From David Wiley’s forthcoming review of learning object literature, a description of perhaps the earliest formulation of a learning object system, suggested by Ted Nelson in the ’60’s:
The Xanadu design, which describes Nelson’s ideal hypertext system, calls for all content to be archived in a fixed, uneditable manner. Whenever a user desires to make changes to a piece of content previously stored in the system, those changes are stored separately, and users have ongoing access to both versions of the document. (The modern Connexions system developed at Rice University – http://cnx.org/ uses a similar system.)
Because a specific version or historical view of a specific document is guaranteed to exist in a specific location in perpetuity, it is possible to reuse portions of documents in Xanadu by reference. For example, if an author wanted to quote a portion of an existing document in a new document, instead of cutting and pasting the text into the document the author would reference the specific starting and stopping locations in the existing document, and the content from that existing document will be rendered dynamically in the new document whenever the new document was rendered. (This functionality is currently available as the open source Xanadu Transquoter – http://transliterature.org/transquoter/.)
Issues of granularity and context that plague current designers and reusers of learning objects are completely and elegantly sidestepped. Rather than requiring authors to design and build content with future reuse in mind, breaking their content into chunks, etc., in the Xanadu approach authors simply create and publish their content as they see fit. Other authors who desire to reuse portions of the content later on simply indicate the section of the existing document they wish to reuse, and this section is rendered dynamically within the new document later. Also, issues of context of learning objects are also completely avoided, as readers of the new document can always navigate back to the original document from which the snippet came, in order to better understand the context of the learning object. (This functionality is currently approximated in the Purple system – http://www.eekim.com/software/purple/purple.html.)
What’s not mentioned here is the way this system would impact the thorny licensing issues that have emerged in the OER world. Since the reused content is being rendered unedited here, the reuse is a compilation work, not a derivative, and each reused bit can carry with it whatever license it was made available under.
And while I won’t claim to be nearly as bright as Ted Nelson, I can’t help but hear echos of the linking based or blogosphere model for OER reuse I’ve been noodling on. Once again, I find myself on the cutting edge of fifty-year old thinking.