Retalis, S. (2003). Commentary on Dan Rehak and Robin Mason, Keeping the Learning in Learning Objects, Chapter 3 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 3: Keeping the Learning in Learning Objects

Dan Rehak and Robin Mason

Commentary by Symeon Retalis

University of Cyprus

Recognising the fact that learning objects are still a new concept, D. Rehak and R. Mason have tackled the significant issue of how to make learning objects work in practice in a very interesting and thorough manner. They clearly state that the topic of learning objects is rather new and in an experimental phase. There is an agreement about the attributes of a learning object (reusability, accessibility, interoperability-portability, duration) within the learning technology community. However, stakeholders see the usefulness of learning objects from different optical angles: on the one hand, the training sector tends to be engaged in reuse and just-in-time/on-demand content aggregation in order to augment their market share; on the other hand universities and the learning sector in general, consider the reuse and repurposing of learning material as a big opportunity to save resources as well as to offer new (more enhanced) learning experiences.

The authors analyse the concept of learning objects in five stages which are common for new concepts in any domain. Along the presentation of these stages (confusions, stakeholders, precedents, investigations of how to apply and exploit, acceptance), they pinpoint several crucial issues that need to be tackled in order that the learning process will take benefit of the notion of learning objects. These issues are:

  1. The lack of consensus about the definition and description of learning objects as well as their granularity. Perceptions about the nature and size of learning objects differs. Elaborating on this issue, one could easily find out that the main learning objects repositories do not conform to the LOM standards. For example, while IntraLibrary ( and Merlot ( are IMS-compliant, Belle/Careo ( is using the CanCore protocol which is a simplification and interpretation of the 86 elements of the IMS Learning Resource Metadata Information Model. Moreover, Colis (edna) ( depends on the EdNA Metadata Standard which is based on Dublin Core Metadata Element Set. Other R&D groups have proposed quite different sets of meta-data (in the best case, some of them are extended versions of the IMS standard) in order to describe web-based multimedia teaching materials in a specific domain. For example Heal ( has developed a standard metadata specification for sharing medical education multimedia based on the IMS standard. Other ideas come around like the ones proposed in [Simon and Quemada 2002] of the UNIVERSAL project ( "LOM does not propose learning resource types, which would be required for categorizing educational activities. At the Universal Brokering Platform, the following educational activity types are introduced: case study, course, course unit, exam, exercise, experiment, group work, lecture, presentation, project." Furthermore, despite the fact that sites like Math Goodies, which is a free math help site featuring interactive lessons, homework help, worksheets, etc., do not use LOM description they are very popular. Users prefer resources like lesson plans which do not entirely fit into a LO category. All the aforementioned ideas do show that LOM standards are not descriptive enough and mature enough to keep learning in LOM, so various extended versions exist and a LO taxonomy might be needed. Another reason for this plethora of LOM standards (apart from their possible insufficiency) is the lack of user training? Recently the SCHEMAS project has provided a forum for metadata schema designers involved in projects under the IST Programme and national initiatives in Europe. The project has supported development of good-practice guidelines for the use of standards in local implementations. In the same line, the European Schoolnet's European Treasury Browser (ETB), which uses the EUN Dublin Core Metadata that has 15 elements and some sub-elements, has a usable and quite convincing short tutorial for teachers and potential content providers.
  2. The lack of clarity on how to reuse learning objects. Learning objects cannot work like Lego. On the one hand, we could affirm that instructional design methods, which could effectively support the process of aggregating course content, do not exist. In fact, there are some ideas like the one presented at [Douglas 2001] that proposes such a component based instructional development process and argues that we should adopt/adapt object-oriented software design methods. On the other hand, authoring tools and Learning Content Management Systems (or even Learning Management Systems) are not advanced enough to create content "on-the-fly" from learning objects. Very few commercial products of this type exist. One prominent example of such a tool could be the Designer's Edge []. It is quite surprising the unavailability of usable tools since research efforts have started since the European Union DELTA programme (e.g. DIScourse project, ( Of course efforts have been being made (e.g. EuropeMMM is a research project part funded by the Information Engineering Programme of the EU). One explanation might be that the reusability of LOs is still a tacit knowledge.
  3. The diversity in the provision mechanisms of learning objects. Learning objects pre-existed on the Internet in the form of illustrations, book chapters, articles, etc., but it was more difficult to trace them. Nowadays, quite a lot of pools or better repositories (or even LO brokers) have emerged whose quantity and quality of content differs. Still, these repositories do not contain a lot of material, they are not interoperable and their functionality is not standard (e.g. some might not support annotation or customized search). Efforts have started to be made. For example, the European Schoolnet, proposed a tool kit for connecting existing database driven educational repositories to the ETB network []. Nevertheless, the content providers, especially the instructors, are reluctant in uploading their LOs to repositories for many reasons. First because it needs a lot of time to fill in all the LOM fields. Automation in form filling is needed in order to avoid quite cumbersome and impractical practices that exist nowadays. Fortunately, vocabularies have appeared which will be used for homogenising the description of some fields of a resource and making the online form completing process easier and faster. Secondly, the added value for posting a LO is not clear for an educator. She/he rarely gets credits when preparing good quality online resources. Of course recognition can be achieved when offering a high quality resource via a repository that could become popular. Online rating (annotation) systems have been integrated into most LO repositories, but their utilization is limited. We might need to develop mechanisms/tools like ResearchIndex (CiteSeer) []. Furthermore, copyright issues continue to hinder the setting up of repositories, but there have been positive developments in the licensing of digital resources (e.g. CEN/ISSS Learning Technologies Workshop Educational Copyright License Conditions [].
  4. The insufficient description of the "behavior" of learning objects. Despite the fact that there are many attributes in learning object metadata description, they do not fully capture the "behavior" of a learning object. A learning object is created with specific learning objectives in mind, holds specific behavior and interoperates with other surrounding learning objects. Isolating a learning object and reusing it, means that either this learning object can remain intact since it might fit well to the new learning context, or this learning object needs changes. In the latter and most usual case, not only do technological problems arise but also instructional. A learning object does not only have its own characteristics and learning value but its relationship with other learning objects offers additional learning experiences. I would remind the reader of the wholistic theory of Aristotle who said that "the whole is larger than the sum of its constituent parts".

