Learning Objects Technology:

Implications for Educational Research and Practice

Edmond Gaible, Michael Hannafin, David Merrill, Michael Spector, Jan Visser, and David Wiley served as panelists for a discussion on "Learning objects technology: Implications for educational research and practice" that took place on the second day of the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), held from April 1 to 5, 2002, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The ideas behind the panel discussion are explained in the attached approved conference proposal authored by Yusra Laila Visser and Ray J. Amirault, who coordinated and moderated the session.

Prior to the event, panelists had been asked to generate position statements, summarizing their perspective on the advent of learning objects and the opportunities and challenges that this new format presents for learning specialists. In addition, they were asked to generate questions that they would like other panelists to respond to during the session. The following inputs were received in response to this request (author names listed alphabetically):

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A Few Thoughts on Learning Objects:
Masters of the Ob-verse
Edmond Gaible
Educational Object Economy

The influence of educational approaches based on learning objects is highly conditioned by context. Examinations of those contexts and their histories may be instructive.[1]

Military / corporate context

In military and corporate environments, courseware development based on learning objects is tightly linked to the potential cost savings and increased efficiencies of reuse. Development of the Advanced Distributed Learning SCORM specification stems directly from the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review of U.S. armed forces.[2] ADL the requirements of 2.5 billion armed forces personnel for training-continuing throughout their military careers-and concludes that given the high cost of multimedia development, of the more than 30,000 delivered by the DoD without technological support only a small percentage could cost-effectively be converted to multimedia. A solution was seen in a reorientation toward reusability (as well as persistence, discoverability, and modifiability) as manifest in object orientation.

It should be noted, however, that the bulk of SCORM-related development to date has focused on enabling mastery-level learning and assessment for training purposes, with resources comprised primarily of relatively static HTML- or XML-based courseware and assessments. The key driver of ADL-based development is reusability, not educational effectiveness.

Higher education

In higher education, analysis of the current and potential effects of learning objects is complicated by the activities of parallel groups of developers. Substantial investment goes to the creation of virtual universities and consortia (e.g., eCornell, Fathom), which provide expanded revenue opportunities to institutions that are experiencing increasing costs that can no longer be passed on to customers (i.e., students and their families) or met by the expansion of on-campus enrollments. However, university faculty, especially in schools that emphasize teaching as opposed to research, are in some cases also encouraged to develop Web-based resources independently, both to support their on-campus courses and to support Web-based learning.

The MERLOT project (www.merlot.org/ ), hosted at the California State University at Sonoma, links educators in over 20 state universities through domain-specific communities. Faculty members contribute learning objects that include web-based tutorials, reference collections, articles, and dynamic media, as well as interactive simulations. These objects are peer reviewed and considered alongside publications in tenure decisions. Objects are available for reuse by other faculty, however in this case reuse is of secondary importance. The learning-object format, in this environment, facilitates the emergence of faculty developers by rewarding the contribution of discrete chunks of electronic material, rather than comprehensive standalone resources, that in many cases support textbooks, synchronous leader-based learning, and other learning pathways. In cases such as this, learning-object-based development is intended to enhance the quality, as opposed to the profitability, of education.


In K12 education, impetus for learning objects is perhaps the reverse of that of military/corporate training. Rather than increasing the efficiency of vendor-based development, learning-object-based development has the potential (only partially realized) to subvert the dominant, private-sector resource-development paradigms. Private-sector K12 development has split into three major modalities: multimedia CD-ROMs, fee-based Internet portals, and advertising-based portals. (In actuality, larger sites such as bigchalk.com combine ads and fee-based access.) Structured for sales potential, rather than utility-and in many cases designed for the consumer market first and schools second-these modes foreclose participation by broader populations.

As a format that is easily grasped and adopted by a wide range of developers-including students and teachers-learning objects can encourage broader participation in the creation of education resources. Recent supporting developments, including software-authoring tools (Agentsheets, Stagecast) and metadata models (Educational Modeling Language) enhance the possibilities of object-formatted development and for the user-developer in general.

