reflections and ideas on open and distance learning - by irwin devries

Tag: Learning Design

OER in the land down under

Some smart planning placed the 3rd meeting of OERu Anchor Partners right after the Australian National Symposium on OER this week. That meant a number of non-Australian participants could arrive a few days early and participate in both events. Held in Hobart, Tasmania, the two-day Symposium kept us busy with an engaging mixture of keynotes, larger workshops, institutional showcases, and small group discussions with reports, all centred around successes and challenges in a variety of Australian OER/OEP programs and projects. Impressive numbers of Australian universities were involved in the program, including:

  • Wollongong
  • Southern Queensland
  • La Trobe
  • Charles Sturt
  • Western Sydney
  • Swinburne University of Technology
  • Deakin
  • Tasmania (host university)

Without doing justice to the full program, here are a few quick items that jump to mind from the two-day blur that we were treated to:

Elder Aunty Brenda Hodge‘s warm welcome to participants.

UTAS’s development and Senate approval of a TELT White Paper along with a set of  Curriculum Principles, both with values-based OER focus, and the building of open practices into teaching performance expectations. From the Curriculum Principles document: “We contribute to a vibrant community of practice who share, adapt and reuse high quality resources to enhance and extend our curriculum offerings.” (Like the sound of that!)

The use of OER, flexible and distance programs of the University of the South Pacific in the face of difficult technological and other challenges as recounted by Theresa Koroivulaono.

Doctoral student Mais M. Fatayer’s description of a model used to create a faculty/student community of practice within the classroom that creates and shares OERs for others to use.

Collaborations and knowledge building/sharing about open badges among a committed body of volunteers and agencies such as Mozilla, Creative Commons, MIT Media Lab, Jamlab, Open Knowledge Foundation, and NYU Steinhardt Shool work at P2PU as recounted by Delia Browne.

Christine Ewan’s consultation project with the Higher Education Standards Panel to advise the government on how quality practices may be affected by “disaggregation” in higher education, as with the introduction of credit for MOOCs, RPL and other such alternative methods of assessing learning.

Along with the advances in OER and OEP described in open sessions and small groups, the challenges faced in Australia will sound very familiar to anyone involved in this field. Challenges of understanding and promoting open licensing practices, funding, the need for new learning design approaches and models, finding and sharing OERs, the need to realign our institutions along more “open” lines are just a few examples. However, the sharing of experiences and ideas among participants at the symposium was highly encouraging and the signs are clear that we’ll all be hearing a lot more about OER/OEP in Australia in the months and years to come.

Open Education Week – special event

Live Streamed Event: Designing and Assessing Engaging Learning Activities

In recognition of Open Education Week, Michelle Harrison and Melissa Jakubec from the Thompson Rivers University, Open Learning Instructional Design team will discuss their research on designing and evaluating engaging learning activities in the online environment.

As part of their departmental goal to develop learning experiences that are engaging and meaningful to students who are working in a distance learning environment, they have undertaken a research project to: (1) Create a set of promising learning design patterns that work in the organizational context and (2) Develop a methodology to evaluate learning activity designs/patterns so that they can be improved.

This presentation will describe their research context and learning design, results of early workshops and focus groups with instructional designers about learning activities, and survey results from learners on the effectiveness of learning activities in online courses. They will also describe their proposed methodology to help evaluate learning activity effectiveness and course designs at Open Learning and will relate this to research activity that could be done in blended or face-to-face environments.

There will also be an opportunity for live chat questions and comments.
Time: 11:30 AM Pacific time (UTC-8)

Instructional designers on instructional design

It was extremely interesting to sit in on a group of instructional designers at a brainstorming session hosted by UBC’s Centre for Teaching and Learning a few weeks ago. Discussion themes centred on instructional design and included innovation and creativity; Web 2.0. and social media; mobile learning; learning environments outside of structured courses; and the future of instructional design.

