Editorial: The Challenges of the Learning Object Paradigm

Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology

Volume 28(3) Fall / automne, 2002

Editorial: The Challenges of the Learning Object Paradigm

Guest editorial by Griff Richards

About the Guest Editor

Griff Richards is seconded from the BCIT Technology Centre to serve as Research Integration Officer for the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence. He recently lead Portals for On-Line Objects in Learning (POOL), a consortium project partially funded by the Canarie eLearning Program. He is also Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University, Associate Professor of Distance Education at Athabasca University, and a member of the NSERC Task Force on Virtual Universities. Contact: Griff Richards c/o SFU Surrey, 2400 Surrey Place Mall, 10153 King George Highway, Surrey, B.C. CANADA V3T 2W1. griff@sfu.ca

Editorial: The Challenges of the Learning Object1 Paradigm

As with any collection, this special edition on learning objects is but a snapshot of current research and development efforts and readers are reminded that there is tremendous activity going on out of the view of this lens. The initial call for papers brought an overwhelming response, so many papers, that Editor Rick Kenny and I considered producing either a double issue, or a series of two. Fortunately, we were brought to our senses by the pragmatics of publishing costs, and with significant input from peer reviewers, we reduced the number to the current collection, chosen to best illustrate the range of activity and viewpoints in this area. Not surprisingly, CJLT has attracted primarily Canadian articles and since many are affiliated with the current Canarie eLearning Program, it seemed appropriate to invite Jamie Rossiter of Canarie to write a brief forward.

Although the term "learning object" is fairly new, the concept of sharing learning resources is not. Teachers have always swapped lesson plans and test items. I remember being introduced to the Curriculum Resources Information Bank (CRIB) during my Alberta teacher education days (mid 1970's). CRIB was a set of cardboard boxes, each filled with lesson plans and test items for science education. Each item was printed on cardstock and indexed by holes punched in the appropriate places in the margins. When you pushed a knitting needle through the hole for the curriculum area of interest, the related items were speared and the cards lifted out of the box. It only took two or three searches to find resources that could be re-purposed into your own lesson plans.

While the CRIB concept was easy enough to understand, only a handful of senior folks had the control of resources to print and distribute new cards, and once the boxes were sent to the schools, it was almost impossible to recall any mistakes. We will see how these same issues about getting old ideas out and getting new ideas in re-appears in the context of learning objects thirty years later. The facility with which individuals and small communities can take an active part in the contribution and revision of learning resources is important. Participation not only spreads the workload, but also promotes meaningful involvement and on-going ownership of the common interest.

"Learning objects" (Wiley, 2001) became of interest because the web made it possible to easily distribute learning resources that were in a digital format. Once digitized, visuals, audio clips, text, or applets can be easily transmitted for re-use in another place or instructional context. In some cases, learning activities can be turned into templates with original content stripped out and new content filled in. Thus, the term "learning object" embraces both content and processes, stored and transmitted in digital format, and having the potential for sharing in other instructional contexts. The term "object" is ostensibly borrowed from object-oriented programming, and provides a nice allusion to computer code that is constructed in such a way that it will be possible for other programmers to re-use the code in new programs. Although the initial extra effort may not directly give a return on a programmer's time, being able to build up a library of re-usable code may return significant benefits in the long run, especially if an entire community of programmers made their code available to each other.

Ideally, the library objects would be interoperable - little if any customization would be required to use them in a new environment. A developer could pick and choose from among the available objects, simply aggregating them into the new entity. Interoperability requires conforming to some set of community standards. Standards evolve as developers come to agreement, and since all developers would be happy if their own standards were adopted, these conversations can take a long time. Currently there is significant dialogue on standards, and readers can now see some convergence of various communities such on these issues. Some of the larger standards issues (and their representative projects/groups) include:

  • Interoperability - Can a learning object created on one computer platform actually be presented on another platform? (SCORM)
  • Metadata - How do you index and catalogue a learning object so that other potential users can actually find them? (IMS, CanCore, ARIADNE)
  • Repositories - How do you store the objects and their metadata so others can find and retrieve them? (MERLOT, CAREO, POOL)
  • Educational modeling - How do you create an object so that you can understand what educational processes are implicit in its construction and use? (EML)
  • Evaluation - How does a community sort the wheat from the chaff? This provides consumer advice on which objects have merit, and ultimately yields benchmarks and criteria for improving the quality of learning objects? (LORI).

