Print bookPrint book

Learning Objects: definitions and characteristics


Site: Tenegen
Course: TC05 - Sharing Open Learning Objects
Book: Learning Objects: definitions and characteristics
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Monday, 4 March 2024, 10:07 PM




The themes

What are learning objects (LOs)?
This LO proposes to explain what LOs are, their most important characteristics, and why they should be used in teaching .

The objectives

When this LO is completed you will:
- know of the most important attributes of LOs;
- undestand why LOs have a place in teaching;
- be able to describe the characteristics of a learning object;
- have developed an awareness to critique LOs and future developments.

How organised

- Introduction
- What is a learning object ?
- Why use learning objects?
- Characteristics of a learning object
- Pros and Cons of LOs
- Conclusions
- Biblio/sitography


About 1 hour

Creative Commons License
Learning objects by Francesca Berengo, Severina Caroli e Monica Terenghi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione-Condividi allo stesso modo 2.5 Italia License.

LO credits & history

April 2006

First version by Francesca Berengo, Severina Caroli e Monica Terenghi, ITSOS "Marie Curie", within the SLOOP project (PE1, internal course).
Translation by Lisa Carey of the Cork College of Commerce, Cork, Ireland.

August 2006

Second version by Francesca Berengo, Severina Caroli e Monica Terenghi, ITSOS "Marie Curie", within the SLOOP project (PE2, cascade course).
Translation by Lisa Carey of the Cork College of Commerce, Cork, Ireland.

March 2010

Third version by Giovanni Fulantelli, CNR-ITD, within the Tenegen project (transformed into Moodle book format and readaptation).

Learning Objects


The term Learning Object (LO) was coined by Wayne Hodgins who transferred the concept of objects from IT to training and education.
In IT programming, objects are produced which can be reassembled and reused in different contexts. Similarly "learning objects" can be used in the training field where they can be reassembled and reused according to different teaching and learning situations.

From their beginning, metaphors have been used to describe and simplify the characteristics of LOs. In recent years lively debate has developed amongst elearning experts, and different definitions of a LO have been coined. These definitions are linked to the context in which they are used and to the educational models involved.

In simple terms, and taking into account shared elements, we can say that a LO is any digital resource which supports learning:

  • it corresponds to a definite, single training objective
  • it stands alone
  • it can be reused
  • it can be assembled
  • it provides information (called metadata) which allows it to be retraced and used

Definition of Learning Objects

There are several definitions for Learning Objects. In the following, you will find some of the most commonly used:

  • any entity, digital or non-digital, that may be used for learning, education or training (IEEE, 2001)
  • anything and everything can be used for learning and therefore must be considered to be a LO (Downes, 2003)
  • any digital resource that can be reused to support learning (Wiley)
  • learning objects are a new way of thinking about learning content. Traditionally, content comes in 'chunks' covering several hour of study. Learning objects are much smaller units of learning, typically involving study ranging from 2 minutes to 15 minutes (Wisconsin Online Resource Center)

If you are interested in a deeper understanding of the different meanings associated with the Learning Object concept, please refer to:

Learning Objects: A Practical Definition, by Rory McGreal

Why Learning Objects?

The use of computer and communications technology has become an integral part of teaching, and many teachers are increasing their use of the Internet as a vehicle to transfer their knowledge. One of the consequences of this is the growth of interest in LOs for many different reasons:
  • the concept of modularisation of learning paths is now normal paractice and is consolidated into the community of teachers and educators;
  • the possibility of finding relevant and good LOs creates an opportunity for teacher to focus their work on quality rather than quantity;
  • in assembling the ways LOs are used it is possible to build flexible and personalised learning paths.

The idea of transferring the logic of programming by objects to didactic processes brings an 'economic' motivation. It avoids a waste of resources redoing something which has already been done. If it is possible to produce or change single blocks, which can then be adapted to different teaching contexts, then costs are considerably reduced and the available resources can be used to improve the material.

At the centre of the debate is the reusability of these 'objects' in different contexts.

Characteristics of Learning Objects


A compelling reason for using LOs is their potential to be re-used.

Even if originally conceived for a specific context, material can be reused when:

  • it can then be re-used in a different context;
  • a large number of people have access to this material;
  • it is possible to use it independently from the technological choices (software rights, platforms etc.) made by the author;
  • it is possible to change it easily so that it can be updated and adapted to different contexts.

What are the characteristics which a LO must have in order that it can be termed reusable?

  • Assemblability
  • Accessibility
  • Granularity
  • Adaptability
  • Self-consistency
  • Interoperability, Portability, Compatibility
  • Flexibility
  • Durability


An LO is an object which can be used together with other LOs to build different learning paths in different contexts.



In order to make use of the material it is necessary to know that it exists. In a library a book is catalogued, and found, thanks to the bibliographical information which accompanies it.  So a learning object needs to be traceable by means of the information which relates to its characteristics (title, author, history, format, pedagogical characteristics ...). These indicators are found in the metadata, that is descriptions relating to the contents which facilitate the research and allow the creation of a system of repositories where each object can be found.


The ability of a LO to be divided in elation to its size.