This was obviously going to be pretty open ended discussion, with no beginning and no end. My impression is that trying to nail things down is a little like trying to survey buildings under construction while perched on the roof of a passing train where the track is being built just in time in front of the train—and no-one has the plans for any of this. Universities are under huge pressure to change, adapt and reinvent themselves out of an age-old tradition where the badges of success are still largely based on narrow definitions of learning and scholarship. Teaching is challenged by the massive influx into the classrooms of mobile devices that can confound the standard model of educational delivery. Distance education and e-learning are swamped with the potential of new tools, social networking and mobile devices. Enterprise systems retain their distinction as lumbering behemoths sucking in all light, energy and sound, and learning management systems keep swirling around the periphery looking for some way to land. Alongside, the very real issues of privacy and copyright legislation in a digital, post 911 era are just beginning to rear up into challenges so big they have the potential to block out the sun.

And yet…who isn’t having some fun with all this! It’s our job to stay with it – keep learning, testing, experimenting and in many cases muddling along to the best of our abilities. Further, we need our own communities of practice to keep us balanced, on track and maybe even sane. I think Tony Bates nailed it with this magnificent wrap-up of the session: “All these problems were solved in the pub after the meeting, but unfortunately no record was kept.”

A ride on the Wayback Machine

This is a temporary diversion. I went to the Wayback Machine to dig up an old series I wrote back in 1999 on a British Columbia higher education listserv (remember those?). I add it here for historical interest only. Feel more than free to ignore it.

Instructional Management System Standards
by Irwin DeVries (posted on the BC Educational Technology User Group Listserv Fall 1999)


This posting is the first part of a discussion on the emerging Instructional Management System (IMS) standards for online education and learning. There will be 4 parts in total, intended as discussion starters.

Part 1 introduces the concept of online education and learning standards; Part 2 will explore what a digital world with online education and learning standards might–or might not–look like; and Part 3 will provide a general overview of the technologies that could underlie standards. Finally, Part 4 will collect information gathered from the discussion with a view to identifying possible approaches to online education and learning standards within the BC postsecondary system.


Although it is becoming an increasingly important medium for education, the Internet is still in a state of near chaos. For course developers, finding online digital resources requires combing through vast masses of irrelevant data. Once resources are located, determining validity, ownership and other important information is almost impossible.

For learners, finding appropriate learning opportunities is at the very best a highly hit-and-miss proposition. (Ever try to find a course on something specific on the Internet? Good luck!) For administrators, connecting online courses and tests with student record systems is a logistical headache.

All of us involved in online education and learning are making do with a bad situation. At the bottom of this problem lies a serious lack of standards–standards for finding and incorporating pieces of the vast, sadly underutilized resources available in the digital world; standards for interoperability of different course development and delivery and student management systems; and standards for classifying, cataloging and locating learning opportunities on the Internet. It would not be difficult to think of things to add to this list.”Educom Review” describes educators’ efforts to date as “random acts of progress” (Vol. 34, No. 6, p. 33)–probably a fair characterization.

The IMS Cooperative is the child of Educause, “…an international, nonprofit association whose mission is to help shape and enable transformational change in higher education through the introduction, use, and management of information resources and technologies in teaching, learning, scholarship, research, and institutional management” ( IMS was established specifically to create standards for online teaching and learning systems. The intended beneficiaries of the standards include students, educators, content developers, educational institutions and businesses that provide learning services and applications. Although this is not the only body that is proposing Internet standards (there are many), it is prominent in Internet-based education, and is recognized as such world-wide. IMS is working in collaboration with ARIADNE (Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks for Europe), a European organization with similar goals; the AICC (Aviation Industry CBT Committee, probably the world’s largest CBT standards body); the W3C (the World Wide Web Committee, which governs standards for the Internet); the Dublin Core, a group that has developed well-known metadata standards for the Internet; and other significant agencies.

