Meeting Training and Learning Challenges with Reusable Learning Objects

Modular e-Learning refers to learning units comprising a number of separate objects or modules. Reusable learning objects have the ability to display on multiple platforms, in many formats and languages, using different technologies, without requiring developers to rebuild the learning unit. Here’s how and why companies are using learning objects to support employees worldwide.

Many companies are reaping large returns by chunking small bits of learning and then reusing them over and over. Global organizations that support a multinational, multicultural, and diverse work force are leveraging media assets on multiple platforms to provide more learning and support options for their employees.

Your organization can adopt reusable learning object (RLO) technology to experience these results too, and in this article we present some ideas to help you get started, some mistakes to avoid, and some of our own experience in helping companies use RLOs.

The organizations we mentioned in the first paragraph faced the challenge of developing e-Learning that would be reusable, cost-effective, transferable, and lightweight. The solution they found consists of two ideas that have been around learning and training for a long time, modularity and reusable learning objects (RLO’s).

Modular e-Learning refers to learning units comprising a number of separate objects or modules. Reusable learning objects have the ability to display on multiple platforms, in many formats and languages, using different technologies, without requiring developers to rebuild the learning unit. (See Figure 1.) As P. R. Polansi noted in the Journal of Digital Information (see the References at the end of this article), the extent to which an organization can deploy and redeploy a learning unit enhances both the value and the shelf life of the learning unit.

 

Figure 1 RLOs can be delivered via print, PC desktop, or instructor-led session, hosted on a server, played from CD, or downloaded from any Web page to an iPod or Mobile device

 

RLO basics

The idea behind reusable learning objects is to develop an inventory of small, independent, self-contained chunks of instruction. Designers can use these chunks to assemble larger units of instruction. Given access to a repository of learning objects, learners can retrieve these reusable chunks in order to construct knowledge and perform tasks, as well as to achieve designated learning objectives. Because of the potential they possess for reusability, generatively (the capacity for combining or generating other learning objects), adaptability, and scalability, learning objects lead all other candidates as the technology of choice in the evolution of instructional design, development, and delivery according to David Wiley, Director of the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning at Utah State University.

Robert Beck of the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, where he now serves the Center for International Education and teaches in the Global Studies degree program, is an expert on technology-enhanced pedagogy. Beck maintains a nationally recognized Website on learning objects, where he offers this view from the Wisconsin Online Resource Center (WORC): “Learning Objects are a new way of thinking about learning content. Traditionally, content comes in a several hour chunk. Learning Objects are much smaller units of learning, typically from 2 minutes to 15 minutes.”

Definitions

Perhaps because reusable learning objects are a new approach to reusing content, researchers, e-Learning experts, international associations, and private sector companies have yet to agree on a single definition. What has evolved is a somewhat elusive concept. Nonetheless, this concept promises to change the form of content delivery.

Some definitions of the term “reusable learning object” seem to concentrate on specific examples. One of these, the definition of learning objects in The Field Guide to Learning Objects by the American Society for Training and Development and Smart Force includes:

  • lessons (a combination of text, graphics, animation, audio, questions, and exercises),
  • articles,
  • case studies,
  • mentored exercises,
  • discussion boards,
  • role-play simulations,
  • software simulations,
  • research projects,
  • and performance tests, among others.

Other definitions take a more generic, functional approach. Ruth Clark, a highly regarded expert on the science of instruction, in an article written for the International Society for Performance Improvement, suggests it is best to keep the definition simple and centered. “Learning objects are small, granular ‘bytes’ of knowledge that can be stored in data bases and recycled within organizations.

The definition debates continue. Whether one calls them reusable learning objects, educational objects, knowledge objects, data objects, or instructional objects, and whether one takes the specific or the generic approach, the concept is the same.

How do you know whether you should be thinking about using learning objects as part of your organization’s learning strategy?

Decision factors

RLO’s are not for every e-Learning effort. Consider these three factors when making the decision to design e-Learning using RLOs: shelf life, scalability, and deployment. (See Figure 2.)

 

Figure 2 Consider these factors when deciding whether to use learning objects to develop learning modules.

 

We recommend reserving RLO’s for content that has a longer shelf life, such as processes and procedures. Those that are tried and true and unlikely to change, the back bone of operations, are good candidates.

Scalable content that could support reuse in multiple settings is also a good candidate for RLOs. An example would be manufacturing operations and techniques comprising small and definite steps that workers in all plants do the same way.

Segments of learning meant for global deployment would be good candidates for delivery in RLOs. This includes content for translation into multiple languages, across cultures, and for multiple learning styles. A learning audience consisting of many people across the enterprise would be another prime example.

