Sustainable Learning Through Reusable Learning Objects: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

By:  Kathleen Iverson, Ph.D.MC900053502

While watching his children play with Lego building blocks, Wayne Hodgins (2002) had an “epiphany moment,” and a revolutionary idea was born—the design and delivery of Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs) that could be combined in a variety ways to create sustainable learning.  Like standard 1 x 1-inch building bricks, reusable learning structures begin with small Reusable Information Objects (RIOs), which are combined to create Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs).  In turn, RLO’s are combined to create increasingly complex structures such as lessons, classes, and curriculum.  Designers can disassemble and rebuild structures over and over again, using the same pieces of information.  RLOs could revolutionize the design and delivery of learning and reduce the enormous “landfill” of carefully designed lessons, lectures, tests, and media that are used once or twice and then discarded.  Rather than starting from ground zero, instructional designers, educators, and self-directed learners could access an array of learning components from lectures, media, tests, practice components, podcasts, and social media that could be combined to create lessons, courses, curriculum, certification programs, or tutorials.

Although most agree on the advantages of RLOs, widespread adoption among workplaceBusinesswoman Running With Computer learning professionals and educators has been challenging, but with increased interest in open learning, advances in web-based knowledge sharing, and more sophisticated search engines, the era of the RLO is here.  As we move toward this new era of knowledge sharing and acquisition, there are three initial hurdles that we must cross if we are to realize the promise of sustainable learning:

  1.  We need a common language so that everyone understands the terminology.
  2. We must work toward a standard format and strategy for designing both RIOs, the building blocks of information, and RLOs, the resulting learning architecture that is based on grounded learning theory.
  3. We need to explore new strategies for sharing and delivering RIO and RLOs that incorporate Web 2.0 and social media.

Common language has been a barrier to widespread adoption among workplace learning professionals and educators. Only through the clarification of language and terminology related to RLO design and sharing can we remove the veil of complexity that surrounds RLO design and delivery.

Terminology Relating to Reusable Learning Object Strategy

Granularity:   The scope or size of the reusable learning object.  The more granular the object, the smaller or more focused it is.

Metadata:  The descriptive terms that allows us to find information on the web.

Reusable Information Object:   A fundamental unit of a learning object that focuses on a single objective and incorporates Bloom’s Taxonomy (Barritt & Lewis 2001).

Reusable Learning Object:  Any digital resource that can be reused to support learning (Wiley, 2002).

Repository:    Systems created to house and manage digital resources.

SCORM: stands for “Sharable Content Object Reference Model” and it consists of a set of standards that ensure that electronic learning is universally compatible across platforms.

Tagging: A form of metadata, tags or hashtags that are commonly used as a classification system for social media like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook


Although the terms listed are standard, their application is changing rapidly due to advances web-based information sharing.  For example, the inclusion of metadata can be as simple as the addition of tagging or hashtags to social media or the inclusion of key terms in headings.  Repositories were once dedicated sites controlled by states, universities, associations, or large organizations, but today’s repositories also include social media sites like YouTube, blogs, wikis, and Facebook.

If RLOs are to reach their pedagogical potential, they must incorporate the principals of grounded learning theory (Baroque & Melo, 2003). Although there is no standard format for the design of learning objects, most experts agree that each learning object  should focus on just one or two learning objectives (McLaren, 2004), incorporate an advance organizer to activate prior learning (Ausubel, 1960), address motivational components such as those identified by Keller’s ARCS Model (1983), deliver content in the form of five to nine unique RIOs, incorporate authentic practice or active learning consistent with constructivist learning, provide assessment or feedback, facilitate transfer, and link to other RLOs or topics.  Incorporating all the principals into a single learning object requires skill and focus to create utility of design.

Even more complex than RLO design are the strategies used to store, catalog, and share RLOs and RIOs.   To make learning objects truly reusable, we must find ways to make them easy to locate, able to be readily used in a variety of formats or platforms, and able to be revised or repurposed to meet the needs of the learning audience.  Standard metadata facilitates the retrieval of information from repositories and ideally will include the title, author, description, keywords, and copyright (Alfano & Henderson, 2007).  Traditional RLO repositories include Merlot, MIT Open Courseware, and Unesco, but with advances in web 2.0, we have non-traditional repositories like YouTube, iTunes, TedEd, FaceBook, and WordPress that facilitate information sharing and collaboration.  Social networking has also created new ways to distribute knowledge through Twitter tweets and RSS feeds. MC900197983

If we are to harness the educational potential of the web, we need content that is systematically designed and shared, that can be readily found and accessed, and is based on sound learning theory.  We need to move beyond the information web to the learning web—creating and delivering education, not information, and RLOs are the vehicle that can drive us to create and deliver sustainable learning.  The internet and social networking media provide the perfect vehicle for widespread sharing of knowledge amongst learners, designers, educators, and organizations.  It is the perfect storm of both framework and delivery that will allow us to revolutionize the acquisition of knowledge.


Alfano, C. S., & Henderson, S. L. (2007). Repositories. In P. Taylor Northrup (Ed.), Learning Objects for  Ausubel, D.P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of    meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267-272.

Ausubel, D. (1960). The use of adavance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 267-262.

Baruque, L. &. (2003). learning theory and instructional designusing learning objects. Ed-Media 2003 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Teelcommunications, (pp. 5-12). Honolulu, HI.

Hodgins, H. W. (2002). The future of learning objects. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The instructional use of learning objects (pp. 281-298). Bloomington, IN: Agency for Instructional Technology Association for Educational Communications & Technology.

Keller, J. M. (1983). Motivational design of instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: An overview of their current status. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McLaren, I. (2004). New trends in web-based learning: Objects, repositories and learner engagement. European Journal of Engineering Education, 29, 65-71.


  • Hi Kathleen,
    Very informative article. Thanks for sharing. I haven’t seen much reusability of the content amongst courses. Are we talking something like LCMS where a new course can be built by picking existing modules from other courses? For example, re-using one instance of CEO video in multiple courses.

    Puneet Sangha
    Roosevelt University TRDV Student

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