There are two levels of membership in IMS. The higher level is “Investment Members,” who have representation on the IMS Advisory Board and Technical Board. The qualifications to join this level are $150,000 US. “Investment members are able to influence the direction in which the IMS develops so that the vision that they have for their own internal development activities is consistent with the specifications” ( Investors include Apple, Asymmetrix, Blackboard, California State University, IBM, Macromedia, Microsoft, Oracle, Peoplesoft, Sun Microsystems, U.S. Department of Defense, and a bunch of other heavy hitters. (How would you like to be a fly on the wall at one of those meetings?)

The next level of membership is Developers, who pay $1,000 US and thereby may contribute to the technical specifications, experiment with prototypes, and receive access to a number of other benefits. This network includes a large number of colleges and universities as well as companies that have some involvement in online education and learning.

The next posting will go out in a few days. Until then, if this topic interests you, you may wish to check out the IMS website ( The FAQs for providers and developers are particularly helpful. What kinds of issues would you like to see included in this discussion? Do you have any experience with IMS or other, related standards? What initial questions come to mind? Please feel free to speak up!

Standards for Online Learning (Part Two).

You are building an online, second-year, three-credit horticulture course. You’ve completed your planning and are ready to begin developing and assembling resources. With a few keystrokes in a specialized search engine, you locate eight photographs of “Levisticum officinale,” along with the creators’ names, copyright notes and other key information. You then search for exam questions, and locate a number of item banks that you can acquire. With another search, you quickly collect a bibliography of online resources. You tag the ones you want, then auto-sort them according to your institution’s style sheet.

When you pull in pages of content that you might locate and repurpose, their original format is stripped out and replaced with yours, again with a few keystrokes. You decide to turn endnotes into footnotes and do this with a few clicks, and your course re-sorts. You create one link to a series of on-line resources, through which the learner can click in succession while remaining inside your course. Permissions are automatically forwarded to copyright agencies, which log the transactions and conduct the necessary “paperwork.” (How long is that word going to last?)
Widen out the lens a little…your colleagues are doing the same thing, thanks to your institution which is part of a province-wide cooperative that has negotiated the necessary arrangements with various copyright agencies (think of an e-comm CanCopy).

Beyond course development, with a simple transaction you can load the student records from your course into your institution’s student record system, and vice versa. And other faculty who prefer to use other course delivery programs can do the same. Every student who participates in online learning in this system has a “profile” which can be simply transferred from one system to another.

How did learners find this course in the first place? Simple…one, from Arizona, was looking for a 3-credit course that would fulfill an elective requirement in her agriculture degree program. She searched for a course and entered criteria for credit, level, and accreditation. Another, from Australia, had read your book and wanted to take a course from you as he was intrigued by your ideas and searched by your name. A third was a farmer in BC who was looking for resources on organic pest control, a key topic in your course, and searched for a course that provided west-coast-specific information. And bonus!–an organic products company in Washington state has requested rights to Unit 3 of your course, which they plan to repurpose into a user support website on their products. Each one of these was readily able to find you, your course, and detailed information about you and the course, by searching according to their own requirements.

“…you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
As several persons have already noted in this discussion, there are technological developments that can help move us toward this edutopia. These include the use of metadata and XML in the development of online course technology. But before we focus on the technology (something we technophiles tend to do too quickly), let’s back up a little and try get a sense of the bigger picture. (More about the technology in the next posting.)
There are two little creatures on my shoulders, one on each side. One has little horns and a pitchfork, and says something like this: “Hey, before we link arms, light candles and start swaying to the music, let’s get a dose of reality. Put down your bong for a minute and ask yourself, does Microsoft really want to be interoperable with Sun and Oracle? Is interoperability really a big issue for Blackboard, FirstClass and WebCT? Are Asymmetrix and Macromedia eager to see their products working with one another’s like Russian dolls? Perhaps IMS started out with the best of intentions, but will it turn out to be the equivalent of a Royal Commission, studying the problem indefinitely and writing white papers that no-one reads? Let’s remember there’s a war out there, and the name of the game is money and cyberworld domination. The way to succeed is to integrate with complementary technologies, not competitive ones. Stay proprietary. The winner gets to set the technologies. And hey, who cares who sets the standards, as long as there’s one dominant player who has all our best interests in mind… :>0 If you’ve followed IMS over the past few years, you’ve seen enough stops, starts, and drastic changes in direction that one has to wonder-what’s really steering it?”

