Managing progression in LAPland

Reindeer in the snow in LaplandWhy Learning Activity Platforms (LAPs) are required, if we are to make sense of sequencing and progression management.

My piece yesterday on the iTunes model of learning content makes two presuppositions:

  • that by “learning content”, everyone understands me to mean “learning activities” and not “expositive resources” – see What do we mean by “content”? if this distinction does not make sense to you;
  • that disaggregated learning content needs to be built up into coherent courses, programmes of study, or short activity sequences for a single lesson or homework—this is what has often been referred to as sequencing, though I think I prefer “progression management” as being more unambiguously applicable to activity rather than information.

This post continues to inform the conversation on Daniel Clark’s blog, about his post on Key issues on OER and how we might overcome them.

One of the objections that I often hear against disaggregated content is that in disaggregating you lose the most important thing, which is instructional context. There may not be anything inherently original about getting a student to do ten press-ups, but getting them to do their press-ups after doing a head-stand and before eating the ice-cream and setting the number of press-ups according to a formula which depends on their most recent time over 100 metres—that is the clever bit, the way that you build proficiency in such-and-such an objective. One publisher once said to me something along the lines of “we regard any changes to our course introduced by the teacher as a kind of entropy”. In other words, all teacher edits involved an inevitable reduction of quality.

I would turn this argument on its head: the importance of instructional context is exactly why content and context should be de-coupled. Progression management is too important to be restricted to the course to activities produced by only one supplier. Whoever is managing progression in a course (be it a teacher or software) should be able to mix-and-match activities from different providers to create a “best of breed” course. And this is what teachers have always done, selecting those bits that they preferred from different textbooks or supplementing the main textbook with photo-copied worksheets or shared lesson plans. The only reason why teachers do not always create very good courses is that, as instructional designers, they are amateurs. The way to improve pedagogical design is neither to hand the function over to the publishers nor to leave it up to the front-line teacher, but to have dedicated, professional intermediaries who can do the job properly and without proprietary lock-in. This is one aspect of the need to create a proper supply chain that I covered in Education’s coming revolution.

The notion of automated sequencing, or progression management, is to produce an electronic version of what has traditionally been an informal and manual process. The two main contenders for progression management data specifications have both come from IMS GLC: Simple Sequencing (which was incorporated in SCORM 2004) and Learning Design. Neither has really caught on, for a variety of reasons that I will not cover here.

Part of the problem has been the failure to achieve what became the elusive holy grail for SCORM: reusability. In practice it is difficult to lift an activity from one course and move it to another course without taking with it all sorts of assumptions that were embedded in the first course. The experience of sharing activities and lesson plans is often that you like the idea, but you would do it just a little differently.  There are two separate issues here.

First is a point that could be summed up as a street protest chant: “no reusability without adaptability!”

Second is a confusion about what is the content that is being shared (a general confusion that I addressed in What do we mean by “content”?). Are you sharing:

  • the resource;
  • the activity;
  • or are these the same thing?

The idea of “sharing an activity” might need some explaining because there are several different understandings of what we might mean by “activity”:

  • first is an event in time and space—this cannot be shared except with those who were there at the time;
  • second is the learning activity definition (or LAD)—the instructions and resources required to run an activity, which can be shared.

Taking the second meaning of “activity”, these definitions could be divided again into:

  • traditional classroom activities that are managed and delivered by the teacher and the instructions for which might be written down on a lesson plan;
  • digital activities (such as a game or simulation) that are delivered automatically by software.

In both cases, the activity definition is a kind of resource, be it a set of human-readable instructions or some software. So too are the subordinate things that you might need in order to run the activity successfully. For example the instructions “put these 10 pictures in order of importance” is a set of instructions for an activity (those instructions themselves being a resource); and so are the 10 pictures also resources. The pictures themselves are not very interesting, pedagogically speaking, unless you can:

  • put the pictures into the context of an activity;
  • reuse the activity definition with different pictures (i.e. make the activity adaptable).

This example uses a traditional classroom activity. The point about adaptability becomes increasingly important when you are talking about a digital activity, when the activity definition is encapsulated in a piece of software. You could imagine a “card sorting” app, which is what I would call a “Learning Activity Platform”—the LAP in the title of this piece.

In this case, the particular set of cards that you want the students to sort would be specified by passing a set of digital images to the card sorting activity software, perhaps as parameters on the command line, perhaps with an HTTP Get Request, or maybe over some sort of web service. The card sorting LAP is a resource and so are the images. The combination of the two is a Learning Activity Definition (a LAD), which is yet another type of resource.

We need to start distinguishing between these different sorts of resource and the different actors who create them:

  • the software developer who creates the LAP;
  • the activity designer to aggregates the cards and the other parameters that make up a LAD;
  • the instructional designer (quite possibly the same as the activity designer) who creates an adaptive sequence of learning activities.

