In the oral tradition stories and parables were passed from person to person and generation to generation. As they were told and retold they were updated, modified and fitted to new cultures and new contexts. In many cases, only parts of the old teachings found their way into new ones. This is the process of reuse and repurposing, and it has been going on since before the advent of the written word.
Today, reuse is familiar to the educational world based on printed media. The educational marketplace overflows with text books, lesson plans, activity books, kits, and other materials designed specifically to be reused many times in many different places. The existence of an educational marketplace itself has contributed to improved access and better quality by providing distribution channels, creating competition and enabling the financial returns needed to invest significant resources in the development of good content.
Compared to oral teachings, printed material is cheaper and faster to distribute and there is less chance that distribution will alter the content. With digital content, the cost and time required for distribution approach zero and the fidelity is close to absolute. In entertainment, this has led to such widespread reuse and sharing that the entertainment and publishing industries are using technology and courts to prevent it. In education and learning the digital sharing effect has evolved more slowly.
There are many reasons for this. As pointed out in The Gutenberg Myth (Brandon, 1998), single technological breakthroughs rarely have the impact attributed to them. Other technological advances must are required to support the transition, and sociological changes must also take place before there is a fundamental impact on the culture.
In the case of digital learning resources, there are many problems to be overcome before we can expect widespread reuse and sharing. Learning tends to be highly contextual, and context is not as easy to disseminate as data alone. The specialized nature of learning resources sometimes requires specialized formats and specialized software to interpret them. Interactive resources seem harder to break up into smaller components than those consisting solely of text and graphics, making them less convenient to reuse than a book. Validity and trustworthiness are important issues for educational material, militating against the emergence of peer-to-peer educational file sharing networks. The simple metadata (title and author) and full text searches that seem adequate for searching and discovering entertainment and news content may not suffice for educational content. There are also elements of the academic and educational cultures that discourage a high degree of reuse.
However, we should not be discouraged. The concept and potential value of reuse is clear to most educators, and there are no fundamental technological barriers to reusing and repurposing educational content. Furthermore, there are reasons to believe that increasing the reuse of digital learning content will have a positive effect on quality and access. That does not mean that reuse will occur without taking any proactive steps, but it does imply that there is value in digging deeper into what makes reuse easier.