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Stephen Downes is Editor at Large for this Journal. He is Author-Publisher of OLDaily and Stephen’s Web. This month he is Guest Editor and introduces the theme for the first three articles.


The Rise of Learning Objects

Stephen Downes
Editor at Large

 I remember in 1999 or so getting my printout of the first IMS learning object metadata specifications. It landed with a satisfactory "thud" on my desk at Assiniboine Community College. I had been working on a similar concept for our home-brew learning management system and welcomed this new way to describe what we called course "modules."

The first hint of trouble arose when I tried to share this wonderful news with my colleagues. The web page designer picked it up, thumbed through the hundreds of pages, and put it back on the desk without comment. The course designer wrote me an email saying, essentially, "I don't know what this means." We never did implement the IMS specifications, and little did I know that it would be five years before learning objects achieved any sort of real currency.

The idea, of course, was attractive in principle. I had written in "The Future of Online Learning" (1998) that learning materials would be distributed in bite sized chunks that could be mixed and matched to create custom online learning. A couple of years later, in "Learning Objects," I outlined the economic argument for sharing reusable learning resources. And all around, the buzz increased on a monthly basis. People began creating learning objects. People began the tagging process to create metadata files. The IMS specifications multiplied and IEEE formalized that first specification a LOM.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the form. Observers began reporting that 87 fields were too many for people to complete. The first major application, SCORM, seemed designed for training and not for learning at all. Dan Rehak wrote that SCORM might not be useful for universities. David Wiley questioned the reusability of learning objects. And Norm Friesen, a pioneer of the CanCore profile, leveled a devastating critique with his "Three Objections to Learning Objects." The standard notwithstanding, it appeared that nobody knew what a learning object was, nobody knew where to find them, and nobody knew how to use them. Discontent grew.

Now it is 2004 and despite the concerns and objections, we are beginning to see the first really widespread use of learning objects. As the papers in this volume illustrate, the use of learning objects was not nearly so simple as we may have at first assumed. For one thing, the use of learning objects requires some means of locating and distributing these objects. Only now are we seeing the large scale development of learning object repositories, as described by Rory McGreal in this month's issue. And for another, the reuse of learning objects requires the creation of objects people want to reuse, as is described by Jo-An Christiansen and Terry Anderson in Feasibility of Course Development Based on Learning Objects: Research Analysis of Three Case Studies and by Jinan Fiaidhi and Sabah Mohammed in Design Issues involved in Using Learning Objects for Teaching a Programming Language within a Collaborative eLearning Environment.

As it turns out, the emerging paradigm for the reuse of learning objects is nothing like the automated course creation tools some of us may have envisioned when the specifications first rolled off the presses half a decade ago. As I discovered in the reaction to my paper "Design, Standards and Reusability," in which I criticized IMS Learning Design because it could not be automated, people expect still to create new learning resources by hand, with subject matter experts searching for, retrieving, modifying and organizing learning objects to create customized online courses.

Indeed, it appears that this is the preferred use of learning objects, at least as expressed by the learning design community. The idea that learning might be designed automatically was disparaged and the discussion forum at CETIS was replete with criticisms. Unless human designers were used (whatever the cost), the result would be nothing but sterile, cookie-cutter learning design, something of no learning value at all. And the use of learning design tools and learning objects saved enough time and effort as is, without needing to obtain further savings by factoring humans out of the process all together.

Well this may be, but I think that this remains only one more front of contention as the new learning object paradigm begins to roll over the field. With a recent proposal emanating from ADL for the use of 'resources' in addition to learning objects, with the rise of automated content distribution services created by bloggers using RSS technology, with the emergence of OAI and open content initiatives, it becomes clear - to me, at least - that the use of human labor to search for and reorganize learning objects for each new use is problematic.

Therefore, I think that although we are reaching the end of the introductory phase of learning objects, though we are finally beginning to see the use of learning objects on a wider scale, I feel that what we have in fact reached is only the first stage of the eventual transformation of learning. What we have reached today, in my view, is the successful transition of traditional learning from the pre-electronic age to the post-electronic age. But what we are doing is still rooted in this traditional approach to learning.

The full benefits of learning objects may take another five years to realize, as we move through the second phase of the transition. Once learning objects are widely available and widely used, the traditional thinking surrounding the organization of learning will be increasingly questioned. People will begin to ask why learning resources must be organized by hand by a designer before they can be used by students. Systems will emerge that allow students to be their own designers. Instead of viewing learning design as some sort of script in which students are actors, following directions, we will begin to see a model where students are players, following no script at all.

But we're not there yet, nor will we be for a good number of years. So it is appropriate, for now, to revel in what we have created. And that, it seems to me, is what this month's issue is all about.


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