Carey, T. and Harrigan, K. (2003). Commentary on Ron Oliver and Catherine McLoughlin, Pedagogical Designs for Scaleable and Sustainable Online Learning, Chapter 8 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 8: Pedagogical Designs for Scaleable and Sustainable Online Learning

Ron Oliver and Catherine McLoughlin

Tom Carey1 and Kevin Harrigan2

1 Professor of Management Sciences
University of Waterloo

2 University of Waterloo & CLOE Project

Oliver and McLoughlin provide an excellent summary of some of the design considerations needed to make developments in online learning 'scaleable and sustainable'. Many of the approaches they suggest could also be treated as requirements for any successful online learning deployment, so that the chapter brings together principles of the underlying pedagogies with a context for reaching critical mass.

In our own work we talk about our designs being task-based rather than goal-based. We have found this terminology is more quickly assimilated by our instructors, for several reasons:

  • the term goal-based has a rich history in work by Roger Schank and others, but our instructors' immediate assumption was that it would refer to their own instructional goals and objectives, rather than to an explicit goal for learners to achieve.
  • our learning designs are most often intended for blended environments in which the online resources are used before, during and after synchronous events such as scheduled class sessions. This allows us to position the tasks as playing a specific role in achieving the instructional goals, e.g. a Preparatory or Induction task in meant to relate a particular set of content to previous subject matter. [cf. Jane Vella's Taking Learning to Task for a description of how various tasks can be composed effectively into such blended designs];
  • in the same way that objectives are matched with assessments, we match tasks with feedback on the task 'deliverables'. We distinguish assignments as tasks for which the feedback is recorded for grading purposes, leaving most task feedback as formative information to guide learners. Instructors can also receive feedback as formative information for classroom events -- this approach is outlined well in the book Just-In-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning With Web Technology by Gregor M. Novak, Evelyn T. Patterson, Andrew D. Garvin, Wolfgang Christian.

We have begun to integrate the task-based design approach into online tools to support instructors as they create Web based courses. This infrastructure has been informed by the work described in this chapter from Edith Cowan University, as well as our participation in the MERLOT consortium and in developing metadata for learning objects. For example, our current prototype tools are designed to integrate access to the MERLOT learning object repository and to capture instructional metadata about the learning tasks and their roles in the learning process.

In the following paragraphs we are addressing the issue of separating instruction from the Learning Object itself as discussed in the section 'designing for reuse' in this chapter.

We are introducing our university instructors to various online resources including our new Learning Object Repository called CLOE ( and MERLOT ( Our experience is that the instructors feel strongly that they have been hired as an expert in the field and thus they must have ownership over their course. It must not be simply an aggregation of Learning Objects that were created by others. The typical scenario that we see is that the instructors tends to teach the same course year after year. Each year the learners experience difficulties with certain concepts which we call instructional challenges or instructional bottlenecks. The instructor is interested in finding techniques to overcome this bottleneck. Typically, when instructors are searching for Learning Objects from a repository they have already tried other techniques in the past without success. Our model is for the instructor to create a learning task and then use Learning Objects when appropriate to support the learning task.

In first working with instructors, we felt that they would want Learning Objects in repositories to be accompanied by the instructional context in which they were originally designed for and used in. We felt they would also want any other documents that were related such as sample assignments. In practice, what we have been finding that the instructors only want the Learning Object. They want to use the Learning Object as a means of overcoming the instructional challenge but they already have their learning task in which they want to use the chosen Learning Object. This strongly supports the idea put forth in this chapter that the instruction not be directly linked with the Learning Object itself.

Our work is almost exclusively with university instructors. We feel that this emphasis by the instructors of not wanting to simply aggregate Learning Objects to create courses would be higher at universities than at most other learning environments. For example, in may be common for a trainer in a organization to be required to do training in a subject in which that trainer has some knowledge but is not an expert. In this case, the trainer may create the course by aggregating Learning Objects that have been built by experts. This trainer may use all associated material such as information about how the Learning Object was originally used and sample assignments. In this case, the separation of the instruction and the Learning Object itself may not be necessary but it would be quite acceptable as the trainer could still create a course by aggregating the Learning Objects and the associated instructional material. Thus, the notion put forth in this chapter of keeping instruction separate from the Learning Object works well whether or not the person reusing the Learning Object is interested in the instructional material or not.

We, like the authors of this chapter, are concerned with sustainability and the following two paragraphs address three initiatives that we have taken to address this issue of sustainability. Our initiatives are quite different from the sustainability issues raised in this chapter.

The first is Case Stories of reuse from the instructors perspective. Case Stories are meant to tell the story of the creation, use, acquisition, and reuse of a Learning Object (our first is available in the 'About' section of We are creating these as we have found that many instructors have heard about Learning Objects but they are not sure why or how they should use them in their courses. The Case Stories are a means of allowing an instructor to see what others have done and thus learn from the experience of others. Feedback to date has been very positive. The idea here for sustainability is that there needs to be a critical mass of instructor using repositories in order for the repositories to continue to be in operation.

Our second initiative is that we are conducting six Learning Impact research studies which look at the use of a Learning Object from a learner's perspective (These will be posted at by August 2003). We are creating these discipline specific Learning Impact Studies as many decision makers are interested in knowing whether or not Learning Objects are useful in courses. We feel that creating these Learning Impact Studies is addressing sustainability of repositories as decision makers need to be shown the 'value propositon' of providing ongoing support for these repositories.

Our third initiative that we are involved with is the peer review of Learning Objects. Currently there is little incentive for instructors to contribute Learning Objects to repositories as it carries little weight in the instructor's Promotion and Tenure submission. Both in CLOE and MERLOT we have created a peer review process so that we open up the possibility that an instructor can get professional recognition for the creation and submission of a Learning Object. Currently we are working with mostly early adopters, whereas over time we need a more entrenched incentive for instructors to submit Learning Objects to repositories.

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