Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Designing Learning Objects

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 01, 2003

This Magazine Column published as Designing Learning Objects in LearnScope Aug 01, 2003. Australian Flexible Learning Network [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

1. The Problem

The discussion concerning what counts as a learning object is as endless as it is fruitless. IEEE's Learning Technology Subcommittee considers them to be ""any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning." Wiley (2000) is well known for having defined them as "any digital resource that can be reused to support learning." And as Friesen (2001) observes, most writers "most often identify ‘modularity', ‘interoperability', ‘discoverability' as important attributes of educational objects."

In fact, the definition has been narrowed considerably in practice. The Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), developed by Advanced Distributed Learning to define learning object standards for the U.S. military, has become a widely referenced standard. Numerous corporations and institutions require SCORM compliant content, sometimes without knowing why.

This narrowing of the field, not surprisingly, has attracted criticisms. SCORM, observed Rehak, may not be for everyone. ""SCORM is essentially about a single-learner, self-paced and self-directed. It has a limited pedagogical model unsuited for some environments." (Kraan, 2002) It is a vision dedicated toward a single purpose, notes Friesen, "vision is one where components--human organs, machine components, devices and objects--work together as a larger system, with each part engineered to achieve optimal performance."

The definition of learning objects is fraught with other difficulties as well. As Friesen (2003) asks, "where is the learning in learning objects?" Learning objects are supposed to be pedagogically neutral, he explains, but "he very meaning of word ‘neutrality'--the state of ‘not assisting, or actively taking the side of' (OED, 1987)--implies a state or position that is antithetical or perhaps even anathema to pedagogy and teaching." Yet if we attempt to define the pedagogy in learning objects, to create what Wiley (2003) calls "internal context," we lose one of their most important attributes: reusability. "The less specific the internal context of the learning object, the more instructional contexts into which it will ‘fit.' Conversely, the more specific the internal context of the object, the fewer instructional contexts into which it will ‘fit.'"

In the light of such difficulties, how are we to create learning objects? We could create SCORM objects, but they would be usable only by the U.S. military and similar minded organizations. We could create less precisely defined objects, but we then make them less usable by instructional designers. We want an educational context for learning objects – for otherwise they are just graphics, texts or multimedia – and yet we cannot have it without destroying that which makes them learning objects, and not (say) a lesson from Cognitive Psychology 101 as taught at the University of Melbourne.

2. The Solution

Last month (Downes, 2003) I drew a distinction between two approaches to learning design, between learning design as a ‘play' and learning design as a ‘game' is this: in the former, the learners are actors, playing a role, and to more or less a degree, following a script. In a game, however, the learners are agents, seeking to achieve an objective, and to more or less a degree, employing their abilities."

Now if the essence of a learning object is the pedagogy, the essence of a play is a script. And just as we can create a dilemma for instructional designers by removing the pedagogy from learning objects, so also can we create a dilemma for directors by removing the script from a play. For once we remove the script, we have a set of reusable objects – the backdrop, the bloody knife, the butler – but we no longer have a play. But if we specify a script, we can no longer reuse the product.

The solution to the dilemma lies in the recognition that we are asking the wrong question. When we ask, "what could the director do without a script," the only answer is, "write one," a response reminiscent of Wiley's (2003) observation that, "This implies that humans will have to assemble learning objects by hand for all but the most rudimentary instructional content. Surprisingly, while the most decontextualized learning objects are reusable in the greatest number of learning contexts, they are also the most expensive and difficult for instructional designers to reuse."

The better question to ask is, "what could the actors do with a backdrop, a bloody knife and a butler?" Presented with this set of objects, some actors, and no script, a host of possibilities suggest themselves, so many, in fact, that the assemblage of these particular objects is almost a cliché. The actors could create a corny melodrama, they could improvise a comedy or satire of the genre, they could switch genres entirely and act out an unexpected science fiction thriller or even a romance.

The dilemma suggested in the previous section exists only if we assume a priori that only instructional designers can organize, and reuse, learning objects (or that computers could do it for us). But if we look at knowledge networks and learning networks, as I have been doing over the last few months, it is manifest that the primary architects of knowledge and learning are the knowers and learners themselves. Indeed, from this point of view, the attempt to organize learning objects into courses or programs not only results in the dilemma posed above, it also creates a situation where less learning occurs, because (by the very same dilemma) the more purposeful, the more directed, the learning, the less likely it will be of use to the learner.

What makes an object - whether it be a digital image, some text, or even a butler - a learning object? That is like asking, what makes an object a part of a play? An object is part of a play if it is used in a play: there are no essential qualities otherwise. And similarly, an object is a learning object if it is used in learning. No other criteria apply. Anything – absolutely anything – can be used in learning. What makes it a learning object is that it has been used in learning, that there is some educational context in which the object was found to have pedagogical value.

The answer, then, to the question of how to create a learning object, is twofold: first, to create an object, and then second, to identify the educational contexts in which it can be used. When we then create a description of the uses of these objects in learning contexts, the combination of the object and the description creates for us a learning object, and in so doing, preserves both the educational integrity and reusability we desire.


Downes, Stephen. (2003) Learning: More Than Just Knowledge Australian Flexible Learning Community.

Friesen, Norm. (2001) What are Educational Objects? Interactive Learning Environments, Vol. 9, No. 3, Dec. 2001.

Friesen, Norm. (2003) Three Objections to Learning Objects: Learning Objects and Metadata (McGreal, R. ed.) London: Kogan Page.

Kraan, Wilbert, and Scott Wilson. (2002) Dan Rehak: "SCORM is not for everyone" CETIS.

Wiley, David A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In David A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version.

Wiley, David. A. (2003). Learning objects: difficulties and opportunities.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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