When we think about the types of services we offer in support of Distance Education students, we see a wide range of possibilities. These services often mirror those provided “on the ground” and are ones with which most are familiar – financial aid, records and registration, library services, institutional technology support, etc. Each of these areas requires students to navigate the ins and outs of their affiliated networks and systems of processes to successfully complete their educational journeys.
In efforts to assist students in more efficiently traversing these systems, many support service entities have created guides, tip sheets, tutorials, and the like. These, in turn, have been integrated into student orientation initiatives, introducing students to needed information and direction early in their academic careers.
For many of us, the need to create these materials has been driven primarily by the necessity to simplify complex systems into more manageable processes and to achieve some efficiencies in staffing by lessening the load imposed by answering similar types of questions repeatedly. The creation of orientation materials, however, has had a deeper impact than basic navigation assistance in that research has shown orientation to institutional resources and services has a positive, significant influence on student satisfaction with distance learning (Pattison, 2003-2004).
As we in support services have sought ways to assist our students, our first efforts were in just making materials available. We were more concerned with having SOMETHING available than any learning that might have come from the experience.
However, as is the trend in education, we’ve seen deeper consideration of the design of these materials … it’s no longer about just access to materials; more and more we’re wondering if our materials are effective and whether the efforts put forth are meeting student needs.
We’re also seeing more of the need for modularization and customization of support materials – where students are able to more readily access materials at their point of need and access those materials more relevant to their needs.
This is where the concept of learning objects can be can be leveraged to address this need.
When we talk about learning objects, we’re talking about materials that can be classified as instructional units or modules. Often these are more focused instructional materials, covering a select number of learning goals and objectives.
Another characteristic of learning object model design is that these instructional materials can be reused in a variety of educational settings outside of the original setting in which they were created. This flexibility means these materials can also be “plugged in” to other larger objectives, connecting and reconnecting materials as needed. For these reasons, I tend to think of learning objects as a set of building blocks that can be reconfigured in a multitude of ways.
Part of the flexibility and reusability associated with learning object model design is a result of the development of the technical standards for designing, describing, and locating these types of instructional materials. Several metadata schemas have been developed to assist learning object creators in designing and describing not only the content elements of the objects themselves, but also their technical specifications. These schemas may also identify the order in which objects must be completed to achieve broader goals. The schemas with which most are familiar are the IEEE Learning Object Model (LOM) standards and SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model). The primary role of these schemas is to assist in communicating content and technical elements to learning object creators and users. In addition, these standards allow learning objects to be findable in larger repositories because of the controlled vocabulary used to describe learning object elements.
Between the flexibility and standardized descriptions, learning object model design parallels the work put forth by the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement. Because learning objects are smaller instructional units designed to be reused in various educational settings, they are good candidates to be shared in the OER movement. OER’s primary aim is to provide free and open access to instructional resources and practices shared by individuals across the world.
While learning object creators are exploring the technical means to create engaging and interactive learning objects, other guidelines need to be considered to ensure learning actually results as a consequence of using a learning object.
Three theories useful in directing good design include the unified learning model, Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory, and Mayer’s Multimedia Principles.
The Unified Learning Model outlines the neurobiological processes involved in learning, stating learning results from properly directing working memory resources to efforts used to build cognitive schema. In this process, motivation is key … a learner must purposefully direct working memory to learning. Lastly, practice and feedback are also important in that they provide opportunities to further refine cognitive schema.
Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is closely related to the ULM in that Sweller proposed several guidelines highlighting how instructional materials should be designed to maximize the learner’s use of working memory resources (managing cognitive load). Examples of these guidelines include: Use diagrams to build deeper understanding of concepts Avoid split attention by integrating explanatory text into graphics rather than keeping this content separate.
Mayer’s Principles address more of the audiovisual and pacing components of instructional materials. One main principle involves giving the learner control over the pacing of the material so that s/he can move forwards and backwards through content as needed. In addition, Mayer discusses the combination of auditory and visual components as well as interactive features of materials.
Learning objects created according to these guidelines provide learners with deeper learning experiences through which instructional goals can be more readily accomplished.
This background on learning objects, instructional design and distance education came together for the University of Nebraska System in 2009-2010.
A bit of background regarding the organization of the University of Nebraska System. The NU system consists of 4 campuses: The University of Nebraska at Omaha is a metropolitan campus located in Omaha and serves 13,000+ students The University of Nebraska – Lincoln is the land grant university located in Lincoln and serves 24,000+ students The University of Nebraska – Kearney – is a public, residential university located in western Nebraska, serving nearly 7,000 students The University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), located in Omaha, houses the medical research and health care professional programs.
Over the past 5 years, distance education has been receiving quite a bit of attention at all four campuses. One of the results of discussions and activities was the creation of Online Worldwide, a centralized organization devoted to supporting distance education initiatives and assisting in the coordination resources and services, including support services, from all campuses.
Advising the Online Worldwide Steering Committee are four Communities of Practice groups. Each group is comprised of representatives from each of the four campuses and is focused upon specific aspects relating to distance education: Student Support Services, Instructional Design and Faculty Support, Infrastructure and Systems, and Grants & Research.
It is within the Student Support Services Community of Practice where discussions regarding orientation materials and other support mechanisms for learners in online and hybrid environments are held.
Over the past 6 months, the group’s discussions have focused upon the creation of orientation materials for distance learners. Two campuses (UNMC and UNK) already offer a structured orientation program for distance students, requiring them to complete modules within Blackboard to become more familiar with the learning management system and the respective university systems. Interest from the other two campuses (UNO and UNL) demonstrated this was a topic needing further consideration as well as some amount of standardization from which campuses could build.
