Learning Object Metaphors

A CONFERENCE ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE

R: It still amazes me that you people keep coming back for more.

C: What else are we going to do? Stay at work late?

(Chuckles)

D: Yea, I get off several hours early on days when we get together to talk about this stuff.

V: (Sourly) I'm glad to hear that you find the topic so intrinsically motivating.

O: Some of us come because we want to, you know.

R: Rather than get into a tif about whose motivations are purest, let's just keep the interesting conversation going - shall we? I thought tonight we might take a whirlwind tour through some of the metaphors used to describe learning objects and their implications for reuse. I hope everyone had time to complete their "homework."

C: My wife couldn't believe I had homework... she was laughing all week long.

R: Well, hopefully it didn't take you all week to complete! Let's just go around the table and get a synopsis from everyone about the metaphor you were assigned.

V: Ok. I was assigned the LEGO metaphor. I looked at some articles by Hodgins and Wiley.

My journey into this world of learning objects started with an "epiphany moment" watching my children play with LEGO blocks many years ago. As with most families, my son and daughter have very different needs, one for instructions, directions and a pre-determined end state (a castle as I recall), and the other for complete freedom and creativity of constructing whatever he imagined (a robot in this case). As it struck me that both had their wonderfully different needs met equally well with these simple blocks of plastic, I began what has been almost ten years of refining a dream of a world where all "content" exists at just the right and lowest possible size, much like the individual blocks that make up LEGO systems. These fundamental size or "molecular data" blocks are not so small as to be "sub-atomic," yet are the smallest possible to be of use. In this dream, these "prime sized" blocks of content have a fundamental "standard," the equivalent of the "pin size" of the LEGO ? blocks, such that they can be assembled into literally any shape, size, and function. Some people may find the most value in taking a pre-assembled unit and putting it to direct use; others will want to assemble their own, possibly from scratch, but more likely from sub-assemblies. Some will want instructions and guidance on how to assemble the blocks, while others will want to determine their own results. However they may be used and applied, the empowerment of literally every individual by such a world full of learning objects is staggering ( Hodgins ).
I read somewhere else that Hodgins is actually the person who coined the term "learning objects," but that's neither here nor there I suppose. I've heard the Lego metaphor use a lot; I'd say it's the predominant way of thinking about learning objects. Apparently Wiley hates it, though. This is rather a long quote, but I'd rather just use his words than try to summarize with my own.
From its genesis, the so-called "learning object" community has used metaphors to explain to the rest of the world what it was we were talking about. Since not long after the realization that this might be a useful way to communicate, learning objects and their behavior have been likened to LEGOs or Lincoln Logs. These analogies continue to serve their intended purpose of giving those new to our field a easy way of understanding what we are trying to do: create small pieces of instruction (LEGOs) that can be assembled (stacked together) into some larger instructional structure (castle or spaceship). Unfortunately this metaphor has taken on a life of its own. Instead of serving as a quick and dirty introduction to an area of work, this overly simplistic way of talking about things seems to have become the method of expression of choice for those working at the very edge of our field -- even when speaking to each other. This point was driven home recently at a conference of a professional educational technology organization, where the LEGO metaphor was used in almost every presentation on learning objects, and even those on related topics such as metadata. The problem with this trend is manifest in the degree to which the LEGO metaphor controls the way people think about learning objects. Consider the following properties of a LEGO block:
  • Any LEGO block is combinable with any other LEGO block
  • LEGO blocks can be assembled in any manner you choose
  • LEGO blocks are so fun and simple that anyone can put them together
The implicit assumption (carried by the metaphor) that these three properties are also properties of learning objects is leading those of us who care about the success of this endeavor down a path to somewhere else. As I have said before, if what results from the combination of learning objects is not an instructionally useful unit, said combination has failed regardless of whatever else it may do. It is my belief that a system of learning objects with these properties cannot produce anything more useful than LEGOs themselves can ( Wiley ).

