Nicol, D. (2003). Conceptions of Learning Objects: Social and Educational Issues. Commentary on Charles Duncan, Granularisation, Chapter 2 of: Reusing Online Resources: A Sustainable Approach to eLearning, (Ed.) Allison Littlejohn. Kogan Page, London. ISBN 0749439491. []. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2003 (1) Special Issue on Reusing Online Resources. ISSN:1365-893X [].

Chapter 2: Granularisation

Charles Duncan

Conceptions of Learning Objects: Social and Educational Issues

Commentary by David Nicol

Centre for Academic Practice
University of Strathclyde.


This chapter by Duncan is the first in the book after Littlejohn's introduction. It provides a useful overview of the issues surrounding granularisation and lays the ground for the rest of the book. The granular size of learning object is a fundamental consideration if the goal is to facilitate the sharing and reuse of learning resources within a learning object economy. The chapter begins with a discussion of what a learning object is and why the conditions in education are now favourable towards the idea of a learning object economy. It then discusses the aggregation and disaggregation of learning objects including the role of metadata in supporting search and aggregation. The chapter mainly focuses on learning objects in terms of information or subject content. It also touches on the idea that, to achieve effective learning, learning objects would need to be combined with other components, especially activities involving people; and it alludes to the fact that 'the highest level of aggregation' would inter-relate learning objects with a learning design or pedagogical strategy. The chapter also discusses interoperability. All digital learning systems must be able to input and exchange each others' learning objects if these objects are to be shared across educational communities. Duncan concludes that the creation of stand-alone learning objects might appear to reduce the coherence of online courses but that this is not dissimilar to the traditional courses where coherence is supplied by the teacher who aggregates and integrates course components.

This review starts by commenting on the way learning objects are conceptualised by Duncan and others. It then moves on to draw out some of the pedagogical or educational issues that arise from that conceptualisation.

Granularisation and learning objects

The issue that the author first addresses is the meaning of the term granularisation. According to Duncan, granularisation 'refers to the size of learning objects [and] is a necessary condition for learning objects to be shared and reused'. This might be slightly confusing to newcomers to this area in the way that the text initially appears to equate granularisation with size. The literature on learning object granularity is more about the learning object being discrete and based upon a single concept or learning objective rather than on its file size or some other size consideration (see, Hamel & Ryan-Jones, 2002). A range of definitions are given for a learning object with the key idea being that it is a digital resource that can stand on its own and be reused to support learning. However, it is important to note that the term learning object could, to some researchers, include both process objects as well as content objects. For example, learning activities can be turned into process templates that could be reused with different content.

Granularisation and aggregation and disaggregation

Like many other writers in this area (Quinn & Hobbs, 2000: Liber & Olivier, Chapter 12), Duncan's basic assumption is that the smaller and more discrete the learning object the more reusable it is in new educational contexts. In these contexts, learning objects would be accessed and aggregated by users with other learning objects to form more complex units of learning. Small learning objects are assumed to offer flexibility in that the same material can be used in a variety of different contexts. From an educational perspective a number of issues are raised by these conceptions of granularisation and aggregation. Firstly, there is the question of how far it is useful to separate learning resources into separate or more discrete parts. Should the teacher break down the lecture into a series of powerpoint slides and notes or should the whole powerpoint file be uploaded to the resource library? It seems unlikely that teachers contributing resources to an object repository would share similar conceptions of granularity. Yet if the grain size of resources differs depending on the teacher contributing them then this might reduce the overall flexibility of reuse claimed for the learning object economy. A related issue centres on the idea of stand-alone learning objects. For most teachers, the wider pedagogical context of learning resources is critical to educational design and this context is, in part, provided by the inter-relationship that exists across learning resources. By ensuring that all learning objects in the electronic environment are stand-alone (i.e. without cross-referencing) and discrete these contextual relationships are stripped out. Hence some important information that might help new users repurpose resources is lost. One solution proposed to resolve this problem is to ensure that learning objects in digital repositories have descriptive information associated with them that allows new users to understand how they were used previously. Such information would help new users locate learning objects make the best use of them in their own context. This is where educational metadata becomes important.


Duncan discusses the role of metadata in relation to the aggregation of learning objects. Metadata is descriptive information about the stored digital resources. As well as helping users search for, find and evaluate learning objects stored in digital repositories it also helps teachers make decisions about, and describe learning objects at different levels of aggregation. Metadata for assets and information objects (Duncan's terminology) includes information about file format, size, delivery, authorship, etc. This not only aids reusability but also supports technical interoperability (e.g. if the file format is appropriately labelled in the metadata it is more easily used across electronic learning platforms). Learning objects would normally include additional metadata fields for information such as resource type, interactivity type and level, context, level of difficulty, description etc. This 'educational' metadata defines an object as a learning object ? a resource that has an educational use.

