Content Strategy And Discourse Objects

A CONFERENCE ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE

R: Welcome back, everyone! I'm hoping that tonight we will open our minds a little further than we have in the past few weeks by exploring on very critical assumption about learning objects...

O: (Cutting in) You mean we're going to move away from "any digital resource that can be reused to support learning"? I thought we agreed we would stick with that as a framework for our conversations?

S: As much as I dislike the definition, I think that having a shared, common definition has helped the conversations move along.

R: No, we're sticking with the same definition. We're just going to explore some spaces inside that definition that we have ignored to date.

C: (Obviously confused) Huh?

R: Why do we assume that learning objects are content?

(Blank stares around the room)

V: What else would we assume they are? Software?

D: (Almost to himself) I guess there's no reason that software wouldn't meet the definition... it's digital, it can be reused, it can support learning.

O: Well, even if it matches the letter of the law, I don't think it meets the spirit of the law. I mean the definition. I thought the whole idea of learning objects is being able to pick up some content, possibly adapt it to your needs, and combine it with other bits of instruction in order to create new educational opportunities?

S: Can we replace "content" in what you just said with "instruction"?

O: I said "instruction."

S: No, in the middle - you said "content." Does it change what you meant if I say, "the whole idea of learning objects is being able to pick up some instruction, possibly adapt it to your needs, and combine it with other bits of instruction in order to create new educational opportunities?"

O: I guess not.

C: I don't know if you guys have ever played any educational games, but some of them could pass as instruction. I know it's not "content" like a PDF or XML document... But why couldn't you include a game in the middle of an instructional sequence, in between what we might usually think of as "learning objects"?

V: I suppose you could, it just wouldn't be a learning object.

D: Why not?

V: Because everyone understands that learning objects are content.

S: But why should we be trapped by that perception? I mean... R's right. Games definitely fit within Wiley's definition.

V: So what do we do? Index them with metadata, search for them, pull them out of a repository in real time, and give them to the learner to use as part of a sequence? (Trying to sound convinced, but coming off confused) Actually, I suppose you could treat them similarly.

R: I actually had something other than games in mind when I made the suggestion. Although I think that you're all right. Games definitely fit the definition also.

O: What were you thinking of, then?

R: Something like Merrill's " transaction shells ".

C: What are they?

D: I actually just read something about this last night. It was comparing Merrill's work to programming libraries.

V: (Looking at his mobile phone) Here's something Wiley had to say on the subject:

If you?ve ever built a perl-based project of any sort, you?ve probably used CPAN to grab and install modules. CPAN can automagically grab modules you need but don?t have (from one of an extensive series of mirrors), build and install them in appropriate places, and generally be quite handy. These modules provide basic functionality needed by some larger program. In this sense, learning objects are like perl modules or libraries.

As I have argued elsewhere, I think this "useful-but-not-quite-good-enough" view that programmers take of libraries and modules is the best way to think about learning objects, assuming they are scoped to reasonably small sizes. You would never think of writing code that consisted solely of:

#include <time.h>
#include <math.h>
#include <stdio.h>

and nothing else. Libraries aren?t useful until you place their functionality within a broader context. And I don?t think we should expect learning objects to be too useful simply concatenated together. I?ve heard Jeremy Roschelle say that we?re crazy expecting to get lots of reuse of educational components, when the approach LOs are supposedly modeled on (OOP) does a poor job of actually facilitating reuse itself... However, I don?t think there is anyone who would argue that the C libraries don?t get reused, or that the modules in CPAN don?t get reused. So we should ask ourselves ? what?s the difference between objects and libraries?

The difference is between (a) expecting wholesale, unedited reuse-by-concatenation, and (b) expecting to understand what functionality is offered by a module and expecting to build a little of your own context-specific stuff on top of the module.

Anyway, it was the notion of automagically following module dependencies within CPAN that got me excited earlier today. Within EduCommons there is currently a notion of a content package, which contains content separated out from any instructional strategies. Then there is a notion of an "educational content viewer" (ECV) with embedded instructional strategies that knows how to render, present, quiz, and provide embedded feedback for a content package. As they are currently scoped, the ECVs don?t really teach enough to be individually very interesting ? especially since the only functioning prototype is the one for teaching paid-associates (facts). However, it would not be terribly difficult to allow people to build larger lessons that reference individual content packages and ECVs, which the EduCommons client could check for, follow dependencies, download, assemble, and present. I think EduCommons is going to get even cooler...

O: I thought eduCommons was the OpenCourseWare Management System ?

