The question around learning design

Intellectual powerhouses (and me) – Stephen Downes, James Dalziel, me, Grainne Conole

I’m at the LAMS European Conference in Cadiz, where we’re presenting some of the
work from the OU Learning Design project. Grainne gave a keynote on Thursday
morning, along with Stephen Downes. Simon and Andrew presented their work in
the afternoon, and I got co-opted (read press-ganged) onto the panel at the

Stephen was talking about he made an Audacity recording of
his presentation, and that constituted a learning object in his view, although
it wouldn’t meet many of the strict definitions of one. Grainne was talking
about our Cloudworks project (loosely based on the Flickr for learning design
) and the importance of adding in the social factor to encourage
educators to share. Listening to Stephen and Grainne talk one thing struck me –
education often seems very bad at solving some of these problems. For instance,
learning object repositories haven’t been a resounding success despite being
such a plainly good idea. And yet Slideshare is very successful and could be
thought of as a repository. So why did they succeed where many smart, dedicated
people in education failed? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Educators
    tend to see all possible problems and thus create an overly complex solution –
    e.g. masses of metadata fields to cover every possible element of reuse.
  2. Educators
    don’t actually like sharing much when it comes to teaching, but Slideshare is
    like sharing research.
  3. Many
    of the projects have definite deadlines, and project milestones, etc. These can
    get in the way of the flexible, lightweight development you need.
  4. The
    learning object repositories were too content-centric and didn’t utilise the
    social motivation – people put stuff up on Slideshare partly for altruistic
    reasons, but also because they get ego boosts from people favouriting, or
    commenting on their presentations.

So the question this raised for me was ‘is there an
equivalent change we can do for learning design that happened for learning
objects?’. I’m hoping it’s Cloudworks, but it may yet be some smart start-up in
San Francisco.

Photo story: In the conference bags the LAMS people gave
away a lamb in a can. My bag was devoid of this item, and I tweeted to this
effect (it could constitute my travel gift for my daughter). An international
incident of bodyline proportions was thus avoided when one was donated to me.


  1. I agree that educators are not generally good at sharing, but I think the reason for the success of Slideshare is simpler that the one you have given – people already have PowerPoint presentations for the conference (familiar technology), so they just bung them on Slideshare. Work out the proportion of people who use Slideshare to it’s full potential (i.e. synching an audio narration to their slides) as opposed to simply parking a PowerPoint – that tells you the true reason for the “success” of Slideshare.
    Another thing academics are bad at is buying decent gifts for their families when they travel, as opposed to simply scooping up a few free pens/lambs from the conference. (I’m guilty as charged 😉

  2. I agree regarding the sharing thing – it’s about least resistance; I can create a PPT and I can upload to Slideshare. It’s easy. I really don’t want to wade through the Dublin Core before I throw anything into the pot.
    Toblerone was invented for purchasing quickly at airports when returning from overseas trips – my contribution to the gift debate as a non-academic who lived abroad for a while 🙂

  3. Having now spent entirely too much of my life in the morass that are learning object repositories, I believe you are right on 1, 2 and 4. I don’t think 3 is wrong per se, but also don’t believe it accounts for the majority of failures. And while I think 2 can be true, I think it is easily overstated as the reason for the lack of success.
    I think the major reason,though, is what I touched on in this post, and your example of Slideshare helps make the case. The LORs that have succeed have, in my experience, constrained their focus either by media type (‘we only offer really good Flash animations’ – cf WISC Online) or disciplines (thinking of the medical imaging library here). But too many of them tried to be all things to all people and all content types, and ultimately failed them all. Slideshare, like the Freesound example I use, focuses on providing controls for one specific type of content, in this case slides. By making them natively previewable on the web and then offering embed code to easily reuse them, it offered a relatively seamless way to find and reuse slides (and the upload process ain’t too shabby either).

  4. Scott – yes, I think you’re right. “I need photos – I’ll got to Flickr, I need a presentation – I’ll go to Slideshare. I need something on analogue to digital conversion – errm…”
    The point I was making in 3 was that my knowledge of start ups is that they rarely do the thing they set out to do – instead they change and adapt in light of customer reactions (Flickr being a good example, they didn’t set out to create a photo sharing service). Research projects don’t do this because funding bodies don’t like it – you say what you are going to do and then you do it, and if interesting things come up in the meantime you have to ignore them because they don’t fit the agreed milestones and workpackages. I agree this may not be a key reason, but it is significant more widely I think in how education responds to new technologies.

  5. Martin, I have long argued that success of web services depends a lot on picking up on existing social or cultural trends. Sharing or showing photos to others informally or though photo competitions existed before Flickr. Backyard or car boot sales existed well before Ebay provided a new way to sell of unwanted stuff. ppt presentations have been produced and used by school kids to CEOs and mailing these around became common before SlideShare was there.
    The interesting point about LORs is what a narrow aspect of social cultural life they serve – academics (and only some academics at that). I think that to really take off there needs to be a greater range of people involved in developing LOs or OERs for a wider range of purposes and that it may also need to evolve into a fairly common ‘template’ for them that has a relatively simple structure. Photos, slides, videos all have simple overall structures even if the length can vary and usually involve one medium/format. LOs and OERs are often more complex and muliple media upping the effort and time involved for many.
    And then there are the distinctions between the things being entertaining and informing led (surface learning lite) or graft and intensity led (deep learning). So what is it that people are sharing of their lives when they share LOs?

  6. Andy, I’ve heard this argument before, but I don’t really believe it. I don’t think people did really share photos (Flickr), or interact via the school year book (Facebook) before. These are new behaviours that the presence of the technologies have created. Let’s take Flickr as an example – sure people took photos before, but they usually just put them in albums. Only a small percentage shared them via clubs. But the presence of Flickr means that firstly people share with family and friends more, but they share also with everyone. And the interesting thing that happens then is that this has an effect back into the real world. People start taking more photos and taking photography more seriously _because_ they are sharing.
    And LORS may be a small section of society overall, but globally it’s a very large population (potentially). Similarly one could argue teachers have always shared good lesson ideas, now they can do it at scale.
    The key thing for all these tools is that scale changes the nature of behaviour and the removal of the cost of organisation makes people more inclined to share. It’s finding the unit of sharing that’s the success factor I think.

  7. Martin, I fully agree when you say “Only a small percentage shared them via clubs. But the presence of Flickr means that firstly people share with family and friends more, but they share also with everyone. And the interesting thing that happens then is that this has an effect back into the real world. People start taking more photos and taking photography more seriously _because_ they are sharing.” But I don’t think that negates my view that there were antecedent activities that new technologies have opened up in new ways. They are also all low transaction cost activities in that it does not take much time and effort to do. LORs may suffer from most educational materials taking much longer to do and share than the other activities that have done very well.

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