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.