An idea whose time has come? Reusable Learning Objects.

Introduction: A brief history of learning objects

When I was in school in the early 2000s, one of the trendy ideas in the field of educational technology was reusable learning objects (RLOs). Learning objects were a heavily promoted idea in the 1990s and early 2000s. The idea came out of US military-funded training research, focused on two goals:

  • To standardize multiple, mutually incompatible eLearning formats used by vendors to the armed forces so as to improve inter-operability of training content, and
  • To design materials using small, self-contained, meta-tagged modules to enable reuse and thus reduce development time and cost.

The name “learning object” comes from the computer paradigm of object-oriented programming, where small, self-contained code structures model objects and entities in the real world, their properties and their inner structures, and their interaction between objects and entities. This was a paradigm allowing faster development through modular design, re-usable libraries of code, and encapsulation of object data within the objects.

Learning objects try to carry some of this success from software design and development to the design and development of eLearning.

What is a learning object?

A learning object is a short learning piece, usually digital, from a few minutes up to as much as an hour in length, though usually on the shorter side. The learning piece is focused on one learning objective. It will generally include an introduction, explanation and/or demonstration, activities for the learner for practice and / or consolidation, and an assessment. It is an irreducible element of knowledge, an atomic nugget of learning.

It was expected that eLearning objects would use a standard format such as SCORM for metadata attached to the objects. This would enable the learning object to be interoperable with different delivery platforms (LMS).  The idea was for the object to represent instruction for a small nugget of content related to a specific objective.

The purpose of this was to enable re-use of training materials for faster, more efficient development of future content. Usually, when we want to reuse a body of training content as part of a new course, we need to break apart the old course, extract useful bits, and then assemble what you want back together in a cohesive fashion.

The idea with the learning objects is that they represent some small sort of smallest learning objectives. The related objects are already broken down. All that is left when building a new course is to identify what you need to teach, finding out what is already built, evaluate it, and then either re-use or re-purpose the content.

To maximize this re-usability, the learning object is supposed to be as free of specific context (audience, place, type of organization, etc) as possible. For example, if multiple audiences would want to study toward this objective, media or examples used should not be limited to only one audience.

New courses could, in theory, be built by collecting, and sequencing various learning objects, with an overall introduction and conclusion and some linkages to join it all together.

Critiques of the Learning Object concept

While learning objects were a trendy topic in the -90s and -00s, the idea was not without its critics.

There are several critiques of the learning object concept:

  • The idea of learning objects was pushed primarily by the military and for its own concerns of operational efficiency and cost savings rather than any sense that it would produce more better learning. The concerns are quantity of output and efficiency rather than quality of education
  • The idea mainly focuses on eLearning, and specifically eLearning for one solitary self-paced learner. Where social sorts of learning involving cooperation and collaboration fits within this was not clear
  • If context is removed, it is harder for learners to relate to it on a concrete level. Media and graphics and examples are generic, or some wide range. The media and examples don’t speak closely to their particular reality. As such, you risk losing the attention and motivation of the learner, because they may not see the relevance clearly.
  • If context is removed, it is harder for learners to make meaningful connections between the content and other content unless the developer puts in extra effort to put this connective material back in. Statements like, “as you remember from module 1,” or, “you will learn more about this in the coming module,” or “this is related to these other topics” would be mostly removed from learning objects to maximize reusability. Learning these sorts of connections is an important part of learning new material, and is part of what makes new learning stick together cohesively in the learner’s mind.
  • When assembling courses from smaller learning objects, it is not a matter of just sticking together lego blocks or assembling IKEA furniture. Remember that all that context that serves as a connective tissue of sorts for the objects has been stripped away to allow the reuse. To make it most effective, you need to add contextual glue/mortar in between the pieces to improve flow and relevance. This cancels a lot of the time savings that are advertised.


So up through the early and mid 2000s there was a lot of hype about learning objects, When I was in my Educational Technology program at that time, the concept was talked about, and readings were given, including critiques of the concept. Some large companies, schools, and educational networks did a lot of work in this field, with some of these projects still continuing. But the idea never took off broadly as advertised.

eLearning continued to gain broader acceptance in the academy and in industry. SCORM standards for eLearning content metadata and inter-operability went forward and became commonly used standards supported by authoring tools and Learning Management Systems. eLearning authoring tools became increasingly sophisticated, allowing simple eLearning to be developed more and more efficiently.

