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Comment & Analysis: Why Context Is King

image:Comment & Analysis: Why Context Is King

While the delivery of content to the learner continues to be a major theme at IMS, last week’s IMS events saw the emergence of learning context as its counterpoint.

Many learning theories describe learning as an interaction between the learner and a situation within the context of a community.

The informational content of the learning experience only gains meaning from the environment in which it is presented; for example, the purpose of the learner, their physical environment when interacting with the content, and the values of the community of which the learner is a part.

Norm Friesen of The University of Alberta set the scene with a simple example; the photograph below is a daguerreotype of Paris taken in 1839:

As a piece of content, the photo is ambiguous in terms of its educational meaning. However, when given a learning context it acquires purpose; for example:

  • Paris
  • 1839
  • urban environments
  • Daguerre
  • Daguerreotypes
  • Photography

According to Friesen, an Educational Object can be a course, unit, lesson, web page, exercise, image, or multimedia clip “but it must have a specified pedagogical purpose”.

From this viewpoint, the delivery of content to the learner is only part of the puzzle. In a keynote speech, Dr Derrick de Kerckhove of the University of Toronto made a distinction between the teaching of memory, with its foundations in classical education, and the teaching of intelligence in modern education. Delivery of informational content serves to augment the memory of the learner, but it is only by engaging with information in communication with others and making use of it is learning in the modern sense actually achieved.

Dr. de Kerckhove provided some exemplars of this in the form of experimental collaborative learning systems that focussed on conversation and the development of new ideas by learners.

Context also surfaced in the work of the IMS Learning Design group, who are considering the use of Educational Modelling Language (EML), a notation developed by the Open University of the Netherlands with a strong emphasis on the context of learning.

EML extends the concept of a Learning Object, which has become somewhat synonymous with blocks of content and metadata, into a Unit of Study, which embraces not only content, but also methods of study and set of learning objectives. A key concept in EML is that a unit of study cannot be broken down into its component parts without losing its effectiveness as a means of attaining learning objectives; unlike a learning object, which may be something as simple as an image with descriptive metadata, a unit of study represents a richer learning experience, such as an exercise or a lesson.

According to Rob Koper of the Open University: “From an educational perspective it is not enough to have learning objects and metadata as such. Different types of learning object have different functions in the context of real education. A study task and a study text have both a different function in a unit of study.”

EML has been designed to provide the contextual framework for learning objects; a set of objects sit within a unit of study, which contains a structured set of activities involving those objects, prerequisites for the unit of study, learning objectives, and a set of roles for the people involved. The EML activity structure provides for branching and conditional activities, or activities dependent on roles. For example, the ‘coach’ may be taken through a different set of activities to the ‘learner’, such as presenting a problem using a written text that learners then solve with an interactive media element, before moving on to the next activity which could be a discussion involving both the learners and the coach.

By providing a pedagogical context for learning objects it is possible to reuse learning objects. It also becomes possible for the tutor to modify the learning methods of a unit of study to better suit his/her learner group, background, or institutional policy, without needing to modify the original content. As learning objects become increasingly sophisticated, using technologies such as Flash and Quicktime, it is less likely that tutors will have the resources to modify the content of materials. However, by providing a modifiable learning framework, tutors regain a degree of control and flexibility when it comes to using electronic learning materials.

As problems surrounding the delivery of content to the learner are overcome, so the more complex questions of how learners actually gain knowledge rise to the fore. The interest in learning context is just one way in which issues of teaching are set to supplant issues of technology as the next stage in the development of e-Learning.

For more information on EML visit

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