The critter on the other shoulder strums an angry chord on its harp and fires a withering glare at the horned critter. “How are we going to improve the situation if you talk like that? This is a serious, credible effort to provide leadership. The best way to make it work is to get on board and do our part to support these efforts. The results may be some years away, but if we don’t start working at it now, the horned critter will get its way and then where will we be?”

Standards for Online Learning (Part Three)

Instructional Management Systems

IMS is been working on scope documents in three areas. First, IMS is developing specifications for “searching, digital packaging, and modularizing content with the goal that any content can run on any learning server.” The idea behind this, as described in the previous post, is that learning resources can be moved from one use or context to another and/or located with minimal difficulty. Second, IMS is working on specifications for recording learner progress through learning sequences that will enable the creation of “learner profiles” that can be imported from one platform to another. Third, IMS is developing specifications for the enterprise integration of learning servers, student record systems, content repositories and electronic commerce. IMS points out that these specifications would not interfere with the autonomy of software developers but would only guide the definition of certain core elements.

As you may have gathered, when speaking about the IMS we are looking at a small canoe paddling in a very large river. And it’s not the only canoe; there are others. We’re not talking the Swanee River here… No, think the Chilliwack River after two weeks of rain. Or think “Deliverance” …then again, maybe not…

However, in spite of the many currents, rapids and forks, there is some direction. This direction is XML, “eXtensible Markup Language” as developed by the W3C, the organization that sets technical standards for the World Wide Web. And metadata, as mentioned earlier, is an important current this river, particularly as it is being developed by the “Learning Objects Metadata” project by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). We’ll come back to this… But first a warning: in this post we are scratching one scratch on the surface of the surface. Digging into these matters is like peeling a gargantuan onion (even the tears part)–and the onion is still alive, growing and mutating day by day.

What is XML? It is a child of SGML, Standard Generalized Markup Language, which was approved in 1986 as an ISO standard. SGML is a not a markup language but, rather, is a meta-language, a framework for defining markup languages. (So why isn’t it called Standard Generalized Meta-markup Language? Your guess is as good as mine… this may seem a minor digression, but don’t feel bad if the plethora of acronyms in XML/SGML etc. gets you scratching your head. Tip: don’t buy a used car from anyone who says he or she is on top of it all.)

What, by the way is a markup language? To put it simply, it’s all the stuff behind the scenes that turns one huge jumble of words into a structured and formatted document. Ever wonder why importing documents from one word processing program to another requires specialized import tools, if you are fortunate enough to find one that will do the job (and don’t expect too much even then)? It’s because of proprietary document structuring and formatting. If developers of word processing software were to use XML and some related common standards to create their products, there would still be a variety of word processors each with unique look, feel and functionality, but the text created with their products could be freely imported and exported among the word processors and even reused in different ways. Better yet, documents created ten years ago in XML (or SGML, to avoid the anachronism) would still be accessible by today’s word processors with all that new power and functionality (and bugs) at your disposal. Rather than using proprietary methods for inserting structural and formatting commands into documents, each word processor would follow a common set of rules. A similar situation already exists with databases; most modern databases have proprietary features such as interface design, navigational structure, and querying functions. However, the data can be sorted and presented countless ways, it can be queried in a systematic manner, and it remains readily available to be transferred to another proprietary database, loaded into a graphics program to create charts and tables, or posted on a web page. The most important feature, then, is that the content is separate from the structure: the data can be freed from its container to be manipulated and repurposed.

XML was developed mainly as an answer to the limitations of HTML. Like those word processors we complained about earlier, HTML mixes up markup with content and thus creates documents that are limited in their functionality and transportability.
For instance, HTML mixes markup tags with structural tags such as those for bold type, with those for headings. The difference between these two types of tags is the first specifies how the text will appear (boldface), whereas the second specifies a structural component (a heading) of the document (oddly enough, it also includes a font size specification). Whether the heading is “Learning Objective,” “Quiz” or “Bibliography,” in HTML it is indistinguishable from any other content; the only thing in common may be the bracketing of the tag. Using XML, however, one could define , or tags as structural components of the document, and the content that would appear underneath these would be independent of any other markup. One could set up a related “stylesheet” (XSL) that would specify what, for instance, a should look like in terms of formatting; a change to the XSL stylesheet would immediately affect all learning objectives. Documents created in this way are “structured”; that is, each component is clearly identified and tagged apart from its format. In terms of interoperability, one course delivery application could, if working to an agreed upon system, import learning objectives from another application AS learning objectives, not as chunks of undifferentiated text.

XML is not limited to documents; it can be used for a whole range of other functions such as electronic commerce or other types of transactions. As it is structured to be machine-readable, it can be used in applications that would be unthinkable with HTML.
The real strength of XML is its extensibility. XML is a meta-markup language. Whereas HTML is a fixed set of tags (you take what they give you), XML permits an author, a group or an agency to define a unique structure, its elements and the tags that go with it, as long as certain rules are followed. These definitions are called schemas (schemata if you want to be picky).

Ok, so we have all these nicely structured documents or other resources distributed throughout the digital world. How do we find them? Now we’re getting to metadata. A companion to XML, metadata (“data about data” ) is used to describe resources in a systematic way, much as a library catalogue or an address book does. Metadata itself can be structured with the use of XML. The metadata then gains all the functionality that XML documents have. Metadata bound to XML makes it possible to create search utilities that can search, sort and manipulate metadata in countless different ways.

As with XML, metadata itself can be structured in schemas, which brings us back to IMS. IMS has proposed a metadata schema that describes educational resources. These are a few of the elements described in the draft IMS metadata system: Title, Language, Keywords, Course, Student, Life Cycle, Version, Format, Size, Interactivity, Semantic Density (my personal favorite…), Age Range, Difficulty, Rights, Cost. There’s more; you can find the general schema at . IMS is working to build upon the metadata standards developed by IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) using the IEEE Learning Objects Metadata Model

As implied by the “river” metaphor, the development of metadata standards is still in state of flux. One of the results has been that there is at present (as far as I have been able to determine) no utility to locate and process (parse) XML-bound IMS metadata. It will probably be some time before we see something like this. IMS has made available, via Sun, a Java-based application for creating metadata. However, this is still in the early stages of development. Apart from that, only the most recent browsers are capable of parsing XML in any reliable way. Microsoft has established BizTalk, an XML implementation initiative. A group of others including IBM, Sun, Lotus, Apache and others, oddly suspicious of this magnanimous move towards “open source” technologies, is countering with their own initiative. (Would the history of Java have anything to do with this?)

Darcy Clark at the University of Michigan built his own learning object cataloging and search site at Although this is built with database rather than XML technology, it gives us an impressive glimpse into a possible future.
NEEDS uses a database, a SQL query structure and IMS metadata descriptors to provide learning resources for the engineering professions; see An interesting presentation of IMS metadata as applicable in mathematics can be found at

Telelearning (a component of Telecampus New Brunswick) completed a pilot project in which a number of institutions, including U. Vic., wrote IMS metadata definitions for a number of online courses; see It should be noted that at this stage the metadata is human-readable only (in HTML) not-machine readable (i.e. in XML, able to be processed by a search engine).

C2T2 and OLA set up a website on structured information and called “Thinking about Metadata” at as a discussion primer for the C2T2 1999 Spring Camp.

I’d like to start by thanking everyone who followed or contributed to this discussion. There have been some excellent contributions, in terms of both comments and questions. Like the River Jordan, the topic is deep and wide. The question now is…what next? Where do we go from here, if anywhere at all? So let’s begin with…

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s simple enough. The first question we might ask then is, Is it broke? The consensus appears to be clearly, Yes it’s broken. Locating and manipulating digital learning resources via the Internet is at present a chaotic enterprise. HTML is unsuitable for handling structured information. Online learning management systems are bound to rigid proprietary structures. We are still, figuratively speaking, hacking through the online learning jungle with machetes and mosquito nets. So we look for a…

Future generations (remember, Internet “generations” are measured in fruit fly years) of learning resource development tools could enable us to create XML-based structured learning resources using DTDs (Document Type Definitions) built by leaders in the education field (possibly discipline-specific). Building online learning resources could be a simple as plugging content into any one or a combination of model, modular (and easily adaptable) learning templates designed to support a range of pedagogical approaches, learning styles, content considerations and desired outcomes among other things. This could be an open source movement, or one or more dominant players could create such compelling, flexible proprietary tools that we wouldn’t need to worry about all this stuff any more.

Thanks to metadata, there will be improved methods for standardized identification and description of online learning resources, enabling their easy discovery and re-use. IMS and IEEE may develop a definitive learning objects metadata model. Tools to create, manage and discover resources could become ubiquitous.

As some have hinted in the discussion, although XML has been adopted as a W3C standard, dominant players in the Internet world may subvert moves toward open standards and create flavors of XML that work only with specific operating systems, browsers or suites. There are those who would like to simplify XML, as some developers believe it is too complex for 95% of the tasks it will be given. Others would like to incorporate more of the full functionality of SGML, XML’s parent language. Many of these issues lie outside the scope of individual and institutional course developers and possibly even to some extent outside the hands of the online learning management system developers.

At present only the latest browsers have properly functioning XML parsers. Tools for developing XML are not widespread. Beyond pools of technical specialists, there is not a widespread base of knowledge about XML, metadata and DTDs. The technology behind them is complex and rapidly changing. Many interests are seeking to influence these developments.

As for metadata, IMS standards are not final. Although IMS, along with such organizations as ARIADNE and AICC, is now basing its work on IEEE standards (Learning Objects Metadata Model) in order to secure a stronger foundation, early adopters of metadata standards at the local level will almost certainly need to struggle through numerous iterations down the road before things settle down. As with XML, there are no widespread tools for creation of metadata let alone compliant search utilities. And again, there is currently no widespread body of expertise in metadata, at least not in the education field.

Finally, lest we become too enthralled with the technical possibilities offered by new technologies, let’s be reminded they have only a “second order effect on the painful process of actually learning” (Jess H. Brewer, 2/12/99). McLuhan aside, this rings very true! Perhaps there is a fork down the road: one way leads to a technology that supports (not supplants!) flexible, dynamic and creative learning design and the building of learning communities; the other leads to a meaningless proliferation of decontextualized learning (read “market”) objects, dissociated from any meaningful dialogue with a learning community. Of course these are extremes, but are they not both very real possibilities? These are not just technical matters; they involve our educational vision…let’s keep our eyes open to the bigger issues.

Several people in this discussion asked whether we should become involved in some way with these developments. Alan Cooper (1/12/99) pointed out three possible areas of involvement for us: awareness, adaptation and influence. These three areas probably best encapsulate the things we can do to move ahead.

Awareness: As we’ve seen during this discussion, members of this list have a wide-ranging network of contacts and other information sources; let’s keep the information rolling in! A list of XML and metadata resources could possibly be added to the C2T2 website (gee it’s easy suggesting work for other people). Perhaps we can learn more about the pioneering work that OLA is doing using XML/SMGL, DTDs and metadata. More and more conferences are including these topics in their lineups. Awareness is the starting point for action.

