Learning objects, personal learning environments, study guides

From WikiEducator
Jump to: navigation, search

originally written alone * review suggested major revisions were required * enlisted other contributors * substantial changes, some revisions lost as files transfered between authors



  • Valerie Taylor
  • Rick Lavin
  • Dr. Nellie Deutsch

[Place chapter quotation here. Use neither quotation marks, nor italics.] – [Author’s family name] ([Year], p. [number])

[Place graphic chapter map here, centered. It may be in color.]


       <a href="http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/2837880/personal_learning_environment" 
         title="Wordle: personal learning environment"><img
         alt="Wordle: personal learning environment"
         style="padding:4px;border:1px solid #ddd"></a>


After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • characterize a variety of educational materials and their relationships to learners
  • plan, select and adopt open learning objects for a variety of educational environments
  • determine the suitability and applicability of the broad groupings of learning objects
  • consider remixing learning objects into personal learning environments

Audience: educators, instructional developers, learners


Web-based resources are challenging our past and current ideas about teaching and learning. "Anywhere, anytime learning" has achieved a new immediacy and proximity that includes right here and right now. Audio recordings, video lectures and images can be accessed using mobile phones, computers, and e-books. Learners can now find their own sources of information without vetting through the academic peer review process, or textbook editorial direction. Instructors can assign online conference paper readings as they are being presented. Learners can interact directly with subject matter experts, participate in forums through informal open online communities of interest, and have their questions answered and comments acknowledged without regard to credentials, affiliation, location or origin. What's next?

Learning objects (LO), personal learning environments (PLE), and study guides are terms that we hear a lot these days. There is considerable interest in learning more about these resources and how they can be used productively in formal and informal settings. As these discussions go forward, there is an opportunity to expand the definitions associated with educational resources to include both web-based and traditional material. While we are about it, it would be a good idea to make room for new technologies and media yet to be adopted or even invented.

In this chapter, we will be examining traditional discussions in the light of the technologies that support access to resources and delivery of teaching and learning. In particular, open education and open educational resources (OER) that are receiving considerable attention in the press. There have been initiatives focused on creating and distributing these learning resources. However, little has been said about adopting and learning from them. In this discussion will address the full lifecycle of open educational resources from development to the reuse of learning objects as personal learning environments and study guides.

Learning Objects, Personal Learning Environments, and Study Guides

Like so many Web 2.0 concepts, learning objects (LO), personal learning environments (PLE) and study guides are not new classes of educational materials resulting from the expanding internet, but rather some old ideas given a fresh coat of paint.

At their simplest, learning objects, personal learning environments, and study guides are any material or collections of resources that can be considered to be educational. Some definitions are more specific and we will address the finer points when we talk about new applications facilitated by web access and distribution. Broadly speaking, these definitions highlight the important concepts and keywords associated with each.

  • Learning objects. Educational material, instructional material, Open Educational Resource (OER), content, media. They may be individual items or groups of items. Definitions vary widely, with differentiation and "rules" about granularity, purpose, audience and reuseability. In some definitions, there is the implication that these have been purpose-built or assembled by an instructional designer, instructor, facilitator or tutor to be made available to learners. More general and inclusive definitions require only that the material be "educational" in nature.
  • Personal learning environment. This is a broader, more inclusive grouping applied to all the "stuff" used by an individual learner (personal) to learn about a subject. It usually implies multiple media, personal preferences and learning communities. It is learner-centered and the learner has control over the included (and excluded) materials. "Network" is also used in place of "environment." However, there is ongoing exploration in the field with exact definitions and differentiation yet to be worked out.
  • Study guides. Usually associated with material created to help the learner (and the facilitator or instructor), study guides provide prescriptive directions for learning the subject. For example a study guide might be provided by a textbook publisher to highlight important sections of a topic by providing activities and critical thinking questions.

Who's who

There are many roles and responsibilities for individuals involved in the creation, distribution and use of learning objects. Some individuals may have multiple roles and skills, but the overall process is best explained if all involved have specific skills and expertise.

  • Instructional designer, curriculum developer. Responsible for learning design, sequence, media, assessment instruments.
  • Instructor. Contact with the learner. Also known as facilitator, mentor, tutor, or moderator.
  • Learner. End user of the learning objects, educational material. The intended beneficiary of the processes and products discussed.
  • Librarian. Provides research, learning object locating assistance to learners and instructors.
  • Repository administrator. Responsible for overseeing the quality, standardization, categorization of repository content.
  • Reviewers. Provide evaluation of subject matter, instructional appropriateness.
  • Subject matter expert. Provides expertise on a subject.

Because there is so much material in many formats in many places, creating, maintaining, locating and using the materials have become extremely complex. More specialization would be helpful as the resource base expands.

Learning objects

Learning objects are individual items or groups of items of educational material, instructional material, content and/or media. With the introduction of technology in teaching and learning, educators have become more interested in comparing the effectiveness of specific resources for learners and subject matter.

Mixing and matching learning objects to individual learner needs and preferences has increased dramatically with the introduction of the internet. Now it is possible and practical to offer the same lesson in multiple formats - print, online text with links to secondary sources, images, animations, audio and video recordings, and synchronous or asynchronous discussions.

A learning object may also be referred to as an educational resource. If the learning object is freely shared, it may be classified as an Open Educational Resource (OER). More broadly, a learning object could also be proprietary rather than open. Organizations may adopt similar methodologies and content units for their internal training materials or for educational products and services.

