Addressing the E-Learning Contradiction (Distance Learning)


In 1997, Drucker suggested that due to the availability of the Internet for delivering university courses and programs, traditional higher education was in deep crisis. He claimed that university buildings were about to become “hopelessly unsuited and totally unneeded” (Drucker, 1997, p. 127). Yet in spite of this, and the technological advances that support the design, development, and delivery of alternative pedagogical approaches, many universities and university professors have resisted integrating educational technology into their teaching practices. A look at today’s university campuses, over a decade after Drucker’s prediction that university buildings are “totally unneeded,” suggests that the “brick and mortar growth” within universities is thriving. Part of what has prevented the proliferation of e-learning and other educational technologies is resistance on the part of teachers and professors to adopt it. For many, the amount of time necessary to learn new educational technologies and prepare materials and learning activities, as well as the lack of available support and resources, is a strong disincentive to the adoption of e-learning. Ironically, although it is common for universities and learning organisations to campaign professors to integrate technology into their teaching practices, in reality, resources and support for developing e-learning and other technology-based learning tools are scarce and difficult for professors to secure (Thompson & MacDonald, 2005). There appears to be a growing contradiction between the goal of many universities to support the integration of new technologies into education and what is actually occurring. We have coined this situation the “E-learning Contradiction”.

MacDonald and Thompson (2005) found that creating quality online courses takes an enormous amount of time in terms of research, design, and development. They suggested that the drive to create online courses is often due to the determination of the professor, his/her ability to marshal the necessary resources, and his/her willingness to take risk. To expand the development and integration of online resources, faculty require greater support systems to meet the challenges of authoring technology-enhanced learning resources that will help address the E-learning Contradiction. The need for more systematic and strategic approaches to educational technology innovation and implementation resounds in the literature (McGorry, 2003; Parrish, 2004). In this paper we suggest that sharing knowledge, resources, and expertise by way of cooperatively designing on line learning objects is one step towards addressing this problem.


Learning objects are small, instructional components that can be reused a number of times in different learning contexts. They provide many enhancements and benefits to the learning process: (1) an alternative way to learn that is engaging, interactive, and fun; (2) flexibility and convenience because they can be accessed at anytime and from anywhere there is an Internet connection; (3) a way to save time and resources as they can be reused and adapted by different users, with new versions available immediately; (4) any number of people can access and use them simultaneously due to their Web-based nature; (5) opportunities to share resources amongst colleagues thus creating an economy of sharing (the Linux model of shared benefits); and (6) an opportunity for learners to actively interact with the content. Interactions allow learners to tailor the learning experience to meet their specific needs or abilities. Being able to control the pace of their learning, learners have time to reflect and process information. The potential for reusability, adaptability, and scalability make learning objects a possible solution to many of the issues associated with the E-learning Contradiction (Gibbons, Nelson, & Richards, 2000; Hodgins, 2000; Urdan & Weggen, 2000).

While the merits of learning objects are prevalent in the literature, the definitions, processes, and procedures of developing learning objects are still ill-defined. The authoring of learning objects is not the same as when creating and teaching with text-based materials, thus, profound changes in how education is conceptualized for on- and off-campus delivery is required (Ally, 2004; Downes, 2004; Muirhead & Haughey, 2003; Porter, Curry, Muirhead, & Galan, 2002). The use of high quality, interactive learning materials requires changes to how instructors view their role in traditional “stand and deliver” approaches to instruction as well as in how and where students learn. These changes will likely lead to a greater use of asynchronous virtual learning environments (VLE) to complement synchronous on-campus classes. VLEs are software tools that bring together, in an integrated environment, a range of resources that enable participants to interact online and include content modules and tracking of learner activity and achievement (Hunt, Parsons, & Fleming, 2003). Most course management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle are VLEs. VLEs are characterized as highly interactive, with instructors and learners exploring knowledge and skill acquisition through interaction with both learning objects and each other.