The metadata descriptions seem not to be enough for representing the "behavioural" description of learning objects nor the learning objectives. The authors suggest that we need better descriptive models such as CLEO or educational modeling languages such as EML. Not only that. We also need better design models for the authoring/aggregation of learning content. We need to adapt formal design models and methods from the field of hypermedia engineering (e.g. OOHDM, RMM, etc.). Such models will show which learning object consist a learning application and how these learning objects are interrelated. Of course these models as well as their formal notation (and bindings) should be compatible with the existing (or the ones that might arise) learning technology standards like the Content Packaging, Learning Design etc. One approach akin to a modeling notation in education is concept mapping [Gaines and Shaw 1996] which might be proven valuable if combined by the unified modeling language (UML) (probably extended using its extension mechanisms).

Finally, taking for granted the increased interest in learning objects, the authors invite the learning object R&D community to try finding answers to the big question of whether it is feasible and acceptable to aim at automatic course creation. The positive answer depends on progress in conceptual, learning, social and technological issues.


B. Simon and J. Quemada: A Critical Reflection of Metadata Standards based on Usage Scenarios, in: Proceedings der GMW Tagung 2002, Basel, Switzerland, September, 2002.

I. W. Douglas, Instructional Design Based on Reusable Learning Objects: Applying Lessons Of Object-Oriented Software Engineering To Learning Systems Design, Proceedings of the 31st ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, 10 ? 13 October, 2001 Reno, NV.

Tommy Byskov LundInside ETB Tools: Exchanging Metadata, ETB News, July 2001 []

B. R. Gaines and M. L. G. Shaw. Web Map: Concept Mapping on the Web, Proceedings of the fourth international World Wide Web conference, Vol 1, issue 1, 1996. []

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