“Learning Objects”, “Learning Units”, “Open Educational Resource” (OER): how synonymous are these terms?

In my previous blog I highlighted current challenges faced by the OTTER team of developing quality evaluation criteria for our OERs and also issues surrounding metadata.

This week another challenge has surfaced which border on questions of definition. Do the terms “learning object”, “learning unit” and “open educational resource” mean the same thing?

My colleague Gabi objects to the use of the term “learning object”. To her this arises out of a technicist view of learning. She prefers the term “learning unit”, which, in her view is a more recognizable term to learners and educators.

My colleague Simon on the other hand prefers the term “OER” which to him is more generic and encapsulates the essence of digital learning resources. If you ask me, I will say I prefer the term “teaching material” bearing in mind I come from a part of world where learning is very much an instructionally driven activity.

I have been reading various papers and discussions on this subject in the hope that I will get a much clearer picture. The IEEE definition says a learning object is “an entity that may be used for learning, education or training”. 

Boyle of the CETL for Reusable Learning Object is very critical of this definition arguing that making available standards for storage and description would not of itself bring about the target pedagogical goal of a learning object. He thus prefers the term “generative learning object” whose primary focus of reuse is not the specific learning object but the pedagogical design patterns that underpins the generation of the learning object.

The question which for me still remains answered is “What specific feature(s) of a learning activity makes it a “learning object” or an “OER” for that matter? Is this to be found in:

  • Whether the learning activity was “born” digital or adopted, transformed and given a digital identity?
  • The degree of interactivity in the learning activity which makes it engaging?
  • Availability in different forms of multimedia?
  • An object which is suitable for open content use on the web?
  • Or should it, as Steven Downes suggests, be defined as “a resource that is used for learning” (emphasising the idea that an OER is a useless construct if it is not used by someone other than the producer)

I am off to a workshop on Creating and sharing digital content next week Thursday 16 July 2009 at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk. Hopefully I will have some answers.

Samuel Nikoi ( 9 July 2009)

Device Flicking

I’ve often reflected on my teenage daughter’s abilities to multi-task with multiple digital devices and still produce amazing pieces of school work. I frequently come home from work to see her sat on the floor in the living room with the TV on, the laptop on her knees so she can type up her school work, whilst ‘MSNing’ her friends from school (probably about matters I do not want to know about!), updating our dog’s popular Facebook profile and sometimes she even manages to squeeze in a bit of collaboration in an online game through her Nintendo DSi with an old friend from our days in Sheffield all at the same time. Maybe you see similar behaviour with your own children too?

A recent publication from ChildWise (the leading research specialist on children, teenagers and their parents) reports that one in three children told their researchers the possession they could least live without was their computer. The survey of 1,800 children ranging between the ages of 5 and 16, which was undertaken last autumn, found they were spending on average 2.7 hours per day watching television, 1.5 hours on the Internet and 1.3 hours on games consoles.

It was also reported that a casualty of all this screen time has been reading – with only 0.6 hours per day on average and with the number of children reading for pleasure in their own time falling from 80% last year to 75%.

All of this interests me (even if it does not worry me) because in October 2008 the Next Generation Learning initiative was launched to ensure all of England’s school-age children have computer access at home. In January 2009 the Oxford University Press attempted to get boys to enjoy reading with books illustrated with computer- generated images.

I sometimes interrupt my daughter and ask how she copes with all this information, technology and tasks simultaneously – she just stares back at me with a blank expression on her face and says, “It’s natural!”

Is this the latest phase of evolution? Are we developing and promoting a new generation of multi-taskers who will be able to cope with all the stresses and strains of modern employment?

Matthew Wheeler

Keeper of the Media Zoo 

A paperless society, how close are we?

About seventeen years ago I attended a seminar in Manchester at which the speaker predicted that a paperless society will emerge in twenty year’s time. We are three years away from the date and I wonder whether we are any closer to the prediction. Last week I was in London with Pal (a work colleague) to attend an HEA meeting at the London Knowledge Lab.  Before the meeting, we were emailed directions to the venue and we made sure we had a printed copy of the information before we set off from Leicester. At London Kings Cross we followed the instructions:

“From Kings cross, take the Piccadilly line south bound to Russell square, come out of the station and turn right, pass the Brunswick centre on your left and carry on and turn, carry on and turn, and turn and carry on and on and on and on…”

After the meeting, and based on my suggestion, we ignored the set of instructions sent to us, made an educated guess, and ventured in a direction we were convinced will take us back to the Kings Cross station. To verify that we were heading in the right directions, we stopped at a point and spoke to a couple who looked more like tourists than Londoners. After a few manoeuvres we made it to Kings Cross, hurray!!!

Back home I wondered why the direction to the venue of the meeting was not made available as a podcast for download, both for our immediate and future use and also considering the fact that the meeting was about podcasting for learning. The alternative would have been to have in our possession the revolutionary I-Phone with GPS functionality and maps.

Despite much talk about the exponential growth in computing power, the age of information technology, the age of digital revolution etc, characterised by the ability to access and transfer information freely, it appears many of us academics, and the institutions and organisations we belong to still limit our use of technology to aspects of our lives e.g. learning, teaching, researching, communicating  whilst  remaining ultra-conservative in other areas of our lives e.g. travelling, shopping etc. Clinging to, and tenaciously adhering to old ways of doing things, as pertained in the pre-technology era, instead of embracing the change and improvement technology can make in all areas of our lives has profound implications for how we view and change the future. From the point of view of “learning transition”, thinking digital and digital wisdom still remains a challenge in many aspects of our non-academic lives. Perspectives may differ on “initiation ceremonies” into digital modes of thinking, but the question still remains; how close are we to crossing the paperless chasm?

Sahm Nikoi; 31 March 2009.

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