Cognitive and Logical Rationales for e-Learning Objects

Hansjörg (George) von Brevern

University of Bern, Institute of Information Systems


The motivation for this discussion is to look at the cognitive and logical rationales of e-Learning objects, which reside in computer-based e-Learning artefacts. e-Learning objects, the system to which they belong, and the sequence of messages that form a discourse between the system and its environment are inseparable. Altogether, they formulate the “Universe of Discourse” (Wieringa, R. J. (2003), p. 14). When we talk about systems, we equally refer the discourse to e-Learning objects because they are the “workers” of the system. e-Learning is “a combination of content and instructional methods delivered by media elements such as words and graphics on a computer intended to build job-transferable knowledge and skills linked to individual learning goals or organizational performance” (Clark, R. C. & Mayer, R. E. (2002), p. 311). The sciences of instruction, learning, and knowledge are intricate and the “e-” before “Learning” adds another dimension of complexity while paving new learning paths for e-Learning.

Keywords: e-Learning Objects; Cognitive Learning Theories; Pedagogical Models; e-Learning Artefacts; Psychological Pedagogical Modelling; System Design; Subject Domain; e-Learning Object Theory; e-Learning Object Testing; e-Learning Object Processes; e-Learning Object Methods; e-Learning Object Principles.


e-Learning is a cross discipline artefact that spans e.g., philosophy, psychology, pedagogy, anthropology, artificial intelligence (e.g., Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIED)), and human computer interaction (HCI) (cf. Issroff, K. & Scanalon, E. (2002)). e-Learning artefacts should be more than just a technical solution; for example, a web-based e-Learning site (however sophisticated it may be) containing stylish multimedia assets, Java applets, and dynamic database bindings that engage users in multiple ways including prompting interaction at cognitive, behavioural, and physiological levels. e-Learning artefacts are probably compared most appropriately with information artefacts as known by the cognitive dimensions framework (cf. Green, T. R. G. (1996); Green, T. R. G. & Petre, M. (1996)) which describes the “system under investigation” as “something that has been built for the processing, storage and communication of information. Every information artefact provides one or more notations in which the information being manipulated is encoded … The environment used to manipulate the notation is equally important” (Blackwell, A. (2001); also, cf. Green, T. R. G. & Benyon, D. R. (1996)).

The user range interacting with e-Learning artefacts is large and multifaceted. Main actors are pedagogues, instructional designers, psychologists, and learners. Not only do actors have their individual expectations and assumptions towards an e-Learning artefact but also hold varying degrees of proficiency and professionalism (e.g., not every educator or psychologist is a professional pedagogue), motivation of learning (e.g., an adults student may have different techniques and motivations for learning than a student who has to memorise chemical formulas for an examination; an educator may not be elated to be taught by a computer system), education, environment, and alike. Ergo, anyone who engages in a learning process, using e-Learning artefacts becomes a participant in a versatile and complex learning paradigm.

When designing e-Learning artefacts, a non-expert may expect or assume a system’s expert intelligence while an expert may wish to choose from available options or templates within the system, to adapt to, or even evolve further from behaviour (i.e., referring to knowledge representation, user behaviour, user action; cf. Dix, A. J., et al. (1998)). Similarly, a student may expect a virtual instructor to provide learning stimuli like an educator in the physical world. Accordingly, the attribution of action by learners prompts an immediate machine reaction (cf. Turkle, S. (1984)). Indeed, if one were to design a schema to show all interactions and transactions of learning, then mapping these either a centralised e-Learning artefact or multiple e-Learning artefacts, it would be very easy to miss the cognitive and logical rationales used in tracing and exploring e-Learning objects and how these link to a higher e-Learning system. Although we are not exploring the technical aspects of e-Learning “system” interaction itself (cf. Muirhead, B. & Juwah, C. (2004), Repenning, A., et al. (1998)), we are interested in the contextual causes by entities, actors, events, and requirements. Hence, expectations, assumptions, intended effects, underlying plans, situated actions (cf. Suchman, L. A. (1987)), observable, and unobservable behaviour of ourselves and those of others must be known, distinguished, and formulated into explicit requirements to design e-Learning artefacts. However, depending on our epistemologies and research ontologies, observing processes is unnatural for us. Monitoring behavioural processes, initiated by cognitive (either conscious or unconscious) stimuli contain situated actions and reactions as shown in the following example: “… one shopper found an unusually high priced package of cheese in a bin. He suspected an error. To solve the problem, he searched through the bin for a package weighing the same amount and inferred from the discrepancy between the prices that one was in error. His comparison with other packages established which was the errant package. Had he not transferred the calculation to the environment, he would have had to divide weight into price, mentally, and compare the result with the price per pound printed on the label, a much more effortful and less reliable procedure” (Lave, J., et al. (1984), p. 77). In Lave, J., et al. (1984), the authors conclude on their example that the store setting and activities within the store "mutually create and change each other”. Stimuli for such changes in our physical world are situations, or as Brown, J. S., et al. (1989) argue: “Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated”.

