RLO Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Last updated: Mon, 23 February, 2009 by Fred Riley


Below are some common queries about RLOs. If you are interested in producing a RLO, you should contact Fred Riley.

What the @#$! is a RLO?

The acronym RLO stands for Reusable Learning Object. That's about the only thing that learning object practitioners and theorists worldwide agree on. There is no agreed definition of what a RLO is, which given the range of interested parties - academic, military, govermental, corporate - across the world is hardly surprising. Definitions range from 'any thing that exists that can be used and re-used in learning' to full-blown courses. (A good discussion of definitions is an article by David Wiley from 2000 - see Further Reading below.) [1]

The School's working definition of a RLO is:

"an interactive WWW-based resource based on a single learning objective which can be used in multiple contexts"

What's the difference between RLOs and Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL)?

In principle, none: both RLOs and CAL are computer applications to support learning. In practice, RLOs are small, 'bite-sized' chunks of e-learning focussing on a particular narrow topic (eg drug half-life), containing typically 15-30 minutes of learning material. CAL applications are much larger, usually disk-based, packages containing many hours if not days of instructional content, exploring a particular topic (eg the autonomic nervous system) in detail. RLOs are more flexible than CAL applications and can be developed in much shorter timescales, but at the cost of depth of instructional content. An important difference is that SoNM RLOs can be accessed anywhere there's a web browser and an Internet connection, whereas University CAL applications can only be run on campus or from disk.

RLOs are not better than, or intended to supplant, 'traditional' CAL packages - rather, each should be used in appropriate contexts, and RLOs and CAL may often be used together. A case of horses for courses...

Why should I use RLOs?

As a teacher, you might find RLOs useful:

As a student, you might find RLOs useful for student-centred learning, enabling you to cover gaps in your knowledge, prepare for a teaching session, revise already taught material, or to just be plain curious and expand your learning. Many RLOs produced outside the School (see UCEL RLOs) deal with topics directly or indirectly related to Nursing and healthcare but are often produced from very different perspectives. An example is Doctor/patient relations, produced for the SHIELD Project, which looks at the topic from a sociological perspective. Another 'cross-over' example might be the RLO on Social Class in relation to health.

How can I use RLOs?

Just link to their location on the WWW. For example, if you're a teacher and wish to include a SoNM RLO in your WebCT course, simply find the RLO on this website, copy its web address (URL) from your browser, and create a link in your WebCT page to it as you would to any other website, eg:

RLO: Half-life of Drugs

Additionally, it might help your students to provide a link to the RLO section on this website, so that they can explore other RLOs which might be of interest to them.

Where can I find RLOs that I can use?

Right here on the SONET website are listed RLOs developed by SoNM, and by UCEL and UCEL partners. Further sources of RLOs will be added as they come online. Watch this space...

What do I need to run a RLO?

A standard web browser with one or more common software plugins. The main plugins are those needed to display animations created in Macromedia Flash or Macromedia Director. If you access a RLO with such an animation but your browser doesn't have the appropriate plugin, you will be prompted to download and install the plugin from the Macromedia website, which is a fairly painless, although tedious and occasionally (on 56k dialin connections) slow, procedure.

These plugins are often bundled with modern browsers, but they can also be downloaded directly from the Macromedia website via the links below to the Macromedia website:

These plugins are often found on CDROMs distributed by computer magazines (eg Personal Computer World) and on CDROMs distributed by Internet Service Providers (eg AOL, Tiscali, BT)j - it's worth looking on such disks before submitting yourself to a possibly lengthy download on a slow modem connection.

Some RLOs require a password - why? And where can I get the password?

Many RLOs created for UCEL (see below) are currently restricted to students and staff in UCEL member institutions, and require a username and password to access. This restriction comes out of the contributory nature of the UCEL collective, to which member institutions pay an annual subscription fee. The issue of restricted access is under discussion and may change in the not too distant future.

To obtain the username and password to access these restricted RLOs, please contact Fred Riley or Dawn Leeder (UCEL Director)

What's UCEL?

The Universities Collaboration in E-Learning. A contributory collective of six institutions: the universities of Nottingham, Wolverhampton, East Anglia, Manchester and Cambridge, and Peninsula Medical School (joint project of Exeter and Plymouth universities). The prime purpose of UCEL is to develop a wide range of RLOs for use by teachers and students in member institutions. See About UCEL on the UCEL website for more information on UCEL's genesis, history, and purpose.

What's RLO-CETL?

The RLO-CETL is the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning for Reusable Learning Objects, one of 74 Centres set up by HEFCE at the start of 2005 (Press release, 27/1/05). The purpose of RLO-CETL is to develop a range of multimedia RLOs, carry out research and evaluation on RLOs 'in the field', and disseminate RLOs nationally and internationally. The CETL is led by London Metropolitan University, with Nottingham University and Cambridge University as equal partners. See the RLO-CETL website for more info and a showcase of RLOs.

Are RLOs intended to replace face-to-face teaching?

Definitely not! RLOs, as with CAL, are only aids to teaching. They will not be used to cut back on teaching hours or contact time. A major rationale of RLOs and CAL is to improve and deepen the learning experience, and to enhance student-centred learning.

Do RLOs comply with international standards, particularly regarding accessibility to users with disabilities?

SoNM RLOs are developed and tested using Internet Explorer 6 and Mozilla 1.6, and are designed to comply with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards of XHTML and CSS to ensure cross-browser operation, and to comply with the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 to level AA. Those RLOs using proprietary plugins, such as Shockwave and Flash, are not fully accessible to users with disabilities at the time of writing, but this issue is being addressed by both School RLO developers and UCEL.

Are there any conditions on using these RLOs?

Yes, but not particularly onerous or restrictive. The learning objects are released under the Creative Commons 2.0 licence (BY-NC. Essentially, you may use our RLOs without restriction for strictly non-profit-making educational purposes - for full details see our Terms of Use.

Further reading

(See also the Publications section of this website for papers authored by SONET members on RLOs and e-Learning.)

Wiley, David (ed). The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version. 2000. http://www.reusability.org/read/. Learning object definitions, pedagogy, case studies, and the future. The first chapter, Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy, by the editor is, despite the title, an accessible and witty overview of what on earth a learning object is.

Polsani, P R. Use and Abuse of Reusable Learning Objects. 2003. Journal of Digital Information, Vol 3 Issue 4 Article No. 164. Online at http://jodi.ecs.soton.ac.uk/Articles/v03/i04/Polsani/.

Leeder, D, Wharrad, HJ & Davies, T (2002). Beyond Institutional Boundaries: reusable learning objects for multi-professional education. Presented to the 3rd Annual Research Conference of the School of Nursing & Midwifery Studies: Transforming Healthcare through Research, Education and Technology, Trinity College, Dublin 13 - 15 November 2002: . Online versions: Word | PDF.

Friesen, N. (2004). Three Objections to Learning Objects. In McGreal, R. (Ed.). Online Education Using Learning Objects. London: Routledge/Falmer. Online at http://www.learningspaces.org/n/papers/objections.html. A sceptical view of learning objects, and a useful counterweight to the sometimes evangelical pro-RLO camp.

Wikipedia: Learning Object. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_Object

What's the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?



[1] Another working definition, from MIT's Engineering Systems Learning Center, is:

A "learning object" is a collection of documents, illustrations, audio or video clips, and other such items (sometimes termed individual "learning assets") that is self-contained, suitable for sharing, and is designed to achieve clearly defined learning objectives.

Which is not a million miles away from the School's working definition.