Paper by Norm Friesen (October, 2001). Published in: Interactive Learning Environments, Vol. 9, No. 3, Dec. 2001.


Variously described as learning, educational, or knowledge objects, reusable curriculum components are said to hold out the promise of easy and low-cost multimedia course creation. This paper explores the idea of the “educational object” that underlies this promise. It undertakes a critical examination of the various definitions and descriptions of learning objects provided in the literature of educational technology and computer science. It concludes by suggesting a new understanding of educational objects as resources capable of reuse and exchange, inclusive of a wide range of contents and applications.


A broad definition of educational objects is provided by one of the leading education standards bodies, the Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) of the IEEE. It will serve as the starting point for this discussion. The LTSC defines an object as “any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning.” The LTSC provides examples of these objects, including “multimedia content, instructional content, learning objectives, instructional software and software tools, and persons, organizations, or events referenced during technology supported learning.”

In many cases, the term “object” is defined much more narrowly through reference to object-oriented programming in which the word has its origin. In a number of earlier papers on the subject, Roschelle et. al. (1996) argue persuasively for the need to redefine the development of educational software by adopting a “component architecture”:
We argue that stand-alone applications are incompatible with typical production, distribution, and usage patterns for educational software. We aim to convince the reader that emerging industry-standard component software architectures [will allow] a comprehensive learning works [to] emerge [on the basis of] contributions from many distributed innovators.

The issue of “industry standards” behind these software architectures is an important issue that will be addressed later. What is important at this point, of course, is the understanding of educational objects as software components joined together as a part of a larger system or architecture.

In later instances, more inclusive definitions of educational objects are formulated by drawing parallels between the realm of component software architecture and the world of curriculum development. Robson, for example asserts that “learning resources” can be understood as “objects in an object-oriented model.” Like these objects, learning resources “have methods and properties”: “Typical methods”, according to Robson, “include rendering and assessment methods. Typical properties include content and relationships to other resources.” Barron (2000), cites a project sponsored by Cisco Systems in which the concept of educational or “reusable information” objects is derived from “the learning object thinking of M. David Merrill and Ruth [Colvin] Clark dating back to the late `80s.” Accordingly, each object is defined in informational terms “as a concept, fact, process, principle or procedure.” Writing elsewhere, Ruth Clark Colvin provides examples of such “information” objects: “text, audio and animation, learning objectives, practice exercises and feedback” (Colvin Clark, 1998).

In keeping with this trend, the initial proposal for the CAREO project itself defines learning objects in a very inclusive matter, extending it to include “simulations, tutorials, drill and practice modules, content databases, multi-media exercises.” The proposal even goes beyond the area of curriculum development to also include “administrative objects such as calendars and quiz programs,” research-related “items such as discussion papers and research results”, and also “content creation tools such map makers, database tools, graphics, animation tools”.

In extending the understanding of an object well beyond the context software development, the implication is made –tacitly or otherwise– that these new objects retain or “import” (Quinn, 2000) some of the attributes of their software counterparts. Many of these documents list and describe these characteristics, with greater or lesser degrees of reference to the world of software objects. They most often identify “modularity”, “interoperability”, “discoverability” as important attributes of educational objects. (e.g. Singh, Henderson, Longmire, SCORM, LALO, and Roschell, Kaput, Stroup and Kahn). (“Reusability” is also often identified as being a necessary attribute of the educational object. This characteristic is most readily understood, however, as the net result of the other three listed above, and will be discussed as such further below.) The discoverable, modular and interoperable qualities of the educational object will be considered below.

Characteristics of Objects


What makes objects “discoverable”, “accessible” or “searchable” (Singh, Scorm, Longmire) is the Metadata used to describe and categorize it. Metadata, “structured data about data” (DC doc), works much like information provided in a library catalogue. Instead of describing the data contained in books and journals, this metadata provides searchable, standardized information about digital objects –data such as authorship, subject classification, format, size, delivery requirements, or interactivity level (Quinn). Compatible specifications for using and structuring this metadata –based on the 10 Dublin Core categories– have been provided by a number of educational standards bodies, including the LTSC, the IMS Project and others. (The important contribution of Metadata to the interoperability of educational objects will be discussed below, under interoperability.)

Although there is a strong consensus on the need to use this descriptive Metadata, the literature seems divided on precisely how this Metadata is to be associated with the object. Longmire and others describe Metadata as being as much a constituent of the object as its content proper: “There are two requisite components of a learning object: the object content and its metadata tag.” Writing as a part of the European educational object initiative ARIDNAE, Dovey (1999) argues that the integration of metadata with the object is intrinsic to object-orientation itself: He characterizes the “conception of object-orientation” itself as the combination of “data and code into distinct ‘objects’ offer[ing] both more intuitive and conceptually richer conceptual entities”.

However, Robson and others maintain that although “metadata may be associated with resources, [it] is not necessarily attached directly to them.” This separation of metadata from object –like the separation of the library catalog record and the text to which it refers– is clearly germane to the use objects on the Web: existing instances of educational objects collected in online repositories like the EOE (Educational Object Repository) and MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and On-Line Teaching). They provide listings of hundreds if not thousands of searchable curriculum components through metadata. The components themselves are distributed on severs across North America and the world.

