Home Button Resuable Learning Banner NSF logo
Contact Us button
Copyright/License button
latest news
About the Project Case Studies Workshops & Resources Metadata Interoperability Managing Rights Designing Content for Reuse


Context & Pedagogy


When examining a learning resource for possible reuse or adaptation, context and pedagogy affect the answers to to following key questions:

  • Instructor deciding if a resource can be used in their teaching - Does the content fit my methods and goals? Can my students learn from it?

  • Learner looking for a resource to learn about a specific topic - Does the content provide what I need? Can I learn from it?

  • Author examining a resource for use in their content authoring process - Is the content appropriate for my purposes? Is it right for my audience?

Five Layers of a Digital Learning Resource
Content The information that is contained in a resource and that is intended to affect a change in cognitive state.
Context Language, cultural knowledge, subject knowledge, relations to other learning resources and other factors that are needed to properly interpret the resource.
Pedagogy How a digital learning resource is used as part of a learning strategy or instructional design.

Being aware of the effect of each layer on reusability will help guide design choices and reducing interdependence among layers will enhance reusability.


Learning makes use of language, relies on culture, requires prior knowledge and experience and depends on the situation in which it takes place. If the dream of technology assisted learning is to get just the right stuff to the right person at the right time in the right way ( Hodgins, 2002 ), then context is what determines the value of a learning resource.

At the same time, contextual dependencies limit the potential audience of a resource. Inherent contextual dependencies make it harder to use an object in multiple settings and in multiple ways ( Robson, 2003 ; Gibbons, et al., 2003 ). Thus context is the friend of learning and the enemy of reuse. For this reason, every effort should be made to reduce unnecessary contextual dependencies.

Another way to say this is that the pedagogy, structure, content and presentation of a resource should be as free from dependence on external context as possible. An explanation that cannot be understood without referencing a specific text or external online resource is best replaced by one that may require specific knowledge but that does not require a specific source. An image, example or test question that clearly depends on cultural knowledge for interpretation should, if possible, be replaced by one that does not. A document consisting of a list of assertions may be useful for some instructional methods but will be more reusable if enough scaffolding is provided to make it useful to anyone who reads it. A large resource will be more useful for adoption and more disaggregated into information objects and learning objects for adaptation if it does not require a lot of inside knowledge to discern the boundaries among presentations of facts, statements of opinion, content intended for a student, remarks made for the benefit of an instructor, exercises, etc. Even for a well-crafted resource, explicitly providing the metadata to identify the substance and nature of components will make it easier to reuse than will relying on context.


A learning resource is more valuable if it can be used for as many different types of learning as possible. It therefore helps to separate any instructional or learning strategy implicit in a resource from its structure, content and presentation. It should be noted that the intended pedagogical setting and instructional use of a resource are contextual issues, but we single out pedagogical context because we are talking about learning resources, not arbitrary digital content.

As an illustration, consider an educational Web site broken into sections that include some explanatory material, some exploratory material and an online quiz. Suppose that the site is intended for use by middle school children under the supervision of a classroom teacher who will guide the students through the material in a particular order. This is the pedagogical layer.

The intended pedagogical context and instructional design can show up in the choice of graphics and fonts (presentation), in references to the teacher embedded in the Web pages (content), and in the navigational scheme (structure). If material from the site is to be reused or repurposed for use by students learning on their own, or by parents helping their children, or by adult learners, then changes will have to be made to all of these elements. Here are some ways this can be made easier by keeping the pedagogical layer separate.

Reusability will be enhanced if a separate screen is used for navigation and there are no “previous” and “next” buttons or hyperlinks among the sections. This will allow other navigational schemes and instructional designs to be imposed on the same underlying content. For example, someone adapting the middle school site for adult learners might add a pretest and design a system wherein the learner doesn't see sections passed on the pretest but can see the remaining sections in any order desired. The IMS Simple Sequencing and Learning Design specifications provide standardized ways to separate pedagogy from structure and to implement these types of designs.

If entangling the structure of a resource with its instructional approach is bad for reusability, incorporating an instructional design into the content is even worse. If the premise for all of the content in the middle school Web site is a hands-on experiment that requires materials and supervision only available in a classroom, it will be hard to use any of the content at home. Another problem could arise if the content is targeted at teachers, rather than at learners. Providing a separate teacher's guide and dividing hands-on experiments into separate sections increases the separation of content from pedagogy.

Finally, the reusability of the site will be greatly enhanced if the presentation elements do not scream “middle school classroom.” Optimally, the presentation layer is kept separate from all others so that repurposing is easy, but for straightforward reuse it is best if sections of the site can be linked from other resources with other audiences and designs without the presentation and style getting in the way.

Design and Granularity

As might be expected, the importance of individual layers depends heavily on the granularity of a learning resource. The following table indicates what layers are most important as a function of granularity:

Design as a Function of Granularity

Granularity Layer
Content Asset The key issue for content assets is separating presentation from content. Contextual dependence should be avoided.
Information Object For information objects, separation of content from presentation is important, and it is also important to avoid cross references that entangle the content with the structure, pedagogy and context.
Learning Object The considerations for information objects apply to learning objects. Additionally, there is a danger of hard-coding navigational elements and unnecessarily tying the object to a particular pedagogical approach or assumed context.
Learning Component As the aggregation level increases, reuse shifts to component reuse. Therefore issues of separating pedagogy, structure and content become more crucial for reuse. Pedagogical approach and contextual dependence become the limiting factors for reusing or repurposing learning components in their entirety.
Learning Environment Learning environments may be designed for a specific context and pedagogical approach or may be more general. The more general ones are those that are reusable. For them, it is important to avoid cross-linking of components of the environment.