Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
The most enduring learning experiences are those that change attitudes. When I was invited to write an introduction to this part of the book I hesitated for a moment. Let me explain why. While long advocating the reuse of learning dialogues as a learning resource, I have nevertheless thought of myself as a sceptic on the topic of learning objects. My attitude had been rooted in the belief that it is fundamentally misguided to think of learning as having anything much to do with content. As a good constructivist I knew that many had been tempted away from the path of true pedagogy by the seductive vision of automated instruction. For many years the discipline of artificial intelligence offered the prospect of computer-generated courses, with the software capable of understanding enough about both the subject matter and the individual learner to be able to conduct an automated tutorial. Subject matter would be automatically selected from a knowledge base and offered to the learner in a way that filled in the identified gaps in the learner's knowledge. It had seemed to me that the idea of learning objects that could be automatically combined into a course, tailored for an individual learner, was a re-emergence of that flawed vision. Admittedly the idea was more modest in its goals than that of building full-blown intelligent tutoring systems (ITS).
Nevertheless, this idea still represented a version of instructivism, and as such, I thought, was pedagogically misguided, and even lacked the positive emphasis on feedback to the learner found in ITS. Even worse, I reasoned, learning objects are associated with the idea that small 'bites' of learning can be accessed when required, and somehow aggregated in the learner into useful knowledge. This idea also seems pedagogically unsound: it meets only the requirements of what Rumelhart and Norman (1978) called accretion, not the much more educationally important stage of structuring. The key is for the learner to build a schema for understanding into which the chunks of information -- the learning objects if you like -- can be slotted. That is, the subject matter in learning objects must be interpreted, assimilated into what is already understood, and thus given meaning by the framework of understanding already in place. It is the structuring of the framework into which the chunks of information can be slotted that represents the main educational challenge. Learning objects as I thought of them would not achieve this structuring. So, I reasoned, reusable learning objects are useful subject matter resources, but they must not be confused with pedagogically important concepts like learning tasks, feedback, reflection or self-assessment
Well, I think I was wrong. Reading the five chapters in this part of the book has made me realize that, as is often the case with attitudes towards topics that are not often revisited, my view of learning objects was based on a simplified and rather crude version, based on assumptions not held at all by the writers in this part. Indeed, the concept that had originally provoked my antipathy towards learning objects is described in this part, not as a true learning object but rather, as a knowledge object by Rob Koper, as a content or information object by Dan Rehak and Robin Mason, and as an asset by Charles Duncan. Having established that learning objects can be tools or tests or even organizing resources, these three chapters all address the issue of how we can make these objects truly reusable in the support of a wide range of learning approaches, including the task-based methods of constructivist pedagogy (and thus the methods that would encourage structuring).
Of course the perspectives of these chapters differ. Charles Duncan approaches the issue by focusing on the problem of their granularization: the size of a learning object that might be abstracted from its pedagogical context and reused effectively. Rob Koper looks closely at the assumptions underlying reuse: is it really possible to abstract pedagogy? Dan Rehak and Robin Mason consider how we can make learning objects work in practice. Metadata provide the key for finding learning objects and then using them effectively, but the most important need is for communities of practice to develop their own values for the pedagogical attributes, and for the quality of a learning object to be revealed through 'recommender' systems (such as those found at amazon.com) and review databases. This highlights a theme running through all the contributions to this part: to be useful, learning objects will require the mediation of human (teacher) judgement, even though these judgements can operate in a very distributed way. The intense interest raised by MIT's decision to make its courseware freely available on the Web, described in detail in the final chapter in this part, that by Katie Livingston Vale and Philip Long, is now well known. This hugely welcome development will go a long way towards encouraging course developers to seek their pedagogical resources from a wider community: This is perhaps the first step in the development of a pedagogically-based learning object economy. On a institutional scale, but also widely influential, is the Open Knowledge Initiative, a collaboration between MIT and a number of other institutions, aimed at the development of a modular, open-source learning management system (LMS), designed through a rigorous methodology of consultation with university teachers and a detailed analysis of the tasks involved in campus-based learning, teaching and assessment. Both these projects are building a foundation on which a learning object economy can emerge. What more it will take for such an economy to develop is the focus of Lorna Campbell's fascinating chapter. Once all the technical, and even the pedagogical, issues are out of the way, we will still be faced with cultural, social and organizational factors that will determine the extent to which learning objects are actually reused.
By broadening my own understanding of the concept of learning objects, the contributors to this part have raised my awareness of the complex issues surrounding reusable resources. I have realized that the issues of how to create, select and mark up appropriately-sized learning objects of pedagogical value were those we have attempted to address in our work on vicarious learning through dialogue (Mayes et al, 2001). As I read these discussions, I also came to see that my rather PC (pedagogically correct) assumption that learning objects were just units for repackaging content had prevented me from relating this work to the deeper issues of pedagogy. Once liberated from that assumption, I could now connect this work to a constructivist rationale for a learning object economy. The contributors to this part have succeeded in changing my attitude towards an important area of development.
Mayes, J T, Dineen, F, McKendree, J and Lee, J (2001) Learning from watching others learn, in eds C Steeples and C Jones, Networked Learning: Perspectives and issues, Springer, London
Rumelhart, D E and Norman, D A (1978) Accretion, tuning and restructuring: three modes of learning, in eds J W Cotton and R L Klatzky, Semantic Factors in Cognition, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.