Learning objects may have been purpose-built or assembled by an instructional designer, instructor, facilitator or tutor to be made available to learners. Most descriptions imply or stipulate that the resources are web-based or delivered via technology. However, learning objects may be captured in any media including paper or even stone.

Importantly, Open Educational Resources (OER) are available for access and use without charge, though there maybe some restrictions as outlined by the Creative Commons license specified or cost associated with distribution (printing and mailing, for example).

Different definitions

Definitions vary widely, with lots of different definitions and "rules" about granularity, purpose, audience, and reuseability of learning objects. For example, some definitions limit time to learn the material to 2-15 minutes. For others, time is not a criteria even if the material would take hours or even days, to cover. This demonstrates the difficulty in coming up with a workable definition that can be generally accepted across the learning object development community.

From Wikipedia

a learning object is a resource, usually digital and web-based, that can be used and re-used to support learning. ... Learning objects offer a new conceptualization of the learning process: rather than the traditional "several hour chunk", they provide smaller, self-contained, re-usable units of learning --Beck
They will typically have a number of different components, that range from descriptive data to information about rights and educational level. At their core, however, will be instructional content, practice, and assessment. A key issue is the use of metadata.
Learning object design raises issues of portability and of the object's relation to a broader learning management system.

OER Foundation defines OER more narrowly: "Open Educational Resources (OERs), are educational materials which are licensed in ways that provide permissions for individuals and institutions to reuse, adapt and modify the materials for their own use. OERs can, and do include full courses, textbooks, streaming videos, exams, software, and any other materials or techniques supporting learning."

It is worth noting that the definitions for learning object dating from the 1990s were quite specific about including pedagogy in the object information. However, it wasn't long before people started recognizing the challenges associated with the "reusability paradox". Namely the more pedagogy embedded in a resource, the less reusable it becomes in different learning contexts. Over time a more flexible, open approach has been advocated. Creators publish their work openly in WikiEducator or Connexions, for example. Other educators and learners are encouraged work to dynamically and collaboratively to maintain, improve and customize these open resources for their own needs so long as they respect the special open sharing copyright conditions attached to the original work. WikiEducator community members "subscribe to the free cultural works definition which requires that our resources are available in open formats which are editable by all educators." -- Wayne Macintosh, Founder of WikiEducator

Learning objects - ready to use

As David Wiley points out "If the user of a learning object is the learner, "the more context a learning object has, the more (and the more easily) a learner can learn from it."

For those who are not up for development and collaboration, but just want to take advantage of new and interesting learning materials, the static learning objects may be just the thing to provide an alternative to teaching a lesson using traditional materials. There are a number of repositories like MERLOT or the Learning Federation that provide access to thousands of open learning objects.

Learning objects projects include

  • MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching), a free and open resource designed primarily for faculty and students of higher education. http://www.merlot.org/merlot/index.htm
  • Wisc-Online is a web-based repository of learning objects, developed primarily by faculty members from the Wisconsin Technical College System. http://www.wisc-online.com/
  • Federated content management solutions Rather than having all content reside in a single repository, there is a growing movement toward distributed content with linked searching within an aggregation of participating providers. The aim is to allow instructors (and learners) greater flexibility and options without replicating content or randomly searching cyberspace to locate accredited resources.

Open Textbooks

Open Textbooks are super-size learning objects. Open textbooks are textbooks that are freely available with nonrestrictive licenses. Publication of open textbooks is one of the fastest growing segments of online learning materials. Textbook purchases have become one of the major expense items in education at all levels. For many, the cost of required textbooks has made education unaffordable. However, through the generosity of many foundations and individual authors, whole textbooks are now available online at no cost. For example, the Collaborative Statistics textbook is available online through Connexions.

In some cases, print versions are available for purchase, although there is considerable variation in cost and delivery. Delivery models coordinated through limited run publishers such as Flat World, Lulu and QOOP, or through college bookstores with on-site on-demand printing address the needs of students for lower cost paper textbooks, too.

  • Open Knowledge Foundation registry of textbooks and related materials which are free for anyone to use, reuse and redistribute.
  • Wikibooks - the open-content textbooks collection and tools for creating a free library of educational textbooks that anyone can edit.

  • Online Courses There are a number of repositories for full online courses. One criticism of learning objects is the onus placed on an instructor or learner to locate appropriate learning materials for the topic to be learned. By starting with a full course of study, the basic foundation is ready for adoption and customization or personalization. This greatly reduces the start-up effort and serves as a dynamic model for development and presentation.

There is an ongoing stream of blog posts and conferences, like the Open Education conference that attract many of the important contributors to the OER movement, including David Wiley, George Siemens & Rory McGreal, videos, tweets and articles that document discussions and ideas about the current status and future of Open Educational Resources. References to many others are provided in the Resources section.

Although many examples in this discussion reflect open education and learning objects at the post-secondary level, similar work is being done in primary and secondary grade levels. There are probably more shared resources for K-12 but there is less focus on discussing the process and the pedagogy, and more "just doing it..".

Personal Learning Environment

The term "Personal Learning Environment"(PLE) tends to be a broader, more inclusive term applied to all the "stuff" used by an individual learner (personal) to learn about a subject. Personal learning environment (PLE) implies multiple media, personal preferences and learning style. Most definitions of personal learning environment include the notion that the learner has control over the included (and excluded) materials. There is considerable debate about how broadly to project the personal learning.

