Fast-forward four years, and we are still talking about content – learning content. There is little debate that effective instructional content (instructional material) is the cornerstone of good online learning and other kinds of instruction, such as traditional classroom instruction, videos, CBTs and job aids. The challenge for CLOs is to optimize the costly and labor-intensive development process and to maximize their investment in design, development and delivery of learning content and materials. In an economy in which time to performance is a competitive advantage and doing more with fewer resources is a standard operating procedure, reusable learning objects may be an idea whose time has come.
Defining Reusable Learning Objects
There are as many definitions of learning objects or reusable learning objects (RLO) as there are advocates of this concept. (See “Use and Abuse of Reusable Learning Objects” in the Journal of Digital Information, jodi.ecs.soton.ac.uk/Articles/v03/i04/Polsani.) The general idea is that content for learning is developed in small bits or “objects,” and the objects can be reused and reordered in different formats and for different audiences. For example, a course to teach shipping clerks about a new order-entry system may be developed as a traditional instructor-led class using student and teacher guides for a one-day program. The same content, in the form of learning objects, may be reused to produce an e-learning program for clerks hired after the initial training program has been rolled out, and a subset of the learning objects may be revised into a troubleshooting job aid for managers. The idea here is that the same content can be used to generate materials in different formats (student guide, e-learning program and job aid), and it can serve different audiences (order-entry clerks, new hires and managers). The ability to reuse content offers the potential to reduce design and development time and costs. Reusable learning objects increase the speed at which training is delivered and at which learners become fluent in necessary skills and knowledge.
Theoretically, the concept of reusable learning objects makes good sense, but CLOs should look at their business context before buying into this idea. The concept is much like that used to argue for object-oriented programming, but there are some significant differences between a software-development shop and a training organization.
Adopting an RLO Strategy
The challenge for you is to determine if an RLO strategy is something for which you can build a business case and if RLOs make educational sense given your instructional mandate. Examining this concept may reveal assumptions about enterprise-wide development processes, funding models, skill levels of training professionals and the longevity of your training materials. Understanding the facts about these things may indicate that an RLO strategy is less than desirable in your context. Understanding these factors emphasizes the fact that implementing an RLO strategy is a genuinely strategic decision.
The fundamental assumption is that you have or could benefit from a system for managing your content, such as a learning content management system (LCMS). An LCMS is a software application for instructional designers, course developers and subject-matter experts (SMEs) that captures, authors, stores, retrieves and manages content in bites or chunks that can be reused, reordered, personalized, updated and delivered in multiple formats. Some systems provide additional functionality, such as workflow to support the development process, tools for flagging updates and application program interfaces (APIs) for linking with an LMS.
An LCMS makes it possible to manage learning objects efficiently. The definition of a learning object varies greatly among vendors, academics, standards bodies and practitioners. In general, there are three primary characteristics of reusable learning objects:
- Flexibility: Learning objects are developed so they are free-standing. In other words, they are created to be independent of a specific format (i.e., book, CBT, job aid), and they can be studied independently or used as part of a course.
- Manageability: Learning objects are tagged with metadata. Using a common set of metadata tags or labels, such as title, author, date, location, description and subject, it is possible to store and reference learning objects in a database.
- Interoperability: Learning objects should technically work independent of media and instructional technology systems such as LCMSs and knowledge management systems. By building objects based on industry standards, you ensure that the objects can be launched and tracked in standards-compliant systems.
If the concept of RLOs has sparked your interest but you have concerns about the educational value and practicality of this concept, read “The Autism of Knowledge Management” by Patrick Lambe (see greenchameleon.com/thoughtpieces/autism.pdf). In this article, Lambe points out the flaws and dangers of applying a mechanized metaphor to learning. While the educational value of an RLO strategy is not the focus of this article, CLOs are well advised to consider the debate and factor in educational viability.
Assessing the value proposition of adopting an RLO strategy is less contentious. CLOs need to focus on determining the business value and estimating financial reward from cost avoidance and return on investment. There are a number of questions you should ask to assess the value of an RLO strategy and the associated technology.
Assessing Volume and Stability of Content
How much learning content does your organization produce? What formats do you use (e.g., CBT, e-learning, instructor guides, student guides, video, self-paced materials)? How many new courses are developed each year? How long before courses are obsolete? How often are courses updated? What percent of courses are updated versus simply rendered obsolete? Is the shelf life of your content increasing or decreasing?
One of the underlying assumptions for adopting RLOs is that the organization produces enough content that it needs a process to manage a large number of learning objects that can be swapped, updated and recombined into new courses. It also assumes that the same content that is used in a traditional instructor-led class will be reused to create an e-learning lesson or self-paced three-ring binder. The content must have a long enough shelf life to warrant updates or a short shelf life with time-critical updates. The goal of answering these questions is to assess the potential labor and time an RLO strategy and LCMS can save. If you can’t quantify these things, your decision will be a stab in the dark.