R: Yes, it is. This was an earlier project that used the same name but was never funded. The idea behind this project was to build reusable bundles of instructional logic - content-free teaching methods. Then anyone could author content using a very simple authoring interface, and it would get played in the player. They did a few prototypes that used an empty Flash shell for a front end with XML-based content on the back end. I seem to recall one that reused content from an MIT OCW course on Electricity and Magnetism .

C: (Looking at the prototype) This seems simple-minded beyond any usefulness at all.

R: Merrill's work in this area was much more sophisticated, but none of the tools he created seem to be available anymore - ID Expert, Electronic Trainer, and Instructional Simulator. There were actually some rather colorful stories behind some of these... (Coming to) But I'm getting off the topic. This earlier eduCommons work was never developed any further, but the idea of web-playable sets of instructional logic that anyone could write content for was moderately interesting.

D: So what you're saying is that we might consider the "content-free" Flash front-end a learning object? Because it is digital, can be reused, and might help someone learn something?

R: I'm not saying we should. I'm saying we could. There's definitely room within our working definition for this kind of understanding. This class of learning object has been called "strategy objects."

V: Huh.

O: (Laughing) That's right, V! You could have been calling your old educational software "learning objects" all along without refactoring the company and its offerings!

C: Let's keep it professional, O.

R: But there's something even further away from this that we can talk about. Even in Merrill's system or the earlier EduCommons, the software (a learning object itself) was consuming and rendering content (also learning objects). Still moderately close to our idea of learning objects. Wiley made an even more radical proposal a few years later, in which he suggested that the tools that enable student discussion in online courses could be characterized as learning objects.

C: What's so different about that?

R: I'll show his summary here:

  Technology Mediated, Content-based Technology Mediated, Discourse-based
Instructional Theorist Constructs taxonomies and groups sequencing rules, Connects taxonomies to sequencing rules Constructs taxonomies and groups sequencing rules, Connects taxonomies to sequencing rules
Instructional Designer Selects taxonomy-sequencing combination appropriate for current learning need, Specs out implementation Selects taxonomy-sequencing combination appropriate for current learning need, Specs out implementation
Instructional Developer Creates technology implementation of type containers and pre-sequences according to designer?s specs, Stuffs information of appropriate types (learning objects) into typed containers (instructional sequence) Creates technology implementation of type containers and pre-sequences according to designer?s specs
Learner Interacts with container contents Stuffs information of appropriate types (speech acts) into typed containers (discourse grammars) Interacts with container contents

R: In other words, the big difference here is that instead of consuming and rendering content created by a professional instructional designer, these objects scaffold the creation of new content by learners at learn-time. These objects, sometimes called "discourse objects," push the creation of educational content out of the corporation and into the classroom.

C: What?

O: So they support learners in their interaction with one another and in the creation of new content.

C: But how can you guarantee the accuracy of the content?

O: It becomes a matter of how good a scaffold you can design, I assume. If your guidance is good enough, the learner created materials should be good enough.

S: And just how would we ever assess anything that happened in one of these environments?

V: I think I get it. The scaffolds would have to be designed very specifically, to lead students to engage in specific ways toward the accomplishment of certain goals. At the end, you would just use your standard assessments written against your initial objectives.

C: I guess no one is saying that the whole educational experience is delivered this way, just that this is one option for one or more of the objects you might use.

R: One example of a tool like this is Fle3 . Fle3 comes with one set of scaffolds that supports their "Progressive Inquiry" approach to learning. The excellent thing is that, of course, the system is open and will allow you to design and build your own scaffolds.

O: (Looking amazed) But we haven't really identified the most amazing part of this technology, these discourse objects. It's a sort of discussion tool, right? That means that there will be people talking to each other as they're using the tool. But because the learners build their own content using this tool, it can scale to support any number of learners - the more the merrier! This approach can actually scale to large numbers of students AND remain social in its basic approach!

D: That you could.

S: And, strictly speaking of course, these "discourse objects" fit our learning objects definition as well. Interesting.

R: Now, I don't want to cut things short, but I think we'll benefit as much from going away and spending some time thinking about these non-content learning objects as we will from continuing this discussion longer.

C: Yea, and I have to stop and pick up some things before Target closes.

(Everyone turns to look at C)

C: What? No one else shops at Target?

R: Anyway, I believe the main take away from tonight's discussion is this:

  1. Why do we restrict our thinking about learning objects to content? What other kinds of learning objects could exist within the context of digital, reusable, and supporting learning?

D: Wow, R. You normally ask us to summarize. Why so directed this evening?

R: (Blushing) I have to stop at the store on the way home tonight, too. See everyone next week!

Citation: admin. (2006, January 17). Content Strategy And Discourse Objects. 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/strategy.htm.
Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License