[Some] would argue that "network" better describes the connections and relationships than "environment" does. There are definitions that provide for both personal learning environments and networks as [separate but related] entities. As there are tools as well as content, some suggest it is helpful to distinguish between them. The term Personal Learning Network (PLN) is also used - sometimes interchangeably with PLE, sometimes not. The arguments are wide-ranging without conscientious at this time, so we are sticking with "environment" as it is still most commonly used, although there are characteristics of the network metaphor that are applicable and compelling.

The University of Manitoba describes "the aggregation of single-functionality tools which enable learners greater control over their own learning experience. Instead of centralized, instructor-controlled learning, PLEs are distributed, social and learner-centric." Sue Waters describes "using web tools to create connects with others which extend our learning, increases our reflection while enabling us to learn together as part of a global community. PLNs (Personal Learning Network) increase our opportunities to ask questions and receive help compared to our normal daily face-to-face interactions." This and other web-centric definitions are somewhat limited, and don't explicitly include non-web based connections. Clark Quinn emphasizes the formal-informal and active-reflective dimensions of "performance environment". Others try to convey breadth and depth and diversity with terms like domain, space or even surroundings. Graphical representations from a number of prominent contributors are displayed in a collection of personal learning environment diagrams.

The key components of a learning environment or network include but are not limited to:

  • content - what to learn, what I know
  • context - why is this important, how does it relate to what else I know
  • connections - what are other sources of information related to this
  • collection - related information sources
  • communications - questions, feedback, updates
  • community - who else knows this, who else is learning this, can we help one another
  • collaboration - sharing, the work of several is greater than the small individual contributions
  • creation - blogging, summarisation, reflection

It will be interesting to see how personal learning develops in the next few years as "the digitals" who grew up with internet access take responsibility for their own learning and that of their children. There are several conflicting views of this group of young adults and their younger siblings who have always lived in a web-enabled world.

  • innovative - encourage to use technology - programming, building the tools they want, hacking - lots of examples of new functions created by college students for music sharing, online games, instant messaging
  • inquisitive - ask questions, find answers without agents (parents, teachers, textbooks, news media, government sources
  • demanding - know what is possible and expect everything to be provided to that standard - multimedia experience, instant access to information, professional presentation, authoritative
  • academic goal oriented - what do I have to do to get an "A"
  • social - social networks, friends, communication, sharing information
  • passive - entitlement, pre-processed - just tell what I need to know.

The "digitals" are already creating their own informal personal learning environments through their use of the web. Google is a verb - to find an answer to almost any question. Many of the videos on YouTube are really educational. Although most English teachers cringe at the thought, texting is a form of writing and kids compose and write far more than those of us in the passive television generation. We have to remember though, that there are still many millions of young people who are not included in this group because of location, economic situation, cultural bias or government restrictions.

There is considerable discussion about who should be responsible for the setup and maintenance of a personal learning environment. Logically, it would be the individual learner. However, instruction and instructional design are important to the learners' process and progress. While learners may be able to locate materials about a topic, not all resources are created equal. Presenting the most appropriate material for the learner based on their current background knowledge, as well as the level of complexity of the material, and the reliability of the sources may need to be determined by an instructor who is familiar with the learner and the materials available. Ideally, there is cooperation and collaboration, as the learner learns to expand the personal learning environment and explores new areas of interest that may be outside or beyond the score of the designated learning objectives.

Personal preferences and learning styles can be accommodated using web-based resources. It is no more difficult to provide a link to a video than to a text article or a picture. In some cases, live chat and web-conferencing with audio and shared whiteboard can be included to provide interactive, real-time learning. Learners have preferences and will usually choose their preferred format. However, there are some topics that are best taught in a format that may not be the learner's preferred format. With shared web-based resources learners can be provided a range of formats.

  • media format - text, images, diagrams, audio, video
  • interactive - real-time synchronous, think-time
  • collaborative - wikis, sharing in product development
  • social - connections, groups - number of participants
  • directed / facilitated / self-study
  • connectedness - wiki, mobile
  • products, outputs - assignments, published work

Tools and technologies are essential for learners and for instruction. Although most were not developed explicitly for educational use, they have expanded and enriched the learning experience. This has prompted good articles and resources by Jane Hart, Michele Matin, Anne Mirtschin, Sue Waters and others to identify and promote the educational benefits of a host of technologies for personal learning. Most lists include information subscriptions, social technologies, production and publishing, and communities of interest.

There are lots of variables for personalization which is why it is both frustrating and rewarding. There are development projects underway to provide most or all of the tools within a single application. The Manchester Personal Learning Environment mPLE is one example. Others will follow.

  • integrated - learning management system, "walled garden" containing all functionality
  • individual selected applications - cafeteria-style
  • control flow of information - RSS feeds, subscriptions, aggregation, following

Others are describing similar learning spaces, tools and communities. Someone suggested social ecosystem. These are worth noting because for many, Personal Learning Environment doesn't capture the essence of their learning. The community element of collaboration and connection are important. The scope of information sources shape a space for the learner about each topic. These may be very broad for some cases and very specific in others. Nancy White in describing a digital habitat observers that "technology has changed what it means for communities to be together.” Digital tools are now part of most communities’ habitats.

There is considerable overlap between communities and learning. We have moved beyond the Teacher-Student-Content model of instruction and learning. Technologies, personal connections, social learning, mentoring, monitoring and assessment can be facilitated and personalized to meet the preferences of learners and the knowledge to be acquired. As this evolves, learners and their mentors will become more adept at locating and integrating the elements necessary promote learning.

