Category Archives: Learning Theories

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.




Additional Links

Instructional Design and Technical Writing


What is the relationship between Instructional Design and Technical Writing? In what ways do these roles and skill sets overlap, and in which ways are they distinct?

Though Instructional Designers and Technical Writers will often work under the same roof or under the same team, and may collaborate on projects, they have typically been viewed as distinct jobs with distinct roles. However, recent developments in communication tools and changes in the way we think about learning have caused the boundaries between the disciplines to become fuzzier and more porous than they might initially appear. This article will look at some of the overlap and difference between the two fields, recent trends of convergence between the disciplines, and possibilities for the future.

Technical Writing and Instructional Design: a Comparison

Technical writing, as the name implies, traditionally involved writing manuals or documentation to support hardware or software. This included writing user, operation, or maintenance manuals for equipment, formal documentation of standard operating procedures (SOPs), or documentation of APIs or libraries for software. The Technical Writer engages with hardware/software developers and engineers to document key information about the systems and products.

Instructional Design on the other hand focuses on:

  •  Identifying goal performances
  • Identifying performance, skill, and knowledge gaps between what is expected and what is
  • Identifying training objectives
  • Designing training interventions to close gaps, including instructional strategies, media approach, and training delivery method, and
  • Designing assessments to measure learning.

To get needed information, the Instructional Designer engages with subject matter experts (SMEs) in the relevant discipline.

Technical writing has typically focused on text-based written materials with still images, photos, graphs, and charts. The intended media has often, traditionally speaking, been print, though in the more recent period, this has shifted to include digital texts as well. The end product has been mainly text-based resources meant to be used by people involved with a company’s hardware and software products as on-the-job or on-task references.

The products resulting from Instructional Design processes have run the gamut from written materials, classroom lessons, workshops, eLearning, and blended learning, and has involved various media, including still images, photos, graphs, charts, videos, and animations. The end result has been learning resources meant to be used as part of a formal training course, to either help learning, allow practice of what is learned, or test how well the student learned.

Technical Writing and Instructional Design: A Convergence?

So this seems relatively clear cut, and probably, historically speaking, it was. However, ongoing developments in the past decade or so have served to erode some of these distinctions.

Some describe the difference between the two fields as being that Instructional Design focuses on promoting learning and performance improvement and measuring achievement, while Technical Writing seeks simply to inform. However, on close examination, this does not seem to hold up. After all, if the Technical Writer is being paid to inform, it is obvious that it is toward some intended end of learning or performance support. There is at least implicitly some understanding that the user is supposed to learn and better his use of the documented product through the reference.

Some might not think of technical manuals as learning materials, since they aren’t used as materials in a course, and users don’t take a test after using them. Most users utilize manuals as references. When they have a question, they look up the relevant section, and find out what they need to know. This is a form of learning, however. It is simply a different form of learning called informal learning. Informal learning is the learning that takes place outside of formal courses, often in an ad hoc, unplanned, task and needs-based manner. A learner, often an adult learner, though not necessarily, has a question. The person looks up a reference in one of the resources available at hand, whether from computers or people. The person gets the question answered, and gets back to work.

This is “just-in-time” learning within the workplace and within the normal workflow rather than “just in case” learning  carried out away from the workplace in a course. If you think about it, this is actually our natural tendency in learning. When we are stuck with something, be it a game, a piece of software, a piece of equipment, we don’t tend to look for some formal course. We seek out quick focused resources that will answer our question. This could take the form of some sort of quick reference document or a person whose knowledge and experience you value.

Informal learning is less well understood than formal learning, but is ironically how most of us do most of our learning, by far. Instructional Design has always been embedded within the larger field of Human Performance Technology, which is a generalized approach for diagnosing performance problems in organizations and crafting interventions which do not necessarily involve training.

In recent years, the Instructional Design field has begun to look more seriously at informal learning tools, in particular performance support systems, electronic performance support systems,  and job aids as more effective alternatives to formal training for many aspects of workplace learning.

Instead of always designing lengthy courses to be taken by learners at a separate time and place from their work, increasingly, learning materials are designed in smaller instructional pieces indexed and searchable on company intranets. When workers need to learn how to do some task, or are stuck, or need a reminder, they look up their question in the company system, and locate some reference material. They check out the material, and when they understand, they return to their task. The whole experience might take only a few minutes, at the work desk.