Granularity" and context are linked in a way which is inversely related to proportion/size. The more an LO is put into context, the less it can be divided.  Conversely, the "smaller" the LO is, the less important the context becomes.

The potential to divide and to reuse an LO are linked. Where the potential to be divided is reduced an LO can generally only be reused in different contexts with difficulty. On the other hand, an LO which can be divided easily  can, as a consequence, be used in several contexts, though it does not happen automatically. It would need the intervention of a teacher to create the alternate context. There is, after all, a limit to LO reusability.


An LO must be easily changed in order to be adapted to a new context. In order to do this the following must occur:

  • availability of the source (the potential of changing it)
  • a copyleft licence (the right to change it)
  • simplicilty of the object (one of the conditions being that the change would be cost-effective)


A LO should be able to be used in its own right, in other words it should not be part of an organised sequence of LOs. It should also be 'complete' from a didactic point of view and it should achieve the objectives established by the content producer. This implies, among other things, that one LO should not refer specifically to another LO, and also it should not contain links that lead out of the LO itself.


An LO should be able to be used with any operating system and should be able to be visualised by the user with any browser.

Also the LOs should be able to 'speak to' different didactic platforms in order to be able to communicate information relating to the progress of the student as they progress along their learning path. 


Flexibility, in the context of LOs, is used in two slightly differently senses:

  1. material which is prepared to be used in different contexts is more flexible and easier to reuse than material prepared for a specific context, and
  2. in a strictly technological sense the material is flexible if it can be used with a normal browser, any operating system and does not need any specific software or plug-in to be visualised or changed.


Durability concerns the ability to adapt to future technological changes, such as the continuous evolution of the platforms.

For and against LOs

Reusability is one of the key concepts of an LO.
Can this promise be fullfilled?






Didactic material which is specifically prepared for use in many contexts can  be reused with small changes much more easily than material developed for specific contexts.


The context and the meaning of a learning object are inter-linked. Reusability is often limited (even for relatively simple objects) due to the need to change or personalise them, and this can be difficult when the object is removed from its context







The independence from operating systems and from LMSs facilitates the sharing of chunks of teaching material in an unlimited way.


The large number of models, which are also very different from one another, inhibit the real portability of digital, didactic material.







The large number of models, which may be very different one from another, inhibit the real portability of digital, didactic material.


Difficulty in editing/ interpreting the metadata because there isn't a standard for shared meaning. Different people use different terms to describe the same documents even if they have to choose from a controlled vocabulary.




Is effective teaching possible with LOs?







The idea of an LO allows the content to be adapted to a learning style that is more suited to the student:

  • just for you
  • just in time
  • just enough

Learning with technology is lacking when compared to the emotionally richer methods typically used in traditional teaching methods.

Today most LOs are developed following a self-learning model with a pedagogical approach centred on transmitting knowledge, while current pedagogical research focuses on the building of 'social knowledge'


What exactly is an LO ? Have we ever produced them?

A universally accepted definition of LOs does not exist, but then neither does a definition of lesson exist.

There are several alternative terms about, and interpretations of, the nature and size of a LO, in conjunction with other concepts such as 'learning objectives', 'evaluation', etc.

Any teaching material developed by teachers -- particularly that which is increasingly more often in digital format -- can, to a certain extent, be considered to be learning objects.

When discussing students and university faculties, Wiley wrote:

"Students have all kinds of educational material (learning objects) lying around their hard drives: essays, term papers, other types of homework, notes taken during lectures, etc. ... the same is true for faculty. Faculty have all kinds of material lying around their hard drives as well: syllabi, lecture notes, research instruments, data sets, articles in progress, articles never published, etc."

The same is also true for all teachers whether at the university level or not. By checking through the teaching material that we have on our hard drive, we can see that much of this material has already some of the typical characteristics of LOs and that, with some effort, such material can be changed so that it can become a proper LO.

LOs are challenging. Are we going to accept the challenge?

The debate on the use of LOs has recently been enriched by new proposals that free LOs from merely expository educational models. This advances the possibility of using LOs in a constructive approach.
As far as technical aspects are concerned the use of standards is spreading and this guarantees a good level of interoperability and the completion of metadata as well.
The architecture of a system of LOs is revealed then as open and full of potential

References / sitography

  • Alvino S. - Sarti L., LO, strategie e mediazione didattica, Sle-L 1-2005, ed. Erickson
  • Bianchi F., Che cosa sono i Learning Objects, Articolo tratto dalla tesi di laurea (2002) (verificato il 26-1-2006)
  • Fini A.- Vanni L., Learning Object e Metadati, I quaderni di Form@re 2, ed.Erickson
  • Fini A.- Vanni L., Problematiche non risolte e nuove prospettive dei LO, Sle-L 1-2005, ed. Erickson
  • Fini A., Learning Objects: Standard e confronto di piattaforme e metodologie educative, (verificato il 26-1-2006)
  • Wiley D., When Worlds Collide - The intersection of constructivism, learning objects, and peer-to-peer networking technologies, (November 6, 2000), (verificato il 12-2-2006).