Learning objects promote the exchange of resources and participation in their development-activities that go against the private-sector grain. Two simple example can be drawn from the Educational Object Economy (www.eoe.org): First, the Turkish Ministry of Education is funding localization of roughly 100 of the EOE's open-source learning objects, in this case Java-based interactive simulations; these localized objects will serve to "seed" development of objects by Turkish educators working with private-sector developers. Second, a privately developed web portal, Schoolarabia (www.schoolarabia.com), is reviewing links to learning objects on the EOE site and integrating these into its Arabic-language curriculum. In both cases, the learning-object-based characteristics of EOE resources-discrete, metadata-tagged, focused on specific curriculum items, and open to a range of pedagogical approaches-makes them ideal for localization into new and disparate educational contexts.

(It is reasonable, however, to suspect that object exchanges such as the EOE have much greater relevance in countries that as yet have limited experience with technology in education, and that do not have mature education-software sectors.)


Within the K12 arena the most successful projects that expand participation in learning-resource development-ThinkQuest and I*EARN, for example-don't incorporate learning-object-based approaches or metadata, in part because participation and the act of content-creation are valued over the resources themselves. Efficiencies such as those enabled by metadata, object exchanges such as the EOE, component-based approaches such as ESCOT, and reusability as an guiding precept may in fact run counter to the needs of learners to experience the scaffolded building of knowledge.

And: Definitional questions, I believe, continue to dog discussion of learning objects. Is a resource an object if it has learning-object metadata (LOM) attached? Is it an object if it could have metadata attached?

Imagine that on the edge of a schoolyard stands a cypress tree identified by latitude and longitude, as well as LOM, with teaching and learning supported by wireless, GPS, and handheld technologies. At the tree, learners could have access to situated research activities, simulations, dynamic media, diagrams, and information, enabling learning to span botany, geology, geography and even the natural history and traditional knowledge of the region as it relates to the cypress. Is the tree a learning object? Or are the learning objects only the resources connected to it?


[1] I confess to the charge of thinking of learning objects, at least primarily, in terms of the direct effect on development communities-vendors, developers, teacher-developers-while seeing their influence of learners and learning as resulting from these effects. I'm willing to entertain all views in this matter, however.
[2] At the point, the Shareable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM) aggregates the work of IEEE-LTSC, IMS, and AICC, integrates XML, and adds specifications for an HTML-based run-time environment to enable objects to be run in all SCORM-conforming Learning Management Systems. The goal is for objects developed for use by one branch of the services to be shared and re-purposed by other branches, or by smaller units within a branch.

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When Size Really Does Matter:
The Myths and Potentials of Re-Usable Learning Objects
Michael Hannafin
University of Georgia

The debate over the viability of "learning object economies," a concept advanced by Apple Computer roughly a decade ago, has largely centered on three related issues: 1) Establishing and implementing consistent meta-data standards; 2) Enabling access; and 3) Establishing reasonable costing and cost recovery structures to encourage and sustain participation in the learning object economy. While progress has been made in each of these issues, a more fundamental definition problem has brought many efforts to a virtual standstill: What, in terms of size and function, is a learning object?

Thus far, rather than becoming increasingly granular and usable across many different contexts, learning objects have been progressively enlarged into more familiar ideas of modules, units and courses. While this may result in short-term efficiencies in the sharing and re-using of intact objects, it is inherently constrained by acceptance of the size and function of the object. In such approaches, large numbers of otherwise discrete, addressable objects, ranging from individual pictures to specific explanations to segments and images within video, are collectively defined as a single object. The potential for re-use of the multiple components within a given learning object is rendered impossible since their contents are neither tagged nor directly addressable. So, to the extent potential learning objects are embedded into larger units and strictly contextually dependent, we gain little long-term efficiency in possible re-use in other, different contexts.

Long-term efficiencies from learning object technology, both in the creation and implementation of learning environments, depend on our ability to inventory and "warehouse" libraries of re-usable, richly tagged objects. Rather than an object's meaning being contextually fixed from their inception and defined within this single context, the relevance and meaning of any learning object is continually redefined by the changing context of its use. A given object can be introduced across a wide range of different contexts, by developers, teachers, and students, and it's meaning reified situationally. Increasing the granularity of complex instructional materials and media resources can transform the ways learning systems are conceptualized, the nature and role of media, and the tools used to both construct and learning from learning environments.

