From "Learning Objects" to "Knowledge Bits"

I have long been an opponent of the "Learning Objects" school of thought in E-Learning. If you take the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee definition, this is "[a]ny entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used and referenced during technology-supported learning". You pretty much get everything, including the kitchen sink, as a learning object.

Many, many authors spin wild tales of reusing learning objects, of combining them, enhancing them, and what not. I don't find any papers actually demonstrating reuse, however. We talked about learning objects in my Master's seminar yesterday, me being a curmudgeonly old skeptic and rather disorienting the student who thought he was presenting state of the art research when singing the praises of learning objects.

He can't be blamed, even the popular press is jumping on the band wagon with the current hype about "knowledge bits", little nuggets of wisdom which can be ingested in 15 minutes, between answering your email and fussing with Facebook.

The Berliner Tagesspiegel calls them "Knowledge Pills", just the thing for the younger generation. No need to read, ponder, think. Just pop a pill and be wise.

I find this to be utter nonsense. There is still no royal road to knowledge. Sure, there are things that you can learn in 15 minutes. Wikipedia offers a lot of them, and I am sure there are lots of things like "How do I force my text processor to produce a table of contents" that fit nicely in this area. But the kind of learning we want people to have at university does not fit into 15 minute sound bites (bytes?). We want people to learn to understand a larger picture, to be able to abstract away from details, to plan, to explain, to understand.

In the afternoon two former students dropped by with their current project. Neither had taken my e-learning class (tsk, tsk), they didn't know what learning objects are and thought meta data was something used in MPEG-7. They are right, and Dublin Core is used for both, but blessed be the people who have never heard of LOM, for they shall see light!

Their idea, called Sofatutor, consists of short videos produced with cheap cameras, paper, magic markers, bits of paper, and microphones (I do hope, however, that they can soon purchase new microphones!) demonstrating in Common Craft style mathematical proofs and chemical reactions in German.

This stuff is not actually what people mean when they talk about learning objects. For one thing, it's in German. Subtitling, like dotsub does, would handle that. There's no meta data - yet. But the idea is grand: the videos are easy to make, and cheap. Of course, they want to have social communities grow, have people make their own videos and upload them, that sort of thing. And there are no plans on re-mixing for the moment.

On the one hand, I am skeptical of this. Students often think they have understood a proof or an algorithm, when they have not. They tell other students the "right way", and the others believe it and are angry when this gets marked wrong on a test. On the other hand, the same thing is true for the Wikipedia. And despite all the nonsense to be found there, there is actually lots of useful information to be found, even if I don't want my students quoting it on academic papers. So this might actually be a useful was of getting lots of pretty-good content produced for teaching people about subjects such as maths. And boy, do we need to teach people more math, but that is the subject for another rant.

So good luck to the Sofatutor Squad!

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