Learning objects are increasingly seen as key to a technology-based
revolution in education and training even to an emerging
global knowledge economy. An international effort is underway to
formulate standards that will enable their exchange, and the topic
is popular in trade journals and at conferences. The vision encompasses
the reuse and exchange of learning content among multiple educational
settings, instructors, courses, and institutions.
Many educators and trainers have heard the hype and wish to get
involved with producing, sharing, and using them. But most are confronted
with a confusion of technical jargon and mixed messages that makes
it difficult to know how or where to start:
- There are disparate definitions of learning
objects. They may or may not include non-digital resources, be
based on an explicit learning objective, or have internal structure.
- A pervasive conceptual confusion exists between
learning objects as content for learning, as pointers to learning
resources, or as metadata (data about data) about such resources.
And is the metadata part of the object? Or does it reside in a
- One must sort through much jargon, specifications
and standards (recognizing the difference between them), and an
alphabet soup of technical TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms).
- And unclear technology requirements don't help.
Does one need databases? Learning object repositories? Flash animations?
Video, audio, and other digital media? XML-structured content?
- It seems such an overwhelming undertaking requiring
a spectrum of in-depth technical expertise. It's certainly too
much for individuals to accomplish on their own.
The obvious appeal of learning objects lies in two basic expectations
- The idea is attractive to educators because
of an implicit promise that they somehow facilitate or incorporate
the notion of learning. The vision is of easily accessible learning
resources shared among instructors or of quality objects
developed by specialists who may license or sell specialty items.
- The idea of learning objects also attracts the
technically inclined as it appears to incorporate the powerful
notion of object-oriented programming (OOP) and libraries of preprogrammed
code. This embodies the dream of reusability based on the popular
image of "lego blocks" that can be gathered and assembled
Unfortunately, neither of these notions is yet supported in practice.
The Standard Definition
A primary source of confusion lies in the very definition of 'learning
object.' The Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) charged
with formulating the Learning Object Metadata (LOM) standard for
the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) defines
a learning object as:
any entity, digital or non-digital, that may be used for
learning, education or training.
Although this definition fails to exclude anything (since any "entity"
may be used for learning), it should be considered in the context
of supporting an indexing scheme that simply describes such objects
for the purpose of cataloguing and exchange. The LOM standard constitutes
58 data elements in nine primary categories all of which
are optional. The idea is to construct consistent databases of metadata
that refer to anything (digital or otherwise) that could be used
for learning. Publication of such catalogues would allow for identifying
the "learning objects" themselves (which according to
the definition may be Web pages, digital files, books, people, geographic
locations, etc.). So having as wide as possible a definition allows
for the broadest usage of the standard. It is left up to organizations
interested in adopting the LOM standard to determine which of the
58 optional elements to use for their particular purposes.
A somewhat narrower definition of learning object has been proposed
any digital resource that can be reused to support learning.
This definition limits learning objects to the digital domain and
focuses on their reusability thus eliminating geographic
locations, people, and physical books from the category. Underlying
this definition is a vision of a computer-enabled system for locating
and retrieving digital materials to use and reuse in instructional
It's important to recognize that reusability implies
more than one-time access, so learning object technology implicitly
entails some form of knowledge- or document-management, and therefore
some kind of consistent indexing scheme. The LOM standard provides
only limited guidance here as its focus is on technical interoperability,
with elements like general.description, lifeCycle.version, technical.format,
rights.cost, and classification.keyword. While there are eleven
"educational" elements in the standard, they are extremely
limited and include: interactivityType (active, expositive, or mixed),
difficulty (very easy,..., very difficult), typicalLearningTime
(e.g., 50 minutes), and semanticDensity (very low,..., very high).
Learner profiling information is limited to two elements: context
(school, higher education, training, or other) and typicalAgeRange
Clearly, the current LOM standard doesn't provide for the explicit
description of how an object is to be used for learning. This again
reflects the intended use of this indexing scheme for basic cataloguing
and sharing: there is an implicit assumption that some knowledgeable
agent (presumably a teacher or instructor) will provide the instructional
framework for the given information or content. Since these objects
include minimal metadata to index the learning, and so require human
intervention and expertise to supply the context for learning, many
consider it misleading to refer to them as "learning"
Putting the Learning into Learning Objects
An alternative school of thought resolves this problem by keying
each learning object to a learning objective. A learning objective
(or "learning outcome") is an explicit statement of what
the learner is expected to demonstrate after the learning has been
completed. Clearly stated objectives form the foundation for systematic
instructional design: independent of the content, they inherently
capture the essence of how the learning is to be assessed as well
as guide the design of the instructional strategies used to achieve
those ends. Because they identify learning in a precise (and demonstrable)
manner, learning objectives form a standard basis for specifying
the learning enabled by a learning object. Thus, an instructional
A learning object is a collection of content that
supports a learning objective with associated learning activities
Note that this kind of learning object has some internal structure:
learning objective, content, activities, and assessment are separable
components of the object components variously called (reusable)
information objects ("RIOs") or knowledge objects. In
fact, according to this way of thinking the same terminology would
apply to the objects referred to in the LOM standard.
