Examination of ‘Interactive e-content’

This piece of writing was originally constructed for my studies with Open University Malaysia to critically examine ‘interactive e-content’. I could not hold my tongue, and had to play with language. I already see the writing filled with holes but it is a start, and I wish to have time to reason these matters in depth in the future.

Multitude of authors have jumped to the quest to give various definitions to “new” education-related phenomena, fueled by the hustle and bustle around trying to implement e-learning in formal education. This paints a portrait about the current moment where these things are rather new, and definitions are not, at least yet, etched in steel. Still, one has to ask, although already tried out, can these objects even have a united terminology that all who work in the educational sector, or beyond, would understand and started to use?

Wiley (2002a) suggest definitions based on object-oriented paradigm of computer sciences. Is that something that can make the whole world turn? Unfortunately authors who he refers to seem to use language very broadly. E.g. Hodgins with definition on learning object suggests that “Learning Objects are defined as any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning” (as cited in Wiley, p. 4). This space is too short to examine the term technology, but to put it in short: with this definition almost everything might be a learning object, as technology is a very broad term reflecting too well the current positivist and technocratic views on learning.

McGreal (2004) and Murphy suggest that in the case of defining what is a learning object, the task should be done from practical, not a theoretical perspective (as cited in Francis & Murphy, 2008, p. 475). A bold statement. How a person generally sees an object, does not differ in the case of learning objects, interactive e-content or a dog or a cat. It is defined by one’s conceptual framework of understanding the form of that object. In education this means that one who draws from behavioristic views, might give totally different meanings to an object than someone thinking through constructivist terms. Same goes in finding generalizable metaphors from computer science for the use of everyone else on this planet.

But the complexity of the matter at hand does not end here. Psychoanalysis, phenomenological and educational research in general, give us all sorts of results how humans have a theoretical level of how they believe they are operating, which in many cases is quite different from how they actually operate – e.g. studies on teachers’ pedagogical ideals versus how they actually end up teaching.

So does this mean we are in vain when trying to form definitions? At least we need to be cautious when using language. Definitions are not simple for example to those who are not using their first language to communicate and understand a concept, or even define what a ‘concept’ is. Can I for example whose first language is not English but Finnish, even experience what certain things such as learning objects or interactive e-content are in to those who are experiencing it originally from the English perspective?

Let’s examine the current billet of a term of interactive e-content. Merriam-Webster defines interaction something as mutual or reciprocal action or influence. The meaning of content is something more hard to find out. For example Wikipedia gives further words to define it such as published material, information published on the World Wide Web, an encoded format for data display and Merriam-Webster to hold in, contain. Based on these definition, of as a note, determining is not just to amuse us, if we then understand e-content something delivered or residing online, we have the term interactive e-learning which should mean somewhat “something that is online and interacts with”. This makes hard to understand what McGreal (2004) means when defining learning objects as “something that enable and facilitate the use of educational content online”. Without taking the similar steps with defining what is an online learning environment, one should presume that it actually works as this kind of a delivery platform. This might be some sort of a cultural and language difference that is hard to translate through being affected by Finnish culture and ways of understanding and being. It could also be McGreal’s (slightly confusing) try to create a taxonomy of his own, from his perspective of understanding the world.

Defining good language as our starting point is indeed an important matter. Contemporary emerging terms seem to very lightly become definitions of something that might not even exist. An interesting thought but difficult to achieve is brought forth by Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: We should say clearly that of what we can talk about, and what we can’t talk about, we should be silent about. Thus we could also ask if there is something such as interactive e-content or learning objects at all, if giving a valid and acceptable definition to some of them seems such an arduous task? We should also be brave enough to ask if a phenomenon (such as interactive e-content) is something else instead, something maybe consisting of several things, and for some reason there is a contemporary attempt to force a definition to something that as such, does not actually exist? For example, in the case of learning objects, McGreal (Ibid.) tries to assign reason in their existence in a hypothetical situation in higher education (modularity and teacher sharing) that does not generally exist. This is similar to the ever ongoing discussion with knowledge management and actually the process he suggested about learning object repositories is the same. In practice this does not work, but it would make a good study to investigate is there something inherently human affecting this approach that seems to be good at least in theory.

Nothing more than what we believe in is on focus here. If we assume that generally the so called postmodernist view of “objects in itself does not have meaning, but meaning emerges from a continuum of interaction and interpretation”, what can we trust for a single learning object to achieve? Similar effect in achieving learning goals in every single learner the same (required and expected) way? This is what Wiley (2002) seems to imply.

In addition, people learn differently in different situations. There is plenty of debate around learning styles and if they exist or not in the psychological and biological level. Not going to the debate itself, we can most likely agree on the fact that every learner, during the time of being in the same place with his or her co-learners, has taken a different path there, affected by different steps and environments. Now, when these people are at the present moment, their condition for learning is different. This means that we do not even have to know or even assume if people in fact do learn somehow differently. In fact the difference of their being in that particular moment of the learning event, makes mass education, an event where participants are for conveniences sake (not because it was the best for every learner) chosen to be taught with similar methods and content, invalid.

If this what we say is a true portrait of the ill-organised charade, what can facilitate flexible, personalizable learning? Content can be a vessel for it, but too much emphasis is given to it. Books are still valid objects for learning, also video games as an emerging medium can also be, but are not if the learner does not want to learn. If a person does not want to learn, there is not much one can do about it with content itself. Different forms of human facilitation is needed in order to prevent for example dropping out and in the (increasing) worst case scenario, social exclusion (Mäki-Ketelä, 2012).

All of this playing with the language directly affects the design process for better learning. If instructional or learning designers still continue to believe that content is king, we have nothing more to discuss in the field of learning innovations. Instead terms such as persuasion and immersion could give us new ideas on innovative learning environments for example with video games (Bogost, 2007). It is about how we are in a moment and get into objects that matters, not how we ‘consume’ content.


Bogost, Ian. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Francis, D. E., & Murphy, E. (2008). Instructional designers’ conceptualisations of learning objects, 24(5), 475–486. Retrieved from http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet24/francis.pdf

McGreal, R. (2004). Learning Object: A Practical Definition. Retrieved from http://www.itdl.org/journal/sep_04/article02.htm

Mäki-Ketelä, J. (2012). Kiskot Vievät Elämään. [Rails Take to Life]. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-93-1388-4

Wiley, D. A. (Ed.) (2002a). The instructional use of learning objects. Bloomington, IN: Agency for Instructional Technology and the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Retrieved from http://www.reusability.org/read

Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus logico-philosophicus. (1976). Translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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