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Editor’s Note
: Nurmi and Jaakkola from Finland challenge the conventional wisdom behind Learning Objects in order to develop practical perspectives for their own use in education and training. They focus on current theories of learning to direct development and implementation of customized learning based on Learning Objects.

Problems Underlying the
Learning Object Approach

Sami Nurmi and Tomi Jaakkola


Learning objects (LOs), generally understood as digital learning resources shared and accessed through Internet and reused in multiple learning contexts, have aroused worldwide enthusiasm in the field of educational technology during the last years. Although learning objects approach offers tremendous possibilities to reorganize and improve educational practices, there are many theoretical problems and practical shortcomings which are usually neglected. In this article some of the anticipated promises of the LO approach is introduced shortly and some of the many underlying problems are revealed. Due to their flexible nature, LOs and LO systems can be used to support all kinds of learning and teaching activities, both sophisticated and reductionist ones. LOs itself are not good or bad, but their pedagogical value is determined through the context of use. Implementation of LOs needs a sound pedagogical grounding, and only using LOs according to the principles of contemporary learning theories can their promises be fulfilled.

Keywords: learning object, LO, instructional design, constructivism, learning environment, eLearning, reusability, pedagogical grounding, knowledge transmission, adaptability, educational technology, learning theory, view of knowledge, view of learning.


During the last few years the worldwide interest in the field of educational technology has been placed on learning objects. Learning object (LO) is defined in the IEEE Learning Technology Standard (IEEE, 2002) as any entity -digital or non-digital- that may be used for learning, education or training. However, due to the excessive wideness of the standard definition, LOs are commonly referred as digital learning resources that can be shared and accessed via Internet, and reused in multiple teaching and learning contexts. Although recycling and reusing of (digital and non-digital) learning and teaching materials has been an important part of different educational practices for a long time, LO approach, according to its core idea, offers promises of universal access to reusable online materials. Reuse is based on modularization, so that small, modular LOs can be combined and recombined by eLearning developer, teacher, and learner or even by an intelligent eLearning system.

Although there is a clear lack of empirical evidence on the effectiveness and usefulness of LOs, the LO approach has many eager advocates who believe that the LO approach bears the potential of transforming education into a new level. In the most enthusiastic beliefs, LOs are said to fulfill the long promised rewards of computer-based learning by offering scalable and individually adaptive mass instruction in cost-effective way, which - at its the most extreme form - can even be generated on the fly according to the learner needs by “intelligent” semantic technologies (Gibbons, Nelson & Richards, 2000). As a consequence, huge amount of financial and human resources are invested in developing digital learning materials and eLearning systems worldwide.

Although LOs offer many tremendous possibilities, there are still many challenges to be tackled before LOs can be accepted in the light of current learning theories and implemented in larger scale. Next some of the anticipated promises of the LO approach is introduced shortly, and then some of the many underlying problems are revealed.

Promises of the Learning Object Approach

There are many aspects that make LOs so popular and interesting. According to Wiley (2005), by making educational resources more reusable, LOs promise to fulfill simultaneously three criteria: cheap, fast and good. LOs are said to be cost-effective in producing and implementing, reusable in different learning contexts, and easy to adapt to meet different needs of different users. Typically LOs are understood as educationally useful, completely self-contained chunks of content, which include specific educational objectives they are covering, instructional materials and methods to teach that objective, and an assessment of student mastery of the objective (Wiley, 2005). This way of thinking has led to the prevailing LO approach, which is founded on a traditional instructional design paradigm (e.g. van Merriënboer & Boot, 2005): desired learning objectives are decomposed into smaller atomistic sub-objectives, optimal instructional methods to achieve specific sub-objectives are developed, prescribed instruction and necessary feedback are delivered to a student, student mastery with various factual tests is assessed, and if necessary, the instruction is repeated until mastery is achieved. This sounds easy and effective instructional model, which has attracted especially eLearning developers in military and corporate settings.