In our conceptual-theoretical work (Hill & Hannafin, 2001), we have developed a framework for resource-based learning based upon granular notions of learning objects. Learning objects are conceptualized as resources whose meaning is established differently through different enabling contexts. Enabling contexts provide situational boundaries in the form of problem statements, expectations, issues and the like. In essence, they supply unique ways in which the same given resource (object) assumes different meanings. Resource-based approaches also scaffold learning in ways that continue to reify an object's meaning according to the usage context and tools that enable the user to act upon the problems, issues and resources provided.

On the applied side, we teamed with industry researchers to develop and test a resource-based EPSS known as TRIAD-Tactical Readiness Instruction, Authoring & Delivery (Hannafin, Hill, & McCarthy, 2002). Building on the resource-based learning framework, and extending granularity concepts to account for legacy data and multiple object use, we built a browser-based system to aid naval personnel in creating and sharing tactics. Through progressive queries, the system enabled naval officers to generate and tag objects, construct documents dynamically using defined objects, re-introduce the objects as organizers as well as content to create and structure associated training, and so forth. In effect, TRIAD is a support engine that uses knowledge object technology to automate instructional design and delivery as well as and document organization, creation and support.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is that for learning objects, size definitely matters, though its influence is often negatively correlated with utility. As the unit size of objects generated increased, our capacity to re-use the object in related as well as different contexts declined. The problems associated with creating, tagging and tracking learning objects across diverse applications remains formidable, but the long-term payoffs warrant the effort required. If we hope to find new best ways, we need to resist the pressure to conform an otherwise transformative technology to support largely traditional approaches. Inevitably, the potential becomes marginalized and largely unexploited.


Hill, J., & Hannafin, M.J. (2001). Teaching and learning in digital environments: The resurgence of resource-based learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(3), 37-52.

Hannafin, M.J., Hill, J., & McCarthy, J. (2002). Designing resource-based learning and performance support systems. In D. Wiley (Ed.), The instructional use of learning objects (pp. 99-129). Bloomington, IN: Association for Educational Communications & Technology.

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Position Statement and Questions
on Learning Objects Research and Practice
David Merrill
Utha State University

Brief Outline of my remarks as part of the Panel on Learning Objects:

Point one. As usually defined learning objects are of little use to anyone. One definition indicated that a learning object could be as small as a drop and as wide as the ocean. If this is the case then everything is a learning object and the concept has little or no value. My remarks will attempt to define the relationship among media objects, knowledge objects, instructional strategy objects, and learning objects. Media objects are just that, small bits of text, graphic, video, audio. Knowledge objects identify some instructional functions that these media objects can play. When identified as a component of a knowledge object the media object can now play an instructional role. However, knowledge objects are still independent of instructional strategy. When a knowledge object is combined with an instructional strategy object then we have a learning object. We will also identify knowledge bases as instantiated knowledge objects and knowledge structures which identify the relationships among the components of knowledge objects.

Our second point is that open-ended learning environments so-called exploratory environments are often just indirect direct instruction. That is, learners search for pieces of direct instruction (learning objects?) that can teach them what they need to know to solve the problem. This point will argue that for a student to engage in self-instruction they need to analyze these pieces of information to extract the knowledge components that they need to solve their problem. They must then reassemble these knowledge components in ways that provide the knowledge required to solve their problem. Most students are ill equipped to provide this analysis synthesis activity and are therefore left to search for pieces of direct instruction. Knowledge objects, knowledge bases, and knowledge structures provide a meta-mental model that learners can use for this analysis and synthesis process. If students are to learn the art of self-instruction then they must be given the mental tools that will promote this self-instructional activity.

Questions for other members of the panel.

1. Most meta data suggested to date does not related directly to instruction. Is instructional meta data desirable? What might it be? How can it be used in the formation of learning objects?