e-Learning artefacts should not only deliver but also build job-transferable knowledge and skills in the learner so that e-Learning systems, in particular more than any others, ultimately accomplish human-like behaviour and reinforce us to interact with “the notion of a self-explanatory artefact  … In this … sense the goal is that the artefact should not only be intelligible to the user as a tool, but that it should be intelligent – that is, able to understand the actions of the user, and to provide for the rationality of its own” (Suchman, L. A. (1987), p. 17). Consequently, e-Learning artefacts should be intelligent with clear-set learning goals i.e., "... the focus in thinking about distributed intelligence is not on intelligence as an abstract property or quantity residing in either minds, organizations or objects. In its primary sense here, intelligence is manifested in activity that connects means and ends through achievements" (Pea, R. D. (1993)).

The Domain of e-Learning Artefacts

Bringing information and communication technologies (ICT’s) into education has raised many issues, the least of which is how does the use of e-Learning artefacts improve or enhance both the learning process, motivation, help us build our knowledge base and increase our multiple intelligences (cf. Gardner, H. (1999)). While studies of mutual intelligibility have been concerned with human action, we now have a technology available in e-Learning that has brought with it the idea rather than just using machines, we interact with them as well (cf. Suchman, L. A. (1987)). Such interaction needs to investigate and separate the study of mutual intelligibility: The relation between observable behaviour and the processes not available to direct observation, that make behaviour meaningful (cf. Suchman, L. A. (1987)). The expression “mutual” refers to and includes numerous actors and their disparate levels of interaction with e-Learning artefacts while processes of behaviour are essentially cognitive. The gain of interaction is the value of the perspective of one other and is a primary learning constituent in constructivist learning theories (cf. Jonassen, D. H. (1991)), inducing mindfulness in learners (cf. Langer, E. J. (1990)).

In view of most computer systems, however, we assume that a plan determines purposeful action (cf. Suchman, L. A. (1987)) whereof “a plan is any hierarchical process in the organism that can control the order in which a sequence of operations to be performed” (Miller, G. A., et al. (1960), p. 17). This rational notation also includes plans and goals, past actions, effects, their pre- and post-conditions, alternative and future actions.

The domain of generic systems, and how system thinking incorporates the use of e-Learning artefacts, has thus revealed the importance of psychological (i.e., cognitive) and social rationales which need to be firstly defined, then incorporated into any instructional design model that either uses or intends to use system thinking as a structure to build e-Learning artefacts. Cognitive, social, and even behavioural motives and intentions must be reflected in e-Learning systems more than in any other computer-based systems because learning is constantly evolving and changing, but also re-shaping how we interact on equally a psychological and pedagogical level. “An entity is a discrete identifiable part of the world” (Wieringa, R. J. (2003), p. 78) so that entities of e-Learning artefacts are primarily pedagogues and learners whose communication is subject to laws of psychology and pedagogy. Taken from here, we must precisely identify tasks and responsibilities of an e-Learning system and decompose them to analyse the functions, communication, and behaviour of e-Learning objects. Their authentic “... tasks and content analysis should focus less on identifying and prescribing a single, best sequence for learning and more on selecting tasks that are both meaningful and able to accommodate constructivistic applications” (Jonassen, D. H. (1991), pp. 29-30). However, it is important not to exclude cognitive and behavioural schools of thought and how they impact the design of and use of instructional technologies. There is no central answer as to how effectively to build or construct e-Learning artefacts, nonetheless, information can be dynamically inferred from its environment (cf. Suchman, L. A. (1987)). The key to such information is the subject domain (as discussed in the subsequent section). Notably, such context-driven, evaluative information is meaningful although "… real-world criteria may be very objective. But they are real-world, and to the extent that they reflect real-world criteria, they are meaningful" (Jonassen, D. H. (1991), p. 30). Indeed, defining the “meaning” of what an e-Learning artefact is, to then apply its pedagogical context (e.g., cognitive; behavioural or social) is key to understanding and planning educational technology systems that are interrelated to “subject heavy domains” or “context specific” environments.