The last two items on the list are of particular importance, because they remind us that the learning objects agenda should not be overrun by technical, i.e., computer science, issues. While a good number of Canarie eLearning Projects including my own POOL Project, are focused on technical infrastructure, there is as much work to be done in areas of implementation to optimize the use of learning objects in the worlds of education and industrial training. Learning objects simply will not become ubiquitous until the end-users, be they learners, instructors, producers, or parents, are satisfied that they can be developed, shared and re-used in a reliable and efficient manner. Wilbur Schramm (1970) made this same point about Big Media and Little Media: as long as teachers were individually accountable for the learning of their students, they would be loath to employ technology that was beyond their personal control. Today, in this era of individual eLearning, the paradigm extends to individual learners who will soon use intelligent agents operating in a virtual eco-system (Porter, 2002) to aggregate learning resources for their personal use.

As the "standards issues" slowly sort themselves out, we are also seeing a new era of computing paradigms that will help dissipate the issues. For example, the evolution of instructional metadata standards seems to be consuming a lot of energy. As more and more "fields" (such as title, price, owner, age group, instructional paradigm…) add to the complexity of the catalogue index, the cost of metatagging sky-rockets. Yet no community wants to drop their favourite fields, nor add additional information beyond their means. Fortunately we see new ontological tools emerging out of the recent semantic web research that can aid in mapping schemas to remove this complexity from individual users (Hatala & Richards, 2002).

Another area of impact is the growing use of intelligent agents and web services tools to negotiate services on the behalf of the user. Such middleware can search for and aggregate suitable learning content, identifying and prioritizing available learning paths like a web-based travel agent identifies ticketing options between Vancouver and Montreal. The era of learning objects will hopefully soon focus away from technical infrastructure to consumer concerns of reliability, reputation, and responsiveness. The web may soon allow us to select from among a growing global pool of the best learning experiences available, but we must be careful not allow the same technology to filter our personal definitions of "best".

Ultimately, for learning objects to be ubiquitous, the technology needs to become nearly invisible. The current rants over metadata standards need to resolve so we can spend more energy on instructional issues. The infrastructure needs to be like HTML codes on a web page- invisible to the user, but readily inspectable to the technical eye.

Before introducing the articles in this special issue, I want to return for a moment to the importance of community. In our recent POOL Project (Richards, Hatala, McGreal & Friesen, 2002) a group of TeleLearning NCE partners embarked on building the ultimate learning object repository. We started down the path of centrality - sort of a "build a big marketplace and they will come" mentality. We hadn't gone far when we realized that the central approach was probably contrary to many of the beliefs we held about education and advancement of individual aspirations in self-defining communities. We did not think that our meager resources could build a big enough electronic agora to house all the learning objects from all the communities of learning. Instead, we re-aligned our goals to create tools so that individuals and communities could co-evolve to create an intertwined peer- to-peer network of individual SPLASHes and community PONDs. Our goal was to scaffold a global network of learning object repositories.

Learning objects is really about sharing our gifts, and there is simply no standard gift. While some may be content to buy dolls for girls and cars for boys, others search to create or find the most imaginative gift possible, the gifts that will be remembered for expanding horizons and making every learning event memorable. This should be the goal of those developers of learning objects and the technology that supports them. Learning objects should be viral - users will want to pass the good ones along to their friends.

In This Issue

As mentioned above, this collection is a snapshot of current activity in learning objects. Gilbert Paquette and Ioan Rosca lead the way with "Organic Aggregation of Knowledge Objects". Most will recognize the group at Centre de recherche LICEF for their work building tools such as EXPLOR@ and MOT - essentially interactive templates to guide the analysis of performance competencies in a way that systematically structures the subsequent instructional design events. Their current paper extends this framework to the development and aggregation of knowledge objects in a fluid manner that is more organic than pre-deterministic and hence is more flexible to meet the context of instruction and the needs of the learners.