Assigning Value to Shorter Development Cycles
One of the benefits of an RLO strategy is the ability to build courseware faster and in turn, close the performance gap faster than is possible using traditional methods. Assigning value to shorter development cycles assumes you know your current development ratios, such as the cost or time for creating a one-day instructor-led class, a one-hour e-learning program or a 60-minute video. Using these metrics and your fully loaded cost for labor, estimate the cost of development. Based on your estimates, take a guess at the potential dollar/time savings from being able to reuse learning objects. This will provide you with a cost-avoidance estimate.
Finally, determine the value of being able to deliver training quickly, for example, being able to get salespeople trained to sell a new product a week sooner or being able to skill customer service reps and their managers two weeks earlier than you would have if you had used traditional development methods. What is the worth to the line of business? The heart of building the business case is the dollar value of lower development rations (cost avoidance) and the increased profitability (ROI) of skilling workers more quickly. These two factors – savings and profit – must exceed the cost of implementing an RLO strategy and the related technology.
Driving Process and Organization
The larger the percentage of the enterprise that adopts the strategy, the more the savings and profits grow. The question here is: Can you drive enterprise-wide adoption? This entails implementing a standardized process for creating, sharing, updating and adding objects. Enterprise-wide decisions may also need to be made regarding authoring tools, standardizing contract terms for works-for-hire and simple things like deciding what makes up a learning object. Will objects be standards-based? Which standard will you use? A good LCMS will provide some process and structure, but an underlying assumption is that you have the ability to define and enforce rules for “how” content is produced enterprise-wide.
Defining the Size of Learning Objects
There is no agreed-upon definition that states how big an object should be. Granularity is a continuum from objects as small as an image or a block of text, to all the material related to a single given objective, to a large object that is equivalent to a one-hour lesson. There is no right answer regarding the size of a learning object from a business perspective. The question is, what is the break-even point between being granular enough for reuse and being too granular. Content that is too granular may be difficult to manage, while content objects that are too large may be difficult to reuse without significant rework.
Developing or Hiring Professionals With Writing Skills
Good learning objects can be consumed as standalone learning or combined into a larger unit. The skill required to write in an object-oriented manner should not be underestimated. Saul Carliner, Ph.D., of Concordia University in Montreal said, “Although students seem to easily adapt to the concept of reusable content, designing and writing it is another story. They are generally overwhelmed by the extent of up-front planning needed to launch a strategy and usually have difficulty attending to writing generically – that is, writing content so it is broad enough that it can be used without alteration in another context.”
Consider the Important Trends
In addition to considering business issues, you may want to consider the technology trends that could influence your decision. One of the most noticeable trends is the increasing number of authoring tools targeted for subject-matter experts, such as RoboDemo, BoxMind, Macromedia Breeze and Microsoft Producer for PowerPoint 2003. These tools are going to make it easier for people outside of the training department to quickly and easily develop courses. The challenges will be getting the authors who are working in line-of-business organizations to use your learning-object repository and follow your guidelines for metatag conventions and your rules for the composition of objects, such as size of objects, elements in an object and types of objects (experts, threaded discussions, courses, reference materials, video, etc.).
A second trend to look at is the increasingly important role of informal learning and collaboration. Research has shown that the majority of workplace learning is informal. Look for bundles of tools that facilitate informal learning, such as instant messaging, team spaces, threaded discussions, e-mail, awareness, search engines, document management and knowledge management. These tools, referred to by Gartner as smart suites, are going to make it easier for employees to get access to just-in-time knowledge and expertise on demand, and to learn in the context of doing their job. The challenge will be finding the balance between investment in formal learning driven by learning objects (which will have some crossover) and agile informal tools integrated into business processes.
Finally, look at the emerging trends in on-demand learning. On-demand learning is a concept that comes from the technology world. In its most simplistic usage, it refers to connecting learners, content and facilitators using the Internet. As Nancy DeViney, general manager, IBM Learning Solutions, explains, it can be far more than simply connecting people. “Learning in an on-demand environment extends well beyond classroom training,” DeViney said. “It will offer an integrated blend of learning approaches, embedded into real-time workflows, through just-in-time performance support information, online interactive experiences such as simulation and gaming and real-time collaboration with experts and communities of interest.” She stressed, “This type of learning environment will enable innovation and drive organizational performance.”
The right answer to adopting RLOs varies from company to company, and it is a decision that should be revisited as your environment changes. Reusable learning objects make theoretical sense and good business sense for organizations that develop large amounts of original content, offer the same training programs in multiple formats, require updates to selected segments of courseware, have robust course development teams and demand personalization of content. Other organizations may not have such a clear mandate and might be more inclined to take an interpretative approach, selecting elements of an RLO strategy and blending selected elements to create their own solution.
Margaret Driscoll, Ph.D., is educational consultant for IBM Global Service. She is the author of “Web-Based Training” from Jossey-Bass and a featured speaker at national and international training events. For more information, email Margaret at firstname.lastname@example.org.