However, as Dovey’s earlier remarks indicate, it makes educational objects seem less like their software counterparts –and perhaps more like the library texts to which they are compared. Additionally, it can present difficulties for an additional function that metadata provides for objects: making them interoperable, as will be discussed below.


Educational objects, as Longmire describes them, must be modular: “free standing, nonsequential, coherent and unitary”. Others describe the same idea using slightly different terms. Roschelle, et. al. (1998) states that the object must be adaptable “without the help of the original developers to meet unforeseen needs” (Roschelle, Digiano, Pea, Kaput, 1998). According to Ip, et. al., the object must be constructed in such a way that its users “need not worry about the component’s inner complexity.” The educational object, in other words, should be a “black box” in the sense described in the theory of object-oriented design:
Objects are “black boxes.” Specifically, the underlying implementations of objects are hidden from those that use the object. In object-oriented systems, it is only the producer (creator, designer, or builder) of an object that knows the details about the internal construction of that object. The consumers (users) of an object are denied knowledge of the inner workings of the object (Berard, 1998)

Initially, this principle would seem most appropriate for educational objects, especially for software components. It certainly would seem like a good way to characterize the operation of “executable” educational objects like Java Applets or Flash components. For example, the Java applets collected by the Educational Object Economy (or the EOE, one of the first repositories of educational objects), for example, would seem to conform to this characteristic. Users of an object are denied knowledge of the most detailed, inner workings of the objects. Instead, they must deal with the object via one of two “interfaces” identified by Berard as standard for software objects in general: “The ‘public’ interface that is open (visible) to everybody”, and “the ‘parameter’ interface” providing the instructor with a limited ability to customize the operation of the object. (These two interfaces will be illustrated in a footnote with reference to 1 or more Java applets.)

However, in the case of many of its objects, the EOE provides another “interface” or form of access to the inner workings of the applet or object. This is provided in the form of the Java code for the object itself –allowing users to edit the programming instructions, and recompiled the applet as a slightly different application or object. The importance of opening more of the inner workings of an object to users and designers has been recognized among the ranks of object-oriented software developers. This has given rise to pleas for “grey-box” components that would reveal more of their “implementations” to their users. (B├╝chi and Weck, 1997)

It seems clear that closing off this content from designers and users is even less desirable with non-executable, informational objects, where editing does not require any special programming expertise. However, such a supposition does not seem to be supported in the literature. Longmire, for example, lists a number “broad content development specifications” for informational objects that go to some length to anticipate and eschew the need for any eventual editing and revision. These include the ability to “facilitate competency-based approaches to learning”, “consistent use of language and terminology within a topic area”, “nonsequentiality of information across objects”, “uniformity of editorial tone across objects”, and “use of language and content appropriate for a broad audience.”

While certainly being useful guidelines for the development and selection of informational objects, interpreted as specifications, they would seem to place significant limits on the content and design approaches used. They would also be difficult or impossible to apply in or across subject areas, where differences in terminology can be contested issues, rather than accidental. Yet, At the same time as they would see educational objects as congruent with the “black box” model of software design, many in the literature say that these objects should be able to serve a variety of instructional design approaches: The object environment, according to Singh, “must support different learning paradigms and structured and unstructured forms of learning engagement.” (see also Longmire).

The notion of an object as a self-contained “black box”, however, would seem to imply certain limitations on learning approaches and even subject matter. Strictly speaking, they lend themselves to subject matter and learning or instructional design approaches that eschew higher order or active forms of learning approaches. In fact, M. David Merrill –one of the earlier educational object advocates referred to earlier– suggests that “instructional strategies” would take the form of “is one of the “preprogrammed and pre-specified algorithms” used to link particular objects together.

At the same time, higher order and active learning can be supported with educational objects using an approach suggested by Longmire:
Constructivist…and active learning theories have helped educators understand the way learners actively create meaning by exploring, experimenting, testing and applying knowledge in self-directed and collaborative fashions (rather than in a predetermined course of study). Use of learning objects will empower online learners in unprecedented ways by enabling them to participate more actively in the contextualization of information.

What Longmire seems to be suggesting is that in constructivist or active learning settings, learners can be presented with a variety of objects that may represent the same or similar content in different ways –using different terms and frames of reference. Differences and dissonances in the content and the way it is presented in the objects can then form the basis for self-directed learning as exploration and contextualization.

Finally, the possibility of editing and customizing the content or operations of an object may represent a compromise between these two approaches towards learning with educational objects. By being able to fine tune these object to an overall consistent context, they can still be of great assistance to a variety of learning types, all without having to live up to high standards of consistency and self-sufficiently, while at the same time, not being jarringly discontinuous or inconsistent. Could be supported in the metadata by version tracking categories.


Interoperability is another commonly identified attribute of educational objects. “Interoperable” according to the SCORM documentation, means that an object is able to “operate across a wide variety of hardware, operating systems and Web browsers”. Would be an excellent guideline for the collection and creation of objects; Clearly, this attribute is desirable for educational objects. where it is not an characteristic of the object, it can standards and literature recommend that the operating environment be clearly labeled with other basic Metadata information about the object (where is this standards recommendation?).

At the same time, a more specific sense of the word “interoperable” is invoked in the literature –without necessarily being clearly differentiated from other semantic values. In the world of software design, “interoperable” in this more specialized sense refers to the ability of components or programs to “share data and resources” (Microsoft Press). In his article on “Achieving Interoperability in e-Learning” Singh is clear that “the…framework must allow content and other data to be exchanged and shared by separate tools and systems connected via the Internet.” “Such integration is possible only with open protocols, which allow an organization or system to exchange information with suppliers, partners, and customers in a format that accommodates each organization’s system.” (Singh) Henderson describes this concept further by offering the following analogy: “Components are not standard in their operation, but they are standard in the ways they interconnect (just as all plugs on all light cords fit all wall sockets –at least in the same country).”

As Robson and others point out, Metadata has a significant role in realizing interoperability: “the real contribution of metadata is to support the ability of specialized environments, taken as entities in themselves, to communicate effectively with each another.” Metadata, and standards more generally, would do this by specifying and describing precisely how the figurative plugs and sockets would be designed, and would also provide for the possibility of adaptors and other means of mediating between objects. The IMS Content Packaging Information Model indicates how this can be done using an elaborate conceptual model of a interoperable “package” (2000, IMS).

With its close relationship with/dependence on these standards, educational objects would be “in many ways the crowning achievement of the standards initiative” –as Bryan Chapman, vice president of product management for Payback Training Systems says. “You can’t have interoperable learning objects without industry-wide standards.” (as quoted in Barron)

The hope for the growth and widespread acceptance of these standards has its basis in the “exponential growth of the Web” in the mid to late 1990’s. As Roschelle et. al. (1998) claim, “the Web has grown exponentially to millions of servers and billions of documents in just a few short years, while retaining well-integrated modes of navigation, cross-referencing, and display.” This phenomenal growth, they argue, has brought significant and favorable “attention to the value of open standards and decentralized systems.” (Roschelle, et. al. 1998). Henderson (1999) argues that “The Internet is a powerful social factor, reflecting as well as leading a cultural movement towards networks and network models in theory, management and technology.”

However, a careful consideration of the short but eventful history of the Web shows that it has not retained well-integrated modes, and –while it has drawn attention– has not been the history for the success of open standards and decentralized systems. In fact, the last 5 or 6 years has been very much about the failure of open standards extending beyond those with which the Web began: (HTTP, TCP-IP, FTP and HTML). For example, a number of articles reviewed here refer to “The Essential Distributed Objects Survival Guide” (Orfali et. al. 1996). Written in 1995, the book boldly predicted that “within three years…a “giant tidal wave” of object technologies would engulf the computer industry. Unfortunately, competing commercial interests dominating the Web have reduced this figurative tsunami to a mere trickle. For example, Microsoft’s anticompetitive efforts have ” interfered with the development of new cross-platform Java interfaces” (Jackson, 2000). “The nirvana of writing code that can run anywhere, independent of platform” (Dovey) that Java would have presented for object developers and users has, as a result, failed to materialize (Clyman, 1998). As one of the keys to interoperability identified earlier, Web browsers and their support of standards has demonstrated a similar pattern. Olsen’s criticism of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5 browser as having fallen short of “fully supporting key Web standards” could easily be applied to other browser releases as well. (see Olsen, 1999, Wallent, 2000). Anyone designing content for the Web is aware that the Web not something that has “well-integrated modes of navigation, cross-referencing, and display.”

Those advocating educational object technologies that would rely on network integration and standards should be mindful of this cautionary history. They need to accept that there is currently no one set of standards for interoperability that is destined for predominance, and that the success of any set is not likely in the interest of commercial forces now dominating Web.


What senses of the word “object” are can be profitably applied to the notion of “educational objects”? The separation educational object and metadata seems to run counter to the combination of code and data that is said to define software objects. The interoperability of educational objects, for the foreseeable future, seems to be significantly limited (and seems to run against the grain of commercial interests dominating the Web). And an object’s modularity can be sometimes be problematic for types of learning and subject matter. However, one important characteristic of educational objects not yet considered is their reusability. It might be argued that if educational objects represent anything truly novel in educational technology, it is that curriculum and teaching resources can be not just reused, but shared and exchanged by a community. Unfortunately, the central importance of exchange, sharing and community is not foregrounded the aspects of the word “object” most often discussed in the literature or object-oriented design. However, it is an aspect that can be emphasized by invoking other elements to which educational objects can be favorably and productively compared: In a university educational context, these objects could be compared to articles or publications –the stock-in-trade for these communities of inquiry, and the basis for promotion and tenure more than of commercial gain. In commercial training, objects could perhaps be favorably compared to commodities –operating as goods or services capable of adding value and subject to the laws of commercial exchange. It is this potential of exchange and reuse that the vocabulary, conceptualizations and practice associated with educational objects needs to emphasize and work to realize.


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