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Objects of interest

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by Clive Shepherd
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Learning objects promise a brave new world of easily accessible and individualised learning, made possible by the flexible deployment over networks of small, reusable components from multiple sources. "Wow," you say, "if only we knew what on earth these learning objects were and how we're supposed to make use of them, we may even have ourselves a few." In the hope that you will, indeed, have a few and that this brave new world does not disappear in a haze of confusion and hyperbole, Clive Shepherd sets about here to provide a workable definition of learning objects and to explain how they just might make a difference to real-world training. You could call this an object lesson.

Contents
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Where objects come from
The point of objects
Objects defined
Object types
Working with objects
Examples

Where objects come from
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Programmers would like to think that they invented objects, that with object-orientated design and programming they originated a completely new way of thinking about the construction of complex systems. However, chances are that if you're at home right now and that at any time in the past few years a child has been playing in your room, then there's evidence of object-orientation hiding somewhere in those dark corners behind the TV and the sofa. I'm talking Lego - small, reusable components, built to simple but exacting standards, that can be selectively applied by kids of all ages to construction tasks both great and small. Lego endures in these days of videogames and short attention spans because it's portable, durable, sharable, and accessible - qualities that, come to think of it, can rarely be applied to learning resources.
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Learning objects are an application of object-orientated thinking to the world of learning. Like Lego bricks, learning objects are small reusable components - video demonstrations, tutorials, procedures, stories, assessments, simulations, case studies - but rather than use them to build castles, you use them to build people. 
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Contents

The point of objects
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The idea is, that by building learning resources as reusable components, developers of learning materials, learning managers and learners themselves will all stand to gain.
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Let's start with developers. According to J. D. Fletcher (1999), reusable learning objects, assuming that they are built in conformance with emerging technical standards, will provide e-learning developers with a range of valuable 'ilities': portability across platforms, durability across evolving versions of operating systems, sharability across authoring systems and wide accessibility via the Web. The benefits of these efficiencies will be substantial, according to the ADL (Advanced Distributed Learning) initiative of the US Department of Defense - they're predicting that development costs will drop by 50-80%.
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Learning administrators, whether they're in the training department or a college of further education, stand to benefit too. For a start, it's easier to customise learning materials to particular audiences. Just replace those objects that are audience-specific - perhaps the worked examples or the case studies - with new versions that meet the precise needs of a particular organisation, country, department or industry.
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Administrators will also enjoy the ease with which they can mix and match components from a wide variety of sources - colleges, publishers and individual authors from around the world - with materials that are home grown. The aggregating of such diverse content is made possible by the tagging of learning objects with metadata (data about the data), which precisely describe the contents, the form they take, their origin and applicability. Worldwide standards for learning metadata are now largely in place, as an element of SCORM (Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model), the ADL standards framework.
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And let's not forget learners themselves. An object-orientated approach helps them too. Most importantly, well-designed learning objects come in small chunks, designed not to overload the learner. We now know just how restricted short-term memory is (seven to nine pieces in fact) and that it's pointless pushing on with a learning session until what's there already has been properly rehearsed and absorbed.
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Learners can also benefit from increased personalisation. In the future there won't be such a thing as a shrink-wrapped, fully-integrated e-learning course. Instead, courses will be constructed to meet specific individual needs on a just-in-time basis, by drawing on the massive library of learning objects that will be available on an organisation's network or on the Web. Who'll construct the courses? Well this will often be accomplished automatically by learning management systems, based on available information about a learner's existing competencies or preferences, but the course-building process could just as easily be carried out by administrators or learners themselves.
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There's another benefit for learners and that's because of the changing face of workplace learning. Increasingly, individuals are not prepared to wait for the next available course to obtain the information they need, and they don't want to have to travel somewhere else to get it. They want their learning now and at a place that's convenient to them, at their desk or on their laptop. And learning objects are small enough to use here and now, to dodge the interruptions and solve the problem.

Benefits of learning objects

For learners For administrators For developers

Personalisation - courses can be constructed to meet individual requirements
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Learning comes in digestible chunks
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Learning is available on a just-in-time basis

Courses can be customised to suit the needs of different audiences
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Courses can be constructed using components from a wide range of sources
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Components can be reused to meet a range of learning needs

Objects can be built or modified using many different authoring tools
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The same objects can be employed across a variety of hardware and software platforms