Parallel to this, the scope of Technical Writing has expanded to include wider modes of reference and support documentation beyond traditional written manuals. Technical Writers do not only write manuals, but are also called on to create online help files, FAQ banks, and knowledge base items. There has also been a push, as streaming online video has become easier to deal with, for Technical Writers to use video tutorials as a more engaging method of product documentation. Explanatory or demonstrative videos, taken either with cameras or screen capture software like Camtasia, are hosted either on the company knowledge base or sites like YouTube. Technical Writers can also find themselves involved with internal wikis, or blogs. In some cases, this has even included direct interaction with the user community and even curation/management of user generated content, whether on discussion forums or social media.

There is a powerful overlap appearing here between Technical Writing and Instructional Design as applied to informal learning materials.

The question comes as to whether there is a sort of convergence going on and to what extent. Are these ultimately different jobs, or just different points on a spectrum of a common domain of technical communication? A common shared skill set can be seen, including such skills as:

  • Communicating with subject technical experts to get needed information
  • Understanding the characteristics and needs of the intended user and their work environment
  • Being able to rapidly assimilate new information
  • Coming up with ways to explain this information in a simple, well-structured, easy to understand way attuned to the needs of the audience
  • Implementing these explanation, delivering it using whatever tools are available.

On one hand, Technical Writers have been known to sometimes cross over to Instructional Design or Course Development positions.

The tools of Technical Writers have expanded in recent years to allow modes of explanation that might previously have been the domain of Instructional Designers. Recent editions of Adobe Framemaker, a popular Technical Writing tool, have allowed incorporation of video, 3D models or animations, flash presentations, and audio. As books move from something made to print on paper to something used on an e-reader or tablet, it is no longer necessary to stick to static images for support documentation. With the explosion of ebooks on media capable devices like smartphones and tablets, the very definition of what a book or manual is has come into question.

As books are increasingly consumed through electronic screens rather than on paper, old restrictions need not apply. A book can become a multimedia presentation, with different media used as appropriate to bring across different points to the reader. An interactive 3D model from AutoCAD files embedded in a manual can communicate the 3D structure of a system or piece of equipment better than a static image from one fixed perspective. An embedded animation can better bring to life a process or flow. An embedded video can bring to life a maintenance procedure in a much more compact way than through text and static graphics. The decisions involved in deciding when to use what form of media are precisely the sorts of skills traditionally used by Instructional Designers in choosing a media strategy for instructional multimedia.

Meanwhile, job descriptions for some Instructional Design openings read more like Technical Writer jobs, with emphasis on manuals, help files, FAQs, and wikis. Designers in such positions will use more “Technical Writer” oriented development tools such as Camtasia, Robohelp, and Dreamweaver. The need to document systems that go through increasingly shorter cycles of development and update has made it harder to keep up with this pace with traditional Instructional Design via formal courses. This has led to more use of shorter, informal learning resources hosted on company networks.

Key Differences Between Technical Writing and Instructional Design

It’s important to note however that while the sorts of projects and documents that Technical Writers and Instructional Designers are called to work on are overlapping more and more, there are important differences in skill sets.

Instructional Designers, particularly those with formal training, tend to have more developed formal guidance for needs analysis. They also have more formal grounding in the psychology of learning and in systems thinking and analysis. They also tend to have experience with designing for a broader range of media and interaction types. Instructional Designers also have more experience with assessment of learning.

Technical Writers, on the other hand, tend to have much more refined skills in verbal communication.This includes:

  • Clarity, simplicity, and conciseness of expression
  • Descriptive and explanatory skills
  • Document formatting skills to ensure improved aesthetics and easier visual processing, and
  • Editing skills such as spelling and grammar.

Though these skills are rooted in the written or printed word, much of it transfers well to other media of verbal expression, particularly audio narration scripting. Often, Technical Writers have formal training in writing, whether in Technical or Creative Writing.


So clearly the two skill sets are not completely interchangeable. There are large overlaps, but with specific areas of focus and expertise. For the time being, it is more appropriate to consider the two roles as complementary. On a larger project, the two would probably work together, with each involved in different aspects. It is an interesting question though how this will evolve and play out in the future. As Technical Writers expand their horizons toward a broader range of media, and Instructional Designers expand their focus to include informal learning and performance support, will the two fields undergo a certain amount of convergence as facets of a general field of Technical Communication? And what impact would that have on professional development within the two disciplines?

