Learning objects – Is the King naked?

Do you remember the H C Andersen’s story about the Emperor’s New Suit?

The point of the story is that, if we strongly believe on something, and same time all those who are doubtful or non-believes are claimed to be “unfit for their office or unpardonably stupid”, the believe becomes real. To see the truth you need the child who will say in front of all “but he has nothing on at all” – the King is naked.

With learning technology I often have this feeling that I would like to cry out the famous words of the child in the story. Of course it is possible indeed that I am “unfit for my office and/or unpardonably stupid” :-). Here is an example – you may justify me.

Learning objects. If you ask me, the concept it is totally empty and (almost) useless term. The IEEE Learning Object Metadata standard defines learning objects as “any entity, digital or non digital, that may be used for learning, education or teaching” (IEEE 2002). Please read the previous sentence at least twice and think what do they say! The definition states that learning object is a learning object – not more. Why?

Because any entity in the universe – digital or non-digital – can be used for learning, education and teaching. You choose the entities that will be used, depending on what and how you are going to learn or teach. If everything – from atoms to Airbus A380 – are learning objects, it ends-up to be just a new word for an object or an entity.

I know that many people are using the term “learning object” when they talk about pictures, graphics, simulations, piece of texts, video and audio clips that are specifically designed for learning purpose and can be combined together to build up larger learning material units. This all makes sense. But why should we call them “learning objects” and not just learning content, or pieces of learning content?

Another approach to learning object is to claim that it is an unity that contains the content plus metadata: description on how the content can be used in teaching, learning and education. Hmm… think about it. How much metadata description you can write about a single photograph of Eiffel-tower in the context of how it could be used in teaching, learning and education? I’ll try: “The picture can be used in primary, secondary and higher levels of education for teaching history and geography of France, Europe and the World, but also architecture, design, technology, social science …and so on and on”. Maybe my example is too simple. Let’s take another one.

Would it help you as a teacher if you could easily search and find simulations designed for teaching gravitation? Sure. But if this information (metadata) is written beside the simulation, is the combination then a “learning object”. For me it is still just (learning) content with a good description (metadata) – just like all content should be.

So, what is the use of the term “object” bringing to the discussion? Let me tell you (this is the secret!): It makes it sound more “scientific” almost like object-oriented programming, that actually is a great idea. And when it is more scientific, many R&D funding bodies – who hardly understand anything of it – are more willing to give you research funds. Been there, done that. 😦

13 replies on “Learning objects – Is the King naked?”

If learning object has no clothes, then how about metadata? Isn't that also a cool scientific word? How about structured description? Sounds more sane to me. Then, third-party/distributed metadata becomes just third-party provided description.


Please, do not get me wrong. I do not have anything against scientific terms. For instance metadata is a good and important concept, and a useful term. There is a reason to use scientific terms (in research and development) – they are exact and they avoid misconceptions.


The king should be naked. I come to building learning content from a software engineering background. I like what you say here, I agree what is out there is learning content. I am currently endeavouring to deepen my understanding of SCORM in the context of learning objects being software objects with encapsulation, inheritence and polymorphism. The way I see it, a learning object should be a software object with all its content (graphics, sound, video, assessment, etc.) encapsulated. The learning object should stand on it's own outside of learning context. Everyone should be able to use it. If you want to add the lesson context you would subclass the learning object (the naked object). And change it as you see fit, and leverage what is already there…


I agree and disagree. Your statement on the official LOM definition is correct. If everything is a learning object then the term is meaningless. So, why use it? My definition is more practical: "any reusable digital resource that is encapsulated in a lesson or assemblage of lessons." This is a useful term for us in creating a repository of learning materials. If you don't call this a "learning object" then what would you call it? The term object is NOT to make it look more scientific but rather to emphasise the point that it is a digital entity that can be reused on a variety of different platforms etc. If it is interoperable and on line "object" is a good word. What is a better word?


The p;roblem here is teh idea that any learning can take place outside its context. Given that context is so important then we need to track and record that data as part of information about those learning materials


Dear Rory – I agree and disagree 🙂 I think all digital content – from novels to study books and from fiction to documentary movies – should be interoperable, reusable, online and usable on different platforms. This is what the open standards are all about. To emphasise this, it is maybe a good strategy to call this kind of digital objects, made for learning, learning objects. But I am afraid that there will be a day when we do not anymore use the term learning object, as it is useless. We will call them pieces of learning content, lectures etc.


