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Vol. 10, No. 4: February 2004

Teaching Scholars ForumFaculty Development and Learning Object Technology:
Bridging the Gap

by Patricia Ploetz
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

 

The following paper begins with a story, the story of a lived experience that illustrates the mismatch between faculty and technology experts' understandings of learning object technology. It then takes a look at faculty perspectives, to show that moving from the traditional approach in content creation to developing learning objects requires a paradigm shift for faculty content developers. Recognizing the changes that faculty face, and understanding their insights regarding new learning technologies, gives faculty support staff an opportunity to "put on" the faculty perspective. This "putting on" activity provides technical support staff with the mental models necessary to support faculty in "bridging the gap" between traditional content development activities and the creation and development of learning object technologies.

The Lived Experience

It was an "ah ha!" moment, one of those rare and wonderful times when research becomes immediately and profoundly real. As the new project manager for the FIPSE grant, "An Investigation of the Pedagogical and Economical Effectiveness of Sharable Content Objects, Using Standards, in Online Instruction," I had been asked to meet with another team that was engaged in creating learning object content.

The topic of the team meeting was the delivery of learning object content, by faculty, for conversion into sharable content objects or "SCOs."1 The pertinent part of the meeting conversation rehashed the recent experience of a team of SCO developers:

When a faculty member handed over content to a technical developer, he probably thought, "Well, my job is done. You have the content." The team of developers then spent the next few weeks reformatting, restructuring, and re-evaluating, as they tried to fit non-conformant content into sharable content object format. During the conversion of the learning objects into sharable content objects, it became apparent that the content did not "stand alone." For example, there might be links to resources outside the learning object that had not been included as part of the content. One of the hallmarks of learning objects is their potential reusability--reusability that requires learning objects to stand alone. It is important for us to realize that a faculty member's definition of reusability may not conform to the technical developers' understanding.

In the days prior to the eventful meeting described above, I was searching the literature for information on content development issues in learning object technology. An article by Stout and Slosser, et al., reiterates the lack of and consequent need for a joint understanding of reusable content when creating sharable content objects.2 The research had become real in the re-living of the problem. In hindsight, it is easy to see that a joint definition of learning object had not been articulated or agreed upon; both faculty member and technical developer had their own "internal vision" of what a learning object "looks" and "feels" like. Unfortunately, the visions often do not match.

Faculty Perspectives

In my experience, when faculty speak about developing educational content, they traditionally use the following terms to describe the teaching/learning environment: courses, units, lessons, lectures, readings, projects, and/or activities. Terms such as learning objects, metadata, reusability, interoperability, accessibility, granularity, durability, and economy, while meaningful in a technological arena, often have little if any meaning for faculty. When I have asked, "What do these terms mean to you?" faculty responses have included: "They make me feel like I'm in Dilbertland" or "Are we talking about education? These don't sound like education terms, or at least not ones that I'm familiar with" and "They sound like buzz words that will soon give way to new buzz words." While I admit to talking with a limited number of faculty, I sense that these responses are more representative than not of many faculty in higher education.

The Problem

Based historically in information technology and object oriented programming (OOP), learning objects represent content that few faculty developers, instructional designers or support staff are familiar or comfortable with, from either a philosophical or technical perspective. As Oakes states, "The term learning object represents a combination of the concept of learning and the paradigm of object-orientation."3 Learning object terminology, however, bears little relation to education or educational activities and is heavily coded with meanings that are situated in the realm of information technology.

Moving from thinking about courses and lessons to building learning experiences with learning objects requires a significant paradigm shift for faculty. Faculty, as mentioned earlier, typically think and speak in the world of courses and lessons, the classroom environment, and discipline-specific rhetoric, not in the world of learning objects and learning object technologies. Understanding the perspectives that faculty bring to professional development activities and recognizing that information technology professionals have their own unique perspectives moves us one step closer to eliminating the mismatch portrayed in the story above.

Changing The Dynamic

While information technology folks are generally enthused with change, change in higher education is often highly suspect and difficult to accomplish. One of the most important tools in initiating and supporting change is gaining stake holder (faculty) buy-in, particularly when the change is technological in nature and "intrudes" upon the classroom experience. A preliminary review of the literature suggests that faculty technology buy-in occurs when we focus on the abilities and readiness of faculty to understand and embrace changing technologies,4 and when we "acknowledge faculty's existing beliefs and knowledge."5 In addition, Guskey recommends that, if change is to occur successfully, student learning needs to be at the focus of the activity. 6

Bridging the Gap

How can information technology support staff speak about learning object technology in a way that responds to faculty readiness and existing knowledge and beliefs while focusing on student learning? We begin by creating a common interface where both faculty and technology support staff come together for the enhancement of student learning, not of learning object technology. Enhancing student learning by addressing specific instructional needs within the curriculum supports a collaborative environment that leads to the identification of one or more specific learning objectives, thus creating a bridge between student needs (faculty needs) and learning objects. This approach addresses the issue of "chunking content," in a way that faculty are familiar with, as it initiates the creation of a learning object. (Learning objects, by many current definitions, meet a specific learning objective.)

