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Do you really need reusability?

By Michael Feldstein / July 2002

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I find it interesting that, with all the current buzz about "reusable learning objects," nobody seems to be talking about why you would want your learning to come in the form of reusable objects in the first place. I guess reusability sounds like such a good idea at first blush that, like lower taxes or prescription health benefits for the elderly, it's hard to imagine being against it.

But just like lower taxes or prescription health benefits for the elderly, reusability is not free. For one thing, it's hard to design reusable learning objects. That means you need more skilled (i.e., higher paid) instructional designers who will probably take more time (and therefore more money) to make your e-learning reusable. So there is an actual dollar cost for reusability. Second, in order to make content reusable, instructional designers have to give up a number of useful techniques that they would otherwise employ to deliver the best learning experience possible. In some cases a clever designer can eventually figure out ways to teach equally well without these techniques (which is where part of the dollar cost for reusability comes from), but in other cases there are no substitutes with equivalent instructional effectiveness. So in addition to the dollar cost, you potentially sacrifice instructional quality.

How Much is it Worth to You?

Whenever something you want is not free, you have to ask yourself whether getting it is worth the price you have to pay. The buzz phrase we use for this in the industry is "return on investment," or "ROI." In order to calculate ROI, you need to answer two deceptively simple questions: How much does it cost? And how much do you benefit? Let's try a little thought experiment to illustrate what I mean when I say that calculating ROI is "deceptively" simple. Think about the next e-learning course you have to develop. How much will it cost you to make the content reusable?

Are you drawing a blank? OK, maybe this question will be easier: How much will you save in future development and maintenance expenses (or other tangible benefits) by making your content reusable?

Most of us don't know how to even begin to answer either of those questions. That's because we don't really have a shared idea of what it means for content to be reusable or what it takes to make it so in an instructionally valid way. At this point, reusability is like a political promise. "Vote for me and I'll deliver lower taxes, health benefits for the elderly, and reusable learning objects!" Just as we have learned to be suspicious of campaign promises, we should be suspicious of this supposedly free lunch we are being offered.

My latest tutorial for eLearn magazine is my own attempt to think out loud about the ROI problem. In it, I sketch out what I have learned so far in my efforts to make more of the content I design more reusable. This is a hard problem, though, and I don't pretend to have solved it. To the contrary, my goal is to begin a discussion. I encourage others out there who have experiences with the pros and cons of reusability to contribute to our profession by publishing the lessons you've learned, either here in eLearn magazine or elsewhere.


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