Comments? Critiques? Please feel free, whether on the blog directly, or via whatever social media channel through which you came across the article.

On Learning Theories: A Pluralistic Approach

As aspiring educational technologists discover in their university studies, there are many different theories that talk about human learning. Each one brings a somewhat different take on the broad phenomenon of human learning. And while each theory has its partisans and arguments, it is important to resist getting caught up too much in that. It is important to remember that it is not a matter of a contest for “one true theory to rule them all.”

There are some that think like this, or at least talk like this, and in such striving to elaborate particular learning theories and in such trying to argue for the maximal potential application of one’s pet theory are careers in academia made. But this is not the best approach for the practitioner, who is less interested in proving or justifying an ideology or dogma than in pragmatically figuring out what works best in practice for the particular task, the particular teaching point at hand, given the context at hand.

The reality is that learning is multi-faceted. There are many different aspects to it. There is an aspect of learning that consists in modifying external, observable behavior. There is an aspect of modifying internal cognitive structures. There are ways that learning can be improved by paying attention to sensory modes and structuring of information so that it’s easier to process. There are ways that learning can be improved by understanding learners’ prior mental structures and by working to modify and build on them. There are aspects of motivating learners to give them that initial push to engage with learning materials. And there are aspects of helping learners to have the volition to persist with the efforts through to the end when things get hard. There are aspects of learning that are shaped by the individual’s interaction with content to construct meaning. There are aspects of learning that are shaped by learners’ interactions with other people to construct meaning. There are ways that knowledge is situated in activity in context, with learning mixed up in recognizing and mastering the affordances of the environment and with the learner’s efforts to become part of a community of practice. There are principles for teaching young learners, and principles for teaching adult learners. And there are meta-cognitive strategies, where learners can learn to monitor and improve their own learning and abilities to learn.

Different theories individually shine light on particular facets of learning. They have applications in certain areas. A zealous focus on one theory, one aspect of learning is not going to be useful. Better to take a pluralistic sort of approach that sees the relative truths in all of these learning theories, and the specific domains where each is the best tool for the job. By putting these insights together, you can gain a more cohesive and comprehensive view of learning.

  • Behaviorism gives insight in training in its reminder to focus on observable end performance, on what you expect the learner to be able to do differently at the end.
  • Cognitive information processing theory reminds us to be mindful of the limits of human processing power and short term memory as we try to deliver instructional content without overloading the learners.
  • Schema theory reminds us that people are not blank slates, and that the ease of new learning is influenced, for good and bad, by the mental structures that are already there. Correct beginnings of understanding are scaffolds we can build on to make our jobs easier. But misconceptions form barriers to understanding that must be actively grasped and torn down before we can begin to build.
  • Motivational Design / ARCS reminds us of the importance of using motivational elements, when appropriate, in training, to push learners to engage with the training and stick with it.
  • Individual constructivism reminds us of the importance of not just delivering passive instruction, but rather allowing learners a chance to interact actively with the learning environment so as to test their developing knowledge structures. This prompts us to design rich, interactive materials so that the learners can engage, test, and refine their knowledge.
  • Social constructivism reminds us of the value of letting learners interact with each other and how much learners can learn from fellow students who have just learned the material. This prompts us to enable opportunities for communication, discussion, and collaboration.
  • Situated cognition, meanwhile, reminds us that learning is tied up human activity in the world, in social/cultural context and physical space. This prompts us not just to create training that is not abstracted away from really, but to build rich, situated activities like case studies and simulations with realistic scenarios.

If we allow ourselves to be reminded of all these points, we can hopefully become more rounded, more effective instructional designers as a result by consciously and selectively applying the insights of various learning theories. In this way we can support more completely, in the training we build, the varied bases of learning.


Shared post on Keller’s Motivational Design (ARCS)

I wanted to share this post from another blog.

Dr. John Keller’s ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction) model of Motivational Design is one of those theories that always stuck in my mind and carried with me from university studies in Learning Theories. The ARCS acronym is very easy to remember, and it sums up nicely the key considerations for improving the motivation of the learners taking your course.

The post includes a brief overview of the ARCS Motivational Design model. It also includes a nice link to another site further explaining the theory. There is also a great YouTube video featuring an interview with John Keller, which I’m embedding below. In the video, Keller talks about the origins of the ARCS Motivational Design theory and the expansion of the theory to include volition, the learner’s persistence with the learning.