But the strict learning object idea did not continue to be top of mind for practitioners, who grew disillusioned by the concept as they experienced the limitations and difficulty, witnessed lots of bad eLearning content, and found the time savings and re-usability to be much less in practice than advertised.

The term learning object faded from common conversation.

In the meantime…

Life went on, technology advanced. Broadband internet became more widespread with faster speeds. This allowed easier upload and download of multimedia content, even video content.

The Web 2.0 era of user generated content came about. PHP discussion boards. Wikipedia. Youtube. Social media like Facebook. Question and answer sites like eHow and Quora. A Web where content could easily be generated by users, tagged for search, and uploaded.

This was furthered with the mainstreaming of mobile internet devices. The iPhone 3G appeared in 2008. The explosion of the smartphone market followed. This led to a proliferation of mobile apps on sophisticated pocket computers with cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Tablet computing went mainstream, with the iPad in 2010. With these mobile devices came touch based computing and context aware computing. The widespread rollout and development of high speed mobile networks enabled voice, audio, and video transmission. Smart, small, lightweight connected mobile devices mean that the user almost always has on hand.

In the field of educational technology and training, there is an increasing emphasis on informal learning such as job aids, performance support systems, and just-in-time learning.

Finally, eLearning authoring tools have become much more user friendly, making it easier for experts to build their own content and distribute it. This broadens the development pool and makes it easier to generate content.

All of these developments and change have come over the past ten years. We start to see a very different landscape from what it was when this learning objects concept originally peaked and then faded in the early 2000s.

When you look at all these developments together, and reflect, you start to wonder if maybe that old idea of learning objects might have renewed relevance in today’s environment.


So what’s changed?

So putting it together, what is different today?

Cell phones and inexpensive but powerful recording equipment let us easily record content. Easy to use authoring software lets us easily assemble media into small but meaningful packets of learning material. Ubiquitous network connections and sharing features in apps let us easily upload content from almost anywhere.

Platforms like Youtube, Soundcloud, Facebook, and others give us a place to upload and organize content, share it with others, see what others have shared, and further pass content along to others.

To keep up with the rapid pace of the age, these pieces of content are short and focused. In line with trends in informal learning and continuous learning, a lot of learning materials are posted on these sorts of platforms and on company intranets, so learners can access brief, relevant material as needed on the job rather than taking a formal course. There is also the trend in microlearning, focusing on short learning pieces of a few minutes in length.Short learning pieces also work better with the usage patterns of smartphones

Responsive web design and responsive eLearning design allow content to be developed once, hosted in one location, and accessible from different devices, at any time, wherever the learner may be.

New standards technologies such as TinCan API/xAPI make it easier and more flexible to track learning on materials accessed and hosted in different locations and in a wider variety of different formats.


And so we see a lot of elements of this original vision of learning objects being realized thanks to these many separate factors coming together.

And though it is a concept that has its valid criticisms, learning objects may offer an interesting an useful model to help manage and guide this new world of content production and sharing.

The earlier discussions of 10-15 years ago may give useful insight as to how to design, structure, and build short content. As well, it may guide us as to how to meta-tag, store, and search for these materials. And, finally, these earlier discussions may give us insights into how to repurpose and combine these learning pieces into larger, cohesive learning experiences, both online and blended learning, for both individuals and groups.




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Encouraging worker engagement and ongoing professional development with mLearning and Gamification


I have a confession. I fiddle with my phone at work. We all do this from time, throughout the day, when we’re bored, or our brain is mush, when we’re stuck/blocked, or just when we need a change of pace or break. It’s compulsive (damn you variable ratio schedule of reinforcement!)

The companies we work for don’t tend to like this so much (something about productivity), which is why most of us try to keep it to a dull roar. Many companies have de jure HR policies technically prohibiting such a thing. It’s mostly unenforced, though, because most people are responsible, and because, really, who cares so long as objectives are being met. (Also, front line managers are usually just as glued to their phone screens!)

But what if instead of fighting this tendency, companies were smart about it?

I know. Crazy talk, this. But bear with me.

What if companies and their management embraced that workers mostly have smartphones, and simply accepted as a given that they are going to take them out during the day and use them? What if, taking this as a given, they looked at ways to make lemonade out of lemons, and found a way to harness this natural behavior of employees and channel it toward ends useful to the company and to the worker as an employee?

Mobile phones present an excellent opportunity for companies to help encourage engagement at work and ongoing professional development. The concept presented here is a novel idea for encouraging worker engagement and promoting ongoing professional development in an organization through a combination of mLearning and gamification.

