This page originally authored by Barbara Smith (2007).
This page has been revised by Oren Lupo (2008).
Learning Objects: Design Issues
Learning objects have changed the ways in which educational resources are designed, developed, delivered, and, perhaps most importantly, how they are used to meet the needs of educators and students.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has defined learning objects as “any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning.”(1)
David Wiley, a key scholar in the learning object debate, defines them as “any digital resources that can be reused to mediate learning” (Metros, 2005). The resources contained in a learning object may be documents, pictures, simulations, multimedia, software applications, etc., that are transmitted over computer networks and the Internet.
Researcher Stephen Downes has pointed out learning objects are not essentially different from printed textbooks or distance learning manuals, only now learning objects are delivered primarily in digital form and 'unbundled', that is, "broken into small 'chunks' that may be applied in various circumstances".(2)
Aside from addressing technical issues, theorists and researchers have debated over the problem of how learning objects can be implemented to create high-quality learning experiences.
A prominent theorist in the field, Tom Boyle, has proposed that learning objects are “pedagogically meaningful units” that are “self-contained” and designed for one particular educational purpose.(3) Structuring these units together in a meaningful way, so that the materials or resources may be related in a logical order for learning and then re-purposed and reused, presents a major challenge for designers of learning objects.
It is important for educators to identify the learning goal before designing a given learning object, but this may not be the same goal towards which the learning object is used when it is re-purposed to meet different learning objectives down the line.
Given the constant changes we see in digital technology over time, one important theory that addresses how the design of learning objects might anticipate and respond to the demands of creating meaningful learning experiences is Connectivism.
Image: 3 examples of learning objects
The following is a brief outline of four key design issues that should be considered when developing learning objects.
Learners should focus on mastering the material they are trying to learn rather than on figuring out how to use the learning objects. Therefore, the answers to the following questions will help indicate how usable a learning object is. How easy is it to use the learning object? Can learners find the information they need? Do they understand what actions they can take, or what choices they can make, at any given point? Are instructions clear and easy to understand? Is the way the interface works so distracting that the learner has trouble focusing on the content?
Creating consistency is one of the most powerful things you can do to improve the usability of a learning object. For example, if you have a collection of learning objects across a related subject, consider applying a consistency across the series. One of the best ways to check for consistency is to watch someone try to use the learning object.
Accessibility refers to whether people who require assistive technology, or who have visual, aural, physical, or other impairments, can perceive and use the content. The learning object’s technical structure should support screen readers, and pointers for learners who require it. Other accessibility features that are beneficial for learning objects include text description of images, sounds, video clips for learners who don’t have the ability to access these types of media directly.
Due to the amount of effort, time and expense it takes to create learning objects there should be some form of reusability built in so that others can use them at no additional development or distribution costs. The vast majority of existing digital educational resources can not be reused in new learning objects. Granularity and architecture should be considered in order to resolve some obstacles.
Other aspects of reusability include copyright. A developer should get copyright clearance for all assets or components that are not created by them. The use of Creative Commons or a similar licensing structure to clearly inform others how your work may be used should be included in the learning object. As well, include contact information for the copyright holder so that others may ask for permission if needed.
A learning object should be self-contained and stand on its own. Include only as much contextual setting as is required to support the content as the audience for a learning object becomes more narrow as more context is added. Ie., an anthropology course might include a learning object component about methods of forensic analysis. The same component might also be useful in criminology course.
Each object you make should be usable by itself. While there is value in sequencing learning objects, any sequence should be chosen by professors rather than enforced by the design of the objects.
Other design considerations in terms of reusability include, use of simple language for text-based content, deliver learning objects via technology that is available on a variety of platforms, and present content in multiple languages where appropriate.
See Reusable Learning Objects for further information.
Learning objects should also include metadataso that it can work with other learning objects and learning management systems (LMS). Simply put metadata would be information about the learning object itself. Including metadata with a learning objects is useful because that is how search engines and online repositories like the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT)locate and identify learning objects. Metadata is like a wrapper that specifies details such as the general subject areas and educational level(s) for which the learning object is most appropriate, the copyright and use terms, the author and affiliations, technical compatibility details, cataloging information and so on. The Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) currently includes specifications for describing, sequencing and joining learning objects; enabling communication between learning objects with different interfaces.
Metadata will also allow that the object can be discovered and used when needed. And, ownership and attribution rights are attached to the learning object. In essence, metadata may be objective information such as the sized of a file or subjective such as a teacher’s opinion of the quality of content. Some metadata is attached to learning objects by their authors, but metadata can also be added by librarians, faculty, students etc.
Martinez, Margaret, Designing Objects to Personalize Learning. Retrieved February 10, 2007
Metros, Susan E. Learning Objects: A Rose by Any other Name…. Educause Review, July/August 2005. Retrieved February 2, 2007
Smith, Rachel S, Guidelines for Authors of Learning Objects NMC: The New Media Consortium. Retrieved February 15, 2007.
Wiley, D. A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version. Retrieved February 2, 2007
http://www.reusability.org/granularity.pdf. Retrieved February 20, 2007
Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative - ADL-Net
Cancore (Cdn project for creating metadata) - Cancore
IMS Global Learning Consortium - IMS
New Media Consortium (White paper collection on learning objects) - NMC