Aude Dufresne and Alain Senteni at the University of Montreal bring their expertise in intelligent agents and usability to identify many of the practical issues they have encountered in moving objects from one learning context to another. I have to confess that my contribution as third author to "Barriers and Keys to Contextualizing Resource Banks" was outlining the paper in order to bring structural coherence to my own understanding of their work. That this was done in a Montreal bistro reinforces the notion that successful re-purposing requires consideration and possibly reconstruction of situational context to give personal meaning to knowledge.

I have already introduced the subject of metadata, the "data about the data", so it should come as no surprise that I selected two articles on this topic. The first, by Norm Friesen, Anthony Roberts and Sue Fisher originally appeared as a technical report to the POOL and CAREO eLearning Projects. It is one might say, a re-purposed learning object. When several Canarie eLearning Projects were launched in 2000 we got together and asked ourselves how we could best illustrate the interoperability and sharing that we advocated. A common metadata protocol seemed an essential first step, and this trio of authors undertook the task of examining metadata standards, their evolution, and sorting out a list of metatags that would be useful but not onerous for educational users. This paper not only clarifies the issues, but also explains the CanCore Application Profile, the fruit of their labour.

The second article on metadata is by Tom Carey, Jonathan Swallow and William Oldfield. Rather than searching for a standard metadata, they explore the possibilities of extended metadata fields that could reveal the educational intentions of an object's original designer. This might guide others in the re-use of objects, or in the design of new ones. Readers searching for additional background on metadata are referred to Innes, McGreal & Roberts (2002) and Robson (2001).

I felt the collection should include some practical examples of learning object implementations, and this wish was fulfilled with two technical articles. Janet Bartz, a programmer with the Open School in Victoria, B.C., shares several years of practical experience developing SML templates for textual learning objects. The second article by Simone Conceição and Rosemary Lehman illustrates an instructional environment constructed using a learning objects design paradigm to weave a tapestry of text and digital video. Both papers provide useful technical information for developers.

In the belief that reflective practice leads to continuous improvement, I have included, A Covergent Participation Model for Evaluation of Learning Objects, by John Nesbit, Karen Belfer and John Vargo. To raise the overall quality of learning objects they involve the community in the derivation and evolution of a consensus as to what those standards are. As a repository developer I also saw these "consumer reports" as another means of metatagging objects so they could increase the population of the global POOL, and I eagerly invited John Nesbit to bring his group into the POOL Project. I would like to point out that much of their collaboration spanned great distances with Nesbit and Belfer located in Surrey, BC and Vargo located in New Zealand.

As with all technology, successful implementation of the learning objects paradigm ultimately lies in the eyes of those who will employ the technology for their human purposes. Katy Campbell championed the collaborative essay by the COHERE group - a consortium of faculty developers in several Canadian Universities brought together in a Canarie eLearning Project to look at implementation issues for higher education. I thought it fitting that this ultimate challenge should conclude the collection of papers.

Both the Book Review and Research Critique focus on the significant contribution of David Wiley in advancing the recent debate over learning objects. Its significance is more apparent in that the independent editors of these sections independently chose independent reviews of the same work. Elizabeth Hanlis provides a quick overview and critique, while Brian Lamb took the additional step of interviewing David for his reflections on developments over the past year.

I would like to thank Rick Kenny of the University of British Columbia for the trust and patience he has given me with the Special Edition. This is really a community work, and as such I thank all of the authors who responded to the call and the extended network of peer reviewers who contributed their suggestions for quality. I sincerely hope that those papers that we were not able to squeeze in will appear in subsequent volumes of CJLT. I also seek the understanding of my collaborators in POOL, particularly Tom Calvert and Marek Hatala for not including a lengthy article on our own work in peer to peer learning object repository architecture. While POOL, POND and SPLASH address important issues, I stick by my belief that successful enabling technology should be invisible to the users, yet apparent to the technically inclined at www.edusplash.net.

Web Sites

The following websites were mentioned in the article and were active on 07 Oct. 2002:

  • SCORM - The Sharable Content Object Reference Module is an interoperability concept advanced by Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Defense and industrial and academic partners. ADLNet run "plugfests" where developers can demonstrate the compliance of their products: www.adlnet.org/
  • IMS - The IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc. promotes open metadata specifications to facilitate distributed learning and organizes a series of international technical meetings to bring the delegates together: www.imsglobal.org/
  • CanCore is a Canadian implementation of the IMS metadata specification. CanCore searches for a flexible approach, having sufficient fields for functionality without too many to be onerous. www.cancore.org/
  • ARIADNE Foundation is a non-profit European consortium promoting knowledge sharing and re-use: www.ariadne-eu.org/
  • MERLOT - The Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching is a education consortium promoting the sharing of learning objects and peer evaluation: www.merlot.org/
  • CAREOis the Campus Alberta Repository of Educational Objects: www.careo.org/
  • POOLis Portal for Online Objects in Learning, a Canadian consortium to prototype learning object repository systems, www.edusplash.net/ leads to the SPLASH download site.
  • EML - Educational Modeling Language is a pedagogical meta-model to script learning activities using XML so their pedagogy can be readily inspected and re-used: http://eml.ou.nl/


Hatala, M. & Richards, G. (2002a, May). POOL, POND and SPLASH: A Canadian Infrastructure for Learning Object Repositories. Paper presented at the 5th IASTED International Multi-Conference Computers and Advanced Technology in Education (CATE 2002). Cancun, Mexico.

Hatala, M & Richards, G. (2002b, June). Global vs. Community Metadata Standards: Empowering Users for Knowledge Exchange. In I. Horrocks and J. Handler (Eds.) The Semantic Web-ISWC 2002. Berlin: Springer-Verlag 292-306.

Innes, J., McGreal, R., & Roberts, A. (2002). Metadata Specifications. In H. H. Adelsberger, B. Collis & J. M. Pawlowski (Eds.) Handbook on Information Technologies for Education and Training. Stuttgart: Springer-Verlag 273-288.

Koper, R. (2001). Modeling units of study from a pedagogical perspective: The pedagogical metamodel behind EML. Retrieved October 7, 2002 from http://www.eml.ou.nl/introduction/articles.htm.

Porter, D. (2003, Feburary). Bringing Customer Value to the Learning Ecosystem. 2nd Canarie eLeanring Workshop. Montreal, Quebec. Retrieved October 18, 2002 from http://www.canarie.ca/programmes/learning/workshop-2002/presentations/porter.pdf

Richards, G., McGreal, R. & Friesen, N. (2002, June). Learning Object Repository Technologies for TeleLearning: The evolution of POOL and CanCore. In E. Cohen & E. Boyd, (Eds.) Proceedings of the Informing Science + IT Education Conference. Cork, Ireland. [booklet & CD ROM, abstract p.176]

Richards, G., McGreal, R. Hatala, M., & Friesen, N. (in press). The evolution of Learning Object Repository Technologies: Portals for On-line Objects for Learning" Canadian Journal of Distance Education.

Robson, R. (2001). Pedagogic Metadata. Interactive Learning Environments, 9(3), 207 - 218. Retrieved October 7, 2002 from http://www.eduworks.com/robby/papers/metadata.pdf

Schramm, Wilbur L. (1977). Big Media, Little Media: Tools and Technologies for Instruction. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Wiley, D.A. (2002). 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. Bloomington, Indiana: Agency for Instructional Technology and Association for Educational Communications of Technology.


1. The definitions of "learning object" and "reusable learning object" are discussed in great detail elsewhere, to extent that frustrations in coming to a standard definition seems to be moving current usage to the more flexible term "digital learning resources".

ISSN: 1499-6685

Copyright (c) 2002 Griff Richards

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