I think someone else has the rest of this quote later.

R: Yes, thanks V. Thoughts about this metaphor, anyone?

S: Well, like V said - its the most popular one. This is the way the vast majority of people think about learning objects - little standardized pieces that can be easily put togther. And Wiley can criticize it all he wants, but I think the comparison is here to stay.

C: It's definitely the one we talk about at work... the one my manager knows.

O: But what about the criticism? Is he just complaining for the sake of it, or is there something there? It seems like all the things we've talked about around context and fit align pretty closely with this criticism - that not everything is "combinable" with everything else.

R: O, why don't you go ahead and do the molecular metaphor.

O: Ok. I'll start by picking up where V left off:

The selection of another metaphor for learning objects demonstrates this with some clarity. Instead of making something artificial (like a LEGO) the international symbol for "learning object," let us try something that occurs naturally, something about which we already know a great deal. This should jump start our understanding of learning objects and the way they are put together into instructionally meaningful units. Let us try the atom as a new metaphor. An atom is a small "thing" that can be combined with other atoms to form larger "things." This seems to capture the major meaning conveyed by the LEGO metaphor. However, the atom metaphor departs from the LEGO metaphor in some extremely significant ways:
  • Not every atom is combinable with every other atom
  • Atoms can only be assembled in certain ways prescribed by their structure
  • Some training and understanding are required in order to assemble atoms
Let us review these implications one at a time. The search for a useful learning object system is complicated enough without the requirement inherited from LEGO-type thinking that every learning object be compatible (or combinable) with every other learning object. This requirement is na?ve and oversimplistic, and if enforced, will keep learning objects from ever being instructionally useful. The search for a useful learning object system is also hindered by the idea that learning objects can be combined in any manner one chooses. (According to http://www.lego.com/ , six of the standard 2x4 LEGO blocks can be combined in 102,981,500 ways.) This is what is currently described in our field as "theory neutrality." Software vendors and standards bodies describe their learning object related work as being "instructional theory neutral." Were this the case all would be well in learning object land. Problematically, a more accurate description of their products is "instructional theory agnostic," or in other words, "we don't know if you're using an instructional theory when you combine these learning objects or not, and we don't care." It is very likely that the combination of learning objects in the absence of any instructional theory will result in larger units that fail to be instructionally useful. Finally, the search for a useful learning object system is stuck in the idea that anyone should be able to "open a box of learning objects" and have fun assembling them with their three-year-old. While I have no desire to make the assembly of learning objects difficult for the sake of it, the notion that any system developed should be so simple that anyone can successfully use it without training (like LEGOs) again seems overly restrictive. In other words, it seems to take the science out of instructional science ( Wiley ).
I also read a piece by D'Arcy Norman that summarized the position well (and included lots of great links at the end). He says:
I conceive of learning objects as being analogous to molecular compounds. They are composed of atomic units (assets, or elements), and can be used to perform a highly specific role in the compound state (learning object), or broken down into the atomic/elemental state to be used as raw materials for a new compound (learning object). Describing learning objects as words in a sentence oversimplifies the atomic bits (images, text, audio) as being interchangeable. It de-emphasizes context, and the value of strategically combining assets/elements to produce more elaborate constructs. It makes for nice examples, because lots of people use words and sentences, but I don?t know that it captures the real value of the concept of learning objects (if there is any). Words and sentences also imply linear order. You read from left to right (or up and down, or right to left, depending on language), but there isn?t really branching or interactivity. The conclusion of a sentence does not depend on the interaction of the previous words, as much as on a predetermined sequence of concepts. Yes, a word can be used in a different sentence, but the different context colours the interpretation of that word such that it may have a slightly different meaning. That?s great for a word that is just a collection of letters, but if a word is a video (or animation, or website, or whatnot), the different context may not have any meaning. We need to be able to deconstruct the learning object and build it back up to take advantage of the new context, in order for it to have the proper meaning (if we keep following this sentence analogy). This is where I see the next generation of "learning object repository" applications being applied - in managing both the atomic/elemental assets, as well as providing tools to facilitate the construction and deconstruction of more complex compound constructions. This is where both APOLLO and Pachyderm are heading (although neither fully addresses deconstruction yet) ( Norman ).

