Learning Objects: RIP or 1.0?


David Wiley just wrote an excellent post about the "death" of learning objects. He's right on the mark, emphasizing the learning part of the buzzword, while us geeks who were attempting to implement some of the early LO-based software got so woefully distracted by the object and reuse angles. He's also much more articlate than I am, so give his article a read, then come back here. I'll wait. Go ahead.

OK. You've read his post. Good, eh? Now, I just wanted to add some thoughts from the perspective of a "learning objects" software developer (I was rather involved with the development of CAREO, which has apparently been championed as one of the early Learning Object Management Systems).

I was as guilty as anyone, if not moreso. CAREO was intended to provide a central clearinghouse of these magically reusable bits of buzzword compliant digital goodness. I was sucked into the hype, along with an entire generation of implementors. We had an entire nationally funded project (EduSource) with the goal of working out the plumbing problems to get these wondrous Learning Objects flowing. As geeks, that's all it was - a plumbing problem. All we had to do was hook a few things together, attach an input or thirteen, throw a switch, and revel in the magical incredibleness that would Just Happen Because We Built It.

And, of course, outside of carefully scripted demos, nothing really happened. EduSource sort of dissolved. CAREO continued to operate, sortof, but without any financial or institutional support. There are still some users of the system, but it's basically running as a snapshot. A postcard from 2002.

Was CAREO a failure, then? I'd argue an emphatic "absolutely not, bucko!" because it served (and continues to serve) a crucial role. Before CAREO, there wasn't a solid, concrete example that we could all point to and say "there's learning objects!" We didn't have a testbed, a sandbox, a lab. Through CAREO, and an entire generation of "learning object management" software, we learned a heck of a lot about the concept. We were right sometimes (metadata should be as transparent as possible, people to want to share stuff...) and we were wrong sometimes (the UI as a thin veneer over the database, overemphasis on metadata specifications and interoperability...). But we learned.

Also, I get the feeling that the Learning Objects Movement was just a few years ahead of itself. Now, social software is oozing out of the woodwork. Tagging and folksonomies are pushing metadata into every corner of the networks. Mashups via "Web 2.0" web-application-API layers are amplifying and exposing network effects to connect and layer sources of information that were previously relegated into locked silos.

Personally, I learned a very valuable lesson that can best be distilled into Ward Cunningham's description of the original wiki software:

The simplest online database that could possibly work.
- Ward Cunningham

I used to have a version of that written in big block letters across the top of my whiteboard.

It's something that was essentially ignored by all of us Early Learning Object Implementors. We wound up with insanely complicated data schemas (have you ever looked at the full IMS/IEEE LOM?) and attempted to find elegant ways to store the XML directly in databases (before XML-in-databases was in vogue). We came up with these funky national networks of unique and distinct flavours of webservices, so we could share our overly complex data. We invented new, innovative and cool ways of connecting these systems.

But, we completely lost sight of the simple fact that the reuse that is important. and actually much more difficult, is the pedagogical use of content and not a futile pursuit of technical interoperability. I suggest that learning objects are not dead. Far from it. New ideas like implementations of the semantic web, and structured blogging, and social software for creating and sharing resources - they all combine to breathe new and fresh breath into the concept of the learning object. But, with the ability to place the emphasis on learning rather than object.

I've got a nagging feeling that the whole buzz over ePortfolios is following a familiar path. Which is why I'm choosing to ignore the buzz on that topic and play with some of my own ideas.

Whew. OK. That's off my chest. Albatross released. Monkey off of back. Thanks to David for the cognitive nudge required.

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