Nov 12, 2007

OpenED week 11 - Open Education & Learning Objects

Do open educational resources "fix" the many problems concerning learning objects?
Wiley discusses some of the main difficulties concerning learning objects in one of his papers on it called "Learning objects, difficulties and opportunities". Before exploring these difficulties and opportunities, it might be better to define a learning object. This, in itself, already represents a problem, but in this post we'll take the definition used by David in a short presentation on this year's BC Net conference. The first thing I noticed about this presentation, which is about openness, localization, and the future of learning objects, was his ironic humor. I usually like ironic humor, and David's good at it. The second thing I noticed were his "Lessigan" (is that a word?) slide style, which I like as well. Thirdly, I was happily surprised, because I had seen this presentation before and had lost track of it. I now found it again:)

Defining a learning object
Well, to get back to the definition question:

"A learning object is characterized by the following four components;
  1. It should be a resource;
  2. that is used to mediate learning (helps learning happening);
  3. in a digital format; and
  4. is freely reusable and adaptable."
In the same way, he explains why he does not care whether learning objects are dead or not;
"as long as people are willing to (1) openly share (2) educational materials that will (3) render properly in most web browsers, and they also (4) provide access to the unobfuscated source for the materials (especially for Flash files, Java applets, Photoshop images with many layers, and the like)..."
Also, after all, if the definition is disputable, so would its death.

He further discusses the fourth component in more detail, explaining the difference in reuse between copyrighted materials and open content:
  • (c) copyrighted materials can only be reused "as-is"
  • open content enables "frictionless adaptation"
Difficulties concerning learning objects
We have now seen the way how a learning object is defined by David Wiley, what about the problems concerning learning objects. In an earlier paper (which hence assumes his earlier definition of LO; without adaptation) some difficulties and opportunities are mentioned. These issues become more important when climbing up the so-called Bloom's taxonomy, which explains the different levels of cognitive skills (from lower-level remembering, understanding, and appllying towards higher-level analyzing, evaluation, and creation). The difficulties concerning learning objects include the following:
  • A focus on decontextualization, which is economically sensible, but at the same time counterproductive from the standpoint of student learning.
  • Forgetting the fact that learning objects do not "contain" learning, but it merely becomes a learning object when it is part of action, which I take as engagement.
  • Forgetting the social aspect of learning, which happens more and more on a social basis.
    • Still, I think we should not forget the advances being made with these technologies: advanced search and metadata machines may be able to find exactly the information you need and accustomed for you (for language, level, other contextual issues). In addition, cognitive tutors (Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative), intelligent robot like machines etc. may sometimes be better able to mediate learning than humans do (i.e. they don't get annoyed, are always available, can retrieve online data, student data, etc. much faster than we do).
  • The oppressiveness of traditional (or mainstream) learning object approaches, of of automated selection
    and delivery, because it completely precludes discourse or dialogue.
  • Incapability of automatic reusing (majority of) learning content, because LO systems are designed to reuse (and sequence) only a specific type of learning object, and the web consists of a multitude of different types and sizes of resources that can perfectly be used for learning.
    • In addition, personal reuse of learning objects is in many cases just forbidden because of copyright protection (set by default, see earlier postings week 6 and 7).
  • Reusability paradox: A content module's stand-alone pedagogical effectiveness is inversely proportional to its reusability (Wiley, Recker, & Gibbons 2001).
  • There is no "Educational Objects Economy" thinkable: despite rights management attempts, digital content will make its way into free distribution. As Wiley explains in his presentation (discussed below), giant music and movie corporations are fighting 13-year olds from Finland, and the latter are winning. In a blogpost, he sarcastically questions why not all the money spent on creating this learning objects economy, had been put in better understanding the process of evaluating reuse and creating tools for reuse:
" Of course, there’s very little market for these processes and tools, because when you’re talking about supporting people who have been unable to exercise their right to education, you’re obviously talking about “poor people,” and how would you make any return on products developed for “poor people?” I mean, after all, how are they supposed to pay? "
BTW. I don't think that these tools and processes are only useful for poor people; if it increases learning and education, which happens at companies as well, a business model can be built around it, I suppose. It might threaten the incumbent e-learning corporations, or might not be according to their current business model, so that might be a reason for not focusing on it, not the reason that only poor people can make use of it, and that they cannot pay.

The TAO for learning objects: openness
In his presentation, David argues that "OPENNESS IS THE ONLY FUTURE FOR LEARNING OBJECTS". To support this statement, he sketches an interesting overview of education compared with everyday life.


