learning objects must die

A recent joint announcement from two of the pillars of the open education community, McGraw-Hill and Microsoft, threatened to breathe new life into the concept of “learning objects”. David Wiley responds with a refresher on the concept of the Reusability Paradox – basically, if something is super-useful in your context, it’s likely not very useful in someone else’s. That’s where the concept of Learning Objects™ falls apart.

The Reusability Paradox typically leads designers of learning objects to attempt to “strike a balance” between effectiveness and reusability. This generally results in materials that are neither particularly effective NOR particularly reusable across contexts.

- David Wiley

What’s ridiculous in the McGraw-Hill-Microsoft announcement is that they’ve built some magical new platform to let people rip/mix/burn or reduce/reuse/recycle or reuse/adapt/share media.

They’ve bolted what is basically a clip art insertion and annotation tool into Powerpoint. With some interactivity. So, you can plop various bits of media into your Powerpoint file, draw and narrate it, and this is somehow a new thing. Revolutionary. I mean – it looks like an interesting media authoring tool. Like Adobe Presenter or a bunch of others. I’ll be checking it out. But it’s not a Learning Objects™ platform. It doesn’t need to be. That branding just confuses things, and smells like they are trying to meet the checklists provided by investors.

For some background, I spent a few years many years ago building Learning Objects stuff. I built the first fully functioning higher education learning object repository in Canada. I wrote a proposal back in 2003 to extend the LOM specification to make reuse of learning objects more feasible, and extended that in 2004. I was involved in building a platform based on reusing media as learning objects in rich online presentations. I’ve been there. This stuff isn’t new, and it isn’t magic. We went down some deep and dark rabbit holes trying to chase the promise of Learning Object Reusability. It didn’t work out that well. Much of what we did wound up devolving into unintentional DRM, whether through the selection of closed file formats such as Flash, or through obscure proprietary (but documented and “open”) metadata and content packaging formats. We did as much harm as good, but with the best intentions.

The one thing that makes it easier for people to make stuff and to adapt it for their contexts? Share what you make. Share it openly. And let people use it. That goes far further than any Learning Objects project or platform.

Baking your media into Powerpoint or Flash or PDF makes it harder for people to use and reuse your stuff. Do it if it serves your purpose, but don’t do it with a coating of Openwashing – you’re not making it easy for people to use it.

Make stuff. Use stuff. Reuse stuff. But don’t try to brand Powerpoint as a Learning Objects platform. Learning Objects must die.

4 thoughts on “learning objects must die”

  1. I have a similar repeated conversation around online courses (as giant learning objects I suppose) providing ‘quality’ regardless, or in spite of, the instructor.

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