The content conundrum

Reusable learning objects (RLOs) are at the centre of much of educational technology standards and specification activity. Rather than ask what are RLOs (there are plenty of definitions, pick one that meets your needs) we'll ask some different questions about where they come from, who will use them, and how.

Q: So, RLOs, where will they come from?

A: Good question, and one that seldom gets asked. There's tacit agreement that you and I will be creating RLOs. At least, in as much as RLOs are ever discussed there's an understanding that what's actually meant are the building blocks of yours and my teaching material.

Q: I'm not sure I've ever been asked about this. Can I rely on someone else to make RLOs that I can use while I think about sharing my own?

A: Where have you been these last 60 years? It's always been expected that in a hypertextural environment we'll all be sharing content because not only would we be motivated to do so for our own personal development but because information wants to be free.

Q: OK, you've obviously never tried to exert your own intellectual property rights in an institution such as a UK university. Seriously though, who is creating content that I can use? Where can I get RLOs?

A: Well, you could start by looking at some of the (UK) nationally funded knowledge repositories such as the Resource Discovery Network OMNI gateway, the National Electronic Library for Health and the Bristol Biomedical Image Database, to name but three (I only know about RLOs in bio-medicine). All of their content is free for you to use.

Q: Cool, so these guys are making RLOs and I am consuming them?

A: Yes, correct to some extent but if you created your own then there would be more to go around.

Q: But why would I want to do that? Who'd want to use my content?

A: You'd be surprised, but only if your content was in a format that could be adapted for use elsewhere.

Q: Whoa, you mean someone might change my material?

A: Well they might want it to look like it belongs with other locally generated material so there's no stylistic jump when moving from one piece to another. Pretty much in the same way a multi-author book is edited to have a consistent presentational style.

Q: You're beginning to sound like I should be doing something special to make sure my teaching material can be modifiable before it can be used. If that's the case then I'm not so sure I could be bothered.

A: You're right but we're only at the early stages of sharing content. The idea is that when the tools come along that make your life easier when creating your learning material, your RLOs, then the complexities behind making it modifiable will be taken care of for you.

Q: I thought you said people have been thinking about this stuff for 60 years. So where are the tools?

A: Ok, you got me. Someone once said something to the effect of just as a word processor is to words then what we really need is a learning processor. I'm paraphrasing but an application for facilitating learning would be a powerful tool. People are working on versions of this kind of tool and have been for a while but I admit I can't give you anything you can use right now. For now you're best just doing whatever you're doing and hoping that whatever you do do, it'll still work with tools of the future.

Q: OK, now you're the one starting to sound sceptical. It was you that mentioned RLOs to me.

A: I know, but I'll be the first to admit there's a reality gap between what's spoken about RLOs and what people actually do with them.

Q: Is anyone trying to fill that gap?

A: Well, one of the groups looking at making RLOs' work has just started a new initiative that might help. At least it's a nod in the direction that there's more to RLOs than objective data. RLOs have an education or learning context and without that context they're just bytes of data.

Q: Well that's better, you're starting to get technical so if it's technical it must be good, right?

A: Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but yes, the technical groups are now taking the educational aspect of RLOs seriously.

Q: You know now that I know the techies don't (yet) have all the answers, how can I give them the benefit of my teaching experience to make sure that when they do come up with some RLO tools they'll be relevant to me?

A: OK, there's a very helpful group called CETIS that are representing you as a UK academic in higher education in all the technical discussions about RLOs, even if you didn't know it!

Q: Thanks, I'll see what they're up to. I'm still not convinced that RLOs will help me, or that I really understand what they're all about.

A: Do what I do and just think of them as learning resources that you might be able to slot into your own teaching material. For example, the Bristol Biomed Image Database might have an image that you've been looking for, or the NeLH might have just the article that would help your students understand evidence-based medicine.

Q: OK, I'm beginning to see what you mean. I already use Google to find things on the web and point my students in the direction of those things. These repositories as you called them are just specialised search engines without all the other crap that Google links to.

A: Well, crap is one way of looking at it but Google makes no effort to narrow down your search based on what you really want. It's a search engine that gives you what you asked for but it doesn't tell you if you asked the right question or not! What RLO repositories might be able to be is allow you to search a finite resource base (in as much as the Internet is at least potentially infinite) and so you're more likely to get what you're looking for. In addition you might be able to specify more information about what you're looking for to ensure a better 'hit' rate for your searches.

Q: Aha, I'm ahead of you for once, you're talking about metadata aren't you? I read about that. Apparently I can search for any one of 60-odd pieces of information about an object. Trouble is I only want to search for pictures about dermatology, specifically psoriasis, what am I going to use the other 59 search fields for?

A: Ok, you got me again, I'm not sure what you're going to use all this metadata for either. Speaking informally to some of the people who run RLO repositories neither are they as most people use their search engines just like they use Google, they type a subject keyword and hope that what comes up is what they were looking for. It's a bit of a debate at the moment, just how were all going to use metadata.

Q: Sounds like you techies are just making work for yourselves.

A: No comment, other than to say these are legitimate questions to ask and information science is just a valid a subject of study as how information is used in other, more familiar contexts.

Q: Right, let's agree to postpone the metadata debate until there's more evidence about how it's going to be useful.

A: Agreed.

Q: So, where has this little discussion got us? I can create my own RLOs, although I was anyway only I called them learning resources. I can't use any fancy RLO content creation tools yet because there aren't any good ones although there may be soon. I can search RLO repositories just as I can search Google though I accept I may get a better chance of finding what I want searching an RLO repository given the fact that it's a resource dedicated to a particular topic as opposed to Google's come one, come all approach. Metadata may help me to find RLOs but nobody's yet been able to demonstrate that in any compelling way. And finally, although we didn't talk about it, even if I did find someone else's RLO I may not be able to use it because I may not be able to modify it for my own purpose. Not so good, eh?

A: Actually, I'd say quite the opposite. Because we've been able to identify these as some of the central issues surrounding the use of RLOs, that people are taking these issues seriously and that there care some high-level group attempting to address by consultation with all stake-holders then I'd say there are likely to be some important breakthroughs in the use of RLOs in the future, or at least some clarity over what we really mean by RLOs.

Q: But you always were an optimist.

A: Always look on the bright side of life.

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