The distinction between information and knowledge objects follows
from some basic concepts of knowledge management:
- First, data are meaningless "stuff"
with no contextual relationship to anything else. In the digital
domain, data are the raw "bits and bytes" that constitute
the medium for messaging, documents, and software applications.
Linguistic examples include a syllable or a word out of context.
- Information is data with internal
relationships or a structure with inherent meaning. For example,
an e-mail message has a "header" for metadata (with
various data fields like To:, From:, Subject:, etc.) and a "body"
for content and certain computer programs "understand"
how to process the former while the sender and receiver (presumably)
provide the context for and understand the meaning of the latter.
Linguistic examples include a sentence or a paragraph.
An information object is any chunk of information
or content. In particular, any (reusable) digital content one
can access directly on the Web to support learning would qualify.
Other examples include a memo, any isolated digital file, a graph,
a video, a book, an instructional exercise, or a test the
key point being that the content exists in isolation from any
- Knowledge is information that
has been semantically contextualized with consistent external
relationships. A library is a source of knowledge because the
books have been catalogued in a way we mutually understand. Consistent
application of a standard classification scheme (like the Dewey
Decimal or Library of Congress schema) provides the context of
meaning and the framework for accessing the books and other items
of information in the collection.
A knowledge object, therefore, is an information
object that has been meaningfully contextualized generally
through the application of standard indexing schema. For example,
one might access digital knowledge objects through a database
that catalogues information objects according to a standard metadata
scheme (such as LOM).
What sets knowledge objects apart from information objects is that
the latter exist in isolation while the former are accessed within
the framework of a common context of meaning (or semantics). For
example, a pile of books is a set of information objects while the
same books catalogued in a library become a collection of knowledge
objects. Similarly, your typical Web search results in a bunch of
information objects (sorting out the relevance of which is left
up to you), while a knowledge object would result from a database
query that delivered precisely the item of information required
without human intervention (e.g., a certain stock price pushed to
a particular position in your personal Web portal). So the objects
defined by the LOM standard (and by Wiley) are information objects,
while a database of such objects indexed according to the LOM scheme
would constitute knowledge objects.
From a learning designer's perspective, a learning object is a
knowledge object that has been contextualized to the domain of learning
including a learning objective. Underlying this approach
is the vision of computer-managed systems that dynamically assemble
and serve appropriate objects to meet particular learning situations.
Learning objects become stand-alone, modular entities, each incorporating
its learning context (semantic relationships) in metadata included
within the object itself. Hence, the alternate definition:
A learning object is a knowledge object that includes
relevant learning metadata, objectives, content, activities, and
Of course, this presupposes a robust and clearly defined indexing
LOIS: A Learning Object Indexing Scheme
The LOM standard provides only minimal indexing of learning. Continuing
activities by such groups as the IMS Global Learning Consortium
are developing specifications that may later be ratified by such
bodies as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
or the IEEE as international standards. However, most current activities
remain focused on technical interoperability and are ignoring the
need to contextualize the learning itself.
A more explicit and complete scheme for encoding the learning in
learning objects would include the following.
Learner profile information
Well designed instruction is personalized by targeting learner
needs, and an object that successfully enables learning in one person
may completely miss the mark with another. A learner profiling scheme
is used to "tag" the object according to whether it requires
a certain reading level, assumes a particular learning environment,
employs specific motivational strategies, and so on; in particular,
it should include an index of learning styles. Tagging learning
objects according to learner needs enables the systematization of
maximally effective learning.
- The key to good learning design is a framework
of nested and clearly articulated learning outcomes (or demonstrable
objectives). Established taxonomies can be used effectively to
index cognitive, affective, and psychomotor objectives. Outcomes
may also be cross-referenced to general skills and competencies
essential for socioeconomic success (communication skills, problem
solving, critical thinking, numeracy, etc.). Such an outcomes
framework facilitates management of learning programs
within an organization as well as providing a common language
for inter-institutional articulation and learning object exchange.
- A taxonomy of learning activities
is used to index the kind of instructional activities included
in a learning object. The LOM standard includes an educational.learningResourceType
element, but its range of values is limited (exercise, simulation,
questionnaire, diagram, figure, graph, index, slide, table, narrative
text, exam, experiment, problem statement, self assessment, and/or
lecture) and requires substantial elaboration to form a comprehensive
- Any assessment mechanism associated with the
learning object should also be specified. A comprehensive assessment
taxonomy would accommodate not only the types of questions
used (multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks, problem, essay, case
study, etc.), but also types of instruments (pretests, self-evaluation,
assignment, discussion participation, take-home exam, etc.), assessment
criteria and rubrics, metacognitive factors, and integration across
multiple objectives. Such indexing enables the provision of alternate
assessment strategies for the same content in different circumstances.
It is of course important to catalogue content according to the
subject under consideration. Various standard classification schema
are available (Library of Congress, Dewey Decimal, Sears, etc.),
the key being that the choice is explicitly declared and consistently
applied. In particular, without an automated thesaurus, keywords
may be meaningless unless applied using a consistent subject
heading scheme so that everyone knows, for instance,
to use the word 'house' instead of 'abode,' 'domicile,' 'dwelling,'
'home,' or 'residence.'
Finally, the LOM standard provides some guidance for indexing basic
metadata (such as language, version information,
contributors, cost, etc.). A core subset of these elements has been
identified and carefully defined in the CanCore Profile. Depending
on organizational needs, other administrative elements may be required
for instance, more detailed technical metadata
may be used to derive some usage requirements (such as bandwidth,
browser plug-ins, etc.)
Structured Learning Objects
While appropriate metadata provides the semantics required to incorporate
the context of learning into learning objects, the syntax required
to make them object-oriented is provided by structured metalanguages
such as SGML or XML technology that has already created a
revolution in publishing and continues to transform the Internet.
A metalanguage is a language used to define or create
other languages. The Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML,
ISO 8879:1986) is the mother of all computer-processed "markup"
languages, including HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and XML (eXtensible
Markup Language), a simplified, "daughter" metalanguage
optimized for the Web. Both SGML and XML are essentially object-oriented
in nature, being based on hierarchical (treelike) structures of
containers (elements or nodes) that possess properties (or attributes)
and behaviors (methods, procedures, functions, or processing instructions).
(This is formalized for XML in the W3C's Document Object Model,
Key to this technology is the specification of a structure and
some clear distinctions between that structure, the content of a
document, and its presentation or format. This facilitates the creation,
management, and publication of content that is reusable and media-independent,
with single-source outputs to multiple formats.
Separation of structure, content, and presentation
in structured metalanguages
Either SGML or XML may be used to create a Learning Object Markup
Language (LOML). This entails analysis and careful definition of
the required informational structure. In particular, the learning
designer's definition provides a first-level internal structure
for a learning object comprising metadata, an objective or goal,
informational subject matter, activities or practice exercises,
and some form of assessment.
Each of these first-level components in turn has its own inherent
structures and substructures. The metadata component would have
the structure of a LOIS, and other components may contain elements
that might be reused in other contexts. For example, a question
used once for an exam may later be reused as the basis for a discussion
or as an exercise. All such structures are formalized in a DTD (Document
Type Definition) or an XML Schema that defines the LOML.
Once the language is defined, various software tools may be employed
to create and manage a repository, to input the content, and to
transform the materials for publication in the desired formats:
to a Learning Management System, for a Web site, for print brochures,
or to mobile devices.
The Challenge of Contextualization
Learning object technology is still in its infancy. While it might
at first sight appear straightforward to "aggregate" learning
resources developed in various places for various purposes, several
- Different objects may use a different person (first, second,
third) in sentence construction, or a distinctive voice, or a particular
style of grammar usage.
- There may be cross-references to other content that do not necessarily
transfer with the object.
- They may include or refer to information or procedures specific
to a particular organization.
Such inconsistencies range from mildly jarring to intensely frustrating
for learners. Some of these challenges may be resolved by adopting
consistent house styles, by imposing strict rules for the separation
of content, or through system architectures that maintain specific
information in a separate layer. On the other hand, objects developed
for multiple uses are in danger of being so generic that the needs
of learners are not being met. As usual, it ends up involving a
A Range of Solutions
Depending on your organizational needs, a range of solutions is
available for implementing learning objects:
- The simplest approach is to catalogue existing learning resources
manually even on paper. This is a basic knowledge management
solution that would include a pointer or locator for each learning
resource. It's a good way to try out indexing of information and
testing out particular schema.
- Once you've settled on your indexing schema, the metadata, together
with the pointers to existing objects, may be stored in a simple
relational database. The objects may well exist anywhere.
- While maintaining a separate database of metadata, you can develop
basic learning objects themselves as Web pages or as Binary Large
OBjects (BLOBs e.g., PDF documents or media files) in a Learning
Management System (LMS). This is a common solution.
- It might be preferable, however, to develop and manage a variety
of content in a separate system for instance, on a centralized
server. You may use your server's filing system to manage version
- The storage and retrieval of objects can also be systematically
managed through a repository, or Learning Content Management System
(LCMS), with software-based document management, version control,
and metadata capabilities.
- The next level of sophistication is to create structured learning
objects using SGML or XML solutions. This will involve formalizing
your document and data structures, but it will allow you to manage
the content separately from the presentation and so output the same
content to multiple formats print, HTML, different LMSs,
- While the metadata could still be maintained in a separate (relational)
database, it is advantageous to include it directly into the structure
of the learning objects themselves. This will allow for more options
and control over output formats.
- Structured learning objects may be managed in a fully object-oriented
repository, with staged output to "flat files" that can
be served from your LMS of choice.
- Alternatively, structured learning objects may be developed and
managed in an object-oriented repository and dynamically assembled
at the time of output to meet precisely the needs of the user or