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Creating and re-using learning objects: A constructivist approach

Lim Hwee Ling
School of Education, Murdoch University
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Educators and commercial content providers need not be the only creators of course resources as such learning objects can be co-constructed with students and re-used meaningfully in various educational contexts. This paper describes the creation of learning objects from a constructivist approach for a software documentation project in an undergraduate course. Examples of the practical application of such learning objects in various educational contexts are highlighted and the issue of intellectual property rights of students to the content created is briefly discussed.


Course materials such as textbooks, handouts, video/audio tapes are usually created by teachers or commercial content providers and distributed for use in print or other physical formats. The concept of learning objects offers a different perspective on the development of course materials that transcends the physical limitations of space and time which bind traditional materials; for instance, when a video tape or a book is loaned out, access is denied to other potential users. This concept also supports a collaborative approach to the creation of materials that takes into account the participation of both teachers and students in the construction of new knowledge. However, it also raises issues involving the intellectual property rights of students who are co-creators of course materials.

This paper which is based on my presentation at the Western Australian Institute for Educational Research (WAIER) 19th Annual Research Forum on 7 August 2004, aims to

What are learning objects?

Definitions of learning objects

Learning objects have been variously defined by different organisations and researchers based on their institutional purposes and areas of interest. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) offered an extremely broad definition of learning objects as "any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning" (IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee, 2002) and researchers like Wiley (2000), defined it as "any digital resource that can be reused to support learning" (p.7). Narrower definitions referred to learning objects as "online learning materials" (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching Project MERLOT, 2004) and "products of previous student work" (Garrison & Anderson, 2003:100). In the context of this discussion, learning objects are regarded as "digital or non-digital products that can be re-used to support learning" and this working definition includes the key concepts of the definitions cited earlier, namely digital/non-digital formats, product/resource, reusability and learning.

Characteristics of learning objects

According to Wiley (2000), learning objects generally have the following characteristics: they are small instructional components that can be integrated to form larger components or courses; usually in digital format for easy expansion and maintenance of currency; stored in shared repositories for easy access by multiple users for multiple instructional uses and learning objects are the results of individual or collaborative work. Examples of learning objects include digital images, text, live data feeds, video/audio and animation files, small web-based applications, and web pages that integrate any or all of above smaller components (pp.3-7).

Creating and re-using learning objects

The learning context

The creation and re-use of learning objects occurred in the context of a software documentation project in a Business and Technical Communication course for first-year computer science undergraduates at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The instructional methods used in the course included face-to-face lectures, tutorials, student-tutor conferences, e-mail consultations, independent self-study using online resources and forum discussions on the University's Integrated Virtual Learning Environment - IVLE (Figure 1). The IVLE is a web-based learning management system termed the fifth generation of educational technology by Garrison and Anderson (2003) that integrates course "administrative, support and instructional components" (p.38).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE)

The software documentation project required the students to work in groups, download a software program from the course website and following a pre-determined scenario, design, produce and submit a print-based user manual for the software in three weeks. In the first semester that I taught this course, I received many questions from students on manual formats and instructional styles which I answered verbally during face-to-face lessons or electronically via e-mail and the IVLE discussion forum. In the next semester, I found myself answering the same types of questions and realised that these frequently asked questions are valuable resources, indicative of gaps in the students' understandings, their areas of concern and should be archived for use by current (and subsequent) student cohorts.

The learning object solution

The solution was the development of a Manual Style Guide which is a learning object/resource containing smaller learning object components such as digital images and texts from students' work, industry-set style standards and examples of style decisions. The Manual Style Guide contains information broad enough to apply to most software as well as specific information relevant to the students in their educational context. This learning object and its smaller components can be accessed by students in various formats, expanded on and re-used in other instructional contexts.

Although style guides help to maintain consistency among multiple writers in project groups and reduce production time, some technical writers regard style standards as irrelevant 'rules' imposed by higher authorities that stifle their creativity (Allen, 1996). In order to ensure the acceptability of the standards among the main users (the students), they should be highly involved in development process of the style guide so th at the learning resource would be mainly the result of their input and reflect their specific needs and concerns.

Constructivist approach in learning object creation

Although constructivism has been used as "an umbrella term for a wide diversity of views" (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996:171), the approach essentially regards learning as an active, participatory process during which students create meaning based on own experiences then share such personal knowledge through dialog in a supportive learning community, thus converting private knowledge to public knowledge. This public knowledge is then refined, validated, re-constructed and integrated as a result of interaction or debate among other participants (including teachers) in the learning community. Through these collaborative transactions, participants develop critical thinking abilities, the capacity for further learning and also assume the roles of co-creators of new knowledge. The constructivist approach, with its emphasis on the collaborative-transactional process of knowledge creation among members of learning communities, makes it particularly suitable for guiding the design of instructional activities that can maximise participant involvement in development the Manual Style Guide. Table 1 summarises the instructional activities in relation to the constructivist approach to learning.

