Category Archives: informal learning

On Learning Objects

A learning object (LO) is ” “a collection of content items, practice items, and assessment items that are combined based on a single learning objective” (Cisco Systems, 1999). When people talk of “chunking” instruction, they are often referring to the creation of learning objects.

You can find a list of learning object projects at the The Learning Object web site maintained by the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Center for International Education.

The scalability dilemma

I think as instructional designers, particularly in an organizational setting, we’re always struggling to find the balance between making things scalable and the need to create bespoke learning experiences.

Enter the concept of a  reusable learning object (RLO). An RLO  is self-contained and portable, i.e., it can be dipped into by a learner independently of a larger course (like a LEGO block combined with other LEGO blocks to create different structures) and it can be ported to different learning systems (such as learning management systems) without losing value. The ideal of learning objects was that, once created, elearning designers could collect different objects to create learning courses.  Tagged with metadata, an RLO could be easily searched for.

However, for a critique of learning objects, see, “The Reusability Paradox” by David Wiley (2001). Basically, Wiley’s argument is that once a learning object is designed (as it should be) with a specific learner population in mind, by definition, it’s not reusable. In a sense, the most reusable learning objects are probably the least effective ones.

Is there a way to draw upon something from the idea of reusable learning objects to make processes more efficient?

Without getting hung up on the “truest” definition of RLOs, it’s worth considering that some elements of any learning program may be sharable (Grossman, n.d.). It might be possible to design some objects that are context neutral. You can use popup screens, glossaries, and creative branching as tools to differentiate instruction (e.g., clickable by different users depending on their interests and needs). You can also provide learners with self-assessment tools that link to specific content areas of a learning module depending on success or challenges the learner identifies when taking the assessment.

The amorphous, shifting learning environment

I certainly haven’t solved the scalability problem though I’m continuously trying to increase efficiencies. However, I have let go of the idea that learning experiences can be neatly compartmentalized into modules.

The learning environment that learners tap into is the workplace and can be a shifting, amorphous combination of informal learning networks, an organization’s tacit knowledge (which is often poorly utilized), more formalized learning management systems, enterprise social networks, public social networks, and yes, training efforts. Is a real-world learning environment incompatible with the idea of resuable learning objects? I’m not willing to say that yet, but I do think that its widely distributed nature of such a learning environment  makes it hard to find those objects even when they exist. A secondary challenge for instructional designers may be to actually overcome the institutional amnesia that often arises, as folks forget what resources currently exist and thus fail to make use of potentially very worthy prior efforts.

I feel as if I’m ending this blog post on a bit of a downer, so I’m going to challenge myself to try to come up with some strategies to minimize some of these issues at least for myself. Maybe they’ll be useful. I’m very interested in how others are tackling these issues, so please share your thoughts!

Cisco Systems. (1999). Reusable information object strategy. Retrieved from

Grossman, S. (n.d.). Writing for reuse. Presentation at San Diego State University. Retrieved from

Wiley, D. (2001). The Reusability Paradox. Retrieved from