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

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 13, 2004

This Magazine Column published as Beyond Learning Objects in LearnScope Feb 13, 2004. Australian Flexible Learning Framework [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

In a presentation I gave at an eduSource ( meeting in Toronto last sprint, in a now infamous example, I gingerly picked up a piece of tissue paper and proclaimed, "This is a learning object."

The purists object, of course. We are told that a learning object must be, at a minimum, a digital resource. Today we are also told that it must contain a pedagogical intent. Sandy Mills, for example, tells us that a learning object is something that is "an object or set of resources that can be used for facilitating intended learning outcomes." ( The idea here is that a learning object contains the instruction, that the "instructional value" is "intrinsic" to the resource.

In my presentation ( at CADE 2003 I presented an alternative interpretation: that what makes something a learning object is not what it is, but rather, how it is used. What makes the tissue paper a learning object is that it was used as a resource to support learning (and, in the case of this particular tissue, reused, much to the amusement of the assembled).

Another way to approach the same idea, and the direction taken in this article, is to assert that developers of online learning should go beyond learning objects in the assembly of learning resources. No matter how narrowly one defines the concept of the ‘learning object', it remains nonetheless true that things that are not learning objects may play a very similar and necessary role in online learning.

The map of the wall of a classroom, for example, is not in any way intrinsically a learning object. With rare exceptions, it is not designed for the purpose of teaching, merely for the depiction in visual form of natural phenomena and political boundaries. The map on the wall, however, becomes a teaching aid when the teacher uses it to support learning in some fashion.

The maps on the wall in my school illustrated the usefulness of online content, depicting as they did ‘French West Africa', ‘Trans-Jordan' and ‘Tanu Tuva'. These political entities, long since history by the time I began my studies, could not be updated on paper. The school had similar problems with flags, the names of cities and political leaders.

In previous articles in this series I have talked of syndicating learning resources, and it should be evident that the sort of resource that most benefits from syndication is that which changes on a frequent basis. Assuming that a law course, for example, had some use for the text of current legislation, syndication of this content into a course would be advantageous, even though it is not considered to be a learning object or, indeed, learning content of any sort.

A brief reflection will reveal a wide range of digital content that could, if accessible inside an online course or learning environment, would greatly ease the instructional process: the handbook of chemistry and physics, global weather and environmental information, sports statistics (for math class), legislation, briefs and white papers, geographical and geopolitical information… the list is endless.

We can go beyond learning objects in other ways as well. When designing the PEGGAsus project ( ) for engineering and geology professionals in Alberta, I outlined the idea of presenting learners with a ‘learning desktop' that would list new educational opportunities. In discussion with APEGGA ( ), the organization sponsoring the initiative, I was told that the potential students would like also to see classes, seminars, lectures and conferences listed in the same environment.

Not even digital, these learning opportunities fall well beyond the traditional definition of the learning object. Yet they fulfill for these students the same function as an online course or short multimedia presentation. So the PEGGAsus project, in addition to listing online learning opportunities, listed in the same environment and in the same format these real-world events. In one sense, we threw the definition of learning objects out the window when we designed PEGGAsus; in another sense, these events became learning objects, at least, to our way of thinking.

When you get past the idea that learning objects must be digital resources of a particular format, a world of opportunity opens itself. Why, for example, should the following not be treated as learning objects: a classroom seminar, a booking for a helicopter flight simulation, a study trip to Malawi, a microscope, an interview with an expert in the field, access to an online discussion list, the loan of a trombone…?

One wonders why, when people think of online learning, people think that it must consist entirely of a person working in front of a keyboard and monitor (one also wonders why, when thinking of learning, people think it must be something that takes place in a classroom). Educational opportunities – and learning ‘objects' – abound in every community. By tapping into the use of metadata to connect potential students with potential ‘teachable moments' the range of learning could be greatly extended.

The mechanisms for realizing such a system now exist, though it will take some time to implement. The first is the registration, in metadata format, of all possible educational activities and resources. This means extending our conception of learning object metadata, and adopting a wider, more flexible metadata language such as the one I describe in my technical paper, Resource Profiles. ( It also requires the development of systems that access this metadata, organize it, and present the resource information in contextually appropriate moments in the student's learning environment. And it requires the implementation of web services that will enable the student to conduct a transaction – such as the reservation of a tool or enrollment in a class – with the resource provider.

Taking full advantage of the resources available probably also requires a different approach to education in general. Even in the classroom, but especially online, learning is thought of as something that must be planned, organised, and assembled ahead of time. True, the best teachers react to changing situations and events, but this is almost impossible in contemporary distance or online learning.

The point of entry in learning today is at the topic – a class or a lesson is developed around a specific learning objective determined in advance by the educational institution. But the pre-selection of a topic may not have anything to do with a student's current needs, and more, make take no advantage of new and valuable resources that have become available. It may be more appropriate, in order to best take advantage of the new availability of learning resources, to redefine this point of entry, and to base it on a task, a current even, a job function, or a project – in other words, something directly relevant to the student at the moment.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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