Electronic learning -- designing RLOs


I found that designing reusable learning objects presented a number of interesting technical and design problems. I summarise some of the issues I faced below.


Technical problems

After an e-mail correspondence with a colleague, I acquired free software and experimented with it.

  1. Reload seems a powerful tool that offers SCORM-compliant  (industry standard) products, but I found it not very user-friendly.
  2. Wink is a free program that produces Shockwave Flash video. It is very easy to use, but it is primarily designed to produce video tutorials on using various software packages.
  3. Microsoft Producer seems by far the best. It is free, and it offers a number of templates combining video, audio, PowerPoint, and text (as html files). The output is rendered as a series of web files in Microsoft format (html ,wmv, avi and the like). It works best with Microsoft kit like Internet Explorer, which is a minor nuisance. It can capture video and audio from a variety of sources, and there is a small audience studio facility designed to add an audio commentary to PowerPoint slides. The products can be finished in a variety of stages of compression, permitting the use of websites on the one hand, and CD Rom on the other to transmit the packages.


Legal problems

I am still not sure about the extent to which it is permissible to grab images and text from the Web and from broadcast and use those in mixing an educational package. A visiting lawyer explained to the members of the course which I am attending on creative entrepreneurship that educational packages are more or less exempt from copyright restrictions, given an attempt to demonstrate goodwill by offering to get permission and so on. However, the college might have additional contracts and agreements with publishers and its own understanding of copyright. Using my RLOs on College kit might offer additional problems.


Design problems

If the package is to contain mixtures of video, still images, animated images, audio of various kinds and text, the design problems that emerge are familiar ones. Which of these media turns out to be the best to convey which educational intentions?


There is a considerable backlog of educational technology research on these matters. I was fairly immersed in it once, but have lost touch with the more recent contributions. The discussions turned on matters such as whether educational video or audio were effective as educational media. A number of analysts, including Umberto Eco, worried that the audience would treat audio and video in the way in which they were accustomed -- as entertainment. There is also the difficult matter of which conventions are to be used to guide the production of video and audio. From what I can see so far, video and audio elements seem to correspond to some familiar popular genres, especially documentary realism. There is much debate about the effectiveness of this genre, both in educational and media theory -- very basically, there are grave doubts about whether documentary realism can develop educational or political critique. To be specific, a famous analysis of an Open University television programme on unemployment argued that the academic intentions (to critique the conventional views that unemployment is a result of personal inadequacy) was subverted by the decision to shoot a conventional documentary about unemployment, which focused precisely on unemployed individuals who told their stories. It seemed impossible to illustrate a critical concept such as 'structural unemployment' using the standard production values of conventional television.


My view at the time was that therefore we should experiment with something different for educational video, something that challenged conventions. An obvious source of ideas was the filmic avant-garde, especially the cinema of Godard. There is an evaluation of an experimental OU TV programme which did set out to break many of the conventions of television (although not quite in an avant garde manner). OU students hated it, illustrating the tension between radical design intentions and conservative viewer reactions. Since that experiment, however, unconventional video has become rather more widespread, especially in forms such as arthouse or music video, popular websites to host amateur video, and maybe even in mainstream films.


Quite what the effects of this might be on the audience remain entirely unknown, but it is tempting to provide a video accompaniment to 'educational' text which does something more than literally illustrate what can be read anyway (the classic example being a video with sound of a lecturer giving a lecture, while the text of the lecture scrolls in a separate window).


There might be something in the view that audio and video works best on the emotions or the unconscious anyway. There is some background here, of course, in media studies and its analyses of surrealism or music. Educational video needs to become aware of this material, and move away from an excessive interest in the cognitive.


There is along tradition of interest in ‘visual’ learners too, and this has been given recent attention in the popular NLP movement. From what I recall, most of the benefits are claimed for still images in fact. However, much of this work has recently been criticized as highly unreliable and speculative (in a recent Government report on learning styles). Nevertheless it featured prominently in the recent claims to expertise made by our in-house video production company in designing materials for our VLE – the claim seems to interest managers.



Overall, there is a serious problem with the cost effectiveness of both audio and visual elements. Given their relative educational ineffectiveness, and the considerable costs of production if it is decided to match conventional production values, it seems there is some mileage in thinking of deliberately amateur productions. It might be possible to make these relatively challenging as well in terms of conventions -- to make them look like Godard, Jarman, ‘realist’, ‘gonzo’  or Danish dogme pieces, designed with the same intent of  'shocking' the audience out of its conventional passivity and complacency (without making them too angry and defensive).


There is also the formidable problem of what happens when you combine these different media. My own view on the latter is that this is not really a design problem at all if users are allowed to control the individual elements of the package altogether. One thing I like about Producer is that it permits users to switch on or off the video and audio elements, adjust the volume, advance and wind back the video and so on. My intention would be to evaluate how users actually do control the packages, and perhaps offer some hints in the instructional material so that they can maximise the benefit at the reception end.




The RLOs I have produced so far are based around conventional text and PowerPoint materials. I still cannot see many reasons for making video or audio the central educational medium. I am aware that an OU study showed that audio tapes were probably the most cost-effective medium, and this may still be the case –but tapes are not multimedia.


I am using amateur video (perhaps too amateur). I think these media should not  offer documentary realism but some other kind of experience – to try to calm people, offer gentle parody (of wildlife films, security video), be playful (nice friendly interviews), offer ‘raw’ data (of a risky leisure activity).


I would like to incorporate commercially-produced material if this is legal and ethical – slightly challenging material such as Swankmajer, Aardman Animations, bits of experimental video I have accumulated over the years, avant-garde film, music video, music tracks, vox pops (eg ‘thinking aloud’ pieces). Whether the costs of using such material outweigh the benefits will be an important issue. The politics of taste may prove the biggest obstacle.




I think evaluation is more important than design for educational materials: artistic media has different aesthetics, but educators want to teach something to actual punters. Evaluation offers a number of challenges as above, but it is essential to see how students use these RLOs in practice, and to ask questions such as:


Have there been any changes in learning?

Are the multimedia elements beneficial or distracting?

Which element seems more useful and which more interesting?

Are motivations, emotions and feelings affected as well as cognition?

How do RLOs compare with other electronic forms?

Are there any technical difficulties?

What would be the best way to improve or change the material?