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There's no such thing as a learning object

By Michael Feldstein / May 2006

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We learn by doing. We consider. We compare. We measure, discuss, debate, critique, test, and explore. We try, fail, and try again. Learning is an activity. It's a process. Given this undeniable fact, the term "learning object" can only be an oxymoron. An object is a thing. We don't learn from things. We learn from doing things.

The majority of content bits floating around today under the umbrella of so-called "learning objects" would be more properly labeled "instructional objects" (or, more simply, "instructional materials"). They provide information, or "instruction," in the same way that a lecture might. Instructional objects have been around for a very long time. When I was a kid, they used to be called "dittos," or "ditto masters" if they were reusable instructional objects. Later, they were replaced by more technologically advanced "photocopies." And in the 21st century, we have the ultra-modern "PDFs" and "Web pages." Add a little bit of summary information about the PDF (called "metadata" by the Technorati), list it in MERLOT, and voila! You have something that people are all too ready to call a "reusable learning object." Welcome to the new millennium, Professor Gradgrind. Your empty vessels await.

Even the most mundane instructional objects require actions from the students in order for learning to occur, even if that activity is just memorization. And using well-composed language can certainly stimulate other sorts of cognitive action in the reader. This column, for example, is intended to be literally thought-provoking. It is intended to provoke thought. But ultimately, many types of learning require more than just the transmission of content. This is why teachers have never been replaced by books on tape and why they never will be replaced by podcasts. Learning is an activity. Teaching is an activity designed to stimulate learning. Put these two activities together in a feedback loop and you have "interactivity."

I believe the term "learning object" has become harmful. It hides the same old, bad lecture model behind a sexy buzz phrase. If we're really serious about stimulating learning, then we should think in terms of something like a cognitive catalyst. Rather than just serving up digital content and assuming the students will absorb it, we should be creating artifacts that function like enzymes for the intellectual digestive system. We want to increase the likelihood of a chemical reaction between a piece of information and a human mind. To me, this is the essence of teaching. Cognitive catalysts can be learning content, learning activities or, most often, a fusion of the two. A PDF can be a cognitive catalyst but it doesn't automatically become one just because we can download it from a Web site or email it to our students. To have an object fairly called a "cognitive catalyst," one must answer the questions, "What cognition does it catalyze? What learning process does it stimulate?" The term moves us away from the current tendency to privilege the "object" over the "learning." At the same time, it doesn't go too far by losing sight of the facts and concepts being learned. Content is important. We must balance the instructional objects against learning activities, the nouns against the verbs, by having a complete sentence with a subject (student), a verb (cognitive process), and a direct object (content). Jane measures velocity. Harry critiques The Iliad. We debate learning objects. If we are going to consider objects in the context of learning, then let them be direct objects. Taken by itself without the learner and the cognitive process, a "learning object" is the pedagogical equivalent of a sentence fragment. It is only occasionally appropriate and often fails to communicate.


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