This project involved the development of an online learning object designed to support and guide learners in the process of writing research questions and developing a conceptual framework that can be used to frame research papers and/or theses and dissertations. We termed this object C-FLO (Conceptual Framework Learning Object). The need for C-FLO emerged from years of practical teaching experience at Canadian universities and the realization that learners at all levels consistently report that they find the process of designing a conceptual framework demanding, abstract, and frustrating. The pedagogical challenge was, therefore, to determine how the process of developing a conceptual framework could be made more meaningful and less stressful for the learners and result in a framework that would help guide and enhance their future work. A secondary goal was to make the process of guiding learners as they develop their conceptual frameworks less of a demand on the professor’s time so he/she can spend his/her time engaged in a higher level of discussion with the learner regarding his/her topic, rather than being distracted by a poorly developed framework. Such a learning tool would be valuable in courses and programs offered in diverse faculties. By providing criteria for expected rigor and examples of completed products, the learning object was envisioned to provide a standard that would facilitate the creation of superior quality conceptual frameworks. Specifically, the goals of C-FLO were to:

• Guide learners in the writing of research questions.

• Provide learners with a starting point for the conceptual thinking required when writing research papers in undergraduate, masters, and doctoral programs.

• Provide learners with step-by-step procedures and concrete examples to make the process of creating a conceptual framework less abstract.

• Improve the quality of learners’ writing by providing a framework that would guide their entire research writing process.

• Increase learner knowledge and understanding of conceptual frameworks.

• Expand the learning environment from one bounded by place to one more closely aligned by need and personal learning.

Sharing Knowledge, Resources, and Expertise

The conceptualization of C-FLO evolved over several years. There were three distinct phases: (1) creating a paper-based document for a face-to-face class; (2) re-purposing this document into an electronic resource for an online course; and (3) creating a vibrant, rich, interactive online learning object that can be used in many different learning environments.

It is the third and final phase of the project, the actual development of the learning object, that is the focus of this paper. For this phase, a team of individuals from two institutions was put together. Team members were selected because they enjoyed working together; had a solid track record of producing results; and many complementary skills, including creative teaching and learning ideas, content knowledge, curriculum design expertise, real-life experiences supporting learners as they built conceptual frameworks, and multimedia production and programming skills.A collaborative approach was preferable for a number of reasons. Working as a team enabled us to share knowledge and expertise, thereby promoting collegiality and accomplishing more than could be achieved working independently. For example, the content team (first four authors) did not have the technology expertise to design C-FLO the way they envisioned and so relied on the expertise and experience of the development team (last three authors) to create a technologically sophisticated learning object that would meet the pedagogical goals. Our collaborative approach involved a process that recognized the unique knowledge, experience, and strengths that each member of the team brought.

The development of C-FLO presented both instructional design and technical challenges. The original handout on developing conceptual frameworks, which was developed in phase 1, did not readily suggest a learning object solution. It was not clear where to begin with this project and what value could be added by the creation of a learning object. However, there was a pedagogical challenge to be addressed since learners perennially had difficulty in creating their own conceptual frameworks and reported significant stress. As the team brainstormed, the need to come up with ways to demystify the process of developing a conceptual framework emerged. It became apparent that the steps for developing a conceptual framework described in the handout needed to be broken down even further—elaborating some, adding others—so that the overall process was more detailed and self-explanatory.

The activity aspect of C-FLO was challenging since this required the development of new, practical material to reinforce and support the theoretical content. It was important to the team that the learners became active participants in the learning experience as they worked through the process of designing a conceptual framework. To help situate the steps in a real context and engage the user, we decided to include an “authentic” learner sharing her experiences, reflections, and tips for developing conceptual frameworks at each step of the process through short video clips. Further, we felt that a learner’s reflection on her experience of developing a conceptual framework would help others understand that designing a conceptual framework is a complex process and validate the feeling of being lost, frustrated, and confused. By adding this support dimension to the learning object in addition to the rationale, steps, and examples, we felt we would create a superior learning experience. An individual who had recently gone through the process of developing a conceptual framework for her M.A. thesis and who had carefully documented the process was chosen to present her experience. The various drafts of her conceptual framework were included to illustrate the development process from rough pencil drawings to a final polished product. In addition, a further 20 examples of conceptual frameworks were included in the resource to provide learners with an entry point as they engage in the process themselves.

