Building Digital Learning Objects (DLOs)

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Digital learning objects (DLOs) have been conceptualized as self-contained units of learning created for online, face-to-face, and blended learning. Practitioners have been discussing various ways to create these electronic objects for quality, portability and usability between technological systems, and increased sharability—to increase the efficiencies in the uses of these (to save on the time invested in the development of such objects). Many have used digital learning objects without using this label. That said, there are a variety of definitions of digital learning objects as well. This module will not subscribe to any one definition, but it will introduce some of the general aspects of digital learning objects (DLOs).


Learners will...

  • Review what digital learning objects (DLOs) are
  • Consider the sizing or “granularity” of digital learning objects
  • Review how digital learning objects may be used as stand-alone objects and / or as parts of learning sequences
  • Consider autonomous digital learning objects as well as human-facilitated digital learning objects
  • Consider a revision scheme for digital learning objects
  • Consider the challenges of inheriting an open courseware or open source digital learning object for teaching and learning

Module Pretest

1. What are digital learning objects (DLOs)?

2. What is the proper sizing or “granularity” of digital learning objects?

3. How may digital learning objects be used as stand-alone objects? How may digital learning objects be used as part of a coherent sequence of learning?

4. How may digital learning objects be used in an autonomous way? How may digital learning objects be used in a human facilitated way?

5. When should digital learning objects (DLOs) be updated and revised? How should DLOs be updated and revised?

6. What are some basic considerations for inheriting and using open-courseware and open-source digital learning objects for teaching and learning?

Main Contents

To over-generalize, digital learning objects are commonly used presential (presentation-based) and experiential (experience-based) formats for online (and other types) of learning. These may be stand-alone objects, or they may be part of a module (a larger unit of learning), or courseware (a whole learning sequence).

What are Digital Learning Objects?

At their most simplistic, digital learning objects may be a photo or a text. They may be slideshows (narrated), photo albums, videotaped lectures, desktop lecture captures, audio casts, games, simulations, or combinations of digital objects that comprise a larger unit of learning. Digital learning objects are built around one learning objective—around one unit of learning—however those terms are defined. (Clearly, the more complex a learning objective is, the more types of digital learning object materials are used.)

Various authoring tools may be used to build these objects. Microsoft Visio is an excellent tool for 2D diagrams. Adobe Photoshop is a state-of-the-art photo editor. Sony Vegas works very well for video editing. Microsoft PowerPoint offers accessible slideshow development. SoftChalk LessonBuilder / SoftChalk Create 8 helps in the building of interactive Flash objects and whole modular sites as well as microsites. Some people build straight to code—whether for websites or mobile apps.

Such digital learning objects require a clear learning objective(s). They need defined demographic audiences for the learning. Pedagogically, there should be a clear learning trajectory and structure to the contents (to enhance the progression of learning).

Objects have to be built to particular technological standards and must be exportable in different ways from the software tools for optimal portability and transferability on technological systems. These objects need to be sharable between people. They have to be re-usable in various learning contexts. Optimally, they should be scalable, which means that while there is an initial unit-cost to develop the learning object, it can then be used again many more times without much in the way of additional costs. Others may experience the learning object without noticeable drag or deterioration of the learning experience by others. (Or downloaded digital learning objects may be disseminated among a wide number of users without apparent degradation in the experience of the other learners using the same object.)

Further, some digital learning objects may be versioned. In other words, some may be tailored for particular cultures or learning contexts or technologies.

While the technology space defines the tech standards, there are no set pedagogical standards. The essential measure of quality though is that the learning object is accessible and that it achieves the learning objectives. The information in a DLO has to be as accurate as possible.

Digital learning objects (DLOs) often are labeled with metadata (data about data), which describes important features of the learning object: the primary subject matter focus, the language, the level of learning, the target learner audience, the sources for the information, the author(s) of the DLO, and any contested points about the subject matter.

Assessments may be included in the digital learning objects, and these tend to be automated multiple-choice exams given the current technologies. These multiple-choice tests tend to be pre- and post-tests, with a computer-generated comparison between the pre- and post- performances (for learning analytics). Open-ended assessments (without fully defined answers) are relatively rare.

The nature of the digital learning objects will define (in part) what contents may best be depicted in these objects.

The Proper Sizing or Granularity of Digital Learning Objects

Digital learning objects tend to be defined in two main ways:

(1) Learning objectives (2) The amount of time expended for the learning

Usually, a learning objective has between 1-3 such goals per learning object. In terms of length of learning, usually, learning objects range between 1-2 hours of learning. If these are used for credentialing, these other outside factors may affect the design of the digital learning objects.

Instructors may well string together a series of digital learning objects for a learning sequence. That is the point of certain standards for the reusability, such as Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) standards, which enable the sequencing of learning objects for a coherent learner experience.

Stand-Alone Usage? Learning in a Sequence?

A stand-alone digital learning object (DLO) has to be self-contained and fully explanatory.

A digital learning object that is part of a learning sequence has to not only work in a stand-alone way but also connect well to the learning in a larger context. This is the rationale for why many have asked for digital templates that help organize the structures of digital learning objects, so those from various sources may be cobbled together for a sensible and effective learning sequence.

People who inherit digital learning objects need to know the critical metadata about an object. They need to be able to contextualize the learning spaces around the uses of that object. And in some open-source objects, they may be able to actually get to the source code of the objects and tweak the actual contents for updating or more contextualized fit (this ability is also dependent on the licensure of the open-source digital learning object, not just the technologies).

Autonomous Learning with Digital Learning Objects; Human-Facilitated Learning with Digital Learning Objects

An autonomous digital learning object is one that just plays on its own. These interactive objects enable people using it to pace at their own pace and to experience and re-experience various aspects of the learning on their own time.

The leadership of human facilitation strengthens the complexity that is possible in the uses of a digital learning object or sequence. An individual may apply his / her expertise to support learners in terms of their unique and customized needs. They may debrief the learning in an effective way. Without the human element, many digital learning objects may be limited by what the individual brings to the learning and how motivated he or she is to delve further to enhance the learning.

When and How to Revise?

Digital learning objects are often considered complete and whole the moment they are uploaded into a digital learning repository. However, these may be versioned over time, and they should be labeled as such.

Updates to digital learning objects should generally be done in the following contexts:

• When the paradigm has shifted in a field • When critical data has changed • When there are important policy changes • When new learning experiences and methods are possible to enhance the learning

The learning objects that are hosted on sites may be continually updated and revised for quality. It is important to notify an installed base of users of updates to materials if they choose to receive such notifications.

Examples (and Leave Behinds)

Leave behinds. In instructional design, to save on costs, open-source and public-domain contents are sometimes integrated into digital learning objects (slideshows, assignments, assessments, videos, podcasts, short games, simulations, datasets, data visualizations, maps, and others).

For this system to work, though, it helps when some learning objects and resources are also shared back. Many universities use shared objects (through either their own repositories or social media platform channels) as a way to create the public face of the university’s brand. So what are some features of effective digital “leave behinds” from instructional design (ID) work?

  • Stand-alone objects. The shared objects need to be stand-alone and valuable in a context-independent way. They have to make sense and have meaningful value as one object (without further mediation). As an object that will be part of the Semantic Web (Web 3.0)—which is machine-readable—it is assumed that pieces and parts will be disaggregated and re-aggregated for sense-making. This means that a slideshow has to be meaningful in a context-independent way but also each slide.
  • Original and accurate information. To be successful, a shared object has to be the “go to” resource on a particular topic at least for the near-term. Anything that is not within the top few pages of a Google search loses out on human attention (in a very competitive market for human attention). Anything shared broadly has to be able to compete globally. It should actually contribute something original. A shared object should add clarity, not muddle a situation. It should not lead to misunderstandings or misinformation. (To this end, it cannot hurt to occasionally update a shared learning object.)
  • Legal. A shared object should be “street legal,” which means that it does not contravene others’ intellectual property. It should not transgress on others’ privacy rights. A shared object should be fully accessible per Section 508. Also, the sharing should be approved by the project principal investigators (PIs), who “own” the project and to set the rules for sharing / non-sharing.
  • Proper technological features. Technologically, a learning object should be built in a way that it is somewhat “future-proofed,” so it does not succumb to the fast-shifts in digital file format changes. The object also has to “play well” in the ecosystem on which it is deployed.

Some Examples:

A Secondary-Source Share: “The Participatory Design of a Today (and Future) Digital Entomology Lab”

Two Leave-Behinds from Conferences: “Beauty as a Bridge to NodeXL” and "Fully Exploiting Qualitative and Mixed Methods Data from Online Surveys"

A Shared E-Book for Training: “Using NVivo: An Unofficial and Unauthorized Primer”

How To

Inheriting Open-Courseware and Open Source Digital Learning Objects

Instructors who would inherit open-courseware and open-source digital learning objects may do well to consider a range of issues.

First, it helps to know what objects are actually available. Which one of these offers the best learning value?

Then, they have to ensure that the copyright release is accurate and complete to allow them to use the digital learning object in the way that the instructor and learners intend.

The learning object needs to work well on various technological systems. It should connect well to the learning / course management system, as needed.

The learning object should be editable through software editing tools if that level of update is allowed (by license and technologically) and necessary.

The pedagogical value of the learning object has to be high, with strong transferability to the applicable learning contexts and audiences.

Possible Pitfalls

Digital learning objects are often not designed to be “neutral” or “stateless.” People will designed context into them, and that limits the transferability of that learning object across a broad range of particular users.

Licensure may limit the uses of digital learning objects. And technological advancements may result in learning objects being obsolete or unreadable. Learning objects need to be timely and accurate to be relevant.

Module Post-Test

1. What are digital learning objects?

2. What is the proper sizing or “granularity” of digital learning objects?

3. How may digital learning objects be used as stand-alone objects? How may digital learning objects be used as part of a coherent sequence of learning?

4. How may digital learning objects be used in an autonomous way? How may digital learning objects be used in a human facilitated way?

5. When should digital learning objects (DLOs) be updated and revised? How should DLOs be updated and revised?

6. What are some basic considerations for inheriting and using open-courseware and open-source digital learning objects for teaching and learning?


Learning object. Wikipedia. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2011, from

Extra Resources

Hai-Jew, S. (2014). Building the knowledge of human perception into e-learning. SlideShare.

Hai-Jew, S. (2014). Building digital learning objects that rock in every way. SlideShare.

Hai-Jew, S. (2016). Building a Digital Learning Object with Articulate Storyline 2. SlideShare.

Hai-Jew, S. (2016). Building Online Learning to Actual Human Capabilities. SlideShare.

Building the Knowledge of Human Perception into E-Learning

Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching

Multi-modal learning through media: What the research says. Cisco Systems. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2011, from

Reusable learning object strategy: Designing and developing learning objects for multiple learning approaches. Cisco Systems. Retrieved Sept. 14, 2011, from