Demystifing the Term

May 18, 2001


  • Changes in the industry: a shift toward network based training, just-in-time access supported by web delivery
  • The new paradigm of modular instructional content development: learner-centric design

What are Learning Objects?

The original definition (about three years ago) of learning object that we at Empower started working on is as follows:

A Learning Object from instructional point of view means a small chunk of learning which in order to be complete must serve a learning objective(s) one is many times more than sufficient). This chunk of content can include text, graphics, audio, questions/practice, etc.

In order for it to be well formed, the learning/content chunk must follow some instructional strategy such as Gange’s nine instructional events.

In the web based environment, learning objects may be constructed through combining several sub-elements such as HTML or Dynamic HTML, media elements, Java, ActiveX components to provide interactivity which is highly desirable in constructing engaging learning experiences.

Examples of Learning Objects

  • Learning objects may be constructed on any subject or topic ranging from IT training to children�s learning activities to learning conflict resolution modules.
  • Learning objects may constructed along a wide spectrum of interactivity levels where a learning object may be a linear sequence of instruction or it may involve higher degree of interaction such as a simulation.

Learning Object and Re-usable Components

To extend the paradigm of learning objects, we also need to be able to decompose the learning objects into re-usable components. Each component can be indexed, searched, and re-used.


Metadata is like defining the properties or labeling system (keywords, version/date, author name, etc) for the learning objects. In the context of the Internet, we need standards so that learning objects developed by different vendors or organizations can be searched consistently.

The IMS project (EDUCAUSE Organization) is attempting to define specifications and will be adapted various tool and content vendors. See

From an implementation stand point it is best to keep the metadata and the actual learning object content separate.

Beyond Metadata

A learning object and its components need to be linked with learning objectives, tasks, and competencies in order to support the work context.

Why Learning Objects?

From development perspective:

  • The central issue concerning developing content in modular fashion is to with content re-use.
  • Reduce development time
  • Reduce cost of objects
  • Ease of distribution and customization of curriculum

From a learning perspective:

  • People are unlikely to sit for 8 hours a day; three days in a row to study a large course delivered on the computer screen.
  • Learning objects are supportive of just in time, just enough access
  • Learning objects are supportive of knowledge management and EPSS perspectives

From technology perspective:

  • The Web browser and Internet technology is more conducive to small downloadable objects in the form of HTML, Java applets or ActiveX controls


We use web databases (relational databases � since they are de-facto data storage in today’s IT environment)

Relational databases can scale up and provide data sharing and collaborative access over the web. Examples include Oracle and MS SQL Server.

Aggregating Learning Objects The aggregation of learning object may manifest itself as topics and sub-topic structures.

We prefer to use the word �Learning Tracks� rather than �Courses� as the learning object aggregating mechanism, especially in a workplace learning context. A Learning Track may embody pre-requisite structures and may be customized by job context.

Connection with EPSS

As more and more applications migrate to the web, creating links to learning objects from within web applications will allow us to transform learning from traditional learning separate from work to a tighter link between work and performance support and training.

For standards (inter-operability, re-use, cross platform)

  • The standards should allow content from various sources (vendors and organizations) to be re-used as chunks and played on different platforms
  • Ideally, the data schema for storing and managing learning objects needs to be non-proprietary
  • Standards to store and manage content using existing, ubiquitous, and cross platform data management systems
  • Flexibility for different types of learning objects; allow content to be incorporated from wide variety to authoring tools
  • Standards are needed in order to promote inter-operability of content developed by different instructional content vendors. Inter-operability has to do with consistent and cross platform play back of content, management, and tracking of events such as learner progress.
  • Standards for tagging the learning objects with properties or �metadata� so that objects may be searched consistently

Learner Performance and Progress Tracking within Learning Objects


  • Maintaining sessions
  • Bookmarks
  • Visit, completion, time spent
  • Activity tracking and score keeping
  • Management and administration reports

The Future of Learning Objects

We see the following trends:

  • Proliferation of learner centric content development and distribution
  • Greater personalization of learning based on learning object
  • Learning objects to be utilized within a larger context of performance and knowledge management in organizations
  • Distribution and commerce around learning objects (pay per use models)

Reprinted with permission of the author, Harvi Singh
Re: Learning Objects