Learning object(ions)

The pendulum has certainly swung far away from the early days of digital learning happytalk, which was all objects all the time. In them dotgone days, “strategic futurists” such as Wayne Hodgins proclaimed that “the ability to learn and apply the right stuff faster is the only sustainable competitive advantage there is for any of us” — and the way to win was to call up that stuff, those digital learning objects, pronto. The “learnativity revolution” would be powered by gobs and gobs of “terrific resources” marked up by Learning Objects Metadata, dressed up for discovery. Powering all this (remember when ‘powering’ was a verb?): the Lego (TM) metaphor, as touched on by a 2002 D-Lib article called “Metadata Principles and Practicalities”

In a modular metadata world, data elements from different schemas as well as vocabularies and other building blocks can be combined in a syntactically and semantically interoperable way. Thus, application designers should be able to benefit from significant re-usability as they gather existing modules of metadata and ‘snap’ them together much as individual Legoâ„¢ blocks can be assembled into larger structures.

Legos at SXSW

Though futurist Hodgins (a co-author of the D-Lib piece) is avowedly “wandering and pondering as he scours the world for trends and technologies most of us will not see for the next 18 months to 10 years,” an anxious world is still waiting for the followup to “Into the Future: A Vision Paper” (2000), in which “the rules of Newtonian physics have been superseded by those of Learnativity, where the gravitational pull of creating new knowledge determines and shapes the actions of everything within.” The process, as described in this Vision, is at once entropic and plastic:

Breaking knowledge down into information objects, the smallest useful chunks of information, frees it to be used again. Think of this as creating and assembling Legoâ„¢ blocks. Whether you’re assembling a bridge or a house or a spaceship, you use the same Legoâ„¢ to form a “learning object.”

The notion that newly created digital objects can upend physics may seem to belong to the discard pile next to sock puppets and Netscape 4.0. And yet the Legoland learning world haunts us still. We have a deeper sense of how hard it is to transform (let alone revolutionize) education with modular resources, but the web brims with learning object repositories that are palpably yearning to be engaged by actual teachers.

Every once in a while, a teacher even urges their use to colleagues, such as this 2006 endorsement by a Professor of Geomorphology writing in Ariadne:

Reusable educational objects (REO) or reusable learning objects (I prefer the wider term) are becoming an area of interest in education, especially in Higher Education. This stems from the ideas of reusability from ‘mass’ e-learning in the USA and from there developed the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) as well as some resources such as MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching). This tends to have full resources such as a slide set or a Web page. Lecturers should try this as there may well be all sorts of useful material available within the archive, often free.

There is a lot of faith packed up here — in a preferred definition of a ‘learning object’ (a definition that tends to crumble when you push on it), in the value of reuse and mass broadcast, in the existence of “all sorts of useful material” to be unearthed within an archive (for free!). All the more reason to wonder and ponder the extent of actual use of learning object repositories. Are current offerings honoring the enthusiasm of our good professor of Geomorphology? If not, is there something fundamentally flawed in the idea of freely recontextualizable learning objects?

I recently took a quick sip of MERLOT (“a free and open resource designed primarily for faculty and students of higher education”), the learning object resource singled out by the good prof, and found it to be… rather flat. Though it offers ‘peer review’ filters and advanced searching, MERLOT failed me when I came into it with a specific agenda: to find a peer-reviewed resource that would supplement teaching of William Wordsworth’s poetry. No results found. Was that too specialized? Then how about something about landscape in art or literature? How about anything at all involving the keyword ‘landscape’? Finally, one peer-reviewed result found: oddly enough, an FTP tutorial (author unknown, section 508 non-compliant).

When I approached MERLOT without an agenda — that is, in ‘browse’ mode — I was again underwhelmed. Looking to see how available resources might be engaged, I picked through assignments posted on the site, and found one rather expansively called The British Empire. The gist of this assignment: go to an outside website, read sections of it, and write a 5-7 page essay. This outside website itself warns: “This site is not a rigourous academic site! I’m sure there are plenty of mistakes and oversights on my part; for which I apologise in advance! My interest in the subject is purely that of a personal journey of discovery….”

After a few disappointments like this, the sun was setting on my hope that MERLOT had much to offer me. To be sure, like our Geomorphology prof, the site has nothing but the best intentions. Its solicitation of assignments and personal collections offers some way into the “15818 materials” (as of this writing) somewhat chaotically gathered. In other words, there’s effort to bring the wisdom of learning communities to bear on these bits and pieces– to encourage peer review, share insight, suggest deployment. ‘Gold level’ users of the site (rated by submitted materials, comments, assignments, and collections) would surely attest to MERLOT’s value.

But the effort seems limited by the objects model embraced by past futurists. “Materials” are gathered, and activity is to follow: the activity of wrestling them into actual curricula in a meaningful way. Put it this way: I would have to be a fairly passive teacher if I were satisfied with the results and suggestions I unearthed on MERLOT. I would have to be willing to suspend the gravitational pull of my own course — sacrifice context, really — on order to incorporate an object impervious to what came before in my class and what would follow: a second-handedly endorsed learning resource with priorities and emphases that may be disconnected — even inimical — to my own.


At the heart the idea of “learning objects,” then, is believe in modularity, as if teaching were so much recombination. If you’re in a really dark mood, you might consider the model of replaceable parts as emblematic of the “Information University” vividly deplored by Marc Bousquet a few years ago. In the nightmare Information University, labor is made up of so many interchangeable parts, available on-demand and easily replaced:

Constrained to manifest itself as data, labor appears when needed on the management desktop–fully trained, ‘ready to go out of the box,’ and so forth–and after appearing upon administrative command, labor in this form should ideally instantly disappear.

Who would consent to work this way? Replacements for the tenured class, of course, that market-immune anachronism that is vanishing like so many glaciers:

Dispensing with the skilled professoriate is accompanied by the installation of a vast cadre of differently-skilled workers–graduate students, part-time faculty, technology specialists, writing consultants, and so forth.

Just the sort of workers lacking the training and time and perspective, I would suggest, to assemble a coherent and effective pegagogy out of a massive pile of Legosâ„¢.

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