The Subject Domain

The subject domain (also known as the Universe of Discourse as described by Wieringa, R. J. (2003)) helps us to capture contextual actors, messages, responsibilities, and alike: “So the subject domain of the system is the part of the world that the messages received and sent by the system are about. To find out what the subject domain of a system is, ask what entities and events the messages sent and received by the system are about … to count as elements of the subject domain, these entities and events must be identifiable by the system” (Wieringa, R. J. (2003), p. 16). Wieringa, R. J. (2003) further specifies, that “The subject domain of a system not only consists of nature and previously installed systems … but also of people and their socially defined reality, including norms and meaning conventions” (Wieringa, R. J. (2000), p. 2). The collection of all possible symbolic interactions is called functionality and consists of three classes i.e., the information function, the control function, and the declarative function (cf. Wieringa, R. J. (2000)). Its objects and components achieve functionality of a system. Therefore, when we refer to a system in the following discussion, we must bear in mind that it is the responsibility of its objects and components to realise the functionality.

We can now induce that the subject domain of intelligent e-Learning artefacts talks about delivering and constructing pedagogically and psychologically valid learning contents to learners. Therefore, messages (e.g., pedagogical, psychological, and alike) must be learner-centred (cf. Moreno, R. & Mayer, R. E. (2000); Smulders, D. (2003); Coman, P. G. (2002)) and not instructor-centred while learner-centeredness also includes autonomy and control (cf. Saba, F. & Shearer, R. L. (1994)). On the contrary, if we assumed that an intelligent e-Learning system should help and instruct educators to design pedagogically and psychologically valid e-Learning contents, the subject domain then talks about the construction of contents. In this case, messages are still learner-centred because the educator becomes a type of learner. Also, if both foci fell into place learning activities would truly be blended (cf. Orey, M. (2003)). In either case, however, the subject domain of a system always talks about identifiable methods and events to construct, build, and deliver learning contents to learners but not about the actual learning contents itself. The exclusion of contents supports Moore, M. G. (1989)’s argument of the three types of interaction (i.e., Learner-Content Interaction, Learner-Instructor Interaction, Learner-Learner Interaction) because the subject domain talks about how learners acquire intellectual facts and not about the contents of the intellectual facts.

The nature of a learner-centred interaction is something much greater than a simple transmission of information, navigating through learning contents (cf. Smulders, D. (2003)), or “a mere process of passive reception and acquisition of knowledge” (Nunes, M. B. & McPherson, M. (2003), p. 497; Giebler, G. (2000)). We would therefore expect these types of events and messages of the subject domain to be of pedagogical nature to facilitate learning. Nevertheless, pedagogy is rather heuristic i.e., an objective experience of how to teach, and is henceforth primarily derived from situated actions. Pedagogy is argued to be ill-structured as Allert, H., et al. (2002) argue, neglects research of theories in educational technology (cf. Issroff, K. & Scanalon, E. (2002)), and is thus not suitable for computer-based artefacts which are built on planned actions and intents contrary to situated experience. Situated actions in pedagogy become problematic when it comes to designing e-Learning artefacts so that this, in turn, exactly becomes one of our greatest challenges. According to Suchman, L. A. (1987), one of the propositions of the ethnomethodological view of purposeful action and shared understanding claims that plans are representations of situated actions. Rather than direct situated action, rationality anticipates action before the fact, and reconstructs it afterwards (cf. Suchman, L. A. (1987), p. 53; Mead, G. H. (1934)). However, as of today, no such e-Learning architectures exist, which holistically de-construct this evolving paradigm. One attempt has been made by Reeves, T. (1996) who raises the issue of the forth paradigm which follows the Analytic-Empirical-Positivist-Quantitative paradigm, the Constructivist-Hermeneutic-Interpretivist-Qualitative paradigm, and the Critical Theory-Neomarxist-Postmodern-Praxis paradigm: That of an “Eclectic-Mixed Methods-Pragmatic Paradigm” (cf. McLoughlin, C. (1999); McLoughlin, C. & Oliver, R. (2000); Phillips, R., et al. (2000)) which is specifically designed to solve educational technology problems. However, the literature on this forth paradigm is limited and there is great need of research on its theoretical and practical merits.