Educators and instructional designers can help by creating and personalizing learning objects to include personal learning spaces. Instructors and facilitators can suggest or recommend the learning objects to include. But serendipity plays an important part as well. To "stumble upon" resources is often a delightful expansion of the environment. In the end, the learner has to have the tools and the ultimate control for this space to be personal and engaging.

Web tools and educational resources for personal learning

  • search - find stuff - Google, Ask
  • follow - news and information, social bookmarks - Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, Diigo, RSS feed readers - , blog subscriptions
  • plan - big picture about a topic - Open Courseware, Open Textbooks
  • participate - groups, open courses - Yahoo groups, Ning, P2PU, Moodle
  • create - publish, blog, podcast, video - Wordpress, Blogspot, YouTube
  • collaborate - groups, communities - Wikieducator, Wikibooks, Wikispaces

Other lists and directories of tools for teaching and learning that can be used to organize and personalize your learning environment

  • Video Primers in an Online Repository for e-Teaching and Learning - series of 27 brief (7-10 minute) videos related to teaching online. topics for both novice and more expert online instructors and educators. Learn how to engage learners with Web 2.0 technologies, build instructor presence, prepare highly interactive and relevant online activities, access free and open course resources, plan for the future of e-learning, and much more.
  • community toolbox - a variety of online tools for collaboration, brainstorming, sharing, communicating

Study guides

It was surprising to find a proposed chapter title that included "study guide" along with "learning objects" and "personal learning environments." However, it turns out that there is a place for the idea of "study guide" in the discussion to address curriculum, guidance, personalization, and perhaps even assessment.

The term "study guide" is usually associated with material created to help the learner (and the facilitator or instructor) learn the subject. For example a study guide might be provided by a textbook publisher to highlight important sections of a subject by providing activities and critical thinking questions. There are even open equivalents to the traditional low-cost paper subject guides (aka Cliff notes). This is a very board category with few formal definitions but lots of promise. Most educators and learners agree that study guides and learning materials are evolving as the learners determine what they don't know and what they need to know.

If the learners are working in their personal learning environments, what is the role and contribution of the instructor, mediator or facilitator? Most learners don't want to wander around aimlessly, so how are they going to plan, act and evaluate their time and learning progress? Even in innovative educational institutions, learners are going to evaluated or assessed on some criteria, so how are they going to prepare for that? In many cases, the facilitators is being paid to provide guidance and feedback, so they too are going to be held responsible for delivering.

A study guide can provide guidance - directly and explicitly, or informally. The study guide can be a person, place or thing. Little has been discussed about how this will evolve. Is there a place for the notion of "study guides" in education in a digital world, along with learning objects and personal learning environments? We think so.

Here are some ideas about how learners working in their personal learning environments might be guided.

Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS). In recognition of the need to personalize learning as the number of learners increases and the number of qualified instructor is not keeping pace, intelligent tutoring system (ITS) are being developed. Any computer system that provides direct customized instruction or feedback to students, i.e. without the intervention of human beings, whilst performing a task. Thus, ITS implements the theory of learning by doing.

Learning Networks. The term learning network is often applied to formal organizations. That is being expanded to include the informal association of people, resources, links and connections of learning. Stephen Downes argues that "networks with identifiable properties such as the fostering of diversity and autonomy are more reliable producers of learning and knowledge". Networks and connectivism are generating considerable interest among educators.

  • Research and Development of Learning Networks - a publication and integrative website which aims at publishing news, information to communicate, connect people, organizations, autonomous agents and learning resources to establish the emergence of effective lifelong learning.
  • Science Learning Network - a community of educators, students, schools, science museums and other institutions demonstrating a new model for inquiry science education.

Learning objects, environments and networks in practice

Learning objects, personal learning environments and study guides - these have taken on new importance in the online teaching and learning discussions. In particular, open education and open educational resources (OER) are receiving considerable attention in the press. There has been financial support for creating and distributing these learning resources. However, little has been said about adopting them in teaching and learning from them.

All these learning resources are created and published by well meaning educators and subject matter experts who have knowledge and learning materials to share. Some of the learning resources are created as the need arises as part of teaching. A classroom teacher develops materials for his class and publishes them to the web to reduce reproduction cost and distribution logistics. A colleague needs similar information and agrees to help with updates. Others are works for hire and needs are formally reviewed, requirements defined, teaching strategies defined, presentation standardized, and assessment included.

However, this raises a number of issues for the creators and the users of the learning resources.

Copyright, ownership and sustainability

In his article Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources, Stephen Downes points out that "the open sharing of one's educational resources implies that knowledge is made freely available on non-commercial terms ... If resource users do not pay for their production and distribution, for example, then how can their production and distribution maintained?" Good questions. Downes goes on to discuss sustainability at length.

Most open educational resources that are distributed through formal repositories or are created in the wikis provided for the purpose, are licensed with one of the Creative Commons licenses. Wikipedia community and Wikimedia Foundation board approved the adoption of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) license as the main content license for Wikipedia and other Wikimedia sites in June 2009.

Attribution-Share Alike license is acceptable for Free Cultural Works. You are free to Share (copy, distribute and transmit the work), to Remix (adapt the work). You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same, similar or a compatible license.

While there are many other license variations, the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license is generally accepted as the most practical, in that it provides protection and attribution for the originator, but allows the broadest use and adaptation to meet the requirements of adopters.

