Should academics aim to create open access re-usable learning objects?


Reusable learning objects (RLOs), often seen as the pre-cursor to open educational resources (OERs), were first developed in the early 2000’s however, the predicted expansion in the creation and use of RLOs failed to materialise. In my previous blog post I discussed how the functional requirements of RLOs, such as accessibility, reusability and interoperability combined with a reluctance of academics to contribute RLOs to the repositories may have restricted their wider uptake. While OERs are now much more widely available and accessible than RLOs I believe that ‘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’. The distinction between RLOs and OERs is discussed in more depth in a blog by John Robertson from the Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards but can be summarised thus; RLOs tend to be created specifically for sharing while OER’s tend to be created for a specific teaching activity and then shared later.

Why use RLOs?

RLOs are short audio-visual learning tools that focus on a specific concept and are context neutral. This makes them ideal for using in teaching materials to explain a specific theory, model or scientific process. Using RLO’s in your teaching materials can provide a visual, animated, interactive method of explaining a particular concept and this can enhance a text based or verbal description of the concept. The VARK model of learning styles categorises individuals as visual, auditory, reader or kinaesthetic learners and therefore RLO’s appeal to many different learning styles. While the practice of matching teaching style to an individual’s learning style has been criticised it makes sense to create teaching materials that incorporate as many different learning styles as possible. A re-usable, audio-visual RLO with text may be the way to achieve this.

In my online teaching materials I linked to 3 separate RLO’s that were developed as part of the Universities’ Collaboration in E-Learning (UCEL) in 2002. Separately, they described incidence (7 pages), prevalence (3 pages) and the relationship between incidence and prevalence (2 pages). All three RLOs required Adobe Flash player in order to run and users had to download and install this free software onto their machine. However, over the past few years Flash player has not been supported by various platforms and many of my students are not able to achieve the learning benefit derived from these RLO’s. I decided to update these RLO’s so that all my students could benefit from them. This enabled me to explore the feasibility and practicalities of creating an open online teaching resource that would be freely available out-with my teaching materials.

Creating the RLO

I contacted the member of the Faculty elearning team allocated to my Masters programme to discuss the feasibility of the project and she agreed to help with the development of the RLO. The first step was to contact the original creators of the RLO’s, to let them know what we were proposing and to ask if the source code for the original RLOs was still available. I was informed that the source code was no longer available, but that they were happy for us to update the RLOs. In a subsequent meeting with the elearning technologist it was decided that the timescales were too short to re-create the animations and we would have to use screen recordings of the existing animations in our RLO.

I reviewed the content in each of the existing RLOs, and due to an overlap in the topics covered by the RLOs I felt it would make sense to create a single new RLO that covered all three topics. I decided that the new RLO would consist of 9 pages with a quiz at the end. I reviewed the screen recordings from the previous RLOs and designed the outline of the new RLO. I wrote new text for the updated RLO, I sourced two new sets of data to use in examples of how to calculate prevalence and incidence for local areas, I sourced two creative commons maps to visually display the results from the examples, I created a multiple choice quiz and I voice recorded the new text to match the parts of the visual recordings that I wanted to use.

A member of the elearning team created ‘hot spot’ maps in Softchalk using the maps that I had sourced and generated my quiz in Softchalk. Finally we put all the components of the RLO together as a 9 page lesson in Softchalk that included audio-visual material with matching text, two worked examples and a quiz and named it Prevalence and Incidence RLO.

[This is a link to the Softchalk site. The final RLO will be hosted on a web page in Canvas that will include some blurb about the development of the RLO, details of the data sources and credits to the developers including the original UCEL developers].


This experience was a very steep learning curve for me and although I had a clear idea of what I wanted the RLO to look like at the start, the process was limited by the software available to us, the existing skills of the elearning team and the short timescale of the project. I had to continually modify my ideas and learn to accept that what I wanted to do was not possible within these three parameters. As a result we did not explore using new technology but adapted the content so that we could use technology that the team were familiar with. We built the RLO completely in SoftChalk which is essentially a lesson creation tool. We split and cut together screenflows of existing visual material, created new text, new voice recordings, new hot spot maps and the quiz. Had we been able to use other software such as iSpring, which allows users to create elearning material using the interactive features of Powerpoint, we might have been able to explore creating our own audio-visual material rather than having to adapt existing material.

Concluding remarks

Should academics aim to create audio-visual interactive reusable learning objects for open access education? The answer, for me, is ‘Yes’. However, I would recommend that a dedicated project team is established at the start of the project. A clear set of goals, milestones and outputs are agreed and progress towards each of these are monitored by the project team. All software options are fully explored at the start of the project and the time scales allow enough time for everyone involved to dedicate enough resource to the project.

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