Learning is a Process, Not a Thing

The eLearning field is prone to hype, and one of the most hyped things I have come across in the last five years is the promise of learning objects. It is difficult to go to an eLearning conference or read an eLearning journal without hearing about the wonders of these self-contained electronic learning widgets that can be catalogued, shared and re-used. In the imagined future of eLearning, there will be millions of these wonderful resources that will be accessible via searchable learning object repositories (many financed by our tax dollars) and that can be downloaded, plugged in, and re-arranged, like so many Lego pieces.

I have always been skeptical about learning objects. But I have never been able to articulate this skepticism better than Michael Feldstein has in a recent article in eLearn Magazine titled There’s No Such Thing as a Learning Object.. Michael is Assistant Director of the SUNY Learning Network and sums up his position on learning objects as follows:

“We learn by doing. We consider. We compare. We measure, discuss, debate, critique, test, and explore. We try, fail, and try again. Learning is an activity. It’s a process. Given this undeniable fact, the term “learning object” can only be an oxymoron. An object is a thing. We don’t learn from things. We learn from doing things… We must balance the instructional objects against learning activities, the nouns against the verbs, by having a complete sentence with a subject (student), a verb (cognitive process), and a direct object (content). Jane measures velocity. Harry critiques The Iliad. We debate learning objects. If we are going to consider objects in the context of learning, then let them be direct objects. Taken by itself without the learner and the cognitive process, a “learning object” is the pedagogical equivalent of a sentence fragment. It is only occasionally appropriate and often fails to communicate.”

Proponents of learning objects seem to think that the problem with eLearning is that there is not enough eLearning content out there. Learning objects are akin to bricks, and the thinking seems to be if we have enough of these at our disposal, we will all be able to cobble together wonderful buildings. However, I don’t think that bricks are the problem…..we are awash in bricks.

What is needed, in my view, are more skilled architects and tradespeople who can design and build beautiful and functional learning environments. Sure, bricks are part of the structure, but only part. When you look at a magnificent cathedral, for example, you do not see the bricks. The total is definitely more than the sum of the parts. I think the same thing holds true for excellent eLearning.

This is why I always correct people who say that MIT is putting all its courses online via their Open Courseware Initiative. This simply isn’t true. Admirably, MIT is making a great deal of course outlines, notes, reading lists, related resources, photos, graphs, recorded lectures, assignments, quizzes, etc. freely available online, but they are not conducting courses online. You cannot interact with faculty and other learners, or get expert feedback on your work, which is the real value of an MIT education. It is just more stuff (albeit good stuff) added to the infinite array of stuff already freely available online.

But stuff is stuff, and we only learn so much from stuff. Real learning is a process, it is about doing, getting feedback, reflecting, and doing again.

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