Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Fast Buck Artistry

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 11, 2002

From a recent DEOS post about learning objects....

"Sounds a little like fast buck artistry to me"

As Gail Taylor pointed out, teachers and professors already use a wide variety of reusable learning materials in the course of a school year. She mentions specifically the use of "textbooks, syllabii, notecards, lectures, students handouts, overhead transparencies, photographic slides."

Now I have my issues with the textbook industry, but in general I think it is safe to assume that nobody considers the school or campus library to be some sort of "fast buck artistry." Indeed, I would go so far as to say that many educators consider access to a library as an essential feature of a school or a university.

Well then, what's the difference between a textbook and a learning object?

- one is digital, the other is physical - one is short, the other is long

That's it. And if we sharpen our question a bit: what is the differece between a learning object and a textbook chapter?

- one is digital, the other is physical

Now you may think I'm trivializing the differences between the two, but I'm not. All the tricky bits, all the alphabet soup, that we run into in the world of learning objects have their exact counterparts in the world of libraries (if anything, learning objects are treated *too* much like library books, but that's a separate issue for another day).

Think about it...

learning object = book (or more precisely, book chapter, or journal article) learning object repository = shelf metadata repository = card catalogue metadata = card (in a card catalogue) learning management system (LMS) = reading room (or classroom, depending on the LMS) learning content management system (LCMS) = librarian (or some other means of locating content)

I could go on, but I think that the analogy is clear.

So I ask: who could object to the use of learning objects in education?

Some people just don't like computers and have what could be described as an innate dislike for anything digital. I cannot help those people.

Some people don't really know what a learning object is, and are arguing based mostly on their misperceptions. I urge them to cling to the analogy just described and to order their thinking from there.

But probably the largest group of malcontents is a group of people who fail to make an essential distinction, that between:

- what learning objects are, and

- how we use learning objects

I have already described what learning objects are. Let me continue the analogy to talk about how learning objects are used.

Think about how books are used in learning.

You could search for some books by topic, sign them out, and read them. You could ask somebody for some recommendations, search for them by title, sign them out and read them. You could take a class where a selected book is assigned, in which case you're more likely to buy it from a specialized repository (called a bookstore). The assigned book then becomes the subject for discussion and interpretation by the instructor. Or you could sign up for a class where no books are assigned, in which case you listen to the professor provide a summarized version of one of the books (this is called a lecture).

In the military, it's simple. You are given one book (called a 'manual') and are told to learn the contents. You may or may not have interpretation and discussion.

Now if you look at the history of pedagogy (revised, Stephen's version), what you learn is the following:

First of all, it's really hard to learn about a subject if you are doing it on your own. It's hard to find the right books, and there is always a danger that you will misinterpret the books you read. You also have difficulty sorting out the reputable books from the quackery (especially if you are purchasing from a bookstore, most of which for some unknown reason seem to attract quackery). You need to be very self-motivated and to have a good grounding in how to learn for yourself, and you need to be well versed in critical thinking in order to assess the books you read. But if you are all those things, that's how you generally learn; you see no real need for a class.

It gets progressively easier to learn for those without strong motivation, learning skills and critical thinking if this learning is conducted in an environment where books are read, interpreted, and discussed. The role of the instructor in such an environment is crucial, since the instructor will help you locate the right book and will be able to ensure that you understand the contents. Often, the instructor will provide a means where you can apply the contents in novel situations so you can be sure your new knowledge has become internalized.

We also see that in certain environments, such as military or corporate settings, learning has been conducted historically through the provision of a single book to the learner. The learner is instructed to acquire the contents of this book. Interpretation may be provided, but generally learners are expected to study the book (frequently called 'the manual') on their own. This has been found to work in highly directed environments, such as corporations or the military, where the motivation is high (learn this or be fired, learn this or risk death on a battlefield) and where the book is structured in such a way that little critical reflection is required. For the vast bulk of learning, such a methodology is inappropriate.

What does this little interpretive history teach us?