Sustainability needs to be considered from two perspectives as both the open education model and individual resources have to thrive and grow over time. There is a chicken-and-egg situation. Until there are "enough" "good" learning objects, there will not be sufficient adoption and feedback to the creators of content for the pool of resources to grow. As with any new teaching and learning ideas, there are early adopters who immediately see the possibilities and contribute to the initial projects. However, there is a major transition as the merits of open education are demonstrated to the greater population and they too are convinced that this workable in their teaching and learning.

Maintenance of these learning resources is another consideration. Some universities create learning objects for their students that later are made available as open courseware. For example when a course is revised, the previous version is released for public viewing. This ensures that fee-paying students have the benefit of new work, but recognizes that there is still value in the older version.

Directories, repositories and federations

In theory, there will be many more adopters and users than creators. The assumption being that there are many learners working with tutors, mentors, facilitators and/or instructors who are not subject matter experts or instructional designers so they must depend upon the availability of learning materials created by others.

To that end, there needs to be a mechanism for matching learners and instructors with instructional material and appropriate learning objects.

Some inroads are being made. Several organizations are gaining critical mass in that there are enough well-regarded entries in the directories and repository collections for interested learners and instructors to consider the material. Some of the most notable are public and private universities in the US. This list is for illustration, and does not begin to represent the thousands of directories and repositories that exist today.

  • Open Courseware(OCW) Consortium - free and open digital publication of high quality educational materials, organized as courses from more than 200 higher education institutions and associated organizations from around the world
  • Connexions - open creation repository hosted by Rice University with contributions that include full courses, textbooks as well as lectures and lessons
  • Learning Federation - digital curriculum content to support teaching and learning. These materials are available free of charge to all Australian and New Zealand schools.
  • Public Library of Science - open access journals on a broad range of sciences from the nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource

There are many other repositories and directories for K-12 and other learning needs. There are several European initiatives. A number of projects to create and distribute open educational resources and learning objects are underway in Asia as well.

  • Open Educational Resources (OER) Commons includes resources at all grade levels although post-secondary make up a significant portion of the total - Primary (5342), Secondary (8028), Post-secondary (16111) --as of September 2009
  • MERLOT - wide range of subjects. formats and grade levels, many include peer reviews
  • Kathy's list - one of the earliest lists of links to primary learning objects, predating the term by nearly a decade. In the late 1990s, Kathy Schrock maintained "the list" of links to lesson plans and educational materials for K-12. Now part of the Discovery Channel online resources.
  • WatchKnow lists thousands of reviewed short educational videos available on the web. It is a non-profit, online community that encourages everyone to collect, create, and share free, innovative, educational videos.

These are all web-based. However, traditional public libraries continue to offer access to rich collections of physical learning objects such as books, magazines, periodicals, journals, images as well as audio and video media.

There are no definitive sources for learning objects. Many contributors have yet to be discovered because the listings and searching are not coordinated across the web. The federated content management solutions may change this. The need is recognized and a number of solutions are being put forward and implemented. The developers recognize that rather than try to have all resources reside in a single repository or even be cataloged in a single directory, it is necessary to have some means of virtually accomplishing cataloging, searching and accessing learning objects regardless of physical location of the resources. This task is bigger than the job of creating a critical mass of content and publishing it to the web, and is perhaps more important for wide spread adoption of open education.

Recommendations, reviews and quality

There are a few organized reviews for learning objects. There are initiatives to provide standardized reviews of learning objects against specific evaluation criteria in an effort to guide learners and instructors selecting suitable learning objects.

Some of the criteria include in the reviews include

  • grade-level appropriate
  • completeness - covers full topic including lesson plan, learner activities, quizzes
  • content quality
  • effectiveness
  • ease of use
  • overall rating

The criteria vary significantly depending on the intended users of the reviews. Some are very formal, providing a number rating as well as detailed rational for the assigned score. Others are informal, allowing the reviewer to provide information that they feel is appropriate to others who might include the learning objects in their teaching and learning.

Over time there will be a more extensive network of reviewers with followers. Just as we have our favorite movie reviewer, learning object reviewers will become known by those who appreciate and trust the information provided.

  • MERLOT - many of the learning objects peer reviews looking at the strengths and weaknesses in content quality, effectiveness and ease of use

Search, categorization and tagging

A continuing problem for learning object creators, instructors and learners is location - placing and identifying learning objects so that they can be found and used. There are a number of schemes being proposed and adopted but the problem remains. Solutions being implemented include federated content management, RSS-like feeds, social bookmarking categories and tags, and peer reviews.

Much of the work to-date has been in the area of creation and the needs of creators. The solutions are not adequate for ultimate users - instructors and learners. As more adoption and reuse comes on, these will be addressed in response to users demand.

Because there is so much information available on the internet users are frantically trying to find ways to deal with the sheer volume of links and learning objects. Tools have been developed for two similar but different strategies - categorization and tagging.

Categories, Categorization - Wikipedia "Categorization is the process in which ideas and objects are recognized, differentiated and understood. Categorization implies that objects are grouped into categories, usually for some specific purpose." There are formal methodologies for categorization and classification - everything from the Dewey Decimal System to elaborate ontologies constructed by experts groups in a particular field. The use of pre-defined lists of categories is often imposed to ensure consistent and predictable search results.

Categorization was essential when shelf space was limited. However, in the ever expanding cyberspace, many of the strengths of categorization become cumbersome, and even unworkable, as Yahoo and some of the early attempts to categorize the web demonstrated. Having a small formal category structure is helpful for very general groupings - animal, vegetable or mineral, for example. For learning objects, metadata for media, language and grade level provide broad groupings to direct further searching.