The result was a list of modules all SSCoP members felt applicable to nearly all campuses: Campus Introduction Technology Requirements & Support Blackboard (Learning Management System) Campus E-Mail Systems Registration Processes Course Materials (Bookstores, Supplemental Equipment, etc.) ID Cards Exams & Grades (Proctored / Unproctored Exams, GPA) Library Resources Services Advising and Degree Planning Tuition / Fees Financial Aid Student Resources (Writing Centers and Other Academic Support Services, Student Organizations) Student Conduct
The Community of Practice also discussed the design of these materials, setting forth the following recommendations for each campus to consider: The materials need to be modular in that students may be able to “pick and choose” as meets their needs or as the college, department, program requires. The materials need to be Web-based for ease of access, including access from smartphones and other personal digital technologies. Some discussions in this area have taken place as to whether these modules should be created as Blackboard modules – designed and delivered completely within the learning management system. Others have argued these materials should be accessible outside of this environment, given future uncertainties with management systems as well as other factors (programming limitations, user accounts, etc.) Orientation materials should be engaging and interactive, requiring the student to use higher order thinking skills and to take the modules seriously Lastly, the modules need to include assessments so that instructors and university support personnel have confidence students have learned skills and abilities that will help them succeed in distance-delivered environments.
Thinking back to the characteristics associated with learning objects, these are exactly the elements used to describe these instructional materials. Learning processes and instructional design principles can also be used to support best practices in ensuring the modules are engaging and interactive as well as designed so as to promote learning.
From these discussions about topics and design recommendations, one topic garnering initial attention for all four campuses was Student Readiness. Each campus has commented about the need to assist students in self-identifying whether distance education is a good fit for their interests and preferences. An orientation module devoted to this topic would have a significant impact upon recruitment and retention. This is where UNO began the journey into the development of a first in a series of modules for distance education student orientation.
The first module focuses specifically upon an individual’s personality or learning preferences. This topic was selected because we felt it important students first became aware of their own personal characteristics influencing their learning processes.
The Personality Spectrum created by Dr. Joyce Bishop was used as the preferences test within the module with additional content added to enhance interaction and an understanding of how the concepts described by the preferences test applied to learning experiences.
It is intended to serve as a stand-alone learning object – not designed for a specific degree program or subject area. It is intended to be available and completed outside of a learning management system. The learner can also return to the module for concept review.
As for the technical aspects, the module is based upon HTML, PHP, & MySQL technology so that it is fairly easy to modify. It is currently branded as UNO, but this can be changed as necessary. While the code is not yet available for others, the intention is to release it under Creative Commons licensing and/or to contribute it to Open Educational Resource repositories if possible.
Where do we go from here?
We will continue to refine the first module … our first efforts will be to draw a closer match between concepts and application. We will then need to further test the module to ensure it is accomplishing the instructional and readiness goals we established.
More learning objects will be completed to address the other topics areas outlined by the Support Services Community of Practice.
With each object, assessment considerations must be given. Assessment not only of learning objectives, but also of adherence to learning processes and instructional design principles. These theories and principles become our standards just as HTML, CSS, and metadata schemas have become our technical standards.
Lastly, we are interested in sharing with and learning from others who have created materials and modules highlighting the resources and services offered in support of distance education students.
Object-ive Orientation: The Use of Learning Objects for Support Services
The Use of Learning Objects
for Support Services
Karen K. Hein
University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO)
16th Annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning
The Power of Online Learning: Stimulating New Possibilities
November 5, 2010
& Support Services
• Types of Support Services
– Each requires navigating networks and
systems of processes
– Guidelines, tip sheets, tutorials, etc., to help
simplify complex systems
• Impact upon the Student
(what the research says)
Overview of Support Service
• Making Materials Available
• Designing from an Instructional
– Deeper Consideration of Learning
• Modularization, Customization, and
• Instructional Units / Modules
• Focus Upon Fewer Learning Goals /
• Flexibility and Reusability
• Technical Standards for Designing,
Describing, and Locating Objects
• Parallels Open Educational Research
University of Nebraska System
• 4-Campus System:
– University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO)
– University of Nebraska – Kearney (UNK)
– University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL)
– University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC)
• Online Worldwide
– Student Support Services Community of
• Continued Refinement & Testing
• More Orientation Objects
• Further Assessment
Slides available at
Karen K. Hein
Instructor, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Library Media / Library Science Programs
6001 Dodge Street
Omaha, NE 68182
Bishop, J. (2005). Keys to success at the University of Nebraska at Omaha: First year
experience. Boston: Prentice Hall.
Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based
guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Carter, C., Bishop, J., & Bucher, R. D. (2005). Keys to effective learning: Developing
powerful habits of mind (4th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
Mayer, R. (2001). Multimedia learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pattison, S. (2003-2004). The effect of an orientation on distance - program
satisfaction. Journal of College Student Retention: Research,
Theory & Practice, 5(2), 205-233.
Shell, D. F., Brooks, D. W., Trainin, G., Wilson, K. M., Kauffman, D. F., & Herr, L. M.
(2010). The unified learning model: How motivational, cognitive, and neurobiological
sciences inform best teaching practices. Dordrecht: Springer Science.
Wozniak, H., Mahony, M. J., Lever, T., & Pizzica, J. (2009). Stepping through the
orientation looking glass: A staged approach for postgraduate students. Australasian
Journal of Educational Technology, 25(2), 221-234. Retrieved from