After identifying the "student need" or "instructional problem" and matching that to a learning objective, we have the beginnings of a learning object. In this case, our minimalist learning object will, in addition to the learning objective, contain activities that support the learning objective and an assessment of the proposed learning. At this point, faculty can begin to identify resources to address the defined instructional need. Traditionally faculty might look to a book, article, a link to an article or an activity/interactivity as a resource. Digital learning objects require digital resources and while faculty are used to creating and linking to digital resources, their understanding of stand alone content in the digital environment is problematic. Relating web links to content that faculty literally do not have access to helps address this issue. If it is not in your head or you cannot hold it in your hand and share it (without receiving permission from the author), then the content cannot stand alone. One faculty member describes this as "putting her resources in a learning object box": if she can't put her learning object resources into this imaginary box, the learning object doesn't stand alone. While the issue of stand alone content is more sophisticated than this, it is a first step toward internalizing the concept of stand alone as it relates to the creation of learning objects.

Whether faculty need to create or re-create learning activities, metadata will become a primary concern once they have experienced the frustration of trying to locate those elusive digital resources. In either case, the opportunity exists to identify possible reasons why locating digital resources often proves difficult, thus bringing faculty's attention to the value and subsequent importance of metadata. Understanding that metadata is information about information is one thing; knowing that metadata is descriptive information about a learning object and the key to locating that learning object is another. An analogy that works well is comparing metadata to a card in a card catalog. Finding a book in a library without a card catalog is akin to locating a learning object without metadata. Both tell you where the object you're looking for is, in addition to important information about the object. We could continue on in the same manner with sequencing, sharability, repositories and more, although I think the point has been made. When approaching faculty development from their point of view, taking into consideration their needs, we're able to provide meaningful connections that link faculty speak to the technology, creating a framework of understanding instead of lists of terms, and meaningless definitions and/or factoids.

As Vygotsky writes:

The relationship of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and word to thought. In that process the relation of thought to word undergoes changes that themselves may be regarded as development in the functional sense.7

Conclusion

While recognizing that change may be a significant part of information technology professionals' lives and readily accepted as a part of their daily routines, change is not necessarily perceived as positive by other professional groups, including faculty. When we ask faculty to develop content using learning objects, we are asking them to make profound changes in the way they work. Taking that into consideration suggests that we listen to the "change experts" as we attempt to move learning object technology into the faculty development arena.

Engaging faculty learners means that we need to address the technology from their perspectives. Nevills writes that "well designed professional learning experiences first engage learners, then clearly link the current information to previous knowledge or experience." 8 Helping faculty understand the language of learning object technology--LOs, SCOs, repositories, metadata, chunking, reusability, accessibility, interoperability, and sequencing--by creating bridges to faculty content developers' prior knowledge and experiences minimizes the mismatch that occurs as faculty move from course and lesson development to the creation of digital learning objects.

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Notes

1 SCO: a learning object that has the appropriate metadata, and is packaged according to the SCORM.

2 Stout and Slosser, et al. (2001). Sample Lessons Learned from Advanced Distributed Learning Efforts, Joint ADL Co-Laboratory. Accessed December 2, 2002 from http://www.JointADLColab.org.

3 Oakes, K. (2002). An Objective View of Learning Objects. American Society for Training and Development, 56 (5): 103-105.

4See Kopf, R. (2002). Two Paths to Faculty Development. Distance Education Report. 6 (12).

5 In Firek, H. (2003). One Order of Ed Tech Coming Up.....You Want Fries with That? Phi Delta Kappan. 84 (8): 596 -597.

6 Guskey, T.R. (2003) What Makes Professional Development Effective? Phi Delta Kappan. 84 (10): 748-750.

7 Vygotsky, L. Alex Kozulin, Ed. (1986). Thought and Language. MIT Press. 218.

8 Nevills, P. (2003) Cruising the Cerebral Highway. Journal of Staff Development. 24 (1).

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