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Design and Reusability of Learning Objects in an Academic Context: a new Economy of Education?

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Design and Reusability of Learning Objects in an Academic Context: A New Economy of Education?
Submitted to eLearning: una sfida per l’universita, Milan, November 12, 2002
By Stephen Downes, National Research Council, Moncton, Canada


  1. Introduction

  2. The State of the Art

  3. Problems and Issues

  4. Design Principles

  5. The Distributed Network

  1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is not to discuss the creation and use of learning objects per se but rather to look at systems for locating and distributing learning objects. What will be argued is that this system is currently poorly constructed, based essentially on what may be called a silo model of distribution. A series of problems and issues related to this model will be discussed. In place of the silo model, a distributed model of learning object repositories is proposed. This model is based on a set of principles intended to create an open and accessible marketplace for learning objects, in essence, a learning object economy. To conclude, a model for a distributed learning object repository network is proposed.

For readers unfamiliar with the concept of learning objects, the generally accepted definition is that learning objects “any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning.” (IEEE, 2002) Wiley (2000) defines a learning object as “any digital resource that can be reused to support learning.” Even so, as Wiley comments, “the definition is broad enough to include the estimated 15 terabytes of information available on the publicly accessible Internet.” In this paper, a functional definition of learning objects is employed: a learning object is anything that is exchanged in what may be called the learning object economy.

  1. The State of the Art


In this section common methods for locating and retrieving learning objects will be discussed. In particular, three major systems will be described: course portals, course packs, and learning object repositories. In addition, systems for collecting and organizing learning objects, learning management content systems, will also be described.

Course Portals

A course portal is a website offered wither by a consortium of educational institutions or a private company working with educational partners that lists courses from a number of institutions. The purpose of a course portal is to enable a student to browse through or search course listings to simplify the student’s selection of an online course. The following are examples of course portals.

  • TeleEducation. A New Brunswick, Canada, learning organization, TeleEducation NB hosts the TeleCampus Online Course Directory. Courses are submitted by institutions and screened to ensure that they are fully online. The database contains more than 50,000 courses, including about 3,000 free courses and 1,200 complete and fully online programs. TeleCampus provides a subject-based directory and search services.

  • UNext. Focusing on business education, UNext collaborates with major business schools such as the Columbia Business School, Stanford University and the London School of economics to provide courses in leadership and management, e-commerce, marketing, finance, accounting, and business communications through the private and for-profit institution, Cardean University.

  • Hungry Minds. Hungry minds offers more than 17,000 courses through its online campus, Hungry Minds University, from course providers such as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Los Angeles and New York University. Hungry Minds also provides learning content through publishers such as For Dummies, CliffsNotes, and Frommer's.

  • Fathom. Created by Columbia University and including partners such as the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, The British Library, The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, and The New York Public Library, Fathom is a centralized for-profit learning object repository. While Fathom provides lectures, interviews, articles, performances and exhibits, its major focus is an offering of online courses from member institutions. (You, 2001)

Course Packs

Course packs are packages of learning materials collected to support a course. Offered primarily by educational publishers, course packs are collections of learning materials offered to instructors for use in traditional or online courses. The course pack may be pre-defined or custom built by the instructor. The instructor is expected to supplement the course pack with additional content, educational activities, testing and other classroom activities.

Some course packs, such as those offered by XamEdu, are stand-alone. This means that the course pack is distributed as a separate product and purchased by the student directly through the college or university bookstore. Supplementary educational materials are offered by the instructor on his or her course website or are delivered in a classroom setting. Other course packs are available for use only in a learning management system (LMS). Course packs delivered through a learning management system are more like ‘default’ online courses. Using tools provided in the LMS, the instructor selects the course and customizes it for delivery online.
The following are examples of course pack providers:

  • WebCT Course Packs. The learning management system WebCT offers course packs consisting of a course structure and set of readings offered by publishers with a distribution agreement with WebCT. Course packs are purchased by the institution on a seat-license basis and are then customized by the instructor.

  • Canada’s SchoolNet. In Canada, the leading learning resources portal is probably Canada’s SchoolNet. A list of resources is displayed, each with a short description and a link to an external website. SchoolNet also provides information about each site and provides an “advanced search” using metadata. Each resource in the “curriculum” area is approved by a professional “pagemaster”. For the most part, however, SchoolNet links to institutional home pages, and not to learning resources per se. Teachers using the SchoolNet service must still search through these sites in order to locate suitable materials.

  • MarcoPolo. MarcoPolo is a compilation of teaching resources from six educational institutions which provide free internet content for K-12 education. What the six partners have in common, and what makes this an important and interesting development in online learning, is an adherence to national curriculum and evaluation standards in the subject areas. Material is categorized by grade level and individual items are matched to individual learning topics. Despite its strengths, however, MarcoPolo is a closed project; only the six member institutions contribute content. There is no centralized search facility and no metadata listings for the resources.

  • XanEdu. Xanedu is a learning resource site that collects articles from journals, magazines and other resource providers. Instructors may compile ’course packs’ consisting of collections of these materials; students who subscribe to XanEdu may access these course packs. The materials are sorted by category and may also be located using a search mechanism. Like MarcoPolo, however, XanEdu is a closed project. It draws materials only from selected publishers. And while it allows subscribed students to browse through its materials, the vast bulk of resources available on the internet cannot be found through XanEdu.

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