Whatever happened to learning objects?

I’ve been in California for almost a month, staying with my parents. My mother is a K-12 science teacher, who is getting to grips with the new technology available at her school: rather than write notes on an overhead projector, she creates Powerpoint presentations (and moans about how boring they are), and her students all ask if they can use Moodle to message each other once they’ve done their work. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that this is the only feature the kids are enthusiastic about.

As many of you know, the time available to a teacher is very limited. Most are bogged down in marking, lesson planning and the usual administrative tasks, and don’t have time to learn about things like Creative Commons, web 2.0, and the many tools available to them. In my mother’s case, even if she wanted to use an external tool, the network manager at her school won’t let her; all content must be stored on the school server. Consequently, although teachers are encouraged to have websites, everyone creates them in Microsoft Word because it’s easy and they know how it works.

Many teachers use Google Image Search to find visual materials for handouts and Powerpoint slides – something that’s clearly illegal, but probably very widespread. This is something that’s borne out of necessity rather than malicious intent; if there was somewhere where teachers could go to find images, slides, handouts and ideas, they would use it.

As far as I understand it, this was the original intent of learning object repositories. The problem is, the designs that emerged – and the politics behind them – were overcomplicated. Rights issues, revenue and an overabundance of structured metadata meant that the barriers to entry, where entry was even possible, were limited. Unfortunately, while academics are great at analysis and research, they’re traditionally not fantastic at building systems: features often get built to satisfy a hypothesis rather than to meet a need. As a result, the fundamental requirements of such a system were missed.

Here are the requirements for a simple system that anybody can use. Think of it as a Flickr for educators and learners:

Low technical barrier to entry. It should be web-based. AJAX and the abundance of cheap web scripting languages make this a much better environment to build a system in than it’s ever been before. Users should be able to contribute any type of file as easily as any other, and the interface should be designed to make this as trouble free as possible for non-technical users. Videos should be previewable in the page, Youtube-style, and sound files should be playable without a download. A simple, open API allows for client applications on top of

Low political barrier to entry. Access to the system itself should be available to as many people as possible. It’s possible that users might want to restrict the people they share items with – for example, within their school – and that should be possible. But those restrictions should be on an item-by-item basis rather than on the system as a whole. Because most institutions will be allergic to building a system available to absolutely everybody, this is a better fit for some kind of commercial company.

Low barrier to contribution. Anyone should be able to upload an item, with no moderation. If it’s a dubious item, or it breaks copyright law, it needs to be flagged as such, and some kind of moderating body needs to be able to adjudicate. Setting access and usage rights – including setting a CC license – should be as simple as checking some boxes. Metadata just comes down to title, description and tags.

Low barrier to search. Search occurs through tags and full-text search; advanced search includes filtering by rights and mimetype. (So if you only want MP3s you can use commercially, that’s two options.) There’s a central service, but the server software can be installed locally at institutions and interlinked using P2P protocols at the server level, transparently to the user. Because of the APIs, search can be integrated into other applications – not just on the web, but also things like Powerpoint and Word.

This is a very different approach, but the underlying technology isn’t hugely complicated. It’s just a case of making things simple, lightweight and flexible. The old systems design motto comes to mind: keep it simple, stupid. Simple, lightweight and flexible = power.






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