2. Many seem to think that students already have the necessary skills and that if we merely put them in these exploratory environments they will learn. In my experience this is often not the case. What then is required to promote self-instruction in open-ended learning or exploratory environments?

3. Learning communities are all the rage. In my opinion such learning communities are too often "pooled ignorance." Or if they are not they consist of an inefficient search for available direct instruction to provide the required knowledge or skill. What might be required to provide resources that are of real value to such communities? Is indexing this information necessary in these situations? Why or why not?

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A skeptic's soliloquy

Michael Spector
Syracuse University

I plan to organize my remarks around these ideas:

1) A brief historical view of what has happened in software engineering with regard to object technology - the gist of this will be that much was promised, powerful methods and tools were developed, but the goal of bringing computing to the level of the problem solver unskilled in programming has not occurred. Moreover, reuse of sophisticated and complex object typically occurs only in restricted situations (e.g., within an enterprise or a small community of skilled practitioners).

2) The user is generally left out of the reuse picture - there are a number of user groups, including: (a) suppliers of learning and training resources, (b) consumers of learning systems; (c) system specialists; (d) instructional designers, (e) teachers, and (f) learners. Various paradigms with regard to learning objects leave one or more of these user groups out of the picture. A simple-minded view intentionally omits the in between groups based on the naïve belief that if objects are properly tagged and made accessible by a knowledge vendor, then learners will be able to find and use the appropriate resources, especially if intelligent agents are operating in the background to match learner characteristics and interests with various knowledge resources. I hope to argue persuasively that this notion is too simplistic since many learners require guidance in figuring out what is worth learning and how best to go about such learning - thus far beyond the capability of intelligent tutoring systems and agent technology in all but well-defined and simple cases; in short, there is still a need to involve teachers and instructional designers, although what they do and need to know is likely to change. In addition, since multiple consumer groups are involved, there will continue to be a need to perform independent quality reviews and evaluations of instructional resources - this will also require instructional designers, teachers and content specialists.

3) The notion of widely accessible learning objects is powerful and achievable. However, the ideals of those who are making this technology possible may not be fully realized. The irony here is similar to that cited by Naisbitt (1994) in Global Paradox: the larger the world economy the more powerful the smallest players become. In this case, the worry is that the digital divide will actually widen although runs counter to the views and preferences of those who have been working so diligently on learning objects.

I will do my best to conclude with some positive ideas about how best to realize the power and potential of learning objects.

Postscript (following the AERA session; added May 30, 2002)

In reflection upon the AERA discussion and the presentations of the other panelists, my concerns have changed somewhat from a concern about whether instructional designers might actually begin integrating learning objects of one kind or another to a concern about how this might be accomplished in terms of concrete cases. As a result, I have developed a story-telling case to promote some follow-up discussion to the session in New Orleans. I would appreciate hearing reactions of any kind (send email to [email protected]).

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Thought Objects About Learning Objects

Jan Visser
Learning Development Institute

1) Wiley (2000) argues that the definition of learning objects by the Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) is too broad and proposes to limit the use of the term to digital objects. This makes sense from a practical point of view. However, it remains of value to consider continuity of practice among instructors, and designers of instruction, to have recourse to reusable building blocks - whether digital or not. Some do so in mindful ways; others don't.

Recall Paul Simon's lyrics:

"The problem is all inside your head," she said to me
The answer is easy if you take it logically
I'd like to help you in your struggle to be free
There must be fifty ways to leave your lover....

If there are fifty ways to leave your lover, there must be at least a thousand ways to use a pair of pliers, and an almost infinite number of ways to use a learning object, considering the complexity of learning processes. The point is not, in my view, that we should look at instructional building blocks as atoms or molecules that have different bonding characteristics (Wiley's metaphor) as opposed to pieces out of a LEGO box. Just as I can use a LEGO block in many different ways (for instance by cutting it into pieces, melting it, hammering a nail into it, gluing a magnet onto it, etc.), so can I use a learning object in many different ways. The problem is with the mindset of the user ("it's all inside your head"), or more so even with the absence or presence of mind in the user. If the user is an unimaginative executer of procedure, stacking one block on top of the other, one gets something totally different than when the user uses his/her mind and visualizes, at every moment a new block is to be added, a whole new range of possibilities regarding how to continue. This difference is well expressed in the comparison of the two stone walls depicted below: procedural behavior on the left and mindful behavior on the right.


