Designing Excellent Learning Objects: Some Lessons from Two MERLOT Award Winners

Wednesday morning of the MIC, I attended two separate sessions for MERLOT Classics award winners. The first was the “Rossman/Chance Applet Collection”, a collection of Statistics applets, and the second was the “Visualizing Japanese Grammar” collection. I teach Statistics, so I was very familiar with the concepts covered by the Rossman/Chance collection, but have no knowledge of Japanese Grammar. Nevertheless, attending these two sessions together made me think of four traits of excellent learning objects.

First, both collections gave students experiences that they would not be able to experience in any other format. For example, the Statistics collection provided a simulation where students can simulate events that (hopefully) do not occur in real life, such as randomly assigning four babies to four sets of parents, and observing how many babies went to the correct set of parents. Although not something we can do in real life, the applet gives students intuition about some basic concepts of probability. Similarly, the Japanese grammar collection animated the correct order to describe relative positions of objects, which is very unnatural for native English speakers. The animated aspect of the applet forces students to override their natural way of thinking, which is actually incorrect in Japanese (or so I hear).

Second, professional appearance was not required for these to be excellent learning objects nor was technological expertise is not necessary. The Japanese collection, in particular, was put together with a relatively low—tech solution. In both cases, it was not the degree of “polish” of the learning objects, but rather the content that made these excellent learning objects.

Third, it took incredible amounts of time over many years to develop these learning objects. Regardless of the tools chosen or the simplicity of the ideas, designing a quality learning object is a substantial investment of time.

Fourth, both collections were created by teams of two. In both cases, both individuals had expertise in the content area, and complementary skills in technological areas. Although neither group discussed the benefits of working in a team, there are obvious benefits, and it seems that someone wanting to develop a learning object should consider a partner, or at least an advisor, to help with both the technical and emotional struggles of the process.

None of these observations is particularly new, but they stood out as common elements of these award winners, and so I think they are important to keep in mind when trying to design a good learning object.

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