Contrary to the pedagogical predicament, theories originating from psychology (e.g., instructional processing theory, instructional-design theory; cf. Reigeluth, C. M. (1999)) tell us how knowledge is represented, built, processed and alike in memory. Gagné, R. M., et al. (1992) argue that instruction is "A deliberately arranged set of external events designed to support the learning process" (Gagné, R. M., et al. (1992), p. 11). Instructional events are "… external, when deliberately planned and arranged constitute instruction" (Gagné, R. M. (1985), p. iv). Although there exists a myriad of psychological learning theories, models, and principles from cognitive and constructivist psychology, precise methodologies are needed specifically for e-Learning which allow objects of a system to execute identifiable events and messages. Moreover, such events and messages must be based on non-contradicting approaches as for example, an instructive versus a constructivist approach. Beyond, with a complex system in mind where for instance the artefact instructs an educator to construct a course and also delivers learning contents to a learner, learning processes cannot be fixed. Hence, our challenge as designers is to find both an optimal learning and teaching process, and identify how to support the interaction between them. To assume that a singular learning process will suffice may be a grave error in design.

Entities of the subject domain are reliant on the type of e-Learning system. We will find a broad modality (a term described by (2003)) spectrum such as mobile learning, web-based learning, distance learning, and more. Geographical distance is less important than the interaction between the learner and the educator (cf. Moore, M. G. (1973); Moore, M. G. (1989); Coppola, N. W. & Myre, R. (2002)). As discussed earlier, the system could be the educator itself, which supports our argument that e-Learning artefacts must be intelligent as well as pedagogically and psychologically valid, more than most other systems. Presently, the most popular e-Learning systems deliver online packaged or instructor-led (i.e., system-led or man-led) courses and tutorials so that we infer that packaged courses or tutorials led by the system have more responsibilities than instructor-led ones. In either case, the subject domain talks about the nature and norms of an entire course structure, which is the composition of its individual components (e.g., module, lesson, assignment). The actual learning content that is outside the responsibility of the subject domain is the substance of the individual components. The term component used here is not to be confused with Merrill’s Component Display Theory (CDT) (cf. Merrill, M. D. (1983); Clark, R. C. (1999)) although it is interesting to note how the CISCO (2003) course structure applies Merrill’s components. Even though the subject domain talks about how to construct a course, no rational, pedagogical models exist that would tell us how course structures, lectures, or components are to be built validly. The term “lecture” hereto implies cognitive and constructivist learning processes and differentiates from a conventional, instructivist lecture as known from the physical world. At a lower level, we will find principles of instructional design (cf. Gagné, R. M., et al. (1992)) and cognitive learning principles (e.g., modality principle, contiguity principle; cf. Clark, R. C. & Mayer, R. E. (2002); Clark, R. & Harrelson, G. L. (2002); Moreno, R. & Mayer, R. E. (2000)). Despite their cognitive values instructing us of how to reduce the burden of working memory, these principles however, are nearly impossible for a system to put into practice. For example, these principles teach us that presenting visuals emphasising relevant and critical details is effective while arbitrarily adding visuals does not increase learning at all. Henceforth, a system will not be able to elaborate when a picture will be too many as also related to the cognitive load theory (cf. Sweller, J. (1988); Miller, G. A. (1956)). Again, it is the educator or the instructional designer who holds responsible for the contents. But, what about if the system is to help or instruct the educator or instructional designer? The issue is relevant because often, educators believe that fine-looking pictures make a lesson look attractive or give a relaxing ambience and do not know that learning is better when extraneous, content irrelevant materials are excluded (contiguity principle).

