Online extra: Learning objects take hold

E-learning is taking a great leap forward thanks to new technologies that allow course developers to create "learning objects."

Under this approach, courses are broken down into discrete packets of information called learning objects. A course can be divided into modules, sections and even paragraphs. Each learning object is then tagged for easy retrieval from an e-learning repository.

E-learning experts say learning objects save time and money, because they serve as modular building blocks for e-learning content that can be reused in many courses.
In addition, learning objects allow users to quickly find the information they need, rather than wading through an entire course to find the answer to a question.
Learning objects are essential to e-learning developed by the U.S. Postal Service, said Charles Johnson, a training development specialist team leader. About 60 percent of USPS e-learning courseware is developed in house, he said.

USPS staff members are dividing the courses into learning objects using software provided by Outstart Inc. of Boston.

"Say you want to develop a program on general maintenance, and you want information on the fundamentals of electricity. You can go to the repository, and [the fundamentals] would be one of the learning objects," said Johnson, who is in charge of USPS e-learning efforts.

Another benefit of learning objects is that they can be used in the classroom and on the job. For example, the same learning objects ? video or text descriptions ? used in Marines' classroom training for helicopter maintenance are used for diagnosis and repair of equipment in the field.

The Marines' learning objects show exactly how to perform the task at hand, said Michael Parmentier, a principal with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in McLean, Va.

Learning objects also allow courses to be updated quickly, said Paul Jesukiewicz, director of the Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab in Alexandria, Va. Jesukiewicz's lab is one of four working to advance e-learning under the auspices of the Defense Department's Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative.

Using learning objects built on the Scorm standard meant the Centers for Disease Control could update its courseware within 24 hours after patients showed adverse reactions to the smallpox vaccination. Adverse reactions caused some heart attacks, so physicians had to change how the vaccine was given to eliminate that risk, Jesukiewicz said.

The CDC was able to update its vaccination procedures overnight by replacing some learning objects its training. Updating the CDC's traditional satellite-based training to reflect the new procedure would have taken months, he said.

In the future, learning objects will allow learners to tailor their educational experiences, said Teresa Golden, vice president of strategy and marketing for IBM Learning Solutions in Somers, N.Y.

"Learners will decide what they need to know and when," Golden said. "Today, I go to class just in case I need to know something. In the future, learning will be personalized ? I'll get what I need to know based on what I already know."

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at

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