In italic, the state of today's e-learning is shown, with the few exceptions of course. With that in mind, the basic argument for openness is as follows:
  • There is no monetary incentive for an economy based on learning objects; in creating learning objects we should rely on other than monetary incentives;
  • Openness enables adaptability, which is crucial in learning. You cannot take one course or learning object or teaching material and take it "as-is" in another setting.. it needs to be transformed and changed into something that is more suitable to that situation/ context/ culture/ learner... etc.
  • Because it not only provides access to the resource, but to its "source code" as well, it enables creativity by the user, being able to be active and contributing to it. Tools are important in stimulating this creativity.
Other opportunities for learning objects
Openness of resources is just one of the opportunities mentioned by Wiley (2003) in his earlier paper. Besides problematic issues concerning (traditional thinking about) learning objects, some opportunities for learning objects are recognized in this paper:
  • Learning objects as entities without content, but rather indicating a kind of strategy or teaching technique, enabling different types and sizes of content to be used (by the end-user).
    • I see this as a kind of learning context, but can you design a learning context better than a learning object?
  • The "Educational Objects Commons" or, as we would call it, the open educational resources commons.
  • Interactive web tools, and blogs and wikis, providing the social support for learning objects use.
  • Supporting problem-based learning: Assuming an instructional design other than direct instruction opens doors to extremely interesting learning object use cases.
Important, also for OER: "What everyone does"
In his presentation, an interesting part is when David ironically criticizes the attitude of "What if everyone just would ... do x", meanwhile proposing an attitude more like "What everyone does". He then explains what everyone actually does, and states a number of trends and issues and compares them with relevant "What if everyone just would" issues in the learning objects landscape:

Repositories Google
IEEE LOM (etc. 70-80 fields to fill in)Tagging
IMS-CP (Content Packaging) / SCORM (for LO systems)HTML/JPG/etc. (sufficient for rendering in webpages)
LMS Wikis & Blogs
Learning ObjectsResources
COMPLEX (little uptake)
SIMPLE (tremendous uptake)

David eloquently explains that simplicity wins: something that would be happily acknowledged by Philips, the Dutch electronics multinational, whose slogan is "Sense & Simplicity". We should not try to change the behaviour of 99.9% percent of the world, convincing them that they should fill in 80 fields of metadata according to a certain predetermined ontology. Rather we should leverage and utilize the behavior of people they already show.

Acknowledging and understanding the discussed problems and opportunities, including the behavior of people (above list), I have made an overview of the problems, and indicated whether it would be solved by OER (defined as educational resources and open source technologies enabling reuse/remix).

Most OER provide are highly contextual, which may increase the value for learners and educators.
EngagementOER, like learning objects, do not contain magical power, although I think that highly advanced OER may actually increase learner engagement.
Social aspect of learningJust OER is not sufficient. If OER providers do not acknowledge the benefits of Web 2.0, and do not try to intertwine the functionalities offered by online tools and technologies, the value offered by these OER will be sub-optimal.
Oppressiveness Idem.
Reusing The intrinsic openness will enable reuse. Still, better compatibility between licenses is desired.
Reusability paradox/Costs of reuse The paradox remains, but the more findable resources on the web, the better the recommendation tools, the more likely there will be something of your likings, and the less effort it will cost you to adapt them.
Educational Objects Economy/Business modelsOther business models can be thought of, more suitable for the web, and actually creating value than costing money


  1. I would like to emphasize again that OER will only overcome the mentioned problems if OER providers acknowledge the bahavior people already show (see list with Google, tagging, RSS, etc.). Also, that they should acknowledge the behavior that people will show (which might include 3D worlds, mobile learning, etc.)

  2. Actually, an "LO economy" exists, but it is a proprietary one. There is an "educational content" industry that is largely based on the LO model. The key point is that even if such a model may be suitable (and IMHO it is to be proven..) for industrial training, we already know that it is not appropriate for broad "education" or, at least, it covers only a minimal part..

  3. Your post has made me think to the infinite range of possibilities offered to LOs in terms of learning as a social process by the web 2.0 tools and social games such as Second Life. If the inhabitants of SL produce and share objects on a more or less free basis, why not to think to the exploitation of the opportunities offered by this game for the production of learning "prims"? (In SL, a prim is the single material unit used to build everything in SL). Thx for your interesting and stimulating post, I do not know much about LOs, actually. :-)