At last, the subject domain must therefore talk about logical operability within course structures, the binding between contents based on logical acquaintances and aggregations. These include knowledge mining, functional operability and computational algorithms, and many more to enable the system’s functionality.

Retrospection and Reinvigoration of e-Learning Systems and their Objects

Commonly known definitions of e-Learning objects clearly lack the significance of our previous discussion based on the norms and contextual nature of the systems in which e-Learning objects reside. Known definitions do not take intelligence and pedagogical and psychological validity into account, miss the responsibilities they have to fulfil, and disregard the complex interactions they must accomplish. For example, learning or e-Learning objects today are constructed from an instructivist view point (e.g., the Lego metaphor and its debate; cf. (2003); Littlejohn, A. (2003); Rehak, D. & Mason, R. (2003)), mix the physical learning with the digital “e-” learning world (cf. LTSC (2002)), are unclear about granularity (cf. Wiley, D. A. (2002)), lifespan (cf. L'Allier, J. J. (1997)), and nature (e.g., database entities; cf. Merrill, M. D. (1998)).

However, the stringent requirements imposed by the subject domain can best be accomplished by an object-oriented (OO) approach. An OO paradigm offers better support for reuse, is qualified to incorporate instructional operations, and outweighs the capabilities of static database entities. Objects as known by the OO paradigm can be assigned responsibilities, change internal states, communicate by exchanging messages, react to external stimuli, cause effects, and respond to internal causes.


e-Learning artefacts, their objects, and the discourse they create in their environment express an e-Learning based Universe (of Discourse). While the domain of learning is already complex, the technological edge in e-Learning increases its intricacy. Yet, technology presents new dimensions in learning. e-Learning includes various disciplines which call for the need of an intensified communication and research when it comes to devising e-Learning artefacts. Their range of uses is versatile; individuals hold different expectations and assumptions towards systems, portraying various degrees of proficiency and professionalism including learning motivation, levels of education, and more. Human processes and interactions are intertwined and rely on underlying plans, situated actions, observable and unobservable behaviour. Humans learn and co-produce knowledge by these some of these processes and interactions. Similarly, e-Learning artefacts, which (in some cases are designed to build job-transferable knowledge and skills) are linked higher learning goals, which should be intelligent because they should be designed to understand human processes and interactions.

Traditionally, the learning domain has been a highly complicated, full of meaningful processes and interactions between an educator and a learner. With e-Learning artefacts, as researchers in the field we now not only find another intelligent actor in the picture, adding new degrees of interaction but also uncover a need to introduce new levels of processes and behaviour into systems that are essential to cognitive awareness, inducing mindfulness in learners. e-Learning artefacts are primarily built on planned action and are subject to the nature, norms, and laws of pedagogy and psychology. From this environment we can dynamically infer tasks and responsibilities for e-Learning artefacts. To comprehend the notion of the subject domain and identify (the part of the world that is relevant to a situational e-Learning artefact) we have chosen the metaphor that the system simply exchanges messages with its environment. This functional decomposition must result in identifiable entities, messages, and events to the system.

Pedagogical and psychological construction and delivery of contents rather than the actual content are major key issues. Thereupon, intelligent e-Learning artefacts must be entirely learner- rather than instructor-centred to the one, and prove pedagogical and psychological validity to the other.

