Making Personalized Learning a Reality with Learning Objects

Technology advances for easier, quicker, and better educational content creation.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gjergj Demiraj

There is a perception that customized or personalized learning is a new idea. In reality, personalized learning has been used for gifted students and those with special needs for a very long time – only recently has technology advanced to the point where personalized learning experiences could be offered to all learners.

To be effective, however, instructors must recognize and respond to students’ different learning styles. When this is done successfully, the customized learning experience pays enormous dividends to student outcomes. The biggest challenge with this is to make a customized learning experience relevant and meaningful, which lies largely in learning objects and the ability to manage – and tag – content so that it can be reused in a meaningful way.

Utilizing Learning Objects to Make Content More Accessible

The learning objects concept has become more common in the eLearning industry, but is still relatively new. The fundamental idea of learning objects is that they can be created and then reused in different learning contexts. More simplistically, they are bite-sized segments of digital instructional media that can be reused and reassembled in different ways to make it easier and quicker to create educational content. Regardless of whether this media takes the form of text, images or video, the content is usually no more than fifteen minutes in length to promote student engagement in short bursts.

‘Regardless of whether this media takes the form of text, images or video, the content is usually no more than fifteen minutes in length to promote student engagement in short bursts.’

Unlike traditional course materials, learning objects provide just enough information for a student’s needs, particularly if they form a small part of a much larger course. Incorporating learning objects into classrooms also enables instructors to customize instructional materials, break up demonstrations with interactive screen-time, and subtly assess students’ progress. For example, a classroom of fifth graders can watch a 5-minute interactive video about fractions followed by a hands-on activity to recreate the concepts learned. Hybrid methods like this allow instructors to approach learning from multiple learning pathways (audio, visual, and practical) to increase student retention and engagement.

However, learning objects are only useful if instructors can find them. For learning objects to be effective, each learning object must be accurately described so that instructors can find the right learning object at the right time.

The Importance of Metadata to Define Learning Objects

As personalized learning becomes more of a reality, metadata also becomes increasingly important. Traditionally, metadata is a system of indexing, as it is a set of data that describes and gives information about other data. For instance, a library catalog card will contain information about the contents of books in the form of a title, author name, and description. Just as this metadata will enable anyone to locate a book quickly, it also enables learners and other users to search through books and courseware, including instructional data – ultimately making learning objects easily searchable and reusable.

While metadata is key to defining content so that it can easily be found and reused, one of the most difficult challenges with learning objects is knowing how they are sequenced and combined with one another. Learning objects have been likened to Lego blocks to form collections of themed content, but the reality is that not all learning objects can be stacked or grouped together. Essentially, the way learning objects are combined must be instructionally useful or meaningful.

The easiest and most effective way to tag learning objects with metadata – and subsequently identify relevant modules of content – is with an online authoring tool. These tools allow instructors to granulate content from books, learning modules and assessments into small, manageable learning objects. These components can then be mapped to learning objectives, certification criteria, taxonomy terms and keywords and meta-tagged based on whatever the desired output is, including images that should be printed, animations for course materials or rich media for mobile study apps.

Providing multiple levels of metadata provides an even more accessible user experience for teachers. For instance, rather than tagging an object by discipline (i.e. History), adding a deeper level of metadata, such as subject (i.e. Civil War), skills (Critical Thinking) and level (K12), allows teachers to more quickly navigate and find specific learning objects. Furthermore, by using deeper metadata, teachers can access better and more granular analytics on the specific topics and skills they are currently teaching. They can then proactively work with students individually to provide personalized learning paths based on the student’s performance and progress.

‘…by using deeper metadata, teachers can access better and more granular analytics on the specific topics and skills they are currently teaching.’ 

Beyond creating and tagging learning objects, it’s also important to set up a benchmarking system so that teachers can compare the performance of different learning objects. When setting up a benchmarking system, all the factors that influence the performance of learning objects need to be considered, including the technology involved, the circumstances in which the learning object is used, the pedagogic strategy, and economic, cultural and institutional factors.

Once created, defined and benchmarked, metadata-enriched learning objects and their individual components can be exported into course modules, added to a knowledge base or content management system to be organized according to individual teachers’ needs or added as components of an adaptive learning environment. The material can also easily be reused and repackaged in different learning objects – meaning that instructors can even create customized personal learning paths according to individual learners’ needs.

By thinking more atomically at how content is created, instructors can better identify pedagogically relevant information to create useful and meaningful learning objects from relevant text, images and video or audio files to tables, animations and assessments. This is what will ultimately make personalized learning a reality.

Gjergj Demiraj is the President and CEO of Gutenberg Technology. Previously, Gjergj worked internationally in the software and media industries, building his expertise in digital publishing transformation. He studied in Milan, is a polyglot and co-founded a crowdfunding company while living in France.


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