Once the content was identified, the next task was to decide how to present the content in a learning object format. Early suggestions were to use a topic metaphor as an interface design. However, it was quickly apparent that this initial plan was too large and difficult to design to be practical and new ideas needed to be explored. The content and development teams came together for a one-day workshop to determine the design of the learning object. Through intense discussion the notion of a journey emerged and this metaphor was pursued. Through the sharing of ideas from the many viewpoints of team members a rare intellectual excitement resulted as ideas were exchanged, accepted, extended, and built upon. The content team often came up with more complex ideas than were feasible for the development team who often needed to rein them in so the project remained manageable and could be accomplished within the budget and timelines.

After the workshop, the development team created multiple versions of the learning object. The video footage of the learner narrating her experience naturally “chunked” the material and ultimately shaped the design of C-FLO. The developers devised technology solutions to ensure that the learning object would not be too big or too difficult to use. The map metaphor conceived during the workshop was developed to portray a visual representation that linked the process of designing a conceptual framework to a journey of discovery (see Figure 1). Children’s topics were used as inspiration for this task. While there is a definite linear process, learners can explore this learning object in a non-linear and non-sequential manner by visiting the islands in any order, spending as long as they wish at each island, and going back to previously visited islands at any time. As such, learners can use the learning object in either a tutorial mode or as a reference, thus supporting a constructivist model of learning. The final multimedia learning object provided the theory, a case study that includes much valuable advice, and 20 examples of completed conceptual frameworks.

Impact on Student Learning

C-FLO has been in existence since July, 2004 and used by learners since that time. Various formal and informal evaluations of its effectiveness have been conducted. There is evidence that C-FLO facilitates learning both as a stand alone product that enhances M.A. and Ph.D. students’ development of conceptual frameworks and when embedded in courses as a resource. Learners reported that C-FLO is a fun and engaging learning activity that improved their learning and facilitated the process of developing a conceptual framework. Learners repeatedly mentioned two aspects of C-FLO as being especially helpful to their learning: the conceptual framework examples and the narration of the learner’s experience developing a conceptual framework.

Convincing evidence that C-FLO achieved its objectives and facilitated the conceptual framework development process comes from the learners’ conceptual frameworks themselves. A perusal of M.Ed. students’ frameworks in a course that incorporated C-FLO revealed professional looking, well-written, comprehensive conceptual frameworks that went beyond the expectations for an M.Ed. course. The professor of this course reported that the first drafts of the conceptual frameworks from these learners were better than in the previous years when learners did not have access to C-FLO. All the learners in the course with C-FLO produced conceptual frameworks on their first attempt that required only minor revisions for inclusion in their final papers for the program. This degree of quality on the first draft is something that had never occurred in previous offerings of the course. These findings suggest that C-FLO may save both the learner and the professor time. Moreover, an analysis of discussion postings in this course and the learners’ e-mails to the professor indicated that there was less stress and confusion amongst learners and far fewer questions asked regarding how to develop a conceptual framework than when the learners had had to develop a conceptual framework without the support of C-FLO. By providing criteria for expected rigor and examples of completed products, C-FLO provided a standard that facilitated the creation of quality conceptual frameworks on the learners’ first drafts. Not only did this mean less work and time for learners in revising and reworking their conceptual frameworks, but also less work and time for the professor marking and providing feedback to learners.

