Learning Objects and Learning Objectives

The dichotomy presents itself at many levels, and for a variety of people. Learners are different, so how can the courseware be the same? Tailoring courseware for individuals is possible, aren’t people different even within a small group?

A pragmatic look at pedagogy vis-à-vis standardisation

The dichotomy presents itself at many levels, and for a variety of people. Learners are different, so how can the courseware be the same? Tailoring courseware for individuals is possible, aren’t people different even within a small group? Wouldn’t the task of the instructional designer become impossibly complex if he were to consider that the users of the courseware are all different? For the knowledge manager procuring packaged courseware, the question becomes: how is it at all possible to account for differences between individuals?

Let us look at the dichotomy from different angles, after which we can address the real-world difficulties that standardisation presents.

Learning Objects are Essential

Let’s look briefly at what a learning object is. The definitions and perceptions have changed over the years. Informally, the idea of learning objects makes it possible to maintain (or "record") a piece of knowledge without the need to modify it based on minor contextual variations. The metadata allows us to generate a "lesson" within a topic using a collection of learning objects. The reusability implied here still allows for customisation.

In 2007, Darren Draper put it this way: “There exists a plethora of educational content, much already digitised, that is just as effective in its reuse as it was in its first use.”

The big point is: Reusability, repurposing of content, and scalability in courseware would be well-nigh impossible without the core idea of learning objects. Every stage of the courseware development cycle, with the instructional design being the obvious example, uses that core idea.

The Idea of “Learning Objects” is Problematic

In Three Objections to Learning Objects and E-learning Standards, Norm Friesen (http://tru.academia.edu/NormFriesen), Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University, Canada, traces the origins of the term “learning object” and looks at the beginnings of the SCORM standard. Friesen quotes Bratina et al in Preparing Teachers to Use Learning Objects: SCORM describes itself as providing “a pedagogically neutral means for designers and implementers of instruction to aggregate learning resources for the purpose of delivering a desired learning experience.” He then points out that the word “neutrality” in itself implies “a state or position that is antithetical … to pedagogy and teaching.” Friesen’s conclusion about the definition is that when we speak about teaching—or, pedagogy—we imply active engagement, which actually is contrary to the non-engagement implied by the word “neutrality.”

In the simplest of terms, teaching involves a teacher. On the other hand, when we have learning objects, there is no teacher.

Learning Objects in Practice

We need to use learning objects. But for a group of learners, the objective of the learning is achieved in different ways by different people.

If we assume that disconnect, to whatever extent, what are the implications? Put concisely: What are the theoretical and practical implications of the mismatch between pedagogy and neutrality?

In the context of theories, we have the idea of learner types. Donald Britt, in a paper dating back to 19671, wrote that “computer-controlled education [was now] a reality.” Referring to various “projects in computer-controlled education,” Britt said the goal of the projects was “optimization of educational procedure through adaptation to the needs of the individual….” but that “the precise needs of the individual in the educational situation have not been defined.” Britt said the “fundamental problem” was to assess those needs so that the computer “may then present instructional material in a manner most suited to the individual.” The paper1 goes on to formulate the idea of Learner Type as a solution to the problem.

In a more modern context, most of us know about, or have heard about, psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, which correlates with the ideas of “different learners” and “learning styles.” Gardner’s classification—eight different types of intelligence—has had plenty of supporters, plenty of detractors, and much debate. The idea of “linguistic,” “visiospatial,” “interpersonal” intelligences (and more) may or may not be appealing, but the practical point is still that different people learn differently.

Stepping from theory to practice, knowledge managers, training heads, knowledge workers, and courseware users have all seen the mismatch on an everyday basis. A course may be too long for one person on the team, who knows much of the material already, and too short for someone else, who is relatively new to the material. Some learners might find a course too fast-paced, while others find it too “slow.” Some people use multimedia to a learning advantage, while others see non-textual matter only as a distraction.

Bridging the Gaps

Let’s condense what we’ve said thus far. Learning Objects and allied concepts make for reusability, time and cost savings, and standardisation. In fact, they make courseware possible. But learners are different; this has been treated—for decades—by theoreticians as a problem. In practice, many of us have seen (to a larger or a smaller extent) that a given e-learning course suits the needs of some indivudals better than those of others.

Within this context, there are simple and pragmatic steps towards optimising the learning experience. These are possible with the involvement of a supervisor, at an informal level, after courseware has been procured.

What is the scope of the course? The supervisor can assess whether the matter covered is too narrow, too broad, or just right in scope. After that assessment, various parts of the courseware can be emphasised or reduced in importance as needed.

What can be learnt informally? The supervisor might decide that a course needs some background knowledge that aren’t stated as prerequisites. He can then advise the learners about what material they should look at on their own. Or, he might see some sections of the course as too detailed for the current learning requirement; these can be replaced by informal learning sessions (either as a group or individually).

What about the pace? Based on his knowledge of the team, the supervisor might suggest individual timelines for a course.

Currency of the material can be an issue. With a standard course in place, the supervisor—perhaps the training manager—can periodically check for relevance and context of the courseware, as time goes on and as the organisation changes.

Discussions can help learners move out of the box. Courseware, even if relevant and of high quality, is not always in sync with company goals and emphasis. Discussions can help bridge the gap. These could be scheduled face-to-face discussions, or perhaps on a company wiki where learners post their thoughts.


1. Learner Types in Computer-Controlled Instruction. Donald H. Britt. Paedagogica Europaea, Vol. 3 (1967), pp. 70-96. Blackwell Publishing. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1502313