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2.3 Learning objects

Figure 3 Stephen Downes

The OER movement (although even calling it a movement can be contentious) grew out of earlier work around ‘learning objects’. As elearning moved into the mainstream (around the year 2000), educators and institutions found they were creating often expensive learning resources from scratch. There was a relentless logic that, with the digitisation of content, these resources could be shared between institutions.

In the following activity you are asked to read an article by Stephen Downes, in which he sets out the case for learning objects and provides a comprehensive analysis of the subject.

Activity 5: The case for learning objects

Timing: Timing: 1 hour

Downes goes into detail on many aspects that are not necessary for this course. You do not need to read the article in detail – your aim is to gain an understanding of what learning objects were and why they were seen as important.

The vision of a large pool of shareable resources never quite materialised, despite the economic and pedagogic benefits they may carry. A number of criticisms have been raised regarding learning objects. We would now like you to take a look at some of these criticisms.

Activity 6: Criticisms of learning objects

Timing: Timing: 1 hour

Three criticisms of learning objects are given below: you should read/watch at least one of these:

  • David Wiley sets out what he terms the ‘reusability paradox’.
  • Norman Friesen raises three objections to learning objects in this paper: Three objections to learning objects and e-learning standards.
  • In this 2009 video [] Brian Lamb describes his experience with learning objects, which addresses many of the reasons why they didn’t realise the aims that Downes and others envisaged for them. Brian Lamb also explains some of the problems he encountered.


Part of the problem of learning objects was that it often seemed alien to everyday practice, so that getting educators to share their content in learning object repositories proved to be a barrier. Unlike sharing research findings in published journals, or sharing teaching resources informally within an institution, there was no real incentive or established practice for sharing teaching material on this scale. And, as Brian Lamb points out, there was a tendency to over-engineer the systems required, with specific standards that had a language of their own.

You might reflect here on whether you have, or would, share teaching resources using the learning object approach. What do you think would be the main issues for educators and teachers?