Figure 1. A journey of discovery

 A journey of discovery

future trends

The interest that is currently been shown in the wider dissemination of this learning object continues to grow. In addition to its original location on the Web (, C-FLO has been made available through MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching; MERLOT is a California-based learning object repository that facilitates the free exchange of learning objects designed for faculty. Educators from across the globe may access the repository and use materials (learning objects) for educational purposes based on an open license arrangement. All MERLOT learning objects go through a peer review process to ensure the learning materials meet the most rigorous standards both for learning object design and academic discourse. The attention to the peer review process within MERLOT differentiates it from disparate content found throughout the Internet. For faculty, the opportunity to have their learning objects peer-reviewed, and thus equated with refereed publications, may help to reduce the eLearning Contradiction that resulted, in part, from a lack of recognition of the effort invested in authoring technology-based tools. The growing availability of learning objects, and C-FLO’s acceptance in peer-reviewed repositories, illustrates the benefits of using multidisciplinary teams to develop high-quality learning materials (Haughey & Muirhead, 2005). Equally, the growing desire of faculty and students for peer reviewed materials speaks to the increasing use of learning objects and the importance and critical placement of online materials in VLE’s for both courses available on campus and off.

Pervasive reuse of C-FLO has demonstrated the potential for the notion of “develop once, use many times” first postulated by Wiley (2000). Its adoption within a variety of disciplinary settings for both face-to-face and online use is encouraging. Not only does it validate learning objects, but also the instructional design employed. Opportunities for learner interaction, use of authentic learning materials, inclusion of reflective exercises, and a diversity of multimedia elements (video-audio, text, and graphics) used purposefully can create highly engaging materials that lead to enhanced learning outcomes.


The collaborative project described in this paper resulted in a product that improved student learning and ability to develop comprehensive conceptual frameworks, provided an engaging and enjoyable learning experience for learners, reduced the stress and anxiety learners commonly associate with the task of developing a conceptual framework, and produced higher quality work than the professor had previously observed among learners before the availability of C-FLO. C-FLO provides a timely and important contribution by providing information in a “building block” format accessible to learners requiring “just in time” acquisition of knowledge and skills to help them succeed in developing conceptual frameworks to facilitate the writing of research papers, reports, and theses. C-FLO can be used as a stand alone product, embedded into online courses, or employed as a support resource in face-to-face courses and programs.

Sharing our experiences regarding the development of C-FLO could be helpful to professors wanting to eliminate the E-learning Contradiction and meet the challenge s of implementing technology solutions while managing their time and resources to enable them to excel in the university culture. Implementing C-FLO into a face-to-face course could meet the technology requirement of some faculties with little or no effort on the part of the professor.

In short, collaborative projects such as C-FLO, where professors share resources and expertise to improve student learning, could be a first step toward addressing the E-learning Contradiction. Traditionally, university professors have worked in isolation often replicating courses and resources across, and even within, institutions. Professors are often protective of their intellectual property and convincing some of them of the benefits of collaboration may require a paradigm shift. Not only can working in teams within and across faculties improve teaching, make better use of resources, and save time, the social facet of learning has been found to be a source of support and encouragement during learning (MacDonald, Stodel, Thompson, Muirhead, Hinton, Carson, & Banit, 2005). Considering the amount of time and resources it takes to provide quality online courses, rather than each university developing their own courses in each topic, similar faculties across universities could share or swap courses to make better use of their time and resources.


Blackboard: An e-learning platform and online course management system used extensively in colleges, universities, and other educational institutions. Blackboard supports online tools such as discussion forums, email, live chat, and white boarding, as well as content in various formats (e.g., html documents, Web pages etc).

E-Learning: Learning that takes place via the Internet. The term is adapted from Khan’s (1997) definition of Web-based instruction to reflect a socio-cultural emphasis on learning and refers to instructional experiences that utilize the Web to create a meaningful environment where learning is fostered and supported. The term e-learning is often used interchangeably with online learning or Web-based learning and may apply to synchronous or asynchronous learning experiences.

E-learning Contradiction: The incongruity between the goal of many universities to support the integration of new technologies into education and what is actually occurring.

Constructivism: A learning theory that posits people construct knowledge by modifying their existing concepts in light of new evidence and experience. Development of knowledge is unique for each learner and is colored by the learner’s background and experiences.

Learning Object Repositories: Websites that facilitate the exchange of learning objects between educators, thus creating an economy of sharing.

Online Learning Objects: Small independent instructional components that can be reused in different learning contexts. They provide flexible and convenient learning opportunities because they can be accessed at anytime and from anywhere there is an Internet connection.

Next post:

Previous post: