Exploring the Common Structures and Sequences of Real-World Online Learning Modules

Exploring the Common Structures and Sequences of Real-World Online Learning Modules

Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 31
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7528-3.ch003


Online learning “modules” are generally defined as units of learning, often in reference to the amount of time that learners spend to consume the materials, acquire the learning, and test out of that sequence. No widely accepted or formal definition of such modules exist. How modules instantiate depends on many factors, not least of which is technology (authoring tools, learning management systems, and others). Given the wide availability of “modules” on open-source sharing sites, digital learning object repositories and referatories, proprietary learning management system (LMS) instances, massive open online course (MOOC) sites, cloud-based survey suites, websites, wikis, commercial proprietary online training sites, taking a bottom-up coding approach from real-world examples (both open-source and proprietary) is a healthy place to start exploring some common structures of real-world online learning modules. This chapter defines a pared-down approach to mapping online learning modules on some relevant dimensions.
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In online learning, the most atomistic or smallest unit of learning is encapsulated in the digital learning object (DLO). Their elemental smallness ensures that they may be adopted into any number of learning sequences, for reusability, for sharability, and for portability. Generally, DLOs should be stand-alone and self-contained, so they may be used in a variety of learning contexts. They should be sufficiently represented by name and by metadata to enable their accurate representation and de-contextualized usage. Technologically, learning objects may be represented with any of half-a-dozen versions of technical standards, which ensure their playability on various online learning platforms to meet the ideal of “complete interoperability of LMS courses” (Muñoz-Merino, Kloos, & Naranjo, 2008, p. 498). Another team defines a learning object as “a reusable, media-independent chunk of information used as a modular building block for e-learning content” (Li & Liu, 2010, p. 219).

The next unit up from “DLOs” would be “modules”. A “module” is generically defined as “each of a set of standardized parts of independent units that can be used to construct a more complex structure” (“Module,” 2018). A “module” is a common term within online learning. Educational modules are defined as “concise units of study, composed of theoretical and practical content, which can be delivered to learners by using technological and computational resources” (Barbosa & Maldonado, 2011, p. 207). In the same way that DLOs may be harnessed to create an online learning module, multiple learning modules can be cobbled or sequenced to create a longer learning sequence or short course or credit course or more complex online learning construct. Learning modules are “concise units of study” (Barbosa & Maldonado, 2008, p. 504) and the basic building block for online learning courses (Li & Liu, 2010).

While there have been some efforts at standardizing modules, for efficacy, for interchangeability, for re-usability, for quality, there seems to have been only one formalized process: the Standard Process for Educational Modules (built off the International Standard ISO/IEC 12207 for software engineering) and then various elements of content modeling and instructional design (Barbosa & Maldonado, 2008, p. 505). The prior standard is not particularly common practice in instructional design work. Module standardization may be a practice for learning contents created for dedicated platforms and some learning programs at universities more than for generic learning modules.

Over the past several decades, a fair amount of work has gone into defining DLOs because of the need to define technical standards of interoperability. Less focus has been paid on how to actually define modules. Ad hoc modules generally contain the following elements:

  • A title

  • Metadata about the module

  • Digital learning objectives

  • Digital learning objects (contents)

  • Assignments (opportunities to practice knowledge, skills, and abilities)

  • Assessments (formative and summative)

  • Learning outcomes

If built to legal standards, they respect intellectual property (including copyright and trademark) laws, and so have a credits list of legally used contents, and are accessible (designed to enable the widest possible access to the digital learning objects). The modular objects may also be infused with particular values, and they may display particular aesthetics. Modules may contain cognitive scaffolding (vocabularies, pop-up information, learning examples, worked problems, tutorials, downloadables, and others) to support learners. More sophisticated supports may involve the support of intelligent automated agents (Soh, Blank, & Miler, 2005). Learners with prior experiences in the topic (high-experience learning outliers) may have their needs met with extra support reference materials. These complex elements of modules will require in-depth exploration and walk-throughs of the modules to fully see.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Downloadables: Digital files that may be downloaded.

Specification: A precise technical requirement.

Learning Management System: A socio-technical system that enables virtual or distance learning with built-in capabilities for persistent profile building, digital content delivery, assignment building and delivery, assessment building and delivery, attendance-keeping, grading, third-party tool integrations, and other capabilities.

Digital Learning Object (DLO): A reusable, portable, and stand-alone digital learning object.

Online Learning Community: A virtual group of learners who intercommunicate and collaborate around shared learning.

Learning Path: A sequence or arrangement of (online) learning.

Courseware: Dedicated educational software for creating digital learning objects to be deployed in various online learning contexts and ecosystems.

Lead-Away Module: A closing unit of learning to prepare learners for moving on from an online learning sequence.

Lead-Up Module: An introductory unit of learning to prepare learners for an online learning sequence.

Accessibility: A legal standard to ensure that digital learning objects are presented in multi-sensory multi-perceptual ways (visual, auditory; textual, auditory; visual, textual; visual, symbolic; and other combinations).

Module: A unit of online learning.

Authoring Tool: Software used to create “born digital” contents (slideshows, animations, video, multimedia, and others) for presentation and learning.

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