Adaptation: Although it would be premature if not impossible to undertake a full scale adoption of these technologies at this time, a certain amount of adaptation might help us move forward in our understanding of, and preparation for, their potential. As a system we could perhaps take on one or more model or testbed projects. For instance (more work for others again…), metadata could be incorporated into the DLCD (Distributed Learning Course Directory) or portions of it, with an interim search capacity until better tools come along. Even if we don’t have IMS or other advanced search tools yet, we’ve seen examples of reasonable facsimiles using database queries or other homemade search tools. The OER (Online Educational Resources) project could be a good foundation for further research into XML and metadata issues. Perhaps IMS student profiling standards need to be studied by an agency such as CEISS. We also need talk to our librarians about their role in metadata–after all, they are the cataloguing and classification professionals. Perhaps we can work with their professional groups to advance our understanding of and preparation for metadata adoption in BC.

Influence: Do we want some influence in the development of metadata standards? Could C2T2 or another representative organization in BC take the lead in this area, perhaps becoming part of the IMS cooperative and seeking input from the rest of the system? These are issues we can continue to explore.

Again, thanks everyone for your participation. This is a great list and I look forward to many more fruitful discussions in the new millennium (I know, it’s not really a new millennium, but when the big odometer of time turns four numbers at once, what can you say?…). The BC Educational Technology User Group is supported by the Centre for Curriculum, Transfer and Technology

An emerging concept

Learning design is not a straightforward concept to describe. First, there is the sheer broadness of the term, and in particular the range of expectations that may be associated with it. The wide scope of projects, purposes, intentions, contexts and formats creates a large, diffuse and confusing array of initiative, solutions and technologies. Because the implementation of something that is now well established as the LMS within an enterprise is a major undertaking, with significant requirements of effort and funds, most learning design projects at this point appear to exist in the state that e-learning was in during the early stages in the 90s—i.e., either one-off initiatives at a local level or larger projects, even at an international level, that have time limited funding. In either case, when funding runs out, the project falls dormant or continues at a much reduced scale. In the main, learning design as a practice is structured around the process of planning (a faculty member, online tutor) for the delivery of a learning event (course, lesson, etc.).

The actual implementation of a learning design leaves much room for the instructor or tutor to adjust to the contingencies of the session, the requirements of the learners and other such variable elements. A great deal of tacit knowledge is brought to the situation by the instructor, and where the learning environment has less intervention by the instructor, it falls increasingly on the learners to bring their own knowledge and adaptivity to the situation in order to adjust to the contingencies of the environment. The growth of networked learning and Web 2.0 tools, in conjunction with social constructivist approaches, creates a new expectation on faculty, let along instructional designers, many of whom are still working in the context of faculty in traditional classroom or perhaps modestly hybrid but nonetheless largely campus based educational models.

Designs for learning

There is an ongoing interest in the area of learning design, as both process and product. The process of learning design itself is the activity of putting together one or more learning activities in a way that is intended to facilitate learning outcomes. The product is the artifact such as a lesson plan, course blueprint or more complex notational or representational scheme intended to be assistive or reusable, and in more extreme cases executable or “runnable” in a software, LMS application or HTML environment.

Since the early IMS and EML connection in the late 90s and early 00s, efforts have been under way to develop a such a common method, language or notational system to represent pedagogy and its processes or products. The intended purposes have been varied, ranging from supporting faculty in the use of educational technologies, to unifying the various educational strategies in universities by creating a set of technology-supported learning experiences and artifacts.

Early iterations of learning design projects were focused on a traditional model of the individual learner in isolation, without regard for the collaboration and community building enabled by a wider use of Internet tools and methods. As a natural outgrowth of the interest at that time in the development of shareable content objects or reusable learning objects, it soon became apparent that learning object metadata needed to include a description of how they were intended to be used, and without this type of pedagogical context any attempt at a semantically based discovery method would be problematic. Further, importing these objects into learning management systems seemed fairly pointless without the use of a standard for sequencing, hierarchically or otherwise, within a learning pathway (depending of course on the granularity of the object and whether or not – say at a course level – the context would be apparent if not already built in).