Tags, Tagging - the keywords that people put on their learning objects where keywords are any word, symbol, abbreviation, acronym, reminder that will help them recall and find the objects with this tag. Clay Shirky describes the tag as "a way of attaching labels to links. The strategy of tagging -- free-form labeling, without regard to categorical constraints -- seems like a recipe for disaster, but as the Web has shown us, you can extract a surprising amount of value from big messy data sets."

Tags are an essential component in social bookmarking. Social bookmarking sites like Delicious, Digg, Diigo and Pearltrees provide a central service that allows registered users to save bookmarks to web resources along with descriptive information and tags or keywords of the users' choosing. The social part comes in when these are shared creating an aggregate view of all users' bookmarks, as well as a personal view for each user. Others can then explore all the tags and all the bookmarks of other users. As many users will apply the same tags to similar sites, over time this provides a richly annotated collective view of the internet.

Scale. One of the problems that is coming to the forefront is scale. As more learning objects are created, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the good ones that are appropriate for inclusion in teaching and learning. All the web-based learning objects are uniquely identified by their URLs, so that is the good news. But applying uniform categorization is a recipe for disaster. It is not possible to come up with a single category structure that will satisfy enough requirements to scale to match the rate of learning object creation. Because URLs are unique identifiers, applying many tags and some category information to each learning object or group of learning objects may be the best solution for now.

Adopt, Reuse, Remix

While there is great value in creating learning objects and assembling them into personal learning environments or study guides, this is only a small part of the power of this new way of working. The real leverage comes about when there is a serious adoption of these by other instructors and learners. Make once, use many. This is a classic method of achieving efficiency and cost effectiveness.

In order for there to be adoption and reuse of learning objects, a number of elements must be in place.

  • locating learning objects
  • ensuring that the material is current, correct and appropriate
  • assembling - sequence
  • feedback & recommendations (see Folksemantics)

Many people "get" the idea of open educational resources. However, mention is made of "remixing" and people ask “why would I want to do that?” An educational resource is something you learn from, not something you would actually change. That is, unless some portion of the learning object doesn't meet the needs for teaching or learning. Now by editing, adding, changing and remixing part of a learning object, there is a whole new way to customize and reformulate the educational resource.

Most instructors do some remixing without realizing there is a name for this activity, skip a section in the textbook, add an outside reading assignment, show a video, and bring in a guest speaker. That's "remixing."

Learning objects available in electronic format are easily edited, augmented or re-sequenced. Tools are cheap and powerful and allow anyone to "remix" for their own purposes. Why would you want to "remix" open educational resources? Liam Green provides a list of 20 good reasons. This a new idea, and most people do not see this initially. There is enormous potential to significantly change teaching and learning as we know them. If you are ok with that, then there is great excitement and promise in adopt, reuse and remix.

The power of remixing is the freedom to depart from traditional teaching models. If you can change the lesson text and media, what else can be changed? For example, Tony Bates suggests that by incorporating video lectures from world renown lectures "I would be very tempted to get my students to follow a careful selection of online video lectures from other professors then use the time freed up from not having to prepare and give lectures to participating with groups of students in online and small face-to-face group discussions about the content of the lectures." Isn't this the desired outcome for all learners?

Case studies

To demonstrate the adoption process, here are two separate cases where learning objects have been incorporated into actual course delivery in higher education - a Remix using individual open objects, and a full course OER Adoption.

Remix using individual open objects

Locating and adopting OER content for a faculty development workshop Technology Supported Learning

The workshop, Technology Supported Learning is a professional development workshop for educators and trainers. Based on the Chickering and Gamson Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, each workshop topic corresponds to one of the Principles. Each topic includes readings, references to additional web resources, discussion topics and activities. Activities are outlined for exploring, applying and assessing the Principles and technologies applicable to supporting learning.

This course development example provides a step-by-step overview of the process of locating and adopting OER content. The online workshop introduces faculty to using technology to enhance instruction. The focus is student-centric using technology for supporting learning. There were no complete courses that met our needs. We selected content from a number of sources that provided the topics and activities that we wanted to incorporate. The resulting workshop is now delivered 2-3 times each school year.

In the Planning phase, the course design was developed and the main themes and requirements for learning objectives were defined. Possible sources of content were identified and the criteria for determining the learning objects for inclusion were discussed.

Technology Supported Learning (TSL) is offered as a facilitated online course, but the materials can be used by faculty for self-directed learning. The course is expected to take participants approximately 40 hours to complete over a 10-week period. However, realistically, faculty participants often reviewed the lesson outline and commented in the discussion forums without doing all the suggested activities. Those seeking credit (about 10% of participants) were required to complete the activities.

If a complete course had been available, it would have been considered for adoption. A review of the OER Commons and other repositories suggested that even individual topics would be difficult to find. The selection criteria have to be flexible when there is little content in the area of interest.

The Search and selection phase built on the course plan and instructional design. There were several areas of search for resources. Although we started with the idea that we would adopt a partial course or full course if one were located, it became clear that this would not be an option. We redirected our search to locating component learning objects.

OER Commons was the main source of higher education and faculty professional development content. Listings include content from all the major repositories. Educational Resources could be viewed by grade-level, resource type, subject, rating and source. While it is desirable to consult trusted sources and recommendations, the number of entries that had been reviewed and/or rated was limited. It will take time before there are enough reviews to be particularly helpful in locating high quality learning objects. Several advocates of the use of learning foresee groups of subject matter experts providing lists of learning objects that relate to their area of interest along with reviews and ratings. We are still waiting for these to appear in any numbers.

Once we had found a number of suitable learning objects, we moved to the Development phase. In fact, the process was iterative, as we worked through the development of the lessons, we continued searching for learning objects to address specific needs in the course design. In some cases, the course design was altered to incorporate great learning object discoveries. The development generally followed a conventional course development process.

Activities were structured to encourage participants to explore and develop learning resources for their own courses. Many of the activities were open-ended to provide flexibility for participants with differing needs and interests. Some learning objects did not exactly fit so existing ones were modified and others had to be created to fill the needs of the course objectives.

Throughout development, the course underwent quality reviews. There are a number of standards for course quality. The one we selected was this Course Evaluation Checklist

Because the course was composed of a broad spectrum of learning objects from a number of sources in a variety of media, the Delivery phase was a learning experience for all. We encouraged faculty participants to use the framework we created for the course and build lessons for their own course topics as their assignments.

For online workshops, the facilitator takes the role of "guide on the side" with the participants directing their own learning through activities such as readings, media viewing, discussions, research, and reflective writing writing assignments.

"Learning about learning objects" is included as a theme within the framework. Participants appreciate the diversity and range of material available. Through research assignments, participants are encouraged to locate and review learning objects in their subject area.

We encourage feedback and critique. As the workshop progresses and the learning objects are accessed within the workshop, participants must complete review activities that asked for feedback on the learning objects. Responses include suggestions for improvements, additions and deletions. Based on these suggestions, the workshop has been changed, or even removed from the workshop if it does not add significant value.

The final (and ongoing) phase is Knowledge building and sharing where we work with sponsors, technical support, pedagogical specialists and participants to review the process and the practices. This leads to some good thoughtful discussions and analysis.

  • worth the effort? - Would it be simpler just to build a course or lesson from scratch? It depends on a number of factors - subject matter expertise, time available for development. In some situations, there will be lots of content "on the shelf" available for adoption and use with little additional development required. Finding and customizing learning objects may be an expeditious solution. Plan to include some personalization or localization to fit the learners' needs. As a body of excellent learning objects is expanded, it will be come increasingly desirable to adopt existing learning objects.
  • integration issues - "fit" with learning objectives and other course related materials - We set up the workshop with a Notes (or lecture) page for each of the Seven Principles topics, and a list of activities for each. The learning objects are linked as activities with instructions. There was no requirement to have a consistent "look and feel" to all the course materials. There was no requirement to keep the participants within a "walled garden" of the workshop, although we use the Moodle course management system. There is the potential for navigation problems, but participants have not cited this as a concern. It is clear to the participants that these are external resources. This fits well with the overall theme of using technology.

It was essential to keep track of the learning accessed that might be useful for supplementing the learning objects selected or to use as part of an assembly or resource. We found that as the development of the course progressed, some of the needs changed and learning objects were added later to provide additional support or better explain some of the material. This is consistent with traditional measures of good practice.

Adopting an existing full course

Locating and adopting a full course as learning objects: Creative Typography

You want to teach a hands-on course about Typography for the Art department. You don't have a lot of time to develop the course, so you would like to use an existing full course if one exists. Searching through the OER Commons listings, there 1356 Arts subject area entries. By filtering for Full courses and Post-secondary, there are 179 entries. Searching for Typography, there are 4 entries. Of those listed, the following looks promising.

Creative Typography ..as of January 2008

Rating: Not rated yet
Type: Course Related Materials
Grade Level: Post-secondary
Author: Carolyn Brown
Subject: Arts
Institution Name: Foothill College
Collection Name: Sofia - Foothill De Anza College

Abstract: Exploration and experimentation with letter forms and page layout for expressive communication. Fundamental typographic principles, font recognition, and analysis of both historical and post modern design theory. Emphasis on content, form, and technique for effective use of typography in ads, posters, newsletters and other visual communications.

Course Type: Full Course
Material Types: Syllabi, Homework and Assignments, Assessments, Discussion Forums, Activities and Labs
Media Formats: Text/HTML, Graphics/Photos
Language: English

Conditions of Use: Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.5

Sofia Open Content Initiative
Creative Typography

Locating and adopting a full course learning object

Listed below are some of the issues for considered when selecting and adopting the Creative Typography course.

  • learning objectives - Appropriate coverage of the subject and level of detail including topics: explore letter forms and page layouts, fundamental typography principles, font design analysis, hands-on experience with effective use in visual communications
  • course outline - 12 week quarter course with reading, assignments, projects
  • content requirements - All selection criteria were met, included all course materials with links to web resources, attractive presentation, instructor's notes
  • trusted sources, recommendations - published as part of the Hewlett Foundation funded Sofia Project that selected community college courses.

The Sophia Project courses were evaluated for selection and edited for inclusion in the course gallery. The course was informally reviewed against the course evaluation checklist - comprehensive list of questions to guide review to assess the quality of the course pedagogy, curriculum design, materials and learning activities. Also used to plan additions and modifications for local teaching requirements.

Selecting a full course will save time and effort. The background work has already been completed - course outline, design, text, activities, projects, quizzes. However becoming familiar with the content takes time. Understanding the thinking behind some of the information presented may require research. Resolving conflicts and adding personalization or localization requires additional work. The course is composed of 10 lessons with related projects and activities. An Instructor's guide is provided.

Usually, there will be some development as most instructors will personalize the course materials. Integrating the content into Moodle, the college's learning management system will require some planning. Because these pages are attractive HTML pages, they can be added to the course as web resources and can be displayed in a new window or as a frame within the Moodle course. This is a matter of personal preference as either works fine.

Will there be direct student to access the content where it is or must you copy the content to some course specific location? How will assignments be submitted and displayed for peer review? Quizzes must be transferred into the Moodle question database and quiz function.

Review the entire course looking for opportunities to include new material, delete extraneous information, and provide any instructions deemed to be missing for the specific learners. While the course is fine the way it is "out of the box", can you resist the urge to add your own elements of style and pedagogical signature?

There are lots of checklist to ensure quality, each with their own priorities and requirements. This Course Evaluation Checklist is extensive and helpful for guiding development as well as ensure a quality product.

The course is ready for delivery. The course has been taught on-campus and as a fully online course. The material is complete enough that a knowledgeable instructor / facilitator can provide the necessary learning guidance and support for delivering the course in a classroom, as distance learning or as a hybrid with on-campus and online components. The feedback from adopters has been positive. Students taking the course online have really enjoyed the flexibility and creative incentive of displaying their work electronically even if it is limited to class participants.

An important hallmark of open education is the commitment to knowledge building and sharing to promote accessibility to education for all. The course materials are all available. In some other learning object publishing systems, there is considerable camaraderie among adopters who share teaching tips, localization suggestions and student work as annotations to the learning object in the repository. No provision was made for revising or enhancing the course. However, the content is "evergreen" - while there are advances being made in typography, at the level of the course, the resources and lessons are relatively stable, not needing regular updates.

Other issues and learning opportunities

Here are a few examples of some issues and learning opportunities that have arisen and how they alter the relationships between learner, instructor and learning objects and personal learning environment.

  • Copyright mismatch - For a blended course: Introductory Statistics, the online portion provides the content delivery -- adapting a one-semester online Carnegie Mellon (OLI) college course for use in a year-long high school course. Because the Carnegie Mellon OLI courses are licensed CC-BY-NC-SA, the ability to use and adapt is quite limited. The instructor needed OLI's permission to charge the students.
  • Printed copy - Some students have to have a print copy of the "textbook" for any number of good reasons - limited access to computers or internet, travel, cost, learning disabilities, personal preference. There may be copyright restrictions by media type - electronic is ok, but no print reproduction. Getting material organized and printed in a timely, cost-effective process can be facilitated through a print-on-demand service.
  • Student Aid restrictions and processes - Some students receiving financial aid are given a bookstore credit to cover the cost of their textbooks. However, if the learning objects are not free and not available through the regular financial aid reimbursement process, there may be unforeseen delays and even denial of material costs.
  • Campus bookstore involvement - In many institutions, the campus bookstore is a service and a revenue center. Alternative sources for learning materials may require coordination with the bookstore. Bookstores in many institutions are very supportive of the adoption of open learning materials and may be able to facilitate licensing through their professional associations.
  • Everyone knows best - All the world's a creator. As of this writing, there has been more interest and activity in creating educational materials than in adopting existing ones. Instructors say they can't find ones that are just right for their needs. There are too many repositories, and a wide range of quality, so it is easier to create their own. Authoring tools and hosting are readily available.
  • Disruptive innovation - Learners are becoming increasingly self sufficient, depending on recommendations through peers, social networks, open courseware and non-academic resources. They are engaging in informal learning.
  • Flexible learning - Learners are being encouraged (or required) to do their own research to find information as part of learning experience. The instructor provides guidance and support rather than providing a specific lecture or reading.
  • Education as we know it - The current economic downturn is putting considerable pressure on governments to cut back on educational spending which will have a profound impact on teaching and learning. The availability of learning objects may lead to new ways of providing instruction.
  • Wired world - Today most of the world's population is not able to take advantage of the vast store of learning objects available via the internet. This is changing quickly. New technologies are being rolled out to provide communication services to even the remotest learners.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it does illustrate that there are a broad range of concerns that come along with the great promise of learning objects, personal learning environments, study guides.


While there has been lots of interest and activity in learning objects, personal learning environments or networks, and study guides, some of the promise has yet to be realized.

The progress being made to provide learners with new and innovative learning materials is very exciting. In just a decade, the internet has transformed much of what we know about teaching and learning, and has introduced new challenges for education professionals. Learning objects, personal learning environments and study guides are the key components in providing a framework for learners. Whether these are created formally and distributed through a traditional educational network or generated to satisfy some individual need, these resources can be located and shared to the benefit of all.

There have been several surprises that have altered the path of this progress. Many more educators are creators and fewer are adopters and adapters than early predictions suggested. This is largely attributable to the availability of free hosting and supportive online communities of practice that enabled more content creation, linking and sharing. Learners have taken a more active role in directing their learning. Learners have embraced the internet instant access features and insisted that their learning be delivered this way. Learning object creators and learners are in direct contact, often without an instructor as a filter or intermediary.

More innovation can be anticipated in the creation and use of learning objects, personal learning environments or networks, and study guides. These are the right components for the learning framework. We don't know exactly what direction these resources for learners and learning will take. However we can be sure that it will be important and interesting.

It is an honor and a privilege to be part of these important developments. There is always room for more open education.

Websites Mentioned in this Chapter


  • Wiley, D. A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version. Retrieved December 21, 2010, from the World Wide Web: The Instructional Use of Learning Objects (online version)