In our last episode, we beat up a bit on the notion of “learning object repositories” (LORs), wondering whether the well-meaning assemblage of modular bits and pieces of educational materials was actually a frustration of coherent teaching. Educational practices, after all, are still grounded in settings and customs that predate the digital on-demand world. We speak of courses, of curricula, of graduation; we cling on to learning as an unfolding, progressive narrative. And progressive narratives seem to be exactly what free-floating clusters of learning objects lack.
Haunted as I am by S.T. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and that ghostly character’s pseudo-progressive travails, I can’t help thinking of decontextualized learning objects as similar to the unearthly sounds that rise out of the mouths of his dead crew and swirl unfixedly about:
Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mix’d, now one by one.
Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the skylark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seem’d to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the Heavens be mute.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is heuristic to the core; it teaches us to teach through many spectacularly negative examples. Disconnection from community, the poem suggests, leads to a horror-mirror world of isolation: a world teeming with elements snapped off from the teleology of cause & effect. The Mariner butchers the bird, obeying some unexplained private impulse, and dooms himself to a world where wind is heard but not felt, or felt but not heard — and the same goes for companionship, morality, religion, expiation. Very dissatisfying. Those free-floating supernatural sounds — all that “sweet jargoning” — are momentarily marvelous, even Heavens-eclipsing — and yet they’re unreliable and of dubious value, to say the least. They don’t advance the plot; they just cease.
The Mariner’s original sin: ignoring community (which was, after all, so strongly fostered by that unlucky albatross). It’s a pretty trenchant sin; even after any amount of penance, he seems doomed to repeat it. He poaches the Wedding Guest, blocking this unwilling auditor from entering a communal wedding celebration (the poor Guest protests, to no effect, “The guests are met, the feast is set: / May’st hear the merry din….'”), and forcing the Guest, instead, to listen to a hard-luck story having little to do with its auditor, superficial appearances notwithstanding (“That moment that his face I see, / I know the man who must hear me…”).
And what in mute Heaven’s name does any of this have to do with learning object repositories? It seems that we’re learning the Mariner’s lesson all over again. The most thoughtful study that I’ve read about the uptake and implementation of LORs is the recent study “Community Dimensions of Learning Object Repositories,” funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). The gist of this report is evident directly from its title: however energetically you go about building a constellation of durable, interoperable, reusable, and sharable chunks of teaching & learning materials, it won’t mean a thing unless you tailor it to the cultural norms and expectations of a user community. As the report observes in its rather British way, “pedadogical, social, and organisational factors have not been at the forefront in LOR development to date.”
A community shares goals, interests, practices; it draws on commonly available tools; it shares understanding of processes and concepts. The JISC study lines up and sets marching some hard questions bound to make any repository-builder squirm: What is the purpose of the LOR — ie, how does it serve its community? Who are key stakeholders in that community? In what broader context does that community operate? A LOR project that starts by grappling with such large questions stands a better chance of being organized by pedagogical goals and activities, rather than all the content it can cram into its great maw just because — like the Mariner knocking an albatross down out of the sky — it can.
Treating teachers as one big community is in many ways an absurdity, of course — we operate within a dizzying array of conditions and expectations, and with a variety of allegiance to vastly different sponsoring institutions. Nevertheless, it is at least a good step to consider how a LOR addresses whatever generalizations you may wish to venture about teachers as a community. This borders on a truism, but then again how many LORs truly meet an actual teacher half way? The JISC report hazards a few claims about teachers and the way they behave:
- They have a very problematic relationship with metadata. Descriptive metadata can fail them when they’re hunting in the dark for objects. When submitting an object to an LOR, they’re not trained & often not helped in the fine art of quality metadata appendage. More on this issue here, btw
- They often prefer to create their own learning objects, rather than patch someone else’s in. On the scale of teacherly chores — grading, planning, meeting, exhorting, reviewing — creation of new materials for one’s class is actually on the fun side, one of the best ways to stand out and inspire, to make your class into a unique event. Even if you’re not so handy with making new things, by dipping into the well of pre-made pieces you risk “loss of educational narrative,” as the JISC report puts it (and how many teachers got into the business because of their assemblage skills anyway?). Educational narrative may be more important to individual-obsessed humanists than object-oriented scientists, the report notes in passing.
- Teachers like incentives just like anyone else, and an LOR would do well to supply some. They could be in the form of recognition or perhaps an even more tangible reward for contribution, or proof that use of material from the LOR will make a teacher more effective. If the LOR is keyed to the goals of the institution that pays said teacher, that’s a fine reason to use it.
- Despite all impediments, teachers, bless ’em, are a persistently open-minded lot, at least according to the JISC report: “In general the interviewees have a positive attitude to reuse, and most have stated that they are willing to keep trying to reuse material, despite the difficulties they have faced.” This is a suggestion that LORs have some time to wake up to the willing worlds around them in all their glorious particularity.
And let’s close, on that brighter note, by nodding towards LORs that do seem engaged with the communities that use them, on some level at least.
The granddaddy of LORs, LC’s American Memory Project, set an early standard by layering its gigantic offerings with a “Learning Page… especially for teachers” : a collection of “teacher created, classroom tested lesson plans… [to] jumpstart your use of primary sources,” a rundown of curricular themes, various strategies to promote critical thinking, and professional development materials.
The National Science Digital Library corrals its resources for various imagined players: K12 Teachers, Librarians, NSDL Community Members (you know who you are), University Faculty, and First Time Users. Each of these groups has customized “pathways” through the library, as well as a fistful of fairly active blogs grouped by audience category.
Finally, the December issue of D-Lib describes a geoscience LOR named “Teach the Earth” built by the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College; the article is encouragingly titled, “Digital Library as Network and Community Center: A Successful Model for Contribution and Use.”. The authors state, flat out:
A successful educational digital library is as much a social process as a technical problem. It requires creation of a culture that fosters contribution to and use of the library. We have addressed creation of this culture by working with NSF-funded projects focused on the professional development of geoscience faculty as teachers. Each of these projects partnered with SERC to create its project website. They seek two primary services in this partnership: 1) tools, resources and experts that assist them in creating high quality project websites and 2) placement of their resources in a network that enhances dissemination and use of their work. We created a win-win situation that yields rapid production of content for the library and facilitates use, by allowing our partners the flexibility to meet their own project goals while contributing to the overarching digital library.
Let’s see: professional development, support of individual projects with an eye towards incorporation, maintenance of a consistent level of quality, enhancement of dissemination and recognition of work — sounds like a happy LOR to me, one that engages its users, rather than stunning them.
The SERC authors claim that a full 25% of all geoscience faculty in the US (the audience it bothered to target) now use Teach the Earth: now that’s uptake!