November/December 2002 // Faculty and Staff Development
Preparing Teachers To Use Learning Objects
by Tuiren A. Bratina, Darrin Hayes, and Steven L. Blumsack
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Tuiren A. Bratina, Darrin Hayes, and Steven L. Blumsack "Preparing Teachers To Use Learning Objects" The Technology Source, November/December 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Teachers play important roles in technology-rich classrooms, making decisions that significantly affect students' learning. Initially, teachers decide "if, when, and how" they will use technology in the classroom (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000, p. 26). Those decisions include selecting learning objects that enlarge and enrich their repertoire of instructional techniques for presenting content. Our article describes learning objects, explores why teachers would want to use them, and explains how to facilitate their use. Our intended audience is postsecondary educators, although much of our discussion would also apply to K-12 teachers. Higher education faculty, particularly educators of future teachers, can facilitate the process of preparing teachers at all levels to use learning objects. We have chosen to emphasize effective implementation of existing learning objects, instead of emphasizing the separate issue of designing learning objects.

What is a Learning Object?

Learning objects are not a recent innovation. However, the way in which educators create and categorize them is changing. The term "learning object" originates from "object-oriented programming" and essentially describes an object that is designed for a specific purpose (to facilitate learning, in this case) and can be categorized by using metadata (i.e., data about data) (Watson, 2001). This categorization enables users to search for, access, and reuse objects as needed. Reusing learning objects makes online learning more cost effective. For example, one learning object was designed to help fifth graders with computer skills prerequisite for a lesson about simple machines (seesaws).

Wiley defines a learning object as "any digital resource that can be reused to support learning" (2000, p. 7). For example, the learning object used with the fifth graders is the "same" learning object reused for high school students to check that they have the prerequisite skills for a lesson about distance, velocity, and acceleration. We realize that this is not a precise definition, nor would all developers and users of learning objects concur about what learning objects are. In contrast to Wiley's definition, the Learning Technology Standards Committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) defines a learning object as "any entity, digital or non-digital, that may be used for learning, education or training" (2002, Section 1.1, ?Ǭ? 1). For example, one author (Bratina) uses laminated learning tiles to help pre-algebra students learn the process of adding integers; there are other times when she uses a digital form of the learning tiles.

The lack of consensus about a definition, however, does not trouble experts in education technology and related fields (Hodgins, 2000; Williams, 2000). We believe that teachers are already experienced in creating, selecting, and using non-digital entities; therefore, for the purposes of this article about preparing teachers to use learning objects, we prefer to use Wiley's definition of "learning object" to include only digital entities.

Why Would Teachers Want to Use Learning Objects?

It would be foolish for every teacher to write his or her own textbooks. Similarly, it is not feasible for every teacher to create all of the learning objects for a course. The reusability of learning objects, however, offers an efficient way to facilitate instruction of commonly taught concepts, procedures, applications, and skills; we can re-adapt some learning objects for different types of users. For example, Exhibit 1 was used in an assessment class of non-mathematics education students. The notation (sigma and subscripts) was specific to the course textbook, and the graphic presentation helped preservice and inservice teachers connect the use of the mathematical symbols in the graphic with the formulas in the textbook. In turn, the same graphic has been used for elementary school and middle school teachers to help them understand concrete and semi-concrete instructional techniques. Finally, that "same" graphic—with modifications to eliminate the sigma and subscript notation—was also presented to elementary school children. The rising fifth-graders both watched the animation and mimicked the scene with five people and ten pennies (the pauses in the graphic are intentional so that each action can be associated with an arithmetic operation). In each instance, the text or explanation that the teacher provides can be easily modified for each type of audience for whom this graphic is intended. In other words, this graphic is reusable. Learning objects need not stand alone and, in fact, may only represent a small part of the educational process.

There are myriad reasons for teachers to encourage their students to use computers in conjunction with learning objects. In some settings, students gain more from computer-based lessons than from other instructional methods (Podell, 1992; Ross, 1992; Isernhagen, 1999). One example where gains using the computer exceeded gains from using pencil-and-paper practice was the automatization of arithmetic skills (Podell, 1992). The National Research Council (NRC) expects students to "be able to access, gather, store, retrieve, and organize data, using hardware and software designed for these purposes" (1996, p. 145). Too, students can minimize tedious tasks by using word-processing, spreadsheets, and other software. Finally, students who cannot use computers will be disadvantaged when they enter the job market.

How Can We Motivate Teachers to Use Learning Objects?

Given these reasons, we should encourage educators to use these tools to improve their teaching and their students' achievement and attitudes. The U.S. Department of Education's Planning and Evaluation office suggests that "professional development focusing on specific strategies for using technology for higher-order learning increases teachers' use of these strategies " (2000, p. 51). This finding holds regardless of teachers' prior use of technology, the teachers' disciplines, or the level of school that they teach. Therefore, just as we should train mathematics instructors to use learning objects for mathematics concepts, we should train biology teachers to use learning objects specific to biology content, train foreign language teachers to use learning objects specific to foreign language content, and the like. Teachers should be given additional training to augment their skills in creating, selecting, and implementing non-digital learning objects with similar skills in creating, selecting, and implementing digital learning objects.

In meeting this goal, our experiences suggest that more technology training should be focused on preservice and inservice teachers before technology training efforts are turned toward K-16 students. Unfortunately, this practice is not common. Fuller (2000) noted that, according to research, making the priority higher for supporting teacher technology training is a more effective strategy for the appropriate use of educational technology, as compared to when initial efforts are aimed at K-16 students as a user group. However, Fuller found that technology training efforts were primarily focused on students as a user group. We propose that instructors who are already using learning objects take steps to prepare other interested teachers to use learning objects. Teaching the teachers prior to devoting attention to technology training for their students will still ultimately benefit the students.

Help Teachers Find and Develop Useful Learning Objects

There are a number of ways to assist teachers to find and develop useful learning objects. As an initial strategy, arrange informal meetings in which teachers have the chance to review exemplary Web sites. For example, the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception (a 2002 Webby Education Awardee) contains many wonderful examples of learning objects. There is a section called "Global Climate Change" that includes an extensive glossary, explanations about the latest scientific data on this global problem, and graphs that illustrate trends in temperature changes. In another section, National Hockey League players and coaches, as well as leading physicists and chemists, describe the "Science of Hockey." Learning objects such as audio and video clips, tables of reaction times, and pictures of player equipment appear on the Web site. In an informal faculty meeting, biology and physics teachers could discuss the potential use of these resources in their courses.

In turn, these meetings should foster a collaborative approach in the development of such resources. Just as it is important to have more than one teacher obtain inputs in the construction of a valid test, we find that when more than one educator develops or selects a learning object, the final product is much better than when only one person participates in the process. The input of two or three people reviewing a set of learning objects will help the newcomer realize what others are expecting from these resources.

As a further step, persuade some teachers to take (or audit) online lessons. Many institutions offer non credit-earning, short-term online lessons about a variety of useful topics, and some programs offer free subsets of their courses (Carnevale, 2001). The University of Nebraska at Lincoln, for example, offers short lessons about crop technology, whereas approximately 500 Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare courses are available to the public. Regardless of their academic content, such online experiences will help show how other teachers use learning objects, and thus help auditing teachers to see what is available to them. In turn, teachers should then be encouraged to take technology courses that will help them to develop their own customized, digital learning objects. While short courses can help someone get a fast start using software to create learning objects, there are also full-length and degree programs for teachers who have the time and money to invest in learning technology skills in depth. For example, Kessell (2000) reports that teachers in his Learning Technologies program receive a subscription to elementk, which features a wealth of information about online technology instruction. We received valuable advice from elementk instructor Ms. Karen Cizek when we created our learning tiles object; coincidentally, Ms. Cizek is an eighth grade mathematics teacher, so she provided us with tips based on her students' use of computers in the study of integer arithmetic, as well as practical Macromedia Flash skills for producing the desired learning objects.

Finally, there are many Web portals of digital learning objects, and educators can use the services of a portal to streamline their searches for learning objects. For example, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) is a free and open resource that primarily serves higher education faculty and students. MERLOT contains a collection of online learning materials. MERLOT directors have also developed a peer review process to evaluate new resources. We participate in their review process and use standard evaluation criteria that can help teachers select learning objects to supplement their instruction and assessment of students. Based on reviewers' inputs, editors post their final reviews on the MERLOT server.

Have New Learning-Object Users Determine Lesson Objectives

Williams tells us to accept the initial challenge of "defining the values or dimensions along which the [learning] object should be described or deciding 'what [it] ought to be'" (2000, p. 4). We must help teachers recognize that determining objectives is a requirement for all lesson plans. When selecting or developing learning objects, the teacher's first priority is to ensure that the lesson objectives determined by the curriculum form the foundation for the lesson plan; once defined and established, these same lesson objectives should in turn govern the design and use of learning objects. In short, the application of the electronic-learning component should blend with other aspects of a lesson. For example, an elaborate graph illustrating statistical trends in global temperatures would be inappropriate in an introductory biology lesson designed for elementary school students, whereas it may still be valuable for an AP biology course for high school students. Rather than modifying the course in order to accommodate learning objects, instructors need to ensure that their use of learning objects remains informed by the specific goals of the course.