Technological component of solution

Informal learning through short mLearning modules

Workers have phones and use them during the day. The company has new policies and procedures it wants the workers to learn, and also wants to have a workforce committed to ongoing personal and professional development. The company wants workers that are always learning and developing their skills. Combine these two elements and make the worker’s smartphone a platform for employee training and development.

Build continuing professional development materials in small mLearning modules, targetting a length of 2-5 minutes. Design these as informal learning pieces. Include both typical didactic learning elements, but also fun, hands-on activities and games.

Design the modules as stand-alone learning moments that don’t depend too much on other learning pieces, sort of like the late 1990s/early 2000s idea of “Learning Objects.” Design the modules with a “mobile-first” approach, such that they are intended to be seen on mobile phones and look good / are easy to use there. Ensure that the modules are meta-tagged according to some logical schema / ontology of tags appropriate to the workplace or industry so that the modules are easily searchable and findable. Make the learning modules available on some TinCan API /xAPI enabled LMS,

Ensure that there is an interface for searching for and browsing modules that is easy and time-efficient for users to use on a smart phone.

Link it to HR

Track the modules taken by learners and their scores on any assessments or pass/fail. Send this data to HR data systems for tracking.

Link back HR systems the other way so that HR systems could recommend specific modules based on learner time available and on defined professional development objectives.

Allow the system to send suggestions based on most viewed content, most uprated content, and the types of content the learner has enjoyed in the past. Enable a rating system, where learners can provide as much evaluation data as they like. Either “smiley face” basic impressions data or more in depth questionnaire/short survey or both.

Within HR systems, take the data on module completion and track this compared to documented development objectives. For mandated training coming from HR, have subscribed modules or module clusters. This content would be suggested or pushed out from HR. Use notifications, either in app notifications or via text/IM/Lync.


Have a gamification layer to encourage and reinforce engagement with the system, though be careful to keep it within reason so that learners don’t feel “gamed.” Keep a tally of hours spent, courses completed, skills learned. Use gamified elements like badges and leader boards. Give the learners incentives to keep engaging with it. Track some of these stats through HR to have data on how much the employee is engaging in learning activities.

Make it social

Allow users to rate content, whether with a simple upvote/downvote or with a five star system. Allow them the opportunity to make comments. When a user is browsing modules, make information on average ratings or upvotes/downvotes visible to learners to help them with their choice. This gives feedback to designers/developers and also helps to identify quality content for other learners. This data gives a good sense of what sort of content the learners want and like, and this can be helpful for training development teams as a guide for how to allocate resources for future development.

Also, allow workers to recommend or share content they like to others. This will allow workers to help you promote good content and will further encourage engagement with the system.

Help learners get access

Make Wifi readily available to employees without restrictions. Employees are not going to really engage with this if you’re going to make them use their own data plan. You provide wired internet access to employees as a tool of work; do the same with in-building Wifi.

Human system component of solution

As with any human systems intervention, however, technology alone will not do the trick.

Workers need to be openly encouraged to use the system at work. As this is rolled out, the teams responsible need to make a concerted effort to promote this training system, both initially and as an ongoing reinforcement. This has to be more than a mass email to “Employees: All.” A nice promitional video will be helpful, but workers need to get introduced to it as well in a face to face meeting involving their front line management and perhaps their director. Give people a chance to ask questions and get answers.

“Bored? Brain-fried? Need a break? Tired? Stuck/writers block? Switch gears for a few minutes, play with your phone, so long as you’re using it to learn something.” Everyone should be actively encouraged to do this, and made to feel comfortable taking advantage of the policy.

Management at all levels, from the top down, needs to sets an example of welcoming this. Both in terms of words and in terms of concrete behavior. Management have to also be encouraged to (within reason) use the system and be seen using the system.

The tracked data that HR collects about how many hours the workers are engaged in learning what they are learning, and their completion stats can add to or supplement performance data for annual/semi-annual review. Workers should have visibility via some dashboard of the same sort of data that HR has summarizing their learning and training activities. That way, the worker can go into performance review meetings armed with data to demonstrate commitment to new learning and skill development. The learner can use this to start conversations about raises or about getting more resources or support for further deeper training or broadening of tasks. Conversely, managers can also look at the data to start their own conversations.


Workers have smartphones. Workers are going to look at them during the work day. If companies are smart and tech savvy, they can encourage ongoing training and development if they put out learning content in a way that is tailored to viewing through the workers’ smart phones. The effectiveness of this is reinforced if the company includes sucessful elements of gamification and social media and backs up the project with support from HR and management.