Learning Solutions – Learning Objects: Behind the Buzz

Learning objects are digital libraries of useful materials cataloged for efficient access. Learning objects promise answers to pressing problems such as maintaining content currency, distributing standards and updates and replacing “one size fits all” training with tailored content and experiences. Objects come in many forms, from finished learning modules to the raw materials used to build them, such as text, photographs, job aids, tests and video presentations, digitized and ready to be combined in new forms.


Cisco’s Chuck Barritt said that learning objects “result in shortened development time when updating existing objects or modifying them for a new audience” and “give the ability to deliver dynamic, prescriptive learning.” Joe Jurzyeck of LOBJ.org sees the primary benefit coming from different instructors using the same materials in several contexts.

Cisco sells courses based on learning objects. Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Microsoft use objects to create and deliver documentation. The U.S. Department of Defense promotes SCORM, the Sharable Content Object Reference Model. SCORM is well on its way to acceptance as the framework for objects and training programs across NATO and as a common set of specifications for content producers across platforms and geographies. Many executives see the possibilities associated with learning objects, especially those that reduce costs and spread standard messages. A recent study by SRI Consulting Business Intelligence found that 23 percent of responding organizations are engaged in learning objects initiatives, with 18 percent more inclining their organizations in that direction.

The 3 “R’s”


    The “three R’s” of learning objects are Reduce, Re-purpose and Recycle.

  • Learning objects reduce content into manageable bites. These bites are then tagged, cataloged and stored for later and varied uses by others. A traditional course on negotiating might include modules on why people negotiate, how to negotiate, how to recognize opportunities for negotiation, tips for negotiators and role-playing activities. From a learning-objects perspective, trainers create and maintain a collection of useful and small assets about negotiation. They can be found and moved in ways that transcend the flexibility of conventional learning assets.
  • The people who create learning objects often re-purpose existing assets to be useful with a wider audience. A professional might go to the “negotiation skills” library, for example, and take a 20-minute videotape of a negotiation interaction in order to carve it into examples or even an assessment opportunity.
  • Learning objects become successful when recycled as new forms, uses and contexts. For example, the same video clip extracted from the library can be used in a classroom presentation and in an executive briefing.


Learning Objects and People

Subject-matter experts are now content sources, with some entering contributions directly into the database. Others might appear in front of a camera, with the resulting video digitized and parsed. At Hewlett-Packard, subject-matter experts record the training seminars they offer and then help tag the results with descriptive keywords. This reduces hour-long seminars into many two- to three-minute objects, recycling them on CDs with searchable databases.

Training developers slice and dice large assets, tag them and place them in databases. Their efforts, and the efforts of others, result in a rich library of resources. At Cisco, developers turn to the objects database to pull together a definition, explanation, examples and an exercise as a single instructional module. Their job is to connect the new module to a particular strategic need by creating a brief introduction and a summary.

In some circumstances, learners themselves enjoy access to the library. For example, if a supervisor wanted a customer service representative to step into a new responsibility, she could use the library as a source of examples, explanations and practice opportunities.

What about the chief learning officer? Executives now become responsible for ensuring that there is clarity about these new roles, that the transition to them is managed and that individuals are developed and supported for the new world. A team that was devoted to delivering learning products and experiences will require strong leadership as it shifts to managing, integrating and maintaining intellectual capital resources.

The Learning Objects Toolbox

When an organization moves to learning objects, new things appear in the environment.

First, there are the objects themselves. When most corporations talk about learning objects, they emphasize the learning aspect. Their view of learning objects features objectives, content and assessments that result in learning modules, only smaller and derived from existing resources.

Others, however, emphasize the objects aspect. The IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee touts the rich assets that can be assembled into learning materials or other useful programs such as performance support tools and references. The benefit comes from being able to find a worthy asset and then use it repeatedly, tailored to the particular situation.

Whether you emphasize the objects or the learning aspect, metadata remains at the heart of the matter. Metadata is the information used to describe and catalog each learning object. While a school librarian might rely upon the Dewey Decimal System, learning object developers turn to the Dublin Core and Learning Object Metadata (LOM) standards. These standards include the subject, media type, language and sometimes the relationship of the object to other learning objects. Companies often develop specialized vocabularies or taxonomies to describe their objects. Table 1 shows some familiar metadata tags.

Then there is the learning object database. Dependent on extensible markup language (XML), the standard language used for learning object metadata, learning objects are stored as diverse media, including graphics, audio, video and word-processed documents. Many turn to an authoring system to develop these objects and a content management system (CMS) to make it valuable to users. Lou Petrella, who spearheaded a pilot project at HP, said, “We would need a sophisticated CMS to take our pilot to production, to help with workflow and maintenance.”

Some vendors connect a CMS with a learning management system to create a learning content management system (LCMS). These systems then welcome objects and deliver them to learners to match organizational goals and individual needs with customized objects.

Practical Applications


    Do learning objects deliver on their promises?



  • HP fielded a pilot documentation project that was well-received by customers who extracted content libraries for internal use.
  • NETg compared typical expositive courses with a blend of case-based learning and self-study learning objects. They found that the students who used the objects-based course enjoyed a 41 percent drop in the time required to complete the task that was taught.
  • At Honeywell, Bruce Mills used learning objects to revamp training development. He began with a large commercial database of learning objects from NETg. His subject-matter experts mixed and matched to create training they saw as appropriate. To train engineers to use Windows 2000, his subject-matter experts extracted relevant objects from 81 separate object-based courses to create the equivalent of two days of e-learning. This focused approach has reduced most courses from approximately 60 hours to as few as 12 hours. “We used e-learning as a prerequisite to classroom training. We were nervous the first time we put the e-learning students in with a live trainer, but they were able to jump right in,” he said.
  • Lorne Novolker of CPTI used learning objects in a training program for Air Canada ground personnel. His team examined 94 classroom courses and discovered that decomposing four key classes into objects supported the creation of seven other classes and 44 percent of the overall curriculum. The end product combined live classroom training with multimedia presentations, simulations and testing on the computer, reducing the original four-hour classroom course to 1.5 hours. While this saved time in the classroom and cut 20 minutes per student for scoring tests, it also led to higher scores on government certification tests. Air Canada’s management intends to apply this strategy to other training.


Warren Longmire, an early implementer, noted that a shift to objects doesn’t have to commence with a large, expensive commitment. “Many organizations are trying to objectize where they can, sometimes in small ways such as simply moving toward greater modularity of content and reusing chunks of varying sizes,” he said. He described a project management course he worked on for Viviance, suggesting that they did several things right, such as anticipating what it would take to teach project management and organizing their objects to match, creating guidelines for authoring content and using the computer as a tool to help each learner plan a tailored path through the materials. When realities limited their efforts, the development team scaled back the ambitious plans and was “able to carry out our object-based design.”

You would think that initiatives like these would propel the learning objects movement. But that is not yet the case.

We found a consensus that simply repackaging content isn’t enough; learning objects require more effort to design than most contemporary training. Ray Clifford, chancellor of the Defense Language Institute, oversees a project with an object-oriented approach to language learning. Yet he argues that preparing learning objects for sharing may be uneconomical: “No one has yet demonstrated a return on investment on adding metadata to content.” Clifford worries that tagging objects to match reusability standards could add at least 25 percent to the development budget.


While the death of learning objects is not imminent, the approach is not influencing practice as much or as quickly as was anticipated. Why? Maybe it’s that people understand and appreciate their own creations better than the creations of others. It could be that many are still engaged with evaluating learning objects for their settings.

This picture of halting acceptance is no surprise. The software development community, which created the “objects” paradigm, was slow to accept others’ products too. They voiced many of the concerns we’re hearing from the learning community: questions about standards, customization and quality and discomfort with giving up the control and creativity involved in building from scratch. Trainers struggle with the constraints imposed by tagging requirements and clunky technology infrastructure. Experts worry about accuracy, currency and context.

Mike Parmentier, a key Department of Defense training leader, remains unabashedly keen on objects. When pressed about the scarcity of users of objects, he noted that learning objectives initiatives must make business sense and encourage people to do what is not always so easy for them, “People must learn to share.” It is ironic that the success of an innovative concept predicated on emergent technologies might just boil down to elementary lessons about sharing.Mike Parmentier, director of Readiness and Training for the Office of the U. S. Secretary of Defense, remains unabashedly keen on objects. When pressed about the scarcity of users of objects, he noted that learning objects initiatives must make business sense and encourage people to do what is not always so easy for them, to share. It is ironic that the success of an innovative concept predicated on emergent technologies might just boil down to that elementary lesson.

Richard Clark is a learning technology manager at Hewlett-Packard. Allison Rossett, professor of educational technology at San Diego State University, is editor of ‘The ASTD E-Learning Handbook: Best Practices, Strategies and Case Studies for an Emerging Field’ (McGraw-Hill, 2002).




Table 1



Typical metadata entries, from the LOM and SCORM standards (a partial list)


Example value(s)


‘Learning Objects: Solutions for Long-Term Training’


English (U.S.)


Introduction to learning objects and their impact on the lives of training and development professionals.


Learning objects, SCORM, standards

Contributed by

Allison Rossett and Richard Clark

Contributor’s role

Author (Other options are: Publisher, Editor, Script Writer, Educational Designer, etc.)


Collection (Other options are: Mixed, Linear, Hierarchical, Branched, Atomic, etc.)

Interactivity type

Expositive (Other options are: Active, , Mixed, Undefined)

Interactivity level

Narrative Text (Other options are: Exercise, Simulation, Questionnaire, Diagram, Figure, Graph, Index, Slide, Table, Exam, Experiment, Problem Statement, Self-Assessment)

Intended end-user role

Learner (Other options are: Teacher, Author, Manager)

Intended learner’s age

18 and up

Intended context

Professional formation (Other options are: Primary education, Secondary education, Higher education, University first cycle, University second cycle, University post-grad, Technical school first cycle, Technical school second cycle, Continuous formation, Vocational training, Other)


Medium (Other options are: Easy, Difficult, Very Difficult)


“The ASTD e-Learning Handbook” edited by Allison Rossett

Includes articles on learning objects, knowledge management and e-learning. See books.mcgraw-hill.com/authors/rossett/.

“Beyond the Podium: Delivering Training and Performance to a Digital World” by Allison Rossett and Kendra Sheldon

The book looks at how the training and development profession is changing, with discussion about what e-learning, learning objects and knowledge management mean to profession practice. See www.pfeiffer.com/go/BTP.

“Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville

A readable introduction to designing labeling systems for information (i.e., metadata).

“The Instructional Use of Learning Objects,” edited by David Wiley

Provides a theoretical basis for learning objects and documents their earliest uses. See www.reusability.org.

Learning object-related standards

SCORM (www.adlnet.org), IMS (www.imsproject.org), Microsoft’s Learning Resource Interchange (www.microsoft.com/elearn)

“Making Sense of Learning Specifications and Standards”

Learning objects are built on standards, and this free report from the MASIE center provides a readable introduction to e-learning standards. See www.masie.com/standards/.

Metadata standards

Learning Objects Metadata (www.ltsc.ieee.org/wg12/index.html),

Dublin Core (www.dublincore.org)


Tracks new trends in workplace learning.


Devoted the March 2000 Learning Circuits to learning objects. Also see “(Learning) Objects of Desire: Promise and Practicality” in the April 2002 issue and “Learning Objects Approach is Making Inroads” in May 2002.


Public content management system where authors can buy and sell individual objects.