by Michael Shaw, MSc
.
October, 2003
Issue 8
I N S I G H T S    I N T O    U S I N G    E D U C A T I O N A L   T E C H N O L O G Y

(CONTEXTUAL AND MUTATED) LEARNING OBJECTS IN THE CONTEXT OF DESIGN, LEARNING  AND (RE)USE

Publicly released under the GFDL license agreement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GFDL)

Forward

There has been much excitement and discussion lately regarding the whole concept of (reusable) learning objects.  An unquenchable thirst for improved ways to create e-learning content in both academia and industry has lead to a proliferation of speculation on learning object definitions, terminology and methodologies. Here is a brief examination on ideas of conceptualizing and classifying a few of the principles surrounding the pragmatic use of these somewhat mysterious objects in the context of their design and learning.
 

Introduction to MLO's and CLO's

Man has always sought to classify and categorize the things surrounding him in order to better understand his environment, his place in the universe, and in essence, himself. Knowledge structures including taxonomies and schema on virtually everything in our physical and even metaphysical universe abound. It is no wonder then, that the whole idea of reducing e-learning content to fit into some sort of schema that fosters a quasi-procedural process for producing and acquiring knowledge and wisdom take form. Over the last decade or so, Internet technologies, and in particular, learning management systems (LMS) have given us an introduction into the possibilities of organizing and delivering knowledge to the masses. The recent marriage of learning management software and knowledge management technologies has left us with a relatively new tool, which attempts to better satisfy the global need for lifelong learning content. Enter the learning content management system (LCMS), and the coming-of-age of reusable learning objects. 

There has been some concern in the educational community that recent moves towards standardization in the e-learning arena have many negative pedagogical connotations. I previously worked for a large, 11-campus college system that has been utilizing WebCT since 1997. One can imagine the sheer multitude of online artifacts that were, and still are being created. The concept of cataloguing and reusing these resources only makes good sense. Until recently, there was no standardized, unified way to define and catalogue chunks of educational content. Not only were these chunks difficult to create, find, share and reuse, there was no easy way to migrate them from system to system, whether they remained individual or as an integrated part of a larger unit of educational content. This in essence, is the driving force behind e-learning content standardization, and concerns about the educational validity of these objects may be exaggerated. At the end of the day, how these objects are used may in fact be much more important than what they are, as their context of use also defines or determines what they are. 

History has shown that new ideas or technologies do not necessarily mean an immediate improvement in practice. For example, the proliferation of digital video technology may only mean that there will be a huge number of bad video programs around over the next decade, but it may also represent an improvement in processes and products in the professional video industry. So may it be with learning object methodologies and standards in the hands of professional trainers and educators.
 

Learning Objects and Other 'Things'

One of the things that seems to have the academic world on edge has to be the far-reaching, broad definition that has been given to learning objects: 

"...any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning; examples include multimedia content, instructional content, learning objectives, instructional software and software tools, and persons, organizations, or events referenced during technology supported learning" (IEEE, LTSC, 2003). 
This implies that just about any-'thing' in the known universe could qualify as an object. According to Webopedia (2003), an object in the realm of information technology is: 
"Any item that can be individually selected and manipulated. This can include shapes and pictures that appear on a display screen as well as less tangible software entities. In object-oriented programming, for example, an object is a self-contained entity that consists of both data and procedures to manipulate the data." 
This later definition implies that there are other 'things' attached to or associated with an object that attests to its characteristics and usage. New metadata schemas and taxonomies are addressing the need to label and discover these objects, but the unanswered questions surrounding what an object actually is in the context of learning still remains somewhat elusive. Is a simple photograph or illustration a learning object? Is an entire programmatic degree program a learning object? The actual interpretation may have more to do with the designer's intended purposes and the varied use of it than the object itself. Deconstructing these ideas invokes investigation into what constitutes a learning object according to what its actual purpose is.

Considering the domain of science, one can draw a crude relationship between the granularity or hierarchy of learning content components and atomic theory. We know that sub-atomic particles constitute atoms, which construct molecules, which connect with other molecules to form elements. Elements as we know, can be easily manipulated by almost anyone, and thus, are very useful and purposeful to mankind. 

According to the literature, a course content asset could be any piece or combination of media, text, images, sound, Web pages, assessment objects or other data.  Assembling a variety of these rudimentary components into something useful and purposeful can constitute a content object. Sharable content objects (SCOs) are defined as groupings (typically) of assets that conform to standards (i.e. SCORM). Similar objects that do not conform to standards are known as sharable content assets (SCA).  Both SCOs and SCAs can be assembled to create useful learning objects, somewhat liken to the combinations of sub-atomic particles that comprise atoms and molecules. Interestingly, our modern quantum mechanical atomic model indicates that atoms are not so stable, but rather, are in a constant state of flux due to a variety of conditions. So may it be with assets, content objects and learning objects, in that the state of flux is created by various surrounding conditions, ranging from any pre-determined by the original designer and the re-designer, to those implicitly created by the learners that interact with them. These conditions can cause mutations to occur.

There may be danger here in thinking that the construct of creating useful education out of content and learning object 'building blocks' has enabled mankind to mass produce huge quantities of educational material in learning object assembly lines in education content factories, or learning content management systems for that matter. The domain of learning sciences is complex, and needs to be respected. According to Gagne (1965, 1985), there are various conditions that affect the type of learning outcome desired or derived, and the absence or presence of them makes the difference between significant learning and simple information taking place.  A true learning object may actually be closer to Merrill's (1993) knowledge objects (KO), which are units of content that are uncoupled from any instructional strategies and/or conditions. Learning objects appear to be nothing more than disparate chunks of learning resources, and could be rendered pedagogically inert or even dangerous in the hands of novice designers and educators. Ripping out all of the pages from a number of educational texts and workbooks, sorting them out and storing them in various files according to page attributes (i.e. topics, illustrations, quizzes, etc.) could provide a useful analogy here. Educators quite typically search for, sort through, organize and integrate materials from a variety of resources to synthesize content. Finding good resources is not always easy, but efficient metadata tagging and validated learning object repositories can improve options for success. This of course depends on who is assembling and integrating the objects, and to what purpose. Some intelligence has to be at work to provide the filter and/or connection between the objects and the learner.

The foundation of a created learning object has much to do with who the learner is, and what the learner needs to know and why, or in other words, what its' actual purpose is in context. Therefore, a learning object must have a specific use and function in regards to an objective and an outcome in the context of the learner. Consider the following: Frank is a nuclear physicist, and has located a learning object in a repository that includes a graph on the long-term effects of residual radiation on the residents of Chernobyl. He is 40 years old, has a Ph.D., and understands the context of the information presented, in that he learns from it. Sally is a 5th grade student. She has discovered the same graph on the Internet, but it means absolutely nothing to her. Is this graph a learning object? Obviously, the information presented has very different meanings to different people, because the context is different. Peggy is a 5th grade teacher and is looking for resources on the potential dangers of nuclear energy. She locates the same object in a repository, and simplifies it by adding an interpretation to it that fits in with the curriculum that she is teaching. Her husband is a math teacher and finds the graph useful. He breaks down the components of the graph and provides his students with a simple discovery exercise in statistical representation by contrasting the colours on it. The learning object has mutated to provide more meaning and purpose to a variety of intended audiences. Peggy and her husband can actually submit their 'mutated' learning objects and/or metadata description back into the repository for other 5th grade teachers to use. Joe is a mental patient. He likes to propagate his personal conspiracy theories, and has discovered these resources and taken them to new limits to spread his version of truth.

There is a great need to question and verify the quality of content that can be obtained over the Internet, especially in 'open' learning object repositories. If not regulated or monitored, learning object repositories may represent new opportunities for those trying to sway opinion, sell something or convey information without the proper authority or qualifications. 

As seen from these real-life scenarios, defining exactly what a learning object is can be problematic, as it hinges on the purposeful use of it, which importantly includes the recognition of its educational validity. We can assume then, that these objects, no matter what their granularity, have much to do with who is using them, and why. Determining whether or not a valid learning objective and a learning outcome is well defined can depend on who is mutating them and why. It is contextual. 

I offer up two (additional) categories and definitions of learning objects:

1. A contextual learning object (CLO): a chunk of instruction or a supporting mechanism that has been originally designed to have specific meaning and purpose to an intended learner, so that meaningful knowledge and/or learning can be derived from it, applied, linked to other knowledge, or simply retained.

2. A mutated learning object (MLO): a learning object that has been re-purposed and/or re-engineered, changed or simply re-used in some way different from its original intended design - to one with a different implicit or explicit purpose, and/or outcome, and/or learner, while retaining an acceptable level of (educational) validity or use.


Conclusions

New LCMSs and market hype have drawn new attention to the area of chunking and re-purposing content to satisfy the need for improved educational content creation processes and products. A learning object can be compared to just about any other type of educational 'thing', whether an entity, process or activity, that should be designed properly, using proven principles of learning theory and instructional design in order to be pedagogically viable and/or sound. This suggests that there is perhaps a bare a minimum requirement for a learning object, which may include associations to a learning objective, an instruction/information output, an outcome and an assessment (even if it's only subjective assessment), but for the most part, the object may just be one of those 'things' that is useful in creating effective learning, with or without specific attributes or conditions attached. Who is (re)creating the learning and to what end is what really matters.

Any tool or process that assists in the improvement of education is a welcome one, and human factors will ultimately determine how it evolves. New tools for the masses to create education might just lead to a proliferation of bad education. The terms contextual learning object (CLO) and mutated learning object (MLO), can further assist us in appreciating the meaning, definition, identification and specificity of some types of learning objects.
 

References

Gagne, Robert M. (1965, 1985),  in Reigluth, C.M. (1999) Instructional Design Theories and Models, Volume II. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, ISBN 0-8058-2859-1

LTSC - Learning Technology Standards Committee (2003), available online at: [http://ltsc.ieee.org/wg12/]

M. David Merrill & ID2 Research Team (1993).  Instructional Transaction Theory: Knowledge Relationships among Processes, Entities, and Activities. Educational Technology, 33(4), 5-16.

Webopedia (2003), accessible online at: [http://www.webopedia.com/]


Michael Shaw has over 35 years experience in media production and instructional technology, holds an MSc in Advanced Learning Technology, and is presently the  Education Consultant for the Canadian Institute of Health Information.

michaelshaw.ca