Contents

Objects defined
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One of the difficulties facing a trainer who's interested in finding out more about learning objects - and if you've got this far, that probably includes you - is the wide variety of meanings applied to the term. The IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee defines learning objects as "any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology-supported learning." When you consider that by 'non-digital' they mean "people, organisations and events", you can see that this is a very broad definition indeed and not one that takes you very far forward.
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What helps more is to look at the granularity with which objects are defined. At one extreme, you can regard learning objects at a micro level, as media assets - images, paragraphs of text, questions, audio clips and so on. Although reusability at this level may help developers in assembling content, it certainly does little for the learner - who is not interested in how a learning component is made up, just the functionality that it provides.
At the other extreme, a learning object can be regarded as a fully self-contained piece of instruction, including information, mechanisms for practice and a means of assessment. This definition is certainly convenient for publishers, for whom a library of learning objects can be simply equated with a catalogue of products. However, not all learning objectives can be met in full by a single, integrated chunk of material. There is a danger that learning objects will become too large and inflexible, hindering reusability, personalisation and speedy, just-in-time access.
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Somewhere between these two extremes is a definition for learning objects that will place the needs of learners first, whilst recognising the wide range of potential uses for, and benefits of learning objects. I couldn't find one, so I invented my own: "A learning object is a small, reusable digital component that can be selectively applied - alone or in combination - by computer software, learning facilitators or learners themselves, to meet individual needs for learning or performance support."
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I never promised it would be easy to remember, just versatile! Just how versatile we'll see as we explore the applications of learning objects further.
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Contents

Object types
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Let's clarify just what a learning object might look like. First of all, it might contain a single media element - a piece of video or text, for example - or it might contain a mix, say text with graphics or animation with an audio commentary. Some would argue that a learning object should be able to make reference to offline media, stored on CD-ROM, a videocassette or in a book; to real-time online events such as text-based chats or videoconferencing; or even to face-to-face events such as individual coaching sessions, workshops or seminars. None of these really fit my definition, although I'm sure they can all benefit from being treated in an object-orientated way - as potential components of a learning programme, alongside packaged, digital objects.
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Learning objects can serve a variety of purposes. On the one hand, they may provide a fully self-contained mini-tutorial. They may also comprise the elements in a more extended learning cycle - overviews, case studies, simulations, assessments and so on. There's also no reason why learning objects shouldn't serve a primarily referential purpose - as information available in the form of performance support. What's really important is that the objects be short enough to be digestible and flexibly applied to a variety of situations. How short? Well, probably no more than 30 minutes when used by a typical learner. Many will last no more than a couple of minutes.

Types of learning objects

Integrated Informational Practice

Mini-tutorials
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Mini case studies, simulations, etc. with supportive information

Overviews / summaries
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Descriptions / definitions
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Demonstrations / models
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Worked examples
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Cases / stories
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Papers / articles
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Decision aids

Problems / case studies
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Games / simulations
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Drill-and-practice exercises
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Review exercises
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Tests / assessments spacer

Contents

Working with objects
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What's to stop us bounding ahead to make objects the basis for our learning architecture? Well, in practical terms, not a lot really. We now have standards for labelling-up objects so they can be located and used sensibly by search engines and learning management systems. Just about every e-learning publisher as well as providers of authoring and learning management systems either already is or soon will be compliant with these standards. In addition, most publishers are starting to offer their products in small, reusable chunks, whether or not they yet call them learning objects.
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The real barrier is cultural and psychological. So much of our experience of media and learning events is essentially sequential. Whether we're talking about TV programmes, lectures, classes, films, concerts, plays, we're used to starting at the beginning and sticking it through to the end. These media and events do have component parts, but they're hard-wired together in an immutable sequence.
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In the face of so much information available to us, particularly over networks, we're beginning to get used to consuming media in much smaller chunks. What we're not so used to is developing new media, in this case for learning, without the comfort of knowing that we have control over the learner's attention for a sustained period. We have to provide learners with resources that are flexible and adaptable, well-targeted and easily-accessible. In short, we have to start thinking in terms of objects and that's a new paradigm for learning designers and developers.
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Contents


Examples
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The Institute of IT Training has recently completed one of the first major applications of learning objects in the UK with the development of their new e-learning product Delivering Website Usability. Some 250 self-contained learning objects have been created, although the product will launch initially as a series of 14 short courses. According to the project manager for the series, Les Hobbs: "Full advantage can only be taken of a learning objects architecture when learning management systems have the capability to work intelligently with the components to respond flexibly to user requirements. By creating this product in a modular fashion, we'll be ready to take advantage of these developments as they arise".
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WBT Systems has re-designed its highly-popular TopClass learning management system to support users in adopting an architecture based on learning objects. According to WBT, "learning objects let organizations build thousands of customised courses to meet individual needs from a library of organisational knowledge, and then update those courses with a single action." WBT is amongst the first to demonstrate compliance with the SCORM standard.
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NETg, the e-learning publisher, was amongst the first to use both the concept and the term 'learning object' in the construction of its library of IT skills courses. NETg have designed their learning objects to be fully self-contained, each object including "a learning objective, a learning activity, a learning assessment and a simulation". Each learning object provides 30 minutes of learning, which NETg believes is "the minimum time needed for students to acquire the appropriate knowledge and skills to meet their goals".
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The Centre for Innovation and Partnership at Newham College is implementing a programme of training opportunities for SMEs under the banner 'CollegeNet'. Materials are being constructed for the programme using the Arthur Andersen Virtual Learning Network, which aids the development of learning objects. According to Diane Gowland, the Project Manager for CollegeNet: 'Our learning objects take the form of about 10 minutes of deliverable learning. Working in this way, we will be able to create customised courses for particular target audiences by substituting industry-specific objects alongside more generic material.'
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Contents

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