Utah State University, USA
In my dissertation on the design and sequencing of learning objects, I criticized Merrill's (1996) work on Instructional Transaction Theory (Wiley, 2000). The main critique of ITT centred on an inherent paradox: the theory requires that reusable educational resources come in extremely well-specified formats, meaning that an instructional approach supposedly centred on reusing educational resources actually required all existing online resources to be specifically tailored to ITT before being reusable. This requirement seemed to destroy the notion of reuse as I had envisioned it. Merrill wanted the building blocks to be cut, trimmed and outfitted with specifically sized knobs and notches so that they could fit together perfectly. I continue to believe that the alternative approach of using mortar to hold together blocks of a variety of shapes and sizes is in closer harmony with the idea of reusable educational resources.
This same theme recurs in this collection of chapters on design. Without some sense of context binding together reusable educational resources, a 'course' so designed becomes nothing more than a grab bag of apparently unrelated stuff. As Paul Saffo famously quipped, 'It's the context, stupid' (Saffo, 1994). The chapters in this part of the book explore a number of ways of wrapping educational contexts around existing online resources, allowing them to be reused exactly as they are -- without necessitating editing or other alteration a priori.
I was glad to see the pragmatic foci of these chapters, especially the commitment to meet current learning needs first, and to only design for reusability opportunistically. The design consideration that says 'someone might want to reuse this resource later' should never be allowed to get in the way of achieving local instructional goals. I was reminded of Eric Raymond's first rule of creating successful open source software (the end goal of which is, of course, broad sharing and reuse): 'Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch' (Raymond, 2000). If the educational resources we create don't meet our own needs well, why would we think they would meet another's? We must start by reusing resources in a way that solves our own problems perfectly, and then generalize to hypothetical cases of reuse from there.
It's refreshing to see people continuing the struggle with the issue of grain size. In their chapter Laurillard and McAndrew state that 'what was needed (for pedagogically effective reuse) were either small, simple to use, software elements or relatively large well-described sections of courses'. Well, which is it? This question, of course, is loaded with the assumption that there is one 'correct' grain size for a given course, curriculum, or for the world. In another example of the pragmatism displayed by these chapters, the authors show a willingness to promote the use of larger grains when they makes sense, and smaller grains otherwise. The commitment to design the context wrappers described above also shows the pragmatism of admitting that sometimes good instruction is going to require the design and production of material that just isn't reusable across contexts.
Oliver and McLoughlin make the claim that online learning should be both scalable and sustainable. I would add to this list 'sociable'. The flip side of their observation that learner-to-learner communication can cut down on interactions with online tutors is that fostering learner-to-learner interaction can facilitate certain types of learning that would be extremely difficult to achieve through interactions with content. I am not alone in believing that the trend toward automated, adaptive, personalized, or intelligent systems, or in other words, the drive to remove expensive humans from the learning experience loop, is an insidious form of cultural or epistemological imperialism. We must be extremely careful that our learning environments based on reusable resources contain opportunities for meaningful discourse.
In addition to cataloguing several ways in which context can be wrapped around pre-existing resources, Thorpe, Kubiak and Thorpe state that metadata can only be created by the original resource design team. I would agree that there is no better place to create this metadata for the original use context. However, metadata that describe the variety of real world cases in which a given resource has been reused, what we have termed 'nonauthoritative metadata', can be extremely helpful in facilitating the efficient and effective reuse of existing resources (Recker and Wiley, 2001). Reusers should be given the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the catalogue entries of the resources they reuse.
Finally, I greatly appreciated Treviranus and Brewer's chapter on accessibility issues. Their point that metadata should contain accessibility information may seem like a no-brainer until you begin to ask, 'So, who is doing this?' This simple suggestion provides implementers of learning objects systems an extremely high value system feature that should be very straightforward to implement? a very valuable contribution!
It warms my heart to see the dialogue around the reuse of digital educational resources continuing at this level. Here's to more research, conversation and, most of all, fun.
Merrill, M D (1996) Instructional transaction theory: Instructional design based on knowledge objects, Educational Technology, 36, (3), pp30--37, retrieved 21 October 2002 from http://www.id2.usu.edu/Papers/IDTHRYK3.PDF
Raymond, E (2000) The cathedral and the bazaar, retrieved 21 October 2002 from http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/ar01s02.html
Recker, M M and Wiley, D A (2001) A non-authoritative educational metadata ontology for filtering and recommending learning objects, Journal of Interactive Learning Environments, Swets and Zeitlinger, The Netherlands
Saffo, P (1994) It's the context, stupid, retrieved 21 October 2002 from http://www.saffo.com/contextstupid.html
Wiley, D A (2000) Learning object design and sequencing theory, retrieved 21 October 2002 from http://wiley.ed.usu.edu/docs/dissertation.pdf