Issues in the design of reusable electronic learning objects for reuse

Authors

Abstract

The potential for reusability is one of the primary attractions that educators emphasise in discussions about learning objects. This paper explores and analyses a variety of dimensions of reusability that arose from a project rooted in Theology and Religious Studies. These are highly text-based disciplines provoking complex questions when deliberately creating learning objects for reuse, and hence the paper is of relevance to the humanities in general. It opens by providing a background to the project and outlining the form of five Reusable Electronic Learning Objects which were designed specifically to adhere to three principal criteria, including that of reusability. It then considers the concept of reusability itself, before moving to analyse the principal issues that arose during the course of the project. It concludes by offering a first draft of a bipolar continuum that plots a range of dimensions contributing to the reusability of electronic learning objects.

Introduction

Reusable electronic learning objects (RELOs) continue to hold a fascination for those involved in furthering the educational potential of the electronic medium and are of increasing interest to educational practitioners with limited e-learning experience and knowledge. A conviction that RELOs in some way hold an important key to the future of Higher Education is also maintained, and an increasing body of literature focuses on the definition, nature and use of this elusive concept. Perhaps the aspect perceived as having the most potential but also presenting the greatest challenges is the issue of reusability, so that Malcolm stated that:

What is to be captured and how it is to be reused are issues that currently dominate a learning object discourse constructed around the potential for technology to enable learning resource management through the collection and reuse [of] learning objects. (Malcolm, 2005:33)

The principal contribution of this paper is an analysis of the issues that arose when two electronic novices were tasked with the creation of a series of RELOs within the context of the subject areas of Theology and Religious Studies, and hence of the humanities: a highly content-driven domain which in itself raises considerable questions regarding the reusability of material. Having identified a range of essential RELO characteristics (see later), we deliberately set out to construct a set which adhered to these principles, including that of reusability. In so doing, a number of considerations emerged. This paper outlines and analyses these considerations, together with providing and evaluating the ways in which solutions were found and/or limitations identified.

Background

The HEA Subject Centre for Theology and Religious Studies has made a series of small grants available over the past few years, specifically earmarked for the development of teaching using the electronic medium. Our bid to develop a series of RELOs was successful, committing us at that point to determining exactly what these were! Considerable reading led us to conclude firstly that there was no common, agreed-upon definition, but rather a range of diverse understandings of the term (Muzio et al., 2002). Secondly, therefore, we were in a position to define our own understanding and work with that. Keen to simplify matters as much as possible, we identified four principal criteria which we then used to guide our subsequent thinking and design:

  • RELOs should be self-contained and discrete, not depending on or referring to material presented previously, nor pointing forward to something to come.
  • RELOs should be reusable in whatever way we chose to interpret the term.
  • RELOs should have a specifically electronic character, which implied that they should not be equally effective if presented in another form. As the project advanced our opinions diverged over this criteria, one contributor arguing that simple accessibility of teaching content supported its electronic presentation; the other concurred but wanted to push further and explore pedagogical techniques that required a RELO to be electronically mediated.
  • RELOs should be accompanied by metadata which would allow others to access them intelligently.

We constructed five RELOS, as follows:

  1. ‘Holy Communion’. Putting our first toe in the water and awed by the challenge of reusability, we turned to image rather than text and took two contrasting paintings depicting the Christian rite of Holy Communion, kindly made available to us by the Trustees of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art. Accompanying the images was brief biographical information about each of the artists, together with a sample of quotes from one in which he explored his view of the relationship between art and religion and the role that his religion played in his painting.
  2. ‘Critical Thinking Through Book Reviews’. A self-study study skills session.
  3. ‘Bridget Jones and Bridget of Sweden’. A bold attempt to transform a two-hour face-to-face class into a RELO.
  4. ‘Sex, Gender and the Churches’. An exercise that was concerned with transforming a section of an existing paper-based distance learning module into RELO format, using the criteria outlined above.
  5. ‘The Contextual Nature of Christian Theology’. A deliberate attempt to present M-level content, starting from scratch.

The first two RELOs are available through JORUM, the HE Repository. They can be accessed at www.jorum.ac.uk, > Library > JACS > Historical and Philosophical Studies > Theology and Religious Studies.

The concept of reusability

As we developed our RELOs, we also developed an ever-expanding understanding of the concept of reusability. Initially, we anticipated reusability across disciplines, across levels of study, and across modes of delivery (full-time face-to-face, blended learning, distance learning). However, the more we explored and discussed, the more dimensions of reusability emerged. Reuse over and again by the same students in order to practise and master something; reuse of the same material in order to draw out and support different points and themes; reuse that involved a modification of the original material as well as reuse that didn’t… It became increasingly apparent that even the concept of reusability itself was fluid.

Each of our RELOs had specifically in-built ways in which it could be reused, although they did not all share the same characteristics. Clearly RELO 1, principally revolving around images, seemed to lend itself to the greatest degree of reuse. Indeed, when presenting our work at the HEA Annual Conference in Nottingham (July 2006), one delegate fed back that he was a dance teacher and could foresee a significant use of this RELO in his work and welcomed the fact that he could readily access it through Jorum. While Littlejohn states that ‘to increase its reusability, an image should not have associated text’ (2004:27), we considered that the inclusion of brief biographical notes plus a selection of quotes from one of the artists enhanced the reusab
ility of this RELO, turning it principally into a resource, or collection of resources, which could be used either separately or as a combined whole. This introduced the issue of granularity, which will be discussed later, although in this instance the RELO held together in its own right.

RELO 2 deliberately set out to include two different foci simultaneously: the development of students’ ability to think critically, and their ability to write a book review. Hence there was an in-built reusability from the outset. On the one hand, students could concentrate on aspects of critical thinking, on the other, techniques in writing book reviews. The two combined when they were required to write critical book reviews, as can be the case for some of their assessed work. Another dimension of reusability in evidence in this RELO was a potential use across different levels of study. We knew that even MA students sometimes continued to struggle with critical thinking, and those joining our postgraduate programmes from other institutions had not always been required to write critical book reviews. This was a skill demanded from Level 1 upward and the RELO has already been well used (and re-used by the same students either for practice or for a variety of other purposes, introducing yet a further dimension of reusability) by students at each stage of all our programmes.

RELO 3 was a particular challenge, principally on account of its length. The transformation of a two-hour face-to-face class (which presented a case for the contextual nature of spirituality by comparing the claim for a contemporary form with reference to Donna Freitas’s Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise: Spirituality for the Bridget Jones in All of Us (2005) and a traditional monastic form with reference to Benedict’s Rule suggested the need for a differentiation between a ‘master’ RELO which contained a number of subsidiary ones. The master nonetheless sacrificed a significant degree of what we had established in our own minds as genuine RELO-ness, especially in the area of reusability. This will be discussed in the next section.

RELOs 4 and 5 introduced new considerations to the discussions. Deliberately aimed at M-level students, the question of reusability quickly came to the fore in terms of content and level. As collaborating colleagues, this eventually led us respectively to prioritise different dimensions of ‘RELO-ness’ that had less to do with reusability and more to do with the nature of the added electronic value. Nonetheless, embedded within these discussions were questions of content, its presentation and consequent possibilities of reuse, together with the fact that heightened accessibility of material purely on account of its being available electronically contributes to a RELO’s reusability.

Analysis

Our experience in constructing these five RELOs raised a range of issues and challenges focusing on their reusability. Some of these have been briefly introduced previously. These and others are explored in this section. As the discussion progresses, different dimensions arise which suggest opposing poles on a continuum. The section therefore ends by drawing these threads together.

Role of content

During the exploratory stages of the project when our major goal was purely to establish criteria by which to work, a major break-through was achieved when we realised that the concept of a RELO, as we were gradually defining it, was already familiar in the academic domain albeit in a different guise. Obvious examples that also fulfilled at least some of the same criteria were journal articles and chapters in books (especially edited books). Each of us, as academics who regularly contribute papers at conferences and publish research in journals, came to see very clearly how we had used and re-used the same articles and books in our work, yet frequently making very different points and highlighting quite different aspects. This was particularly significant as we wrestled with the reusability of text as distinct from image. Theology and Religious Studies, like many of the humanities, are highly textual, and we quickly came face to face with the challenge of how to construct RELOs that adhered to our criteria—especially that of reusability—when dealing with highly textual and often largely conceptual content and material. We came to realise that the degree of reusability, if the option of subsequent users changing anything within an individual RELO is excluded, relates primarily to the anticipated ‘closeness’ to the material. In other words, the more the content itself was focused on as knowledge to be transmitted, the less reusable a RELO became and the smaller it needed to be. The distinction between teaching materials and teaching resources became important at this point. Rennie and Mason comment:

Those who are interested in reuse and repurposing of learning materials see the advantages of learning objects as part of the change process in higher education—moving away from teaching as being about content toward seeing learning as a process which teachers need to facilitate and support. … Separating out [the] process elements from the content elements is the first priority in working in learning objects. (2004:88, 89)

Similarly Littlejohn observes:

Debates on the reuse of learning objects frequently focus on content, rather than on student learning. (2004:28)

Without specifically engaging with the student learning dimension (and hence providing an example of the point being made!), our experience suggested that the more the focus was on content the less overtly reusable it often became, a challenging concept for any academic.

Linked to the question of the role of content is that of whether a RELO should have a clear set of associated learning objectives. Becta, the UK Government’s ‘key partner in the strategic development and delivery of its information and communications technology (ICY) and e-learning strategy for schools and the learning and skills sector’ (Becta, 2005:5) is clear that:

… a learning object, on an intellectual level, should consist of three primary elements: a learning objective, content relevant to this objective, and a method of “knowledge check” to enable the learner to assess their own understanding and grasp of the learning objective. It should be a self-contained learning resource. (2005:9)

While one of our criteria, that of self-containedness, is present, the absence of any reference to reusability is significant, especially as it is not discussed anywhere within these Best Practice Guidelines issued by Becta. Of our RELOs, number 3, which attempted to transform a two-hour face-to-face class into RELO format, engaged with these questions most profoundly. Given its origins, an overt set of learning objectives were already associated with it. As we worked towards an overall design, it quickly became apparent that we needed to work at two levels and to develop firstly the outer framework, which is referred to above as the ‘master’ RELO; within this framework a number of smaller ‘sub-RELOs’ were embedded. These sub-RELOs fulfilled our RELO criteria much more directly. So, for example, we needed to provide a way of ensuring a basic familiarity with the storyline of Bridget Jones’s Diary. This became a sub-RELO that gave links to a range of internet sites offering reviews and summaries of both book and film
. Those totally unfamiliar with the storyline were asked to skim through these; those with some knowledge could move straight to the second section, consisting of a quiz of 23 true/false questions. Here, students were asked to choose whether statements about the story were accurate or not and provided feedback in both cases. In this way, the story was reconstructed so that the important dimensions relevant to the overall learning objectives were highlighted. However, no learning objectives were directly associated with this sub-RELO, and we finally came to consider this a more representative RELO than the outer framework in which it was placed. It was self-contained, it could be used and re-used in a variety of contexts, and, importantly, it exploited the electronic medium to the maximum. Rather than simply provide the storyline as a straightforward narrative that could equally well be presented on paper, it required students to turn to the web to find information as necessary from a variety of sources and then participate in an interactive quiz. Envisaged possible reuse took the form of a comprehension test for non-native English speakers of film, book or information found on websites; a means of comparing book with film; a means of testing students’ ability to use search engines effectively… all of which took the RELO well beyond the Theology and Religious Studies context for which it was created. A sub-RELO of an entirely different kind was designed to introduce students to a designated Bridget Jones counterpart, Bridget of Sweden. Here students were provided with a list of relevant URLs both textual and containing images that they would need to access in order to compile a brief 200-word summary of Bridget’s life and submit it electronically. Other sub-RELOs were embedded directly from the web itself. The Rule of St Benedict is available electronically in a variety of translations, editions and forms. Essentially textual and pedagogically un-adapted for electronic presentation, we were prepared to sacrifice our criteria of heightened electronic value in recognition of the value of availability and of accessing an original primary source. Students were given in the master RELO a task that asked them to engage with the Rule in a particular way.

Granularity

As our RELOs developed, we empathised more and more with Muzio, Heins and Mundell’s observation that ‘Making ELOs as small as possible allows them to be easily reused without change, or with minimal change, and to be combined in a variety of ways in other applications’ (2002:24). Two important factors in the discussion here are firstly size and secondly change, or adaptation. The first relates to granularity and is discussed in this section; the second is considered in the following section.

Since our RELOs were intended to function within the conventional HE modular system in the UK in which anticipated student effort is measured by time and linked to credits, time for completion of a RELO became one of our considerations, although this in turn reintroduced our previous questions of whether the RELO was intended as a resource or as content-driven teaching material. RELO 3 was our ‘biggest’ RELO when measured in terms of specifically provided content, however that was to be used. (The most appropriate way of determining this might actually be that of computer file size, although even this precludes the inclusion of images and audio and video material.) However, we realised somewhat to our surprise when RELO 5 was finally completed, that it could almost be considered a 15-credit module, with sufficient student effort attached to it to merit 150 hours of work, especially as the RELO incorporates a range of interactive exercises that places heavy demands on the student in terms of effort. As with so much else in discussions about learning objects, therefore, the issues are fluid, although well discussed by Duncan (2003:15) who suggests that ‘The different approaches … include: Educational terms (course, module, unit); purpose terms (asset, reusable learning object); and size terms (number of pages, duration to complete)’. Even the RELOs that we considered to be tightly integrated could nonetheless be broken down into smaller segments. So the two images of RELO 1 could be used separately; each of the individual book reviews embedded within RELO 2 could be considered a RELO in its own right, as could each of the individual subsections and all the additional material to which the RELO was linked through hypertexting. Even the largely textual RELOs such as 4 and 5 had subsections identifiable through paragraphs, shifts in foci and separate activities. We realised that RELO 5 could theoretically be reorganised (with some modifications) into a number of smaller RELOs. However, in order to produce a RELO that met the aims and objectives of those laid down for RELO 5 all of the content and form was deemed necessary.

Muzio, Heins and Mundell’s comment (above) might be viewed as somewhat simplistic, therefore, and should be interpreted as referring to a ‘complete’ RELO, which has necessarily to be used in its entirety. Our work would suggest, however, that it is extremely difficult to define or create a RELO that cannot in some way be reused. Even the ‘smallest’ self-contained paragraph of text may contain a number of ideas, concepts or, perhaps, sentences, one of which a teacher might choose to focus on and use in a specific way in one context or in another.

Adaptability

The ability to change and adapt a RELO was the second important factor identified at the beginning of the previous section. Our RELO 2 most clearly lent itself to adaptation, and indeed, we offered it to colleagues working in entirely different disciplines in our Institute, one of whom has altered it to contribute to her work with teachers of Gifted and Talented children. Although an integrated whole, this RELO contained a number of embedded book reviews accessed either through hypertext links to internet sites such as amazon.com, or written and published by members of our academic staff team. Given our academic context of Theology and Religious Studies, all these reviews related to some aspect of these subject disciplines. It would be a relatively easy task, however, to remove these and replace them with others from another discipline, especially as this would not require a sophisticated degree of electronic ‘know-how’. Although our colleague found it necessary to alter aspects of the surrounding text to suit her purposes, it was (and continues to be) our hope that this RELO can be quite easily adapted by using different book reviews.

On a practical level, to change and adapt a RELO does not only involve a modification of its content but also requires those wanting to do the changing to have sufficient and appropriate electronic back-up in the form of software, experience and confidence in using the software, and, potentially, professional support from their own institutional learning technologists. Although Jorum is still in its infancy, and Jorum’s own learning technologists have been readily available and extremely helpful when approached, we have nonetheless struggled to upload RELO 3, and have not yet embarked on the reverse process of downloading a RELO from elsewhere and attempting to modify it for our own purposes. We are still working at a level where the majority of academic staff are familiar with applying styles to a Word document and can therefore quickly grasp how an application such as, for example, Course Genie, operates. However, anything more complicated requires rec
ourse to more experienced and IT-competent colleagues. Similarly, on the occasions when academic specialists might be keen to make pedagogical rather than content changes, the electronic wherewithal to achieve their goals is frequently likely to be beyond them. Some of our own goals, especially in RELOs 1 and 3, were only achieved with a great deal of persistence and outside help. Academic staff competence in electronic manipulation so that existing RELOs can be modified is rarely, if ever, cited as an issue in the reusability of electronic learning objects. However, in our experience, it is of equal, if not greater, significance than many of the other issues, despite being of a different genre.

A bipolar continuum?

Much of the discussion above has suggested the presence of a bipolar continuum on which individual RELOs can be placed according to their level of reusability. At this point, we are defining a RELO in the widest sense of the word, lessening the focus on granularity and taking it to apply to a self-contained electronically provided ‘block’ which is intended and designed for teaching and learning purposes. The continuum offered and discussed below (Figure 1) should be taken as a work in progress, not a definitive analysis. It is our hope that others will engage with and build on it. Taking the two poles of the continuum as those of high and limited reusability (refuting therefore the idea that some RELOs are not reusable in any way), we have identified five principal issues relating to the issue of reusability.

Figure 1: A Continuum of the Reusability of Learning Objects

High reusability Limited reusability
1. Content a teaching resource Content the teaching focus
2. RELO plays a facilitative role RELO a transmitter of information
3. Largely independent of context Largely dependent on context
4. Easy to change and adapt Difficult to change and adapt
5. Simple electronic format Complex electronic format

Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are linked, making the point that the more emphasis is put on content for its own sake, and the more a RELO is seen as means of transmitting ‘high-quality’ (accurate, up-to-date, relevant) information, the less reusable it becomes. In contrast, the more the content functions as a resource that is used towards a bigger goal (often that of the personal growth and development of the learner through acquiring skills such as reflection and meaning-making; see, for example, Le Cornu, 2005), then the more reusable it is since certain aspects can be prioritised over others according to the teaching and learning situation at hand. Similarly, turning to familiar metaphors that express possible relationships between teaching and learners but here applying them to RELOs themselves, a RELO created with the express intention of imparting specific information is likely to be less reusable than one aimed at facilitating, or even provoking, learning in a way appropriated and developed by students themselves. Finally, an emphasis on content as accurate information frequently implies and relies upon a previous context as well as pointing towards an anticipated continuation. This too restricts reusability. So Koppi et al. write:

Another common attribute of a learning object is that it is recontextualizable, meaning that it can be utilized in different contexts as determined by the teacher and/or learner. Reusability of learning objects and their inherent context seem to be inversely related (Hodgins, 2002). In other words, if a learning object is heavily encumbered with its context then a user may find it impossible to utilize in a different context. It follows that maximum reusability depends on how readily the object can be removed from any particular context. (2005:84-85)

These three dimensions of reusability focus on teaching, learning and content. The last two revolve around the structure of a RELO and competence in working with electronic medium by academic and academic-related staff. Each of these has been appropriately discussed previously.

Summary and conclusion

While considerable, and increasing, numbers of academic publications discuss issues relating to the reusability of learning objects in theory, the principal contribution of this paper is in its engagement with a deliberate and concrete attempt to create a series of RELOs that adhered to set criteria, including that of reusability. The background to the creation of five quite different RELOs was outlined, and the basic characteristics of each provided. Each one differed from the others in the ways in which it could be considered genuinely ‘reusable’, prompting an early conclusion that some RELOs are more reusable than others. Three specific issues came to the fore as particularly relevant: the role of content, a RELO’s granularity, and its potential adaptability. Further analysis suggested that although granularity was important and significant, and often did contribute to a RELO’s reusability (or lack thereof), this was nonetheless not crucial to its reuse, especially if the RELO was considered to function as a resource. Five dialectics were identified as pertaining to a RELO’s reusability, contributing to a basic bipolar continuum demonstrating characteristics necessary for high reusability, and those likely to restrict reusability. While these should be viewed as works in progress and may in time require modification, it is hoped that the overall discussion has gone some way to formalising the dialogue between theory and practice in this important area of pedagogy.

Acknowledgements

While it is unconventional to include acknowledgements in a paper of this nature, it would be highly remiss of us not to acknowledge both the funding we received from the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophy and Religious Studies for the original project, and the unstinting help and encouragement we received from colleagues at Oxford Brookes University. Many thanks therefore to Simon Smith, Greg Benfield, Richard Francis, Rhona Sharpe, Jim Hyndman, Tom Cosgrove, Annie Haight, and many other colleagues at Westminster Institute of Education.

References and bibliography

Becta (2005), Packaging and Publishing Learning Objects: Best Practice Guidelines. (PDF)

Benedict’s Rule http://www.kansasmonks.org/RuleOfStBenedict.html.

Duncan, C. (2003), ‘Granularization’, in Littlejohn, A. (ed.), Reusing Online Resources: A sustainable approach to e-learning, London: Kogan Page, pp. 12–19.

Freitas, D. (2005), Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise: Spirituality for the Bridget Jones in All of Us, San Francisco:
JosseyBass.

Koppi, T., Bogle, L. and Bogle, M. (2005), ‘Learning objects, repositories, sharing and reusability’, Open Learning, 20 (1), pp. 83–91.

Le Cornu, A. (2005), ‘Building on Jarvis: Towards a holistic model of the processes of experiential learning’, Studies in the Education of Adults, 37, (2), pp. 166–181.

Littlejohn, A. (ed.) (2003), Reusing Online Resources: A sustainable approach to e-learning, London: Kogan Page.

Littlejohn, A. (2004), ‘From Learning Objects to learning design’, Exchange, 6, pp. 27–29.

Malcolm, M. (2005), ‘The exercise of the object: Issues in resource reusability and reuse’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 36, (1), pp. 33–41.

Muzio, J. A., Heins, T., and Mundell, R. (2002), ‘Experiences with reusable E-learning objects: From theory to practice’, Internet and Higher Education, 5, pp. 21–34.

Rennie, F. and Mason, R. (2004), The Connection: Learning for the Connected Generation, Greenwich Connecticut: Information Age Publishing, pp. 79–93.

Contact Details

Dr Alison LeCornu, Westminster Institute of Education

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