This model achieves many things:

  • it combines adaptability and reusability;
  • it “decouples” learning objectives, learning activities and supporting resources;
  • it moves our understanding of education technology away from the circulation of information (which is the level at which most OER is stuck), towards appreciating the need for software that manages meaningful activity);
  • software that is capable of returning the outcome metrics that will drive learning analytics and iterative conversational loops that are essential to any learning process—the importance of which is explored in my Learning analytics for better learning content and also, more recently, in In the beginning was the conversation.

The piece that makes all of this work, and which from the perspective of current practice is  missing, is the LAP.

3 thoughts on “Managing progression in LAPland

  1. A lot of what you talk about is the rationale behind the title of the “learning objects” movement — “objects” in computer science are a deliberately abstract concept and cover all levels of the hierarchy of a computer program.

    For example, a chess application might define the whole game as an object, containing a board object and 32 chessmen objects. The board object would contain 64 “square” objects, and each square would either contain 1 of the 32 chessmen or nothing.

    In education, a complete course is an object contain a series of “lesson” objects, each containing a series of “activity” objects, which might contain “question” objects, or “picture” objects, or “playing card” objects or whatever.

    It’s not a bad way to think about curriculum design, and if you want a truly reusable, reconfigurable course, it’s perhaps the best way to do it.

    There’s two problems, however:

    First, it’s not an easy concept to explain, and even as a trained computer scientist, I never got my head round it until I found myself working on a program that genuinely needed to be object oriented. And if you can’t explain it to teachers, they can’t implement it.

    Secondly, it fails to truly meet the object oriented model, because one of the core principles of object oriented programming is the idea of code encapsulation and object de-coupling — each object should be self-contained, with minimal knowledge about other objects it interacts with.

    In OER, though, objects come loaded with presuppositions of prerequisite knowledge and assumed gaps in the learner’s knowledge. While we can attempt to reduce the prerequisite knowledge, particularly during the presentation of new material, we cannot eliminate it entirely, and if we decouple our objects/resources entirely, we forego any attempt at an integrative step that consolidates knowledge.

    This leaves us with a whole lot of variables to juggle, making the task very very complex indeed….

    • Hi Niall,

      Many thanks for the comment. Yes, I completely agree. I have in the past been keen on the “learning object” model – but have always found the discussion to be very frustrating for the reasons you give. I have always understood the term from the point of view of object-oriented programming – but most teachers and ed tech consultants understand “learning objects” as trivial, non-interactive resources (such as images). Which misses the whole point of objects as active components of a design.

      I agree with you about the difficulty of decoupling. It was one of the problems of SCORM 2004 Simple Sequencing. The sequence would organise itself around learning objectives – but these objectives were then passed through runtime communications to the learning object which would modify its behaviour accordingly – so the learning object was coupled to the sequence it was first used with because it made assumptions about the learning objectives in the context of which it was being assigned.

      That was one of the technical issues with SCORM. There are also pedagogical/prerequisite assumptions which, as you say, can add complexity to any process of disaggregation.

      My thought is that a learning object could be seen as multi-skinned onion – or continuum – from the non-context-specific (and reusable) to the context-specific (and not so reusable). You then choose the level at which to disaggregate, depending on how significant will be the change of context as the LO is reused.

      My point about the LAP is that, being the software engine – the heart of the onion – it is highly reusable. That decouples the activity platform software (LAP) from the activity instance (LAD) – actually I would add another layer of contextualisation (the task) which adds in learning objective-related information in formal learning contexts. You might want to use the same LAD (defined by input and outcome parameters) in different circumstances to address different learning objectives.

      Hope that makes sense. My next two posts will be (1) a concrete use case to illustrate my thinking behind the LAP and (2) an abstract taxonomy to draw apart some of the terms and distinctions that I am proposing here. I hope that they will clarify. But I am very interested to continue the conversation about learning objects, either sooner or later.

      Thanks, Crispin.

      • I’m not sure it’s that big a problem that teachers think of resources only at the smallest level… for now at least. Producing high quality objects/resources of higher complexity requires building a big enough stock of elementary items after all, and it also affords a way to get reusability into the teacher’s mindset, acting as a springboard for higher-level usability later on.

        I have argued on my blog ( that it is in fact imperative that we start at that elementary level, or the sets of image resources etc will be conceptually incomplete, covering only the concepts that the resource author chooses to address in his materials, and leaving the next teacher the choice of using a visually inconsistent set of materials or restricting the new course to cover only the concepts covered in the old course, or a subset of them.

        Starting small and changing the teaching culture incrementally seems like the most fruitful course of action to me.

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