Thursday, November 8, 2007

OpenEd: Learning Objects are not Dead, You Just Didn't Understand Them

To say that open educational resources fix many of the problems of learning objects is a stretch simply because what learning objects are has not been defined. From what I have read there are so many different things that can be considered learning objects that open educational resources could certainly be another name for what some though learning objects were supposed to be. They most certainly fit most of the definitions of learning objects. It seems like the idea of learning objects has simply evolved to better meet a goal and with the evolution came a new name.

I think when people say that learning objects are dead they are not talking about the Wiley definition of learning objects. If the definition of learning objects is, “A digital resource that can be reused to mediate learning,” then learning objects are certainly still alive and well. If we define learning objects as digital resources that reside in a closed system and are only available for out of context and non-adaptable learning experiences, then they should be dead. Why didn't people make the distinction? It seems to me that the goals for using learning objects were different and therefore the definition of learning objects went along with the goals. Wiley and colleagues had the goal of spreading education through whatever means possible. Others had the goal of making money by creating a system which would save time for users. Still others wanted to use learning objects as a way to create more precise instruction, but in order to do so they had to be very specific and time-intensive in what information about the learning objects they required. These systems inevitably were closed rather than open because of their highly specific nature.

Of all of the directions that learning objects could have taken, open educational resources are the most useful way to go if your goal is to spread education. David Wiley mentions this in his presentation. Learning objects needed to go in the direction that people actually do things already to make them easy enough and simple enough. What are people doing to sort and find information on the web? Tagging and Google. Why are people doing this? Because it is easy and simple. Open educational resources are the new learning objects, and they are now easier to find and use. Now learning objects are created as open as possible to allow for use in a variety of systems and are created by universities to share educational materials for free.

If your goal is to create an automated learning system, then open educational resources have not fixed any of the problems that learning objects had. The idea of vendor lock-down comes to mind. Learning objects did what many software vendors do. They locked people into a certain system and method of use. We are still where we were years ago with our systems that piece together learning objects in a instructionally effective way. These systems do not work well with humans, and require a lot of work.

I recently read an interesting chapter in the book, Lessons in Learning, e-Learning, and Training by Roger Schank. The chapter was about Artificial Intelligence and its use in training. Schank mentions that Artificial Intelligence could be used in a training solution to give learners a proper story (Schank loves stories) at the proper time to help learners handle a situation. The intelligence, as I understand it, would provide for more appropriate resources being given at the correct time to help a learner learn. At the beginning of the chapter, however, Schank makes the point that if we can create great training already, why use Artificial Intelligence anyway? I tend to agree. Too many new technologies have come and gone with unfulfilled promises for education.

Some innovations, however, have good uses and have fulfilled some promises. If such an intelligent system would work well, then why not use it. The problem, Schank says, is getting there from here. The costs right now are too expensive to create such a system for the average instructional design group. When the cost of production is less than the value of what is created, then these systems will be a good idea.

David Wiley talked a great deal about infrastructure in his opening speech at OpenEd 2007. He gave the example of roads being an infrastructure for all kinds of innovative activities such as food delivery. He mentioned that open educational resources are a kind of infrastructure and that all kinds of innovative activities can be built upon them beyond what was ever intended by their creators. I think some innovative activities to come include the “learning with media” and not from that Thomas Reeves often talks about. Instead of using open educational resources as the instructor and purveyor of information, students can take the resources to remix and make something new out of them. Students can take the resources and use them as cognitive tools to scaffold their learning experiences. Task-centered instruction could make use of open educational resources to help students complete a task. There are many great ways that resources could be used by students to help them learn. We have the infrastructure of openly licensed resources, now we need the people willing to build on that infrastructure.

Something that I heard in David Wiley's Presentation troubled me. He said that it is not possible to make a piece of instruction more effective for everyone in every culture and this is why localization is so important. Yet there are those in the field who would say that instruction is a science and you can do certain things that will improve instruction universally. M. David Merrill would be one of these people, his First Principles of Instruction is a work that attempts to combine prominent instructional theory into a universal whole. I could not readily find any work attempting to compare the effectiveness of first principles as a model of instruction to other (perhaps more culturally relevant) methods of instruction in a culture or place very different from the United States or Europe. Or in other words, does localization work better than First Principles?

Of course the answer would depend on a lot of factors. Some cultures do instruction very different from the ones in which first principles originated. Storytelling and experiential learning are two examples but I am sure there are more. First principles methods of instruction may not work in cultures that have rich traditions of pedagogies that differ greatly from first principles. However, it may well be that introducing such a culture to first principles would result in more effective instruction.

What about accepted laws dealing with human learning. Thorndike's law of exercise and law of effect come to mind. Would building these into open education guarantee a more effective learning experience? Should M. David Merrill put an asterisk on his first principles linking to fine print stating that they only work in the United States and some places in Europe?


  1. Your point about David Merril's theory regarding instruction is very interesting, but I think I am more on Wiley's side. Think to a geographical map: every culture draws it pretending their own country is at the centre of the world. Compare an American map to a European or an Asian one. They are all different and, at the same time, they have been produced by people who think they are "objective" in their representation of the world.

  2. Your "anthropological" discourse is interesting and we had something similar in our first week, when we discussed about the relation between education and local cultures. Personally I'm convinced that, at least for education, the relativism must be prevalent: for example, we at LTEapplied an "adapted version" of them in our courses. I said "adapted" but you can read "localized"...
    If we think to more distant cultures, maybe these principles do not work at all... But, one more example, I'm pretty sure that a MIT-OCW Physics course is universally valid, perhaps with minor localization (i.e. translation..)

  3. Sorry, the "adapted version of them" was referred to the Merril's first principles... :-)