive learning environments, intelligent computer-aided instruction systems, distance learning systems, and collaborative learning environments. Examples of Learning Objects include multimedia content, instructional content, learning objectives, instructional software and software tools, and persons, organizations, or events referenced during technology sup-ported learning. (LOM, 2000)

Wiley critized that "this definition is extremely broad and upon examination fails to exclude any person, place, thing, or idea that has existed at anytime in the history of the universe, since any of these could be “referenced during technology supported learning.” and argued that a simpler definition like “any digital resource that can be reused to support learning” is more operational. He then proposed a provisional taxonomy of five types that are based pm either criteria.

Table 1. Preliminary Taxonomy of Learning Object Types

Learning Object characteristic

Fundamental Learning Object

Combined-Closed Learning Object

Combined-Open Learning Object

Generative-Presentation Learning Object

Generative-Instructional Learning Object

Number of elements combined




Few - Many

Few - Many

Type of elements contained


Single, Combined- Closed


Single, Combined- Closed

Single, Combined-closed, Generative-presentation

Reusable component objects(Not applicable)NoYesYes / NoYes / No

Common function

Exhibit, display

Pre-designed instruction or practice

Pre-designed instruction and/or practice

Exhibit, display

Computer-generated instruction and/or practice

Extra-object dependence




Yes / No


Type of logic contained in object

(Not applicable)

 None, or answer sheet-based item scoring

None, or domain- specific instructional & assessment strategies

Domain-specific presentation strategies

 Domain-independent presentation, instructional, & assessment strategies

Potential for

inter-contextual reuse


Potential for

intra-contextual reuse











Wiley's definition, still popular in the late 2010s, is tied to the emergence of learning management systems and related content management but also has roots in instructional systems design and related educational theory. On the technical side, there is a connection the object-oriented programming paradigm since it values the creation of objects that can be reused in multiple contexts.

  • Fundamental — An individual digital resource uncombined with any other, the fundamental learning object is generally a vWiley, D. A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version. Retrieved MONTH DAY, YEAR, from the World Wide Web: http://reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.docisual (or other) aid that serves an exhibit or example function (Wiley & Nelson, 1998).
  • Combined-closed — A small number of digital resources combined at design time by the learning object's creator, whose constituent learning objects are not individually accessible for reuse (recoverable) from the combined-closed learning object itself. A video clip exemplifies this definition, as still images and an audio track are combined in a manner which renders these constituent pieces unrecoverable (or at least difficult to recover). The combined-closed learning object may contain limited logic (e.g., the ability to perform answer sheet-referenced item scoring) but should not contain complex internal logic (e.g., the capacity to intelligently grade a set of item forms or case types), since this valuable capability would not be reusable with other learning objects. Combined-closed learning objects are generally single purpose—they provide either instruction or practice.
  • Combined-open — A larger number of digital resources combined by a computer in real-time when a request for the object is made, whose constituent learning objects are directly accessible for reuse (recoverable) from the combined- open object. A Web page exemplifies this definition, as its component images, video clips, text, and other media exist in reusable format and are combined into a learning object at request-time. Combined-open learning objects frequently combine related instruction and practice, providing combined-closed and fundamental objects in order to create a complete instructional unit.
  • Generative-presentation—Logic and structure for combining or generating and combining lower-level learning objects (fundamental and combined-closed types). Generative-presentation learning objects can either draw on network-accessible objects and combine them, or generate (e.g., draw) objects and combine them to create presentations for use in reference, instruction, practice, and testing.(Generative-presentation learning objects must be able to pass messages to other objects with assessment logic when used in practice or testing.) While generative-presentation learning objects have high intra-contextual reusability (they can be used over and over again in similar contexts), they have relatively low inter-contextual reusability (use in domains other than that for which they were designed).
  • Generative-instructional— Logic and structure for combining learning objects (fundamental, combined-closed types, and generative-presentation) and evaluating student interactions with those combinations, created to support the instantiation of abstract instructional strategies (such as “remember and perform a series of steps”). The transaction shells of Merrill’s Instructional Transaction Theory(Merrill, 1999) would be classified as generative-instructional learning objects. The generative-instructional learning object is high in both intra-contextual and inter-contextual reusability.