There are some problems in relation to how educational information is represented in metadata fields. In particular, the usefulness of this educational metadata is highly dependent on who was involved in its creation. While librarians might provide descriptive metadata including subject classifications, teachers would have to create educational metadata both when they submit their learning object to the shared economy and when they re-purpose learning resources. However, people use educational terms in different ways and especially if they come from different disciplines (Becher, 1989). Hence there might be a wide variability in the meanings attributed to educational metadata descriptions, a factor that would hamper a users search for appropriate learning objects. Moreover, these differences in meanings are likely to impede the transfer of use of learning objects particularly across disciplinary communities. One solution to this problem is to construct metadata vocabularies and taxonomies that would allow identification of learning objects from a range of different perspectives (see Koper, Chapter 5). Nonetheless, even with controlled vocabularies and taxonomies teachers may not have the requisite expertise to fill in the metadata fields for their learning objects (see, Currier, 2001)

The Learning Object Economy

The hope expressed in Duncan's paper is that when sufficient learning resources are available then an educational economy would develop with learning objects as currency. This would both bring economies of scale to learning communities through shared object libraries and possibly better online educational courses. One key assumption underlying this idea is that teachers would be willing to share their educational resources. As noted above they would also have to be willing to design their learning resources as small modular chunks of learning and to create metadata information to describe these resources. There is already some evidence that teachers might be unwilling to do this for a variety of reasons (Campbell, Littlejohn & Duncan, 2001). Firstly, it may require that teachers change the way they design learning in their own courses in order to be able to benefit from the learning object economy and they may be unwilling to do this. For example, teachers would have to ensure that when they design a course that it could be broken down into small modular units of learning (i.e. learning objects) and this may be counter to the way they would normally design. Secondly, some teachers may prefer to utilise resources that have an intact context rather than those that have been disaggregated and decontextualised. This implies that learning objects in the economy would have to be of variable size and tagged with appropriate metadata. Thirdly, there is a strong assumption that teachers would be willing to tag their own resources with educational metadata but this tagging is time consuming, difficult and expensive (see Currier & Barton, 2003).

A fourth issue is that currently there is not a strong history of sharing resources in education in the way implied by a learning object economy or any reward structure within and across institutions for doing so. Indeed, it is more likely that this kind of educational sharing might take place in small disciplinary or professional communities rather than across a whole educational sector. Such communities would benefit from a common understanding of educational metadata terminology and vocabularies and if core metadata fields were retained this would still support some sharing and exchange by other communities (with different vocabularies). Fifthly, for mass use of learning objects in the way suggested by Duncan there would need to be an information literate population of educators and, importantly, students who have the information management and evaluation skills necessary to search, find and aggregate learning objects to fit their purposes.

Another issue is who would manage these collections of learning objects. Duncan relates this to interoperability and proposes that as long as all producers or vendors of learning objects agree on the same file formats then learning objects could be exchanged within a learning object marketplace. This is only part of the problem. The management and quality assurance learning resources, whether digital or paper based is a complex task that has until now been carried out by professional librarians. If digital repositories proliferate in the way that is envisaged by a learning object economy then many more people in the educational community will have to acquire the some of the skills that are currently the preserve of the professional librarian.

Concepts of education and the teacher's role

Duncan discusses the aggregation of simple learning objects to create more complex learning objects or units embodying more structure and extended learning objectives (e.g. learning objects aggregated to form a module). He also notes that at the higher level of aggregation learning objects would necessarily have to be integrated with other components in order to create effective learning. These components comprise processes such as activities, dialogue and a learning design (pedagogy). However, while most readers might accept the idea that educational resources might be stored in a repository and be searched for and reused, many will be concerned about the view that courses are constructed by aggregating learning objects together. This idea seems to fit a specific conceptualisation of learning and of course design. It appears to propose that learning is about acquiring packets of information and that course design is only a matter of assembling units of content and packaging this together with a learning design template. This is more consistent with a transmission view of learning rather than a social constructivist view in which students construct their own interpretations of subject content in dialogue with others (see, Palincsar, 1998). In the latter view interaction and dialogue around ideas are primary and learning objects as subject content might only be important insofar as they provide some input to that dialogue (see also, Mayes introduction to this section of the book).

Duncan to some extent bypasses the issue raised in the last paragraph by arguing that it is the teacher who provides the glue that binds a course together and that 'granularisation enables good teachers to do what they have always done: create stimulating courses for students'. However, not all in the e-learning field of study take the same view. Recently, researchers into learning object reuse have attempted to address the pedagogy issue by proposing that learning design should be key driver in online course design (see Tattersall & Koper, 2003). These researchers have been piloting learning design templates which specify the roles of teachers, students and the activities they are engaged in within a typical learning scenarios (e.g. problem-based learning, collaborative learning). The idea is that these design templates would be reusable in different contexts and with different types of content. However this raises further difficulties for some commentators. For example, can a learning design template really capture the essence of a pedagogical approach and can pedagogical knowledge really be formalised in this way (see, Earle, 2002).

A final issue concerns students as users and generators of learning objects. If the learning object economy is to become a reality then students would not just be 'consumers' of the learning objects submitted to repositories by teachers but would also be involved in the creation and storage of their own learning objects and of the evaluation of the learning objects of others (Nicol & MacLeod, 2003). This will require considerable changes in the way students search for and use information and resources. These changes are already evident in universities given that the web has made information and resources much more accessible to everyone. However there is a growing need to recognise that information literacy including the use of new tools such as data repositories and metadata software may need to become an essential part of undergraduate education. Students will use their own repositories for learning objects, they will have to learn how to classify and provide ratings of resources using controlled metadata categories as well as open descriptions just as they are now learning to use email and web-based search engines like GOOGLE.


Those new to learning objects, aggregation, metadata and the idea of a learning object economy will benefit greatly from reading Duncan's chapter in this new book. It presents an overview of some fundamentals in an accessible language. This review has highlighted some areas of concern. However, the picture presented is merely a snapshot at a particular moment in time. Researchers in e-learning have already begun to tackle, and make headway with, some of the more tractable problems.


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