A digital learning resource is reusable† if it can be used or adapted for use in multiple learning contexts and in multiple learning environments. This has its challenges. Even without a need for modification, intellectual property rights, dependence on context and the usual technical problems with digital content are barriers to reuse. The need to modify content intensifies these challenges.
A natural question to ask is whether quality must be sacrificed for the sake of reusability. A very similar situation arose when accessible design started getting some play. Designers viewed it as an imposition that would require more work and limit their choices. By now, most designers acknowledge that many of the principles of accessible design are just principles of good design that also enable important advances such as displaying content on mobile devices. The same is likely to happen with the concept of reusable design.
The goal of reusable design is to create resources that lower or remove the barriers to reuse as much as possible without reducing learning effectiveness.
That is not to say that there is no tension between reusability and design. For example, academic authors often refer to approaches, examples and notation established earlier in a course. They feel this is needed to properly develop ideas and understanding, but these ‘hard-coded’ references make it harder to reuse just parts of the course. Similarly, designers of educational Web sites may build logic into the server that guides students to different sections depending on results of quizzes or stated preferences. This may make for a more interactive and effective learning experience, but it renders the Web site impossible to reuse without the same server technology.
In almost every case there are ways to improve reusability without losing the educational value. In the first example, sections can be made more self-contained by replacing links to other sections with links that pop up important definitions, examples or notations. In the second example, standards can be used that enable the same type of logic to be performed by most delivery platforms.
Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that, as in the case of accessibility, designing for reuse does initially take some extra effort and some shifts in approach.