New LD models continue to emerge and be tested, with the recognition that approaches to teaching online as well as in a blended classroom formats have changed over the past decade. We now see many flavours of attempts being made at this, more some successful than others. They have a wide variety of purposes, formats and structures. Automation of course design? Sharing of best practices? What’s going on? Over the next number of postings this topic will be looked at more closely – in a process of thinking and reflecting aloud about learning design research today and what it means.

Hazardous learning objects

This is about learning objects, but I need to begin with a story. Why learning objects at this point in time? Maybe it’s because I keep hearing people talk about them…the idea seems so logical, so intuitive.

Shortly after the anthrax attacks occurred post 911 in the US, a number of reports of white powder contamination were made across North America, including Vancouver. Amid rumours of pranks, terrorist threats, spills of powdered coffee creamer or plain old hysteria, no-one seemed to know what exactly was going on. The interesting thing for the purposes of this reflection, however, is how the emergency responders approached and saw these events.

The details came during my work as a member of a planning committee set up to design integrated training strategies for multiple response agencies to coordinate their approach to potential anthrax threats and similar multi-agency emergencies. As things turned out, what seemed like a sensible and straightforward project quickly became complex and confusing, with no easy answers in sight. Logically, all the responding agencies attended to the same event, the same hazards, at the same point in time and space. However, that was not the case. Every agency was responding to something different.

How can this be? Well, to police, this was primarily a criminal act. Along with the presence of obvious public and officer personal safety concerns, this was also crime scene, and priorities included preservation of evidence and other considerations to begin an investigation to prevent further attacks. There was a certain specific approach to the scene. To firefighters this was a hazardous materials incident, requiring appropriate staging of vehicles and equipment, protective gear, analysis, decontamination methods, and other specialized elements. Their training was based on a complex blend of local, provincial, national and international hazardous materials standards and regulations (dangerous goods in Canada) and worker safety regulations. For paramedics, this was a potential individual and public health risk, and a big concern was transportation of potential victims to a medical facility without contaminating themselves, the ambulance or the emergency room. And of course, who was in charge? It depended on how one defined the event; each agency had its own command structure and standard operating procedures.

Multiple perspectives, different training, strategies and tactical priorities, varying regulatory frameworks and SOPs, an array of specialized protective equipment—and all virtually overlapping and conflicting. To hear it in the various debriefings, all responders had attended different events at the same time and place.

So what does this have to do with learning objects? We certainly haven’t heard as much about those as we did a number of years ago, but the work goes on if you look for it. This whole scenario crossed my mind when I recently came across an instance of hazardous materials training (HazMat) in a SCORM presentation by ADL as an example of how a learning situation common to a variety of learners can be based on reusable and common learning objects. The same topic has come up as a favoured example other SCORM contexts, with the idea that much of the training can be offered using shared learning objects among the different agencies. Again, it seems intuitive, logical. One estimate is 50% of the content is fully shareable among agencies, but I would put that number much, much lower.

If one hasn’t been involved with these types of events—yes they all look pretty much the same. But given the story above, unless in that situation we are dealing with the most basic photographs or other types of representations of hazardous materials, containers, placards and so forth (which are really assets not learning objects), any attempt to find shareable content will come up against these different contexts and approaches and have to be added to the assets—as noted in the presentation. But at that point we’re not really sharing that much. Or if we do share more context-rich objects, the design of the instruction needs to go at them somewhat sideways–i.e. have the learners take a step back and get a bigger picture. That’s not a bad idea, if we do it right. But that’s an entirely different pedagogy, one that we don’t hear much about in the discussions on learning objects. In large part it’s because this interest is usually stimulated by perceptions of efficiency, not improved pedagogy.

Many work practices are drenched in context and situatedness…and that’s a reality as solid as anything else. If it is true (as I believe) that meaning and context trump content, we have a lot to think about when we broach the topic of reusable content.