I think they make pretty good points. I think it is silly to assume that you can combine anything with anything and have something useful come out the other end.

D: But aren't these critiques and alternatives missing the point?

(All turn to face D)

R: How do you mean?

D: Well, there's an assumption that people really will be combining everything with everything. From an instructional or contextual point of view, that seems like a really stupid thing to do. But thinking about it from the technical side, that's really what you want to enable. You want it to be possible to combine everything with everything, so that when the instructional designer of whoever gets in there, they're definitely able to cook up anything they like, following whatever approach they like. S can correct me, but as I've been reading through several elearning standards documents I've gotten the distinct feeling that the standards bodies could care less about what we call reuse. They're only interested in interoperability.

V: I assume that these are two sides of the same coin - reuse from the instructional perspective and reuse from the technical perspective?

D: Right. Before any instructional designer or intelligent tutoring system gets to ask "should I combine these?" - the instructional design question - they have to ask "can I combine these?" - the technical question. I'm not sure why all the educators like Wiley are attacking the technical people.

O: So you think Wiley's got it wrong?

D: I think he's preaching the right message to the wrong choir. He ought to be aiming this context-reuse stuff at educators and not the standards people and engineers. As a developer myself, my hunch is they could care less.

S: We actually care a great deal, but if you think putting technical standards in place by a consensus process is hard, imagine trying to put educational standards in place by a consensus process!

O: You don't need a consensus process when the supreme dictator of the universe graciously hands that set of standards down to you.

V: Whoa! Come back to earth O.

R: At least come back to the topic; come back to D's very interesting point. Why is it that you see Wiley's remarks as targeted at standards groups and engineers D?

D: Who else is he talking to, if not them?

C: You know, that's a good point. I'd never really heard of any of this stuff until I started coming to these meetings. It turns our there's this whole discourse about learning objects and design and standards going on, and I wasn't involved in it. Maybe that's Wiley's problem - he's trying to talk to people like me, but the only folks involved in the conversation are the engineers and standards wonks.

(S looks affronted)

C: No offense meant, S.

O: There's actually a small community of people interested in the conversation. Folks like D'Arcy Norman, Brian Lamb , and Stephen Downes that are neither standards wonks nor engineers first (though they may sometimes pretend to be one or the other). But I think you're right - the group of educators or educational researchers in the conversation is frighteningly small, considering that technical standards that determine what they will and won't be able to do are being set for them by computer scientists and engineers.

C: So why don't more people engage?

R: The popular thinking is that because the conversations always turn technical at some poin tmost educators get scared off.

D: Isn't that why there are Instructional Technology programs, though? In theory shouldn't they be turning out people with significant levels of both instructional and technological expertise, the very people who should be leading this conversation?

R: Those programs tend to have only a few technologists on faculty, and in practice are generally populated by people with little technical facility and interests more along the lines of educational research generally. But we're getting away the point of the conversation here. Metaphors and reuse. D, I believe you had two - crystals and Chia pets?

V: (Almost spits out his diet soda) Chia pets ?!?

R: And D, if you would summarize rather than read the long quotes, I think we would all appreciate it.

C: Who comes up with this garbage? Chia pets?

D: The seed crystal and Chia pet metaphors are really one and the same. The underlying notion is that a learning object plays an important catalytic role in the learning process, but is not where the "action" is. The Chia pet metaphor highlights the social interactions that are frequently important in learning, while the seed crystal metaphor highlights the guiding role content plays in shaping those interactions. To quote just briefly,

When utilized effectively learning objects really function like Chia Pet pottery. The pottery is important, and without it nothing happens, but that's not where the focus or the fun is. The fun of a Chia Pet is in the hair that grows on top of the Chia Pet, just like the fun in higher level learning is in the interaction with other people that grows on top of exposure to good content. And like the Chia Pet, when the interaction around a piece of content dies out and ends, we lose interest in the content - just like we would throw away a balding Chia Pet whose grass has seen greener days ( Wiley ).