Urge Novices to Begin Gradually and Play With Purpose

If we push teachers to start using too many new tools at one time, we may lead them down a path with little chance for success. The key is to balance between our demonstrations and their hands-on practice for each application of learning objects. Let the novice do as much as possible. "Showing" is acceptable initially, but give teachers control as soon as possible so they can be comfortable working on their own. Help teachers build high levels of instructional efficacy by letting them practice and giving them supportive, constructive feedback.

Encourage novices to relate their searches for learning objects to both their personal and professional lives. Many people become interested in using technology for personal reasons before deciding to apply it in professional settings.

"Playing" can also be productive. Teachers are great at converting games into applications for their academic instruction (e.g., Jeopardy!). Creative teachers can play with learning objects that have no obvious immediate use in education and invent learning applications for their students. Exhibit 2, for example, documents the transformation of a playful chatroom/whiteboard tutoring session. We also played with "flashy" tools to convert game applications (dragging puzzle pieces) into user-controlled learning tiles for integer arithmetic.

Motivate Novices to Conduct a "Dry Run" and Seek Critiques of Their Work

Preliminary practice sessions are easy. Although many people skip this step, rehearsing maximizes the probability of successful implementation of learning objects.

Teachers must evaluate their learning objects in different contexts. For example, they should use different platforms, different browsers, and different modem speeds to test whether the learning objects "work"; a given flash animation may work on a computer with a fast connection, but not with a slower connection. As Williams has noted, "If a single object's main purpose is to be reusable in many different contexts, its usefulness should be documented by many users with different needs and perspectives in many contexts over time" (2000, p. 18). Toward this end, it is also helpful to disseminate learning objects regularly and frequently to alumni, faculty at other colleges or universities, local teachers, educational department employees, friends, and relatives; ask for their reactions to and advice about the objects and their usefulness.

For example, our temperature exercises contained references to people and places in other countries. Our first priority was to choose valid mathematics problems (-20 < result < 20) and models (e.g., number line) that demonstrate operations on single-digit integers. Next, we created real-world problems that would integrate other forms of academic subject matter (e.g., social studies). We chose worldwide locations where the temperatures corresponded to the situations in the mathematical problems. One university educational technology critic asked, "Do you really want to use or republish the Russian names and locations like the Bolshoi?" We sought more input by giving two multicultural education experts the critic's question and the temperature word problems. Both experts responded that adding names of people and places of other cultures to any lesson is in the spirit of progressive multicultural education.

Stress the Use of Research-Based, Interesting, and Connected Learning Objects to Beginners

Teachers are sometimes so rushed that they prematurely jump straight to the implementation of a lesson. To encourage the best use of learning objects, our teacher's page includes relevant research, suggested activities, assessment exercises, and complementary/supplementary classroom activities. The selected learning objects must be connected to desired outcomes. Style is important, but the key is to choose objects that offer substantive help to your teaching experience.

Some research indicates that computer applications can be more effective than paper-and-pencil practices (Podell, 1992). We want to assist beginning learning-object users in identifying those instances in which computer use is appropriate and wise. We suggest that most effective instructional practices incorporate digital objects in conjunction with non-digital objects.

Thurman and Mattoon (1992) suggest making computer-based instructional pieces motivationally appealing. We do not encourage educators to design "fun" activities that are academically pointless. However, in this technologically savvy world, we believe users will increasingly expect popular music, colorful pages, and quality animations to play a role in online activities. We certainly recommend using appealing learning objects that will attract and maintain the students' interest. To this end, we often emulate educational audio segments similar to those produced by National Public Radio (see Exhibit 3) and urge colleagues to do the same.

Support Teachers' Work on Learning Objects

Support that you should provide includes recognition and encouragement for taking the necessary steps to create and develop learning objects. Invite newcomers to co-author articles and co-conduct presentations about learning objects.

Help other educators identify funding sources, as we did through the University of North Florida (UNF) College of Education, the Florida Institute of Education, the Florida Higher Education Consortium, and UNF's Faculty Enhancement Office. While these agencies are potential partners for technology projects in Florida, teachers elsewhere can obtain support through many other agencies. For example, here are some sources of funding and/or training:

Next Steps

Hodgins (2000) maintains that there "is a critical need for raising awareness, education, dissemination, and the tools and technology with which to start implementing [learning objects]" (p. 11). Current users of learning objects can help meet this need. We should continue to study ongoing research about learning objects and base our own applications of learning objects on those informed recommendations. Further, we should conduct our own research about learning objects and share this work with current and potential users. We must also become more familiar with developing standards to facilitate the evaluation, acquisition, and use of these tools. Increased numbers of educators will soon be using learning portals (learning-object repositories) that access metadata to identify the learning object(s) for the customer. We should accelerate this process by gathering and disseminating information about digital resources to our colleagues so teachers can use and reuse these learning objects.


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