The application of mind rather than procedure will eventually lead to constructions - such as shown in the picture below - that satisfy our sense of beauty and thus invite us to interact with them. Well crafted instruction is like such a well constructed building. It is a pleasure to look at and a joy to enter into.

2) The trouble with learning objects resides not so much in what they are - mere objects - but rather with the implicit ideas behind their supposed usage, namely as ready?made off-the shelf implants into the set of conditions that prompt and guide human learning. Particularly troublesome is the narrow perspective on learning (acquisition of "knowledge as a thing" from some source) that frequently underlies these ideas as well as the implicit assumption that learning objects are neutral with regard to their context.

3) Wiley (2000) comments: "The problem was that no instructional design information was included in the metadata specified by the current version of the Learning Objects Metadata Working Group standard" (p. 11). This is certainly a problem. However, even if such information had been included, it would still depend on the particular perspective on instructional design (either viewed as dealing with a closed system or as applied to an open system that interacts with its environment), whether one would end up with an attitude towards using learning objects that would do justice to the complexity and non-linearity of human learning. From the perspective of instruction as a closed system, the instructional design metadata that accompany a learning object will be perceived as fixed and rigid, calling for the "correct" procedure to be applied, inserting the object in the one or few appropriate ways prescribed by the metadata, leaving no place for the imagination of the designer/instructor.

4) During a recent presentation by a major European player in the area of e-learning development, in which reference was made to the use of learning objects in the development of "e-learning solutions," senior officials present embarrassed themselves by not being able to respond adequately to the following question: "Given a number of objects all conforming to the SCORM standards, when should they be considered learning objects and when not?"

5) I conjecture that the most dangerous learning objects are the ones of medium size. They are big enough to be seen as capable of provoking the execution of a particular learning task. Given the tendency to "make life easy," designers/instructors will be tempted to just plug them in without further thinking and, worse even, without having recourse to their most human resource: imagination. If learning objects are small enough, they can only be used as nuts and bolts, useful things to build larger structures, using imagination and insight while doing so. If learning objects are large enough, they will represent a level of complexity concomitant with the complexity of the learning process, requiring imagination on the part of the different actors in the learning environment to interact with them adequately. Examples of the nuts-and-bolts type of learning objects are, in my view, the java applets available in the collaborative environment of the Educational Object Economy (http://www.eoe.org). Examples at the other end of the spectrum are such Web sites as http://www.reusability.org, http://tip.psychology.org, and http://www.learndev.org.

6) The report by the Delors commission to UNESCO (Delors et al., 1996) calls for education to move beyond the level of acquisition of skills and knowledge. It defines "learning to know," "learning to do," "learning to live together" and "learning to be" as the four essential pillars of education for the twenty-first century. Clearly, such a thesis moves education, and thus human learning, out of the realm of useful commodities and into the sphere of essential social phenomena that will determine our chances to co-habitate the planet while aspiring to "attain the ideals of peace, freedom and social justice" (p. 13). Such education, which is lifelong, is by nature of the social aspirations it undergirds, served by keeping an eye on the whole while exploring the detail. Much of traditional educational practice, however, is based on a strong preoccupation with detail (disciplines, specialized knowledge) as opposed to the whole, the latter concern requiring a transdisciplinary vision (Nicolescu, 2002). Morin (1999) thus refers to the "second scientific revolution" (p. 28), which started in the nineteen-sixties (the first one having upset the physics of the very small during the beginning of the twenty-first century), the focus of which is - like in the case of ecology, the Earth sciences, and cosmology - on complex systems that by virtue of their complex adaptivity can serve as organizing wholes. While such a vision is not at all contrary to the possibility of using small information packages in processes that prompt and facilitate human learning, it definitely calls for a toning down of the discourse that touts learning objects as the powerful means through which learning will make its next step forward.

Question for the panel:

What do we think are the implications for the mindset of instructional designers of emphasizing the prescriptive nature of design theory?

The reasons why I'm asking the question are the following ones:

  1. The philosophy that underscores the use of learning objects is firmly embedded in the perspective of prescription.
  2. I have always found the idea of "prescriptive theory" difficult to swallow and doubt whether there is any other field of scientific endeavor where people have found the need (or convenience) to introduce the term. Certainly, as a theoretical physicist I'm not aware of any theory concerning physical phenomena having been declared "prescriptive." Even in the medical profession, where a lot of prescription is going on, I don't think anyone speaks of a presriptive theory.
  3. Theories are broad conceptual frameworks inductively derived from a limited set of facts. They are the broad pictures of what those individual facts that we know seem to fit into. Once developed, theories can be used deductively to predict certain things. Such predictions can then be checked to either confirm or falsify the theory. The idea of a theory being "prescriptive" - as opposed to "descriptive" - seems to me somewhat odd in the above perspective. The term "prescriptive theory" suggests we are sure of what we know (even if we call it probabilistic). This takes much of the fun out of the meaning of the very word theory.
  4. The emphasis on presription leads designers and instructors to view their work in a mechanical fashion, not having recourse to their imagination. Skinner, whom we have since condemned, addressed in a seminal article in 1954 the question of "the science of learning and the art of teaching" (my emphasis). We have much progressed since 1954 in our understanding of learning. Unfortunately, it hasn't apparently inspired the instructional design community to start looking at its vocation as an art, rather than a procedurally executed technology.


Delors, J., Al Mufti, I., Amagi, I., Carneiro, R., Chung, F., Geremek, B., Gorham, W., Kornhauser, A., Manley, M., Padrón Quero, M., Savané, M-A., Singh, K., Stavenhagen, R., Suhr M.W. & Zhou N. (1996). Learning: The treasure within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century. Paris, France: UNESCO.

Morin, E. (1999). La tête bien faite: Repenser la réforme, réformer la pensée [The well-made head: Rethinking reform, reforming thinking]. Paris, France: Seuil.

Nicolescu, B. (2002). Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. New York: State University of New York (SUNY) Press.

Skinner, B.F. (1954). The science of learning and the art of teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 24(2), 86-97.

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 [Online]. Available: http://reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc [March 10, 2002].

Photo credits: Jan Visser
Pictures were taken in Eyragues, a small village in the Bouches-du-Rhône in southern France.

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Position Statement on
Learning Objects Research and Practice
David Wiley
Utah State University

1) Many learning technology standards (SCORM, IMS, LTSC) seem to assume that next-gen technology-enhanced instruction will be comprised of completely reusable components. As I have discussed elsewhere (e.g. http://wiley.ed.usu.edu/docs/cisco_rlo.html) this assumption promotes the simple memorization of trivial, disconnected facts and prevents instruction and assessment of integrated performances which are valuable in the real world. This has to be addressed.

2) There has been a clamor for an archive of peer-reviews of learning objects and other instructional materials, so that a busy teacher could drop in and find effective resources quickly. Unfortunately, most of what we currently know about evaluation tells us that the best evaluations are those most closely tied to the context of use of the evaluation data. This is problematic because evaluations of a learning object (supposedly useful in a variety of instructional contexts) must focus on a single instructional context (to be optimally useful), thus telling the teacher nothing about how the object will function in her own instructional context (unless she happens to be planning to deploy the object in exactly the same context as the reviewer foresaw). This has to be addressed.

3) Many of the most innovative and instructionally effective uses of reusable instructional content happen outside of LMSs, without the support of metadata, sequencing, or other specifications, and without any other tools that instructional technology would generally claim as its own. The new scalable learning architecture is the massive self-organizing online community, capable of responding to queries without databases, providing infinitely scalable human-to-human learning support, and already fabulously popular online. Chances are you're already part of one, and just not appreciating the significant learning going on in that informal environment. (Yes, Merrill and I will go round and round about this :) It's time we began appreciating informal learning environments as valuable instructional settings, and letting functioning, successful practice drive our theory.