There's an assumption here that the content is online, but I think we've mostly agreed that the scope of our understanding of learning objects, at least for the sake of these conversations, fits well with this assumption. I won't quote about the seed crystal, but the idea here is that the conversations and other content that will grow up around the learning object will likely be of the same nature as the learning object itself was, just the way that seed crystals are normally used to grow more of the same material of which the seed crystal was composed.

R: Thanks, D. And last but not least, C is going to review the brick and mortar metaphor.

C: I actually really like this one, although it's another one of Wiley's reactions against the Lego metaphor.

S: Is that guy prolific or just an idiot who can't make up his mind?

O: An entertaining question coming from someone who works on learning technology standards for a living.

R: Ok! Please, C, continue.

C: Well, I'll begin with a brief quote. After reviewing a discussion thread in which people make references to several existing digital resources (aka learning objects) as they talk about programming in perl and work on solving a specific problem regarding perl and databases, comes this comment:

The various resources employed in the problem solving process in the example are not highly decontextualized chunks of content presented in a simple sequence. The resources are highly contextualized in their own right (e.g., an entire database user guide), but more importantly they are held together by the context provided by the problem solving activity. For example, links to PERL modules appear with a context-dependent explanation of why the resource is relevant to the current problem. As opposed to a LEGO metaphor in which the resources connect directly into a meaningful structure, these objects are used like bricks held together and made meaningful by a contextual mortar; specifically, the prefacing and proceeding material around each resource provides scaffolding context that supports the learners' meaning making ( Wiley ).

One of the problems with the Lego metaphor is that it implies that nothing other than learning objects is ever used in learning objects-based instruction. I mean, when you play with Legos you don't need anything else - they already fit together and will stay together thanks to their standards adherance. The difference with bricks is that they almost always require the use of mortar. I think the argument here is that mortar plays the key contextual role we've talked about before, in terms of making the resources really hang together as a cohesive unit with a common purpose - the way mortar can make individual bricks take on the shape of a wall or fireplace or sidewalk.

D: I expect the "let's assemble learning objects automatically" people love that idea - that you have to insert some special context glue between resources in order for them to function properly!

V: Oh, sure! 'First you tell us that learning objects were this great way to scale up to serve tons of people who want to learn stuff, and then you tell us that - oh, by the way - you need to write some sort of scenario or problem or other integrative material by hand and carefully spread it between the learning objects as you stack them up.' I'm not sure I buy it.

C: Yea, my manager will hate this. I can just hear him now: are you kidding? What's the worst that could happen if you don't spend your time with a trough full of ACME context spread specially preparing learning objects for each use?

R: And there we are. I was afraid this was getting long, and wondering how we were going to get out. But this question about what can happen is the perfect segueway into next week's topic.

S: Yea, now that you mention it, I'm pretty hungry...

R: So the night's only summary question is this:

  1. What do the various metaphors that have been used to characterize learning objects tell us about how they can and cannot be reused?

D: We spent all this time for that one question?

(Laughter; people begin to shuffle papers and put things away)

R: There is another homework assignment for next week, "class." (Grins widely) If you have never seen the film " The Sixth Sense " (or if you can't remember what happens in it) please make time to see the movie before we get back together again.

O: This stuff with metaphors and comparisons just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

R: You haven't seen half of it yet! Goodnight, everyone.

Citation: admin. (2006, January 17). Learning Object Metaphors. Retrieved January 07, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.usu.edu/instructional-technology-learning-sciences/advanced-topics-in-learning-object-design-and-reuse/objects.htm.
Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License