For one, what it tells me is that the vast majority of objections to the use of learning objects amount to the following statement: "Learning is about more than reading the manual."

Well, d'uh.

Another significant number of objections amount to the following: "People can't learn on their own; they need support."

But that's like criticizing books because we don't read them aloud in class. Of course people - many people, at least - need instruction, discussion, and other means of support. Of course. Nobody, no proponent of learning objects, has ever denied that.

Now I admit this: much (if not most) of the work in learning objects today is being done with an eye toward devising methods of assembling book chapters into self-study manuals. That's no surprise, for two reasons:

- most of the work being done in the field of learning objects is being done to support corporate and military learning, where the self-study training manual is the dominant paradigm

- most of the rest is being done by the distance learning community, where, because its origin in correspondence courses and self-study manuals, self-study training is also the dominant paradigm.

But that's not an argument against learning objects. It is simply the observation that learning is more than training manuals or correspondence courses. And, as I said above, nobody denies this.

There is, finally, a small fraction of cases where the argument advanced has some chance of success, falling only to empirical evidence:

- "Learning objects (and infrastructure) are too expensive." Despite my complaints about the high cost LMSs and LCMSs, I have yet to see a library which is cheaper. People forget how much it costs to construct and maintain buildings designed to house a large body of physical resources. Even in my own home (I have several thousand books) this is a non-negligible expense. And I haven't even brought into the equation the $60 texts I had to buy in school, or even the cost of the programming manual I bought last week. I don't think the cost argument can be sustained even now; I expect that in the future it will be increasingly difficult to sustain.

- "Learning objects cannot be used by people with disabilities." As someone with poor vision, I am sympathetic. But as such, I am also acutely aware of the shortage of books in large print, much less books on tape or books in braille. By contrast, with appropriate design, a learning object can be used by people with a wide range of disabilities.

- "It's too difficult to access learning objects." This argument is usually a reference to the digital divide, now largely bridged in the industrialized world. As for the rest of the world, the prospect of access to digital texts hold much more promise than print texts. Imagine the cost of providing everybody in Africa with 100 books (to pick a number out of the air). Now compare that with the cost of providing an internet connection.

So where does that leave us?

First, with the obvious: just as there is no serious argument against the use of books in education, so also there is no serious argument against the use of learning objects in education. There are some questions concerning economics, accessibility and distribution, but these are issues of implementation which, when compared with similar issues with regard to books, pale in comparison.

So, second, with the real set of questions regarding learning objects:

- Ideally, what should a learning object contain? Should it be a straightforward presentation of information, for example, or should it be designed according to particular instructional design or pedagogical model? (The answer: just as in the case of books, there is no answer. There is room for, and a need for, a wide variety of learning objects.)

- Given that we are not merely creating training manuals, how do we incorporate the use of learning objects into a learning environment consisting of interpretation, discussion, practices and exercises? (Answer: there is no answer. A wide variety of approaches will be adopted; students will inevitably express a preference for one of the other (these will be called 'learning styles' and it will be hotly debated whether student preferences matter one whit in this regard).

And the really big question:

- Given that learning objects are digital resources, as compared to print resources, what capacities of digital resources can be used to extend the teaching properties of learning objects beyond that of mere books? Several subquestions follow from this:

- Are there some digital techniques that actually detract from learning (Answer: yes, and most of these are covered in the usability literature. In a nutshell - hot pink text on a yellow background has never been shown to be effective).

- Is the linear presentation of text and graphics the most appropriate way to present material, or are non-linear methods more effective? (Answer: I don't know, but I have a bias toward non-linear).

- Can learning be improved if the learner is actively involved in the creation of learning resources? (Answer: yes, but with the same sort of conditions that apply to learner-directed learning).


There remain open questions (and therefore avenues of fruitful enquiry) with regard to how learning objects are used in different educational environments and with respect to different learner groups and different topic areas.

There also remains a large opportunity for innovation in the design of learning objects, especially when there is a focused effort to compare the effects of learning object design and learning outcome for different learner groups and different topic areas.

But there is no question about the usefulness of leaning objects.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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