The anticipated promises of prevailing LO approach can be encapsulated around the themes of cost-effectiveness, reusability and formability. According to the cost-effective promise, learning resources can be produced, delivered and reused cost-effectively. The fundamental idea is so called learning object economy, which aims to maximize the reusing of existing learning resources and provide critical mass LOs to fulfill the various needs of different teaching and learning contexts. Material sharing is equally beneficial for teachers and learners as well as material producers who can use object-oriented programming to avoid unnecessary redundant work in production. According to the reusability promise, LOs can be combined and recombined in many different ways like building blocks to meet the various needs of different learning contexts and different learners. By reusability it’s possible to provide adaptive instruction according to learners’ various needs. Adaptive instruction can be accomplish in many ways: teachers can prepare ready-made learning packages to their students by combining available LOs, or students can themselves select the used LOs according to their needs and desires, or adaptive learning sequencing can be generated automatically on the fly with intelligent systems. Reusability sets its own requirements. In order to be reusable in different contexts and interoperable in different eLearning systems, the form and structure of LOs need to be standardized, and its content as much as possible independent of context and pedagogy. The promise of formability increases the possibility to reuse LOs by allowing users (teachers, learners or producers) to tailor LOs in some ways. Through tailoring LOs can be fitted better to various learning contexts. Although these promises sound promising, with closer look there are many problems.

Problems of the Learning Object Approach

Although LOs have gathered lot of attention and enthusiasm, they have also raised criticism among academics (e.g. Butson, 2003; Lambe, 2002; van Merriënboer & Boot, 2005; Parrish, 2004). This criticism has mainly been aimed at the flawed views of knowledge, learning and teaching underlying the LO approach. In addition to these fundamental problems there are still many other questions and smaller challenges (among them questions about intellectual property rights, teachers’ ICT skills and willingness to share materials, technical restrictions, metadata specifications etc.) to be tackled before using LOs in larger scale.

Problems with the Underlying View of Learning

In the prevailing LO approach (i.e. typical technology-led instructional design perspective on LOs) there are obvious characteristics of behaviorist and cognitivist views of learning, because of unfortunate emphasis on knowledge transmission (Bannan-Ritland, Dabbagh & Murphy, 2002; Butson, 2003; Wiley, 2003). Typically the main aim of using LOs is to transmit the content from LO to learner, who passively receives and acquires the prescribed knowledge, and reproduce it when required. The underlying view of learning is already implied in the term learning object, according to which the learning material and its content are seen as the objects of learning itself, as something that should be taught and transmitted to a learner. According to Wiley (2003) there are three implicit assumptions behind the prevailing LO approaches: 1) A one-on-one instructional model is preferable, 2) Human interaction in large scale learning environments is economically impossible, 3) Automation via intelligent instructional systems is the only viable solution. These kind of trends and instructional methods are drawing on the approaches of programmed instruction (e.g. Skinner, 1954), taxonomies of educational objectives (e.g. Bloom, 1956) and cognitivist instructional design (e.g. Merrill, 1998) of the past decades, which have been considered as flawed and unfruitful in the light of current learning theories.

The reductionist views of teaching and learning underlying the prevailing LO approach are strongly conflicting with the current theories of learning (e.g. constructivism, social constructivism and situated cognition), which consider learning as active, intentional, motivational and social processes of knowledge construction and meaning making (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999). In these theories teaching is seen more as means to support and scaffold student-centered activities, to engage learners with thinking and to provide them environments for collaboration, knowledge construction and reflection (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). The typical LO approach stresses learning content and its effective delivery to the learner instead of supporting knowledge construction, and neglects the essential nature of learning processes and learner’s personal knowledge construction. Thus, the prevailing LO approach takes teaching perspective whereas according to the constructivist ideas the focus should be based on learning perspective.