In addition to these three considerations, Ruth Clark raises another reason to adopt learning object technology. Any corporation that wishes to compete globally is looking for cost-effective ways to maintain and protect intellectual property assets. Intellectual property within organizations is a main concern. Protecting intellectual property has become a priority, and this also makes organizations ready for the concept of learning objects.

Benefits

The traditional way of developing and disseminating training no longer meets the needs of today’s modern and global corporations. It is too slow, it is expensive, and it addresses general needs, not the needs of individual learners or of employees engaged in a task. The advent of Internet connectivity and more sophisticated technologies have influenced the spread of the concept of learning objects, as Ruth Clark anticipated in her 1998 article on recycling knowledge. Furthermore, a continuing need to augment human skills and expertise coupled with re-engineering and technological turmoil has created a need for just-in-time training. Because they are a system of little pieces of knowledge, tagged and stored in data bases, learning objects are available for use over and over, and for a multitude of needs. You can assemble them into flexible structures such as modules for personalized training or for customer support, or as wizards for performance support. Learning objects offer a way to harness and distribute massive, ever-changing volumes of content and deliver it to individual learners in any location.

In order to envision the possibilities for reusable learning objects, it is important to revisit some fundamentals. First, to say that learning objects are “self-contained” also means that learning objects are modular, as we said earlier. The components within a learning object (including smaller learning objects) model things that learners might need to know in the real world. Some of these elements are simple information, or data attributes, such as a course name, and some are more complex. Learning objects usually include a combination of data attributes, methods (what the object needs to do), uses, and definitions. By including transforming objectives, content, and methods for teaching, rehearsal, evaluation, and feedback, instructional designers can produce one instance of teaching materials (in other words, a learning object) that they can use over and over to reach a multitude of learners. Mark Merkow provides a detailed introduction to the process in his TechLearning article.

Instructional designer Lori Mortimer points out another benefit to RLOs. Reusable learning objects offer the potential for learners to individualize learning. This includes on-demand access to reusable content that the individual can select and tailor to his or her personal needs for the information.

Some issues

Although many believe that reusable learning objects have the power to transform education, poor communication has slowed the progress and acceptance of the concept. The lack of a comprehensive definition, discussed earlier, has certainly hurt the movement, but other issues have also contributed to the slowdown.

Faculty and training professionals are not accustomed to sharing their methods and content freely. Concerns regarding intellectual property rights and copyright issues have evolved. The time involved in development, and the high cost of development, has also contributed. Difficulty in creating tagging standards and retrieval criteria are also part of the trouble. Susan Metros, Professor, Design Technology at The Ohio State University, offers another big reason why the learning objects movement is going slowly, and one that should not be overlooked: there is very little research that proves learning objects support learning any better than other more traditional methods.

Poorly designed and inappropriately used learning objects can cause learning to stop before it ever gets started. In many cases at academic institutions, faculty members were in charge of designing and developing learning objects. Most faculty have concerns about intellectual property, ownership, and accessibility. Many feel uncomfortable about placing “their stuff” on a server. Technology writer Jennifer Lorenzetti also inter-found that others may be subject experts, but have little or no training in pedagogy or lack the desire to learn technical skills.

Potential impediments such as these are worth thinking about as you plan how to use RLOs in your organization.

Using RLOs

Reusability adds value to learning objects. The value of the learning object has a direct correlation to the organization’s ability to use it multiple times. The concept of creating small bits of learning information that are reusable is not a new one. Teachers and instructors have been doing this for a long time. This reusability often saves the instructor time and energy in designing new courses or revising existing ones. This is probably the context in which most practitioners relate to the idea of learning objects.

We would like to point out two particular applications of learning objects that may not be as obvious, to offer a thought about the focus of learning objects and to give you two brief examples of actual design and re-use.

RLOs and blended learning

Blended learning is an important potential application for RLOs. Well-designed and well-developed reusable learning objects will migrate across platforms and allow an organization to expand the reach of training.

For example, we produced some simple movies for one of our clients, and we incorporated these into online asynchronous training applications. These same movies transferred efficiently to mobile learning devices provided to production employees on the factory floor. The recycling of the movies into “just-in-time learning” was simple because the original design of the reusable learning objects (the movies) supported scaling. Scaling makes it possible to transfer objects to PowerPoint (for classroom training), and to mobile learning devices such as iPods, Blackberries, cell phones, and PDA’s.

In fact, we went a little further. We created job training aids (posters) directly from the learning objects to further enhance the learning initiative. The client positioned these posters at the factory workstations where they functioned as on-the-job training aids. With the creation of one set of online reusable learning objects, the company obtained materials for multiple uses ranging from “train the trainers” and traditional classroom instruction, to self-directed and just-in-time learning.

Flexibility for the learner

While reusing content for learning and training is the primary reason for creating learning objects, a second reason is the ability to put the information into a form that the learner can use individually. The form is first and foremost the setting, context, and environment for engaging a learning object. The form changes viewers into learners and digital objects into learning objects. Form can combine with the way a learning object becomes available to the learner as part of the knowledge base to create the intention for learning.

In order for the intention to become learning, you need to guide learners toward an understanding of the object. Reorganize the learner’s understanding through textual, visual, auditory, or interactive concepts. In the world of the Internet this means that for a media object (for example, a video, a podcast, a PDF document) to become a learning object the inter face has to establish a way of relating the object that makes understanding possible. As Polsani writes, learning objects have to combine digital elements and explanation.

You can incorporate learning objects into your courses in ways that enhance reusability and continuity for the learner. Thinking small, and organizing a course around a single designer or author can help. Another method is to embed the learning object inside a wider framework or curriculum. The expectations of the learners are open to a variety of experiences with a curriculum. They expect diversity in a curriculum, and continuity in a course. As educator and technology writer Susan Gaide points out, today continuity is provided by narrative elements that create coherence in the course, but tomorrow, on the educational Web, this may occur via the interface in response to the learner’s needs.

Is it time for an example?

An example: Moving a learning object to an iPod

Today’s learners are used to high quality media productions. One must also consider a slight “re-design” of content to accommodate the smaller screen of the mobile device and the iPod. (See Figure 3.)

 

Figure 3 This module displays either as a desktop asynchronous e-Learning unit, or as a video Podcast.

 

In this example we created a training program with a rapid development tool, Adobe Presenter. We took the content, rebuilt the screens in Flash, and redesigned them to accommodate a 320X240 window size. This meant spreading the content over more screens and synchronizing movement according to the script. Even with these adjustments, the process was substantially faster and cheaper than it would have been to create the iPod version from scratch. To see a sample of the stand-alone e-Learning program and the slightly redesigned video Podcast go to: http://brookwood.com/temporary/ipod/ipodsop.html.

Don’t focus on instructional design theory

In a regular classroom, the instructor determines the mode of operation. The instructor’s delivery determines the teaching style. This is true no matter what the content is, and no matter what the instructional designer called for in the lesson plan. The instructor can transition from a lesson written by one designer to a lesson written by another, or for another group, and maintain continuity and style.

This is not true with learning objects. With learning objects, it is the interface and the content itself that determine the style of the instruction. Unfortunately, this means there can be a problem with continuity and instructional style if the individual learner assembles a set of independent learning objects. Part of this problem is because so many developers incorporated one particular instructional design theory or another in their learning objects — or no design theory at all! Learners can receive a mixture of very different instructional experiences in the same course — an eclectic experience. The effect of the lack of continuity and the practicality of reusability often create heated debate in instructional design circles. Although instructional design theory can add a major contribution to learning objects it cannot be the focus of the development effort, as Kevin Oakes (formerly President of SumTotal Systems and currently CEO at the Institute for Corporate Productivity) and his co-author Raghavan Rengarajan wrote in 2002.

Example: Worldwide manufacturing applications

RLOs offer organizations a simplified solution for taking their learning and training program global. It is always challenging to accommodate cultural differences in addition to the usual barriers such as location – related issues and individual learning styles. By using well-designed, modular RLO’s, we have found it possible to deliver cost-effective solutions in a painless and timely manner.

How? Build the RLO’s with the end use in mind. By taking into account cultural and localization issues (swapping out graphics, translating text) in the original design, deployment becomes smooth and easy. But the most important practice is to build the elements that foster learning into the RLO’s from the beginning so the result is effective instruction. As you saw in our first example, we have been able to overcome technical limitations such as having no computers on the factory floors by using iPods with play lists that supported videos of the production techniques.

To stay with the first example a bit longer, a blended learning model of modular reusable learning objects supported flexible and multiple learning solutions. We developed the solution in order to train supervisors, trainers, factory workers, and new hires. We designed and developed four specific units of learning, and then transferred them to multiple platforms. You have seen two of the results in the other example. The complete list of units was:

  • How to read the instruments
  • How to meet the specs
  • How to implement the techniques
  • How to record the information for QA/QC and compliance

The Adobe tools Presenter, Flash, and Premiere were enormously helpful in facilitating this effort. We leveraged the highly accessible Flash player because of its availability on PCs, Mac’s, and devices that support mobile learning. Our client bought a custom course and then leveraged small RLOs that were components to use on other platforms.

Another client deployed a module titled, “How to Measure Pants.” Figure 4 shows the identical content as “just-in-time” content on an iPod, on a cell phone, and in the asynchronous course.

 

Figure 4 Video clip from e-Learning application (far right) can play as a Podcast and on a cell phone for remote learning anytime and anywhere.

 

To view a sample of a rebranded and scaled-down version of the module, go to http://brookwood.com/rlo/example/ (Editor’s Note: As of February 23, 2010, this article appears to have been removed from the Web.). We created this module in French, English, and Chinese, as you can tell by the tri-lingual text on the screen. The video clips do not have sound. The reason we designed the clips as a “visual guide only” was to save cost on re-creating them with narrators in three languages. This cost-effective solution allowed us to re-use the objects in multilingual courses without the need for editing or manipulating. This option saves time and money and helps add more value to the training we created with our subject matter experts in English.

As with the first example, we used Adobe Presenter to create and deliver the courses for the clothing manufacturer, so that they took hours to build, not days or weeks. The course in the sample was also available as a standalone piece to aid the workers on the factory floor as just-in-time learning. To do this, we extracted videos (as seen in Figure 4) and factory workers could use the learning at their work stations to see demonstrations on demand using an iPod or other mobile device.

The Cost of Reusable Learning Objects

Managers should also consider the economic side of RLOs. One of the justifications for learning objects is the long-run potential to save money. If learning objects can be developed and then used over and over again for a variety of needs, then the costs of delivering the instruction should come down. However, in the short run, learning objects, especially interactive multimedia objects, can be very expensive.

Ironically, it is the repetition in creating learning objects that adds to the cost. Jennifer Lorenzetti found that programming and developing each learning object from scratch, regardless of the similarities to other learning objects can push the costs upward of “$2,500 to $25,000, making a multimedia-rich course an expensive proposition indeed.” Breaking every individual learning element down within a curriculum and designating it as a learning object can be cost-prohibitive. In David Wiley’s opinion, from a cost standpoint the decisions regarding learning objects are a tradeoff between possible benefits from reusability and the expense of producing and cataloging the learning objects.

To reduce the costs, developers produce templates to facilitate quicker and cheaper creation. Templates for everything from drag-and-drop to intelligent paragraph checking accommodate a wide variety of learning and teaching styles. The next step may be to combine artificial intelligence (AI) that alters teaching styles depending on learner needs.

Development is only part of the costs. A learning content management system (LCMS) is a software application that tracks, labels, manages, and organizes RLOs for delivery to the learner. The costs to develop and manage a LCMS can be between $90 K and $1M, according to Margaret Driscoll’s calculations. (Driscoll is an Associate Partner in IBM Global Services, Human Capital Practice.)

The most important step in making a LCMS work is to define what comprises a reusable learning object. Difficulties in accomplishing this have led to expensive project failures. This in turn has impacted organization’s and institution’s willingness to spend large amounts of money on the development of reusable learning objects.

Even without a strong success record, interest in creating reusable learning objects has been strong and is continuing to grow. The main reason for this is that when RLOs work, they work very well. RLOs can generate high rates of return on investment.

One of the clients in the examples spent about $15,000 for each unit, and received RLOs that were 85% reusable. (See Figure 5.) The company leveraged that investment into the ability to train 17,000 people across the enterprise. But that is only the beginning of the returns on investment; they also received on-demand training, support tools, and just-in-time training.

 

Figure 5 One company found that its learning objects were 85% reusable.

 

Summary

By breaking content into small chunks and using tools like the Adobe products that support cross platform applications and mobile learning devices, the companies in our examples were able to put learning in the hands of those who could use it and who could benefit the most. Efficiently designed RLOs gave these companies a solution to difficult training challenges, even though they might be a continent away. The companies were able to use the same RLOs in the United States as well.

The RLO solutions replaced ad-hoc training that was marginally effective, difficult to measure, and hard to manage. One of the companies was able to execute a global learning strategy, measure results, and address the learning challenges of a low-end learning audience, with localized cultural differences, high turnover rates, and transient labor force.

By creating a learning portal that became the depot to deploy enterprise-wide learning solutions, superintendents and workers are coming up with ever-new and unimagined possibilities to use these RLOs in the field. This new approach to learning is part of another powerful new trend, mobilization. Mobilization, in the learning business, manifests as m-Learning: otherwise mobilization refers to making workers mobile. Anders Gronstedt, president of the Gronstedt Group, a Swedish training development firm, says that mobilization is so important that any company that isn’t aggressively mobilizing their operations is risking a major competitive disadvantage. The uses and reuses of the RLOs are still unfolding.

For more information on eLearning: www.eFOURlearning.com

Originally posted by: Jacqueline Beck and Bobbe Baggio Learning Solutions Magazine

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