When discussing reuse of learning content we must first ask, “What, how and by whom?”
What: Digital Learning Resources
The Reusable Learning project is concerned with digital learning resources, defined as anything in digital format that is intended for use in learning. The specific types of resources targeted are those that are accessible through educational digital libraries. These include online courses or modules; interactive applets; multimedia resources; simulations; data sets; and objects that are specifically designed for use in constructing other resources.
How: Adoption and Adaptation
In a typical interaction with a digital library a teacher might search for and discover a resource and then use it in class or assign it as homework. This is considered reuse if the context has changed, e.g., if the resource was created for one class and used in another . Note that if the learning resource is “large” (such as a course) then only a part of it may be reused. For example, a teacher may want to show a particular simulation in class. Learners can also use resources by conducting their own searches and engaging with the content they find. It is not clear whether this is reuse or just plain use, but the effect is the same. In this document anyone reusing content will be called a reuser†.
The above type of reuse is often called adoption† because a resource is being adopted for use without any changes being made. A slightly different kind of adoption occurs when a reuser incorporates a learning resource into a Web site or other learning environment via a link. This is different because the part or all of one digital learning resource is being combined with another digital learning resource. The reuser is now acting as an “assembler” of existing content.
A type of reuse that is very different from a reusability perspective is adaptation†. This occurs when a learning resource is modified (or re-deployed) before it is used. Adaptation is an authoring process, and indeed authoring teams often reuse their own materials, but the most challenging situations occur when content from one source is adapted for use in another. As an example, a professor might find an applet and incorporate it into a Web site by downloading the source code, changing the look and feel to match her site, recompiling the code, and putting it on her own Web server.
Note: Reuse is sometimes called repurposing. Although there is no standard definition of repurpose, it is fair to assume that repurposing implies some change in purpose as well, e.g. a virtual laboratory created for doing chemistry experiments is used to generate examples for a mathematics class. We will generally just use the word reuse.
Note: At least one NSDL project is creating applets that can be called with a variety of parameters, essentially making it possible to modify them without touching the source code.
By Whom: Learners, Collections and Repositories, Reusers
Although the educators and authoring teams are the key reusers, we should not forget about three other very important players.
First, the learners: Digital learning resources can be used by audiences far more diverse than those for whom they were explicitly designed, as is demonstrated by usage statistics for the MIT Open Course Ware Initiative (Diamond, 2003). Even if their access to content is mediated by educators, the diversity of potential learners and the importance of providing more universal access to education leads us to rate use by unforeseen and culturally divergent audiences as a very important type of reuse.
Second, the collections† or repositories†: For resources to be reused they must be discovered and identified as appropriate. Widespread reusability in education cannot be achieved with significant contributions from educational digital libraries. Collection and repositories can support reusability by developing and implementing appropriate policies and technologies.
Finally, the authors† of the resources that are being reused: If the goal is create more reusable learning resources, then the authors are the ones who must take us there. To do that, they must practice reusable design.