Learner-centred interaction in e-Learning is about actively building knowledge in a learner's memory. This is a shift of paradigm from the conventional way of instruction. Conventionally, learners were assumed to be passive vessels ready to be filled with knowledge; however, this due to the introduction of educational technologies into learning environments, learners are not longer passive, and educators now have vessels (like instructional technologies) from which to communicate and share content with their students. Messages and events of the subject domain of an e-Learning artefact as well as in the context of related subject domains are therefore concerned with the delivery of content and active knowledge construction. The interactive and constructive process which deliver learning content embraces a multitude of facets and possible scenarios e.g., the roles, types, and levels of interactions between the system, the instructor, and the learner. Intuitively, we would assume that such delivery processes should primarily be of pedagogical nature but because pedagogy is mainly based on situated experience, it is not always suitable for e-Learning systems. On the contrary, psychological learning theories, models, and principles seem to give way to deliver learning content but they are still not sufficiently refined yet to be identified by a system. Also, these theories, models, and principles must all cohere within an artefact. Likewise, learning processes cannot be fixed and we are challenged to find optimal learning and teaching processes and to know the interaction between them. To assume that a singular learning process would suffice may be a huge error in design. Another particular area of messages and events of the subject domain relates to e.g., logical operability within course structures, knowledge mining, curricula, and computational algorithms.

De facto, presently known definitions of learning objects for e-Learning artefacts have not taken the diverse cognitive and logical rationales into account, which primarily come from the domain of learning (based on pedagogy and psychology). In more detail, the working with subject domains has helped us decompose entities, events, messages, laws, nature, norms, and alike leading to an OO approach which would be most suitable to satisfy these stringent requirements. Although the "e" before learning has brought forth new complexities of interaction, mutual intelligibility, situated action, planned action, pedagogical and psychological validity the "e" is maybe also about to bring forth a new shift of paradigm to conventional learning. We are challenged to re-evaluate how humans perceive computer-based e-Learning artefacts, design learner-centred e-Learning systems and their objects while being involved in e-Learning. As e-Learning stretches across many subject areas, there is a need to resolve semantic spaces between pedagogical and psychological learning theories, models, and principles to make them identifiable for computer-based systems, whilst constructing teaching models where the educator, the system, and the learner evolve together.

Questions for Discussion

Interdiciplinary issues to e-Learning artefacts:

a)       Where are the intersections between different disciplines when it comes to system development of e-Learning artefacts?

b)       What are the (functional and non-functional) commonalities of requirements for system development by the disciplines?

If a computer-based artefact must be intelligent and psychologically valid, then an e-Learning artefact and its objects must also hold true pedagogical validity:

a)       Is pedagogical and psychological validity inseparable (cf. IMS Global Learning Consortium (2004))?

b)       What are the pedagogical and psychological requirements for an artefact to be pedagogically and psychologically valid?

c)       What are the concise pedagogical and psychological learning theories, models, or principles to accomplish pedagogical and psychological validity for an e-Learning artefact? (Including semantic spaces between learning theories, models, and principles)

Degrees of pedagogical and psychological validity of e-Learning artefacts and their objects:

a)       Which pedagogical and psychological validity is the artefact to accomplish in view of levels of interaction, authority, trust, and responsibility?

Meaningfulness of plan, action, and intent to build a packaged e-Learning course system:

-          Should pedagogical requirements for an artefact be expressed in terms of purposeful actions and plans, heuristics (situated actions) or both?

-          What models and theories formulate a structured approach considering situated actions?

The subject domain of packaged e-Learning course systems and inferred types of e-Learning objects:

a)       What should be the responsibilities of a system delivering packaged e-Learning courses referring to our discussion regarding user and system roles, issues of interaction, relevance of contents, and alike? For example, conventional courses are different from the idea of concept maps (cf. Passmore, G. G. (1998); Novak, J. D. & Gowin, D. B. (1984); Novak, J. D. (N/A); Cañas, A. J., et al. (N/A); Institute for Human and Machine Recognition (N/A); Mintzes, J., et al. (1998)) and so may be their fields of application.

b)       What types of e-Learning objects, messages, events, and responsibilities can be inferred from the subject domain? For example, Learning Community Objects (cf. Van Assche, F. (2004)).

c)       What pedagogical and psychological learning theories, models, and principles exist to construct a full e-Learning lecture or course considering the threefold aspects of theories, models, and principles? For example, “Theories that emphasize the situated properties of human action and learning have been very influential on current understandings of these phenomena. Work on situated actions by (Suchman, 1987), and on situated learning and cognitive apprenticeship by (Lave & Wenger, 1991), (Wenger, 1998) and (Collins et al., 1989) have been extensively used in analyses of learning and interaction” (Tholander, J. & