The discussion on costs in the preceding chapter leads directly into one of the motivations for the focus of this chapter, namely learning objects (LO). As e-learning gained wider adoption, a number of new approaches to content development were explored, often derived from computer science, with one such approach being the concept of LO. The concept is borrowed from software development, where the object-oriented programming approach defined software in terms of objects, which contain data, attributes, and methods. Programs are constructed by assembling objects and specifying how they communicate with each other. This had demonstrated the benefits of reusable, clearly defined pieces of functional code that could be implemented across multiple programs; for example, a shopping cart. This was both cost effective, in that programs could be assembled from existing units, and result in improved quality, since each program relied on proven functioning objects instead of inventing their own.
Learning objects seemed like a logical step in applying this model to e-learning. Prominent ed tech blogger Stephen Downes (2001) put forward the case for an object-based approach:
There are thousands of colleges and universities, each of which teaches, for example, a course in introductory trigonometry. Each such trigonometry course in each of these institutions describes, for example, the sine wave function. Moreover, because the properties of sine wave functions remain constant from institution to institution, we can assume that each institution’s description of sine wave functions is more or less the same as other institutions. What we have, then, are thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions . . . . Now for the premise: the world does not need thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions available online. Rather, what the world needs is one, or maybe a dozen at most, descriptions of sine wave functions available online. The reasons are manifest. If some educational content, such as a description of sine wave functions, is available online, then it is available worldwide. (p. 1)
This made a lot of sense then, and it still makes a lot of sense today. Learning objects (LO) were potentially beneficial for learners, educators, learning platform providers, commercial companies, and publishers, so they generated a good deal of interest. Defining them would become a contentious issue, but a working definition from Mason and Rehak (2003) was “a digitized entity which can be used, reused or referenced during technology supported learning” (p. 21). A lot of work accompanied the LO gold rush: standards were developed to make them reusable, platforms were built to deploy them, content was produced in their style, and papers were written about them. But they never really gained widespread adoption despite the compelling rationale for their existence, which Downes (2001) and others set out. The failure to make them a reality is perhaps instructive for all ed tech proponents, so it is worth considering the issues that prevented their success, as avoiding these may be useful for adoption of other technologies. Here is a list of some of the main problems that bedevilled their implementation.
In the next chapter we will look at e-learning standards in detail, but for LO to work like software objects, they needed to be tightly standardized. This version of the LO dream went beyond Downes’s (2001) sine wave simulation and had as its vision courses that were automatically assembled on the fly from a pool of LO for a personalized, just-in-time learning experience. The common metaphor was that LO would be like Lego bricks, which came in standard sizes and could be easily assembled into different structures. For this to be a reality, LO needed to be machine-friendly in terms of metadata, format, and structure. The result was that they became cumbersomely overengineered to the extent that no one would create them, and they lost any sense of being an interesting subject for educators to engage with.
Related to the above, the ed tech field debated endlessly what an LO was. Every paper on the topic started with its own definition. It was exhausting. For some, it was defined as “anything that could be used in a learning context.” This could be a photo, but it didn’t even have to be digital — it could be a physical object. This definition ends up being so broad as to be meaningless. Other definitions were more general but specific to digital, and yet others had tight definitions around containing a specified learning outcome or meeting a certain standard. These definition debates highlighted two problems: Firstly, it emphasized the academic obsession with definitions to the point where most discussions about LO degenerated into two people endlessly debating the finer points of their preferred interpretation, which became off-putting to most people who just wanted to use them. Secondly, the more specific definitions helped determine what an LO was but ended up excluding too much, while the general ones were too broad. The definition problem hinted at a more fundamental issue with LO, which is next on the list.
The Reusability Paradox
Wiley (2002), who would go on to become one of the significant figures in the open education movement, got to the heart of the problem with LO, and particularly the vision of automated assembly with the reusability paradox. He argued that context is what makes learning meaningful for people, so the more context an LO has, the more useful it is for a learner. But while learners desire context, machines don’t — for them to be reusable, LO should have as little context as possible, as this reduces the opportunities for their reuse. This leads to Wiley’s paradox, which he summarizes as follows: “It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another” (para. 3).
An Unfamiliarity Threshold
The idea was that LO would be like reusable code, but the concept of sharing chunks of code was already familiar to software developers before it was formalized in object-oriented programming. And even then, the concept was learned as part of a programming language. LO never achieved this for education, so the very idea seemed quite alien to many educators, and particularly in terms of digital content. It began to look less like an educational concept and more like a technical one. This meant that the approach was unlikely to reach the critical mass it needed in order to be useful.
The World Wasn’t Ready
It can be argued, that like so many things in ed tech, it takes more than one attempt at a concept to be successful, each one building on the momentum of the previous. LO didn’t take off, but OER did (to a greater extent anyway), and open textbooks more so, as we shall see in later chapters. The drive for reuse is still a current issue, and the provision of open licences makes this a more readily digestible concept now.
Education is Too Messy
This is perhaps an extension of Wiley’s (2002) reusability paradox, but in coding, the boundaries of objects are fairly well delineated, but educational objects do not have such neat boundaries, particularly once you move beyond clearly defined concepts. To take Downes’s (2001) example, a sine wave LO might be easily reusable, but very soon the way one person describes and illustrates even a shared concept will differ for PhD psychology students to first-year undergrad engineers, partly because you know what they want to do with it, and it helps to be able to link it into other concepts they are familiar with to scaffold understanding.
Reluctance From Educators
As well as being unfamiliar, there was also a reluctance from educators to share their carefully crafted material. This situation persists with OER — there simply isn’t the same culture of sharing for teaching as exists for research. Existing reward structures are largely to blame; for example, citations of research papers are a key metric in evidencing significance, but having others download and reuse your teaching material is not as widely recognized (and is even actively discouraged in many instances).
They Didn’t Fail
While LO repositories may not be competing with Google for web traffic, you could make the argument that they didn’t fail. As mentioned above, an element of them morphed into OER, which was influential in the rise of MOOC, and a lot of the LO work fed into standardization around platforms, assessment, and content transfer. Publishers probably took the LO idea further than others and can access a multitude of subscribers who pay for e-learning content that can be redeployed in new contexts. The Blended Learning Consortium is a successful collection of further education colleges in the UK, which each pay a membership fee and in return have access to multimedia content for their courses. The Consortium states that membership fees are “used to pay staff in member colleges to write, edit and develop learning objects” (http://www.blc-fe.org). The Khan Academy provides simple videos explaining key concepts, which are widely used by teachers across the world. LO may be a successful failure after all.
Lamb (2018) was also involved in LO early on and has reflected on why the LO revolution failed to materialize. He suggested these three factors:
- People were willing to share, but only with some people. This meant the technology for sharing had to be complicated and restrictive.
- The tools we used to build learning resources were expensive and everybody seemed to be using different ones. So, we usually could not revise or customize work that was shared with us.
- Copyright appeared to be a problem everybody was terrified of and that nobody could solve. (para. 10)
Interestingly, learning objects combined with Web 2.0 and begat a short-lived interest in the concept of social objects a few years later. Social objects were defined (again definitions proved tricky) as something real or virtual that facilitates conversation, and thus social interaction. This emphasized the role of content in encouraging dialogue, but only if that content was good social content: this is not necessarily the same as what we usually think of as good academic content. For instance, content that may be imperfect is often good for encouraging others to participate, or content that is contentious may be better at stimulating debate. Wiley (2008) linked this concept back to LO stating that the function of good educational content is to encourage dialogue:
If your educational materials are not “social objects” — in other words, if you don’t already understand that their main purpose is to bring people together so that social learning interactions can happen — why are you producing and sharing them?
A relevant follow-up question is, if you are not providing the functional space for these social learning interactions to happen in (or at least pointing to a space where they can), why are you producing and sharing them? This is the key question for all OER and OCW projects. (para. 6)
What this interest in social objects reveals is the interconnectedness of ideas in ed tech. From a consideration of e-learning costs and quality we derive the concept of reusable content, and this lays the foundations for developments in OER, which then combines with the interest in social networks generated by Web 2.0 to revisit the idea of learning objects as social objects, which in turn draws upon the constructivist pedagogies and role of dialogue we saw earlier. And though the LO revolution did not materialize, some of the core concepts that were embedded in the work on LO persisted, and people continued to work away at these, particularly in the areas of reuse and copyright. There are several successful ed tech applications today that have built on the remnants of LO development.