(Wiley, 200b)

These types are probably most useful in an instructionalist setting, i.e. a well structured teaching and learning environment.

“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)

Because humans make meaning by connecting new information to that which they already know, the meaningfulness of educational content is a function of its context. As the module's context is further elaborated and made more explicit, a learner working with the module has an easier time understanding how this information relates to what they already know. The more context a learning object has, the more (and the more easily) a learner can learn from it.

To an instructional designer, learning object "reuse" means placing a learning object in a context other than that for which it was designed. The fit of learning objects into these new contexts depends on the extent to which the learning object's internals contain explicit statements of context. For example, statements within a learning object like "as you will recall from the last module..." make it very difficult to reuse the learning object in a context other than that for which it was designed. To make learning objects maximally reusable, learning objects should contain

as little context as possible.

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.
Hodkins-Autodesk Content Strategy Building Block Model View

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 ??).

Context VS Reusability according to Hodgins/Short course on Structured Course Development, Learning Objects, and E-Learning Standards

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.

Modular Content Hierarchy - Hodgins seen by PPT of Krull & Mallinson

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.

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":

  • Accessibility: The ability to locate and access instructional components from one remote location and deliver them to many other locations.
  • Adaptability: The ability to tailor instruction to individual and organizational needs.
  • Affordability: The ability to increase efficiency and productivity by reducing the time and costs involved in delivering instruction.
  • Durability: The ability to withstand technology evolution and changes without costly redesign, reconfiguration or recoding.
  • Interoperability: The ability to take instructional components developed in one location with one set of tools or platform and use them in another location with a different set of tools or platform.
  • Reusability: The flexibility to incorporate instructional components in multiple applications and contexts.

See also:

Formal definition of (e-)learning objects

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

Table 1: Use of Resources in Different Pedagogical Design (Albert Ip and Iain Morrison,2001)

Learning Objects Repositories

In the case of digital learning resources, there are many problems to be overcome before we can expect widespread reuse and sharing. Learning tends to be highly contextual, and context is not as easy to disseminate as data alone. (Learning )

See the learning object repository article and the list of Learning objects repositories

Assessment of learning objects

See Learning Object Review Instrument (LORI)


Introductions and overview
Web sites


The table and definition of Wiley's learning objects are avaible under a Open Publication License. To cite as:

Wiley, D. A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version. Retrieved MONTH DAY, YEAR, from the World Wide Web: http://reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc


Standards and Manuals

  • Advanced Distributed Learning (2006): SCORM 2004 3rd Edition Overview Version 1.0, Available from http://www.adlnet.gov/.



  • Ip, Albert, Iain Morrison and Mike Currie (2001). What is a learning object, technically?, WebNet2001 conference, Orlando, USA. PDF
  • Ip, Albert and Iain Morrison (2001), Learning Objects in Different Pedagogical Paradigms, ASCILITE 2001. PDF
  • Ip, A.; A. Young, I. Morrison (2002) Learning Objects - Whose are they? Proceedings of the 15th Annual Conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications ISBN 0-473-08747-2, 315-320, PDF
  • Hodgins, H. W. (2000). The future of learning objects. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects. WORD Reprint
  • Hodgins, Wayne (2002). The future of learning objects, Proc. of the 2002 eTEE Conference, August 2002, pp. 76-82. PDF (full proceedings, retrieved 16:55, 30 May 2007 (MEST))
  • Wiley, David A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D.A. Wiley (Ed.). The Instructional Use of Learning Objects [on-line]. Available: [1].
  • Wiley, Gibbons, & Recker. (2000). A reformulation of the issue of learning object granularity and its implications for the design of learning objects PDF
  • Wiley, D., & Edwards, E. (2002). Online self-organizing social systems: The decentralized future of online learning. PDF, retrieved 15:41, 11 October 2007 (MEST).
  • Wiley, D. A. (2002). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects. Bloomington: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.
  • Wiley, D. (Ed.) (2002), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects. Bloomington: Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Online version. Available at http://www.reusability.org/read/
  • Williams, Roy (2003) Context, Content and Commodities: e-Learning Objects, Electronic Journal of e-Learning (EJEL) 2 (2). Abstract (PDF/HTML open access)