Revisiting the role of the reusable learning object in higher education

I teach Epidemiology and Statistics to postgraduate students on the fully online Master of Public Health Programme at the University of Manchester and I have used Re-usable Learning Objects (RLO’s) in my course materials for over 10 years. In this blog post I reflect on my use of RLO’s and consider the role of RLO’s in the wider debate about the use of Open Educational Resources (OERs).

Re-usable Learning Objects are defined as ‘self-contained, multimedia E-Learning resources addressing a focused learning goal or aim.’ Thus they are a form of Open Educational Resource (OER). Various definitions of OER’s have been proposed but according to Jisc the most commonly accepted definition comes from OER Commons.

‘Open educational resources are teaching and learning materials that are freely available online for everyone to use, whether you are an instructor, student or self-learner. Examples of OER include: full courses, course modules, syllabi, lectures, homework assignments, quizzes, lab and classroom activities, pedagogical materials, games, simulations, and many more resources contained in digital media collections from around the world.’

So while OER’s encompass a wide range of teaching resources, RLO’s have a much narrower definition. RLO’s are focussed on a specific topic and are often animated with audio narration while OER’s can include full courses, modules, lectures, as well as informal educational resources such as YouTube videos or Slideshare presentations.

The RLO’s that I use were developed by The Health E-Learning and Media (HELM) Team based in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Many of these RLO’s were developed as part of the Universities’ Collaboration in E-Learning (UCEL) under the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) for Reusable learning Objects funding stream. Although the CETL ceased to exist in 2010 at the end of its 5 year funding source, the HELM website includes links to over 200 RLO’s developed by HELM, UCEL and CETL and an number of new projects relating to the development of OER’s and RLO’s in particular. This is an invaluable resource for teachers in health sciences but I wonder how many people actually use these RLO’s.

The RLO movement began in the early 2000’s around the same time as elearning began to take off. It seemed reasonable at the time that instead of academics and institutions creating their own learning resources for use in their online courses it would make sense to share resources. By the mid-2000’s there were a large number of RLO’s in existence but their uptake was limited.

In a paper in the Texas Digital Library Polsani (2003) outlined the functional requirements of RLO’s; Accessibility, Reusability and Interoperability. In order for an RLO to be accessible it needed to be tagged with metadata and stored in a repository. A survey of RLO repositories published in 2002 highlights the complexity of accessibility of RLO’s at the time. The authors summarise the properties of a ten different repositories ranging from 48 to over 15, 000 RLO’s in each. The repositories all supported simple and advanced searching of the RLO’s as well as browsing. Thus, as an academic seeking to use an RLO firstly has to find the appropriate repository and then search within it to find a suitable RLO to use in their course. The difficulties with this approach are well documented in an OKHE1 blog post by Imgi in 2016.

In order for an RLO’s to be re-usable it had to be able to function in different instructional contexts. However, the reusability paradox suggested by David Wiley describes how the pedagogic value of a learning object is inversely related to its reusability. Individuals learn by making connections to things that they already know (see the learning theories of Bruner and Vygotsky). By making an object truly re-usable it may become free from the context of an individual’s prior learning, understanding and context and this can reduce its pedagogic value. However, in the case of small self-contained RLO’s focusing on a specific scientific topic this may be less of problem than with larger informal OER’s such as YouTube videos or presentations.

In order for an RLO to meet the requirements for interoperability the RLO needed to be independent of any specific learning technology in order to run. This was problematic at the time of their initial development as universities used different learning management systems and the media used to create these RLO’s was in the early stages of development.

As discussed by Martin Weller in his book The Battle for Open, another reason why RLO’s failed to take off was the reluctance of academics to contribute to repositories. While most academics agreed that it made sense to share teaching resources very few were actually willing to contribute resources to the repositories.

It seems to me that online distance learning programmes are the ideal environment in which to utilise the huge range of RLO’s that are available to explain specific concepts. Small functional RLO’s that describe fixed content and do not rely heavily on context are ideal for inclusion within online distance learning programmes. These can be embedded in your learning materials and applied to your specific context. In my opinion, a re-usable learning object, developed by academics and educational instructors with knowledge, skills and experience in pedagogy is likely to be of more use to your students than OER’s such as lecture notes or presentations which may be more context based.

However, while many of the barriers that prevented early uptake of RLO’s such as interoperability and academic culture have been overcome, there are still problems with searching for RLO’s. Most RLO’s are still contained within the vast array of repositories that exist, and, although these are now web-based and less clunky than they used to be, they are difficult to find and difficult to search. Many repositories are still based within academic institutions and, having found the appropriate repository, it is difficult to search for the RLO/OER unless you know which meta-data terms to use.

Compare this with searching for journal articles and it seems like there is a long way to go before RLO’s and other OER’s are truly open and available for use by academics to incorporate into their teaching materials. I wonder if it is feasible to have a global, web-based, institution free, open and easily searchable repository for sharing materials specifically developed for teaching and learning that uses clearly defined terminology along the lines of the MeSH system for indexing and cataloguing RLO’s?

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