Dear Peter. Thank you for your comment. It would be great if “learning objects” could be like software objects. I do not understand much about OOP, but I think that in a functional software or system of learning objects (that are like software objects) there should be human objects, as well. Learning is a process where, we humans gain better understanding of some domain, make meaning and learn new skills. The aim of the system is to make this to happen for the human object. The problem is that human objects are very heterogeneous, understand different messages in many different ways because of different languages and culture and takes part in number of other systems that also have an effect on them – They just are out of our control! Can the OO (or LO) system work if one of the key objects is totally out of control?


I agree and I agree, and I agree. As the slang expression goes, "stick a fork in it", so called learning objects are "done". There is wrong about the concept, the intent, all the work, but fine tuning definitions and wrangling over them has virtually accomplished nothing in terms of making content "reusable" or widely adopted beyond the original creators. For all the efforts in defining, creating official meta data, collecting items in "repositories" where is all the great content and learning activities that have been constructed from them? Where are the hundreds of teachers using these "encapsulated" resources?For that matter the naked emporer perhaps does not even need any clothes. Just let him be free 😉


I replied originally to Alan Levine's link to this, with this:"Totally agree. Lord knows I was swept up with this stuff. It’s about the CONTENT, stupid! Let’s get away from the acronyms, and back to figuring out what we can actually DO with content, now that we’re not constrained by things like shelves and boxes…"I was part of the CAREO project, which was stuck on the concept of the repository as the centre of all being. Which, in retrospect, is really quite silly. The specifications and protocols don't matter to the people that use this stuff. It's all just infrastructure, and unless it's invisible, it's useless (or worse, in the way).I've been calling learning objects "assets" for the last year or so. It's more generic, and doesn't try to be more than it is.


LOs seem like the desperate attempt of educational publishers to keep their revenues flowing, by migrating from deadwood textbooks to digital content. And since having modular, reusable components in IT (in software engineering) produces enormous savings, then it makes sense to have modular, reusable components in learning as well, right? WRONG.As Graham Atwell said earlier in the thread, learning for humans happens in context. Having complete reusability means having no context, and vice versa. Modularity and reusability is great when the material is to be used by a machine, but not when the user is a human brain – our brains need concrete, memorable, weird things that are anchored to our previous experiences and linked to our motivations and goals. LOs can't achieve that while being completely reusable and thus contextless.


Erm, well the debate about what is a learning object has rather moved on from the IEEE definition of 'anything in the universe that's ever been or will ever be'. I would recommend reading Wiley's chapter on the definition of learning objects, and Norm Friesen's critical appraisal of them. Both those papers, and a couple of others, are at the end of my learning objects FAQ at…Although my job is almost exclusively devoted to creating Reusable Learning Objects, I'm agnostic as to how useful, or otherwise, the objects, and more importantly the term learning object, are. I don't like it that the whole LO movement came from, and is still driven by, the US military, government, and corporations, and their conceptions of LOs are centred around training purposes. OTOH, the educational community has co-opted and subverted the original LO concept, and is redefining it for teaching purposes.By all means ditch 'object' as a term, but you'd better come up with something useful to replace it. "E-learning" or "online learning" or "CAL" are generic catch-all terms, and don't describe the discrete 'bite-sized' and reusable learning packages that are being created by folk such as Wisconsin Online ( ) or even ourselves.As for metadata, that's a whole other can of worms… ;-)Just my 2 Euro's worth…


On a more fundamental level, the "need" to define "Learning Objects" stems from the belief (assumption)that ISD is standard and universal, that Instructional Designers use the exact same theory and systematic approach in designing and developing instruction. That is a fallacious assumption and is the cause of the Learning Objects mess. Learning contexts are always unique and situational – a one-size-fits-all ISD model cannot, and does not exist. The root cause of many of these debates stems from the fact that different people hold different beliefs and philosophies towards instructional deisgn, and adopt different approaches to ISD. Hence, it was hardly surprising that the conceptualization of Learning Objects became a point of contention.


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