The problem with definitions – or how I learned to get over learning objects and start making good e-learning instead

At the risk of labouring yesterday's piece about learning objects, I did just want to write another paragraph or two to address something that has been raised in some feedback I've had. Is there any specific reason that you can think of why there needs to be definition of learning objects (LOs) that's as agreeable to an educational technologist as to an educationalist (assuming we agree what distinguishes those different kinds of people)? I suggested yesterday that perhaps this is why there's so much discord when talking about LOs. Firstly because you can't have more than one definition or interpretation for the same thing as that's just asking for problems in an area that requires some degree of precision. How can you write a piece of software to handle data that few people can even agree upon? And second, who says there even needs to be an educationalist's definition of LOs?

Perhaps LOs are only meaningful to educational technologists or the people who write the software to manipulate these data. The end user, the teacher let's say, doesn't really care what you call the parts, they just want to achieve a specific end point, creating a PowerPoint file or creating some e-learning for example. Learning the names of all the parts often just gets in the way. That's why users don't read software manuals, because good software should be unambiguous and as intuitive as possible. Who cares if you guys can't agree what a learning object is, I just want to create something I can use to teach my students. I've heard words to that effect many times when talking to colleagues. It's a bit like, well at a stretch any way, whether or not to use HTML tables or CSS to structure your web pages. How many people care about that? Sure, they care about the output, how well a web page works in different web browsers, but probably for most people they just trust that the folk who make the web page editing software will sort that out and just give the user the best solution. Same with LOs in my opinion.

So now when I'm in a meeting with my fellow academics and learning objects crop up in the discussion, I just say they're bits of reusable e-learning material and everyone gets it and we quickly move on to talking about the really interesting stuff. Like how to create really effective e-learning materials.

Enough about learning objects for the time being. So now, who's going to add metadata to my learning objects… 😉

If learning objects didn't exist you'd have to invent them

I still find it puzzling why some people are still hung up about learning objects. Maybe it's the name, maybe it's the technology, regardless of what the difficulties are the term itself often gets in the way of discussing the applications that use these pieces of reusable e-learning content. I was at a meeting this last week where some smart people were talking about innovative applications in e-learning that reuse content. I thought we were getting into a good discussion when someone pipes up 'so what is a learning object anyway?'. The whole session effectively broke down as people twisted and turned while trying to come up with a consensus term of what these elusive quantum particles of e-learning really are. What a waste of energy, particularly given that up until that people everyone seemed to know what we were talking about.

Here's how I tend to think about learning objects. Learning objects are the data contained within content packages. Pretty specific but it works for me and here's why. When I talk about e-learning materials I think of three classes of data (see figure).

Illustration of the continuum of learning object organization and reusability

Raw assets often though not always exist outside of a specific learning context, that is to say whatever context they do have is usually inherent in the asset. For example in an x-ray of the chest the context is the data contained within the x-ray itself, the pixels of the x-ray. It is the act of adding context by creating metadata (context for how the asset relates other data including a learning outcome for instance), and assembling raw assets into larger aggregations (e.g. adding a text narrative to an x-ray) that creates a meaningful piece of learning material. Ironically in this scheme it's raw assets that are the building blocks of learning materials rather than in previous analogies where learning objects have been likened to, for example, Lego bricks. Raw assets are given a learning context and assembled, or aggregated to use the common parlance into learning objects, the stuff learners use to learn from. Learning objects get moved around between learning environments as content packages.

At one extreme, most people are fairly comfortable with what constitutes a raw asset (itself an assembly of data, pixels in an image for example but that's taking too reductionist an approach) and at the other extreme content packages are well understood, not least because there are specifications that describe what they are and how they're structured. Between these two lie the learning objects. Sometimes it's difficult to conceptualize learning objects if you've never worked with tools that make it completely unambiguous what they are. There are tools available that understand this simple metaphor and function well to create one class of data from the other (for recommendations of what I think are the best tools get in touch). Perhaps my particular way of looking at this problem will be more familiar to people who are used to learning content management systems and are therefore comfortable with the progression of complexity from raw asset to content package. Others may find this approach too simplistic and instead prefer to think of the increase in contextualization from raw asset to context package. Either way it amounts to just about the same thing. But perhaps there's one of the underlying problems with the way people think about learning objects. There is sometimes an uneasy overlap in ways in which educationalists looks at e-learning materials and the way education technologists do. What works as an analogy for some doesn't always work for others.

But of this there can be no doubt, the materials or 'objects' that sit midway within the opposing continua of organisation and reusability are the learning objects. If we don't like the name then let's find another, but the space remains.