Table 1:The constructive process and activities for creating learning objects

Constructivist processActivities for creating learning objects
Learner constructs meaning based on own experience (private knowledge).
  • Student reflects on own experience for possible tips or suggestions on creating a user manual.
Learner shares meaning through dialog in a learning community (private to public knowledge).
  • Student contributes tips based on reflections in online discussion forum.
Public knowledge is refined, validated, re-constructed, and integrated through collaborative transactions in learning community.
  • Other students (and teacher) compare posted tips to own experiences, carry out further research or try out the tips.
  • Students (and teacher) elaborate on, review or judge the value of posted tips and contribute alternative suggestions in the online discussion forum.
  • Teacher collates, re-packages contributions as a learning object - the Manual Style Guide and distributes it for use.
Participants develop critical thinking abilities, capacity for further learning and become co-creators of new knowledge.

During the time frame allocated for completing the project, the students were asked to reflect on what they had learnt in the process of writing a software user manual and share their experiences (their successes and mistakes) by posting useful tips or suggestions for producing manuals in the IVLE discussion forum (Figure 2). Their postings were reviewed, elaborated on by other students (and the teacher) then collated and re-packaged by the teacher into a Manual Style Guide that is composed of smaller learning objects such as digital images and text (Figure 3), and made accessible to students for reference and study purposes. The Manual Style Guide was re-used by students in the subsequent semesters as a learning resource even as its components were constantly expanded and elaborated on using the valuable input from students. As a result, "the ongoing learning community continuously builds knowledge, captures, and passes this knowledge forward to future classes" (Garrison and Anderson, 2003:100).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Samples of tips and suggestions posted by students in the IVLE discussion forum

Figure 3

Figure 3: Examples of digital image and text learning objects

Pedagogical impact of constructivist approach

Based on student feedback and my experiences from facilitating the software documentation project for three consecutive semesters, I observed the impact of constructivist-based activities in the following areas:

Learning objects and implications for knowledge management

The management of course materials in traditional physical formats involves relatively higher cost and efforts as such materials are constrained in their existence to specific places and times. In addition, any changes need to be judiciously timed and revision of materials may not occur as frequently as desired. When conceptualised as learning objects, knowledge management practices for resources can be simplified since the digital format enables changes to be carried out easily, with updated versions delivered rapidly to users via electronic communication networks thus maintaining the quality of currency of learning resources. Moreover, a single digital learning object that is placed online can also be accessed simultaneously by multiple users at different localities and times.

From my experiences, I found that the learning object approach can support cost-effective knowledge management practices for creating, re-using, maintaining and storing resources. The Manual Style Guide learning object was easily updated and the latest version made accessible to students in various formats including a web-based application (Figure 4), a standalone HELP application (Figure 5) and as a downloadable .pdf file (Figure 6). The other smaller components were re-used in instructional contexts such as lectures as examples of students' work and stored in shared network repositories for easy access by both staff and students.

Figure 4

Figure 4: User Manual Style Guide learning object as web-based application

Figure 5

Figure 5: User Manual Style Guide learning object as standalone HELP application

Figure 6

Figure 6: User Manual Style Guide learning object in .pdf format

Copyright issues

According to Palloff and Pratt (2003), there has been much concern among teachers over copyright issues pertaining to ownership of their own works and the fair use of sources for educational purposes but "when it comes to students, little to no attention is being paid to these issues except as regards the handling of copyright infringements by students" (p.104). When learning objects such as "papers, projects, or reference materials" (ibid:103) that have been created by students in the course of their study, are re-used for teaching, research, non-commercial or commercia l purposes by the teacher or educational institution, the students' intellectual property rights should be observed by obtaining written consent for use and giving proper attribution or credit.

Although, there are differences between countries in their scope and interpretation of copyright laws as well as the privileges and defences accorded to educational institutions for the use of copyrighted works, the following broad guidelines may help teachers without detailed legal knowledge of copyright laws to obtain permission for use of students' works: firstly, check your institution's policy (if there is one) on the use of students' work for non-commercial and commercial purposes. There may be cases where a university's rules and regulations state that ownership of works created by students using university facilities or equipment, automatically belongs to the institution. Then draft a copyright agreement form stating clearly that the student/author agrees to grant permission for use of any or all materials created in a specific course of study conducted by the institution under certain conditions such as restrictions on commercial use, types of users and the means by which student can withdraw permission, if desired.

Instead of asking for signed consent at the first lesson, I explained to the students their intellectual property rights as well as the individual and collective benefits they could gain later in the course from having access to works of past students who had granted permission for use. After the students had accessed such works a few weeks into the course, I then asked for signed consent for use. With this strategy, I found the students to be more appreciative of the value of the resources they had access to, gratified by seeing their contributions properly credited, and therefore most generous in granting permission for use of their works.


The learning objects approach has offered a different perspective on educators or commercial content providers as the main producers of course resources in physical formats. Learning objects are the products of multiple creators participating in collaborative learning processes that reflect the main principles in constructivist theories of learning. The concept of learning objects supports more cost-effective knowledge management practices for the creation, re-use, delivery, maintenance and storage of digital resources but raises complicated legal issues regarding the observation of students' intellectual property rights to co-created works. It is hoped that the sharing of research in this area will encourage teachers to re-think their current methods of creating learning resources and help them appreciate the supportive role that technology can play in enhancing the quality of their course materials.


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Wiley, D. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. Wiley (Ed.), The instructional use of learning objects. Online version. (pp. 1-35). http://www.reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc

Author: Lim Hwee Ling, School of Education, Murdoch University
Email: h.lim@murdoch.edu.au or s32795@yahoo.com

Please cite as: Lim H.L. (2004). Creating and re-using learning objects: A constructivist approach. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2004. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2004/lim.html

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