Problems with Adaptability

The idea of knowledge transmission is evident in the adaptive automated LO systems, which are based on the ideas of engineering-type instructional design. The core idea of such systems is to define beforehand the learning objectives, corresponding learning material packages, their sequence and the instructional activities to achieve those objectives effectively (c.f. Bannan-Ritland et al., 2002; van Merriënboer & Boot, 2005). Then these prescribed learning packages are delivered to learners according to their needs which are charted e.g. with the tests of learners’ prior knowledge or their previous learning histories. In its extreme form, automated intelligent system would find appropriate (adaptive) learning materials that could provide just-in-time teaching that fit learner’s needs at some diagnosed stage of learning. This kind of prescribed instructional design paradigm is very consistent with the methods of programmed instruction. Butson (2003), when criticizing such reductionist view, has felicitously called LOs as weapons of mass instruction which can ruin education. Furthermore, there is a myth of completeness underlying this knowledge delivery metaphor. Instruction designers seem to believe that LOs and LOs systems are adequate and even necessary for learning. As Wiley (2005) argued, assuming that LOs are completely self-contained resources implies that, aside from their use, nothing else is necessary for learning to occur. All you need is digital LOs and learning management system to take care of the delivery processes: “Out of the box and into the head, and hey presto the stuff is known” (Lambe, 2002, p. 11).

Problems with the Underlying View of Knowledge

The underlying view of knowledge in the prevailing LO approach derives from the objectivist tradition. According to this prevailing objectivist view, there exists knowledge that is absolutely true and valid in every context (Lambe, 2002; Parrish, 2004), and these absolute truths can be transmitted to the learners. Absolute knowledge is also supposed to be detached from all of the factors that are related to its original contexts and cultures. In other words, context-sensitive knowledge can be converted into abstract context-independent truth. This objectivist tradition is very contradictory to current theories of knowledge, knowing and learning, which are based on the ideas of subjective knowledge construction and meaning making, as well as dynamic and context-sensitive nature of knowledge. As Savery and Duffy (1995) conclude, understanding is in our interactions with the environment. Therefore understanding and learning are functions of the content, the context, the activity and goals of the learner, and learners can negotiate, evaluate and test the viability and compatibility of their individual understandings. What is forgotten in the prevailing LO approach is that knowledge, knowledge construction and learning are always bound to the learners’ subjective processes and contexts where they are acting. Thus it is important to remember that LOs and their contents are not knowledge or learning objectives themselves, but just means to engage learners and give rise to various learning processes and experiences. The content of the LOs can only be regarded as information – as raw material from which one can construct meaningful and mindful subjective knowledge structures. Knowledge is more than information: information itself is meaningless, but it becomes meaningful knowledge when it is interpreted by individual. Information thus becomes knowledge through cognitive effort (Sveiby, 1997).


The LO approach holds tremendous promises but also considerable problems. The problem of LOs is the same than with every new educational technology innovation. They offer novelty, economic benefits and exciting promises that can, if used carelessly, lead to flawed teaching and learning practices that are ignoring the true essence of human learning. LOs itself are not good or bad, but the ways to implement them and the learning environments created around them determine their pedagogical value. Due to their highly flexible nature, LOs and implemented LO environments can be used to support all kinds of instructional strategies, learning theories and philosophies – both sophisticated and reductionist ones (Parrish, 2004). After all, the flexibility provided by the LO approach is their greatest advantage. It enables end-users (educators or learners as well) to use LO innovatively in accordance with sophisticated learning theories and practices to fulfill their current needs.

Essential fact is that LOs need sound pedagogical grounding and local contextualizing around them in order to be successful. Unfortunately, LO systems permitting learner-driven, constructivist-oriented activities have not yet been fully explored or developed (Bannan-Ritland et al., 2002). However, if used in keeping with the ideas of contemporary learning theories and introduced problems in mind, LOs can offer interesting new possibilities to implement constructivist learning environments and engage learners with meaningful learning activities. Therefore every educator need to critically evaluate the way LOs are used, and reflect what kind of teaching practices – and more even importantly, what kind of learning activities – they are promoting by using LOs.


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van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Boot, E. (2005). A holistic pedagogical view of learning objects: Future directions for reuse. In J.M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. van Schaack & D.A. Wiley (Eds.) Innovations in instructional technology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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About the Authors

Sami Nurmi, M.Ed. is a researcher in Educational Technology Unit at the University of Turku, Finland. Nurmi is currently preparing his educational sciences PhD dissertation on learning with simulation learning objects. Correspondence should be sent to: Educational Technology Unit, 20014 University of Turku, FINLAND or email:

Tomi Jaakkola, M.Ed. is a researcher in Educational Technology Unit at the University of Turku, Finland. Jaakkola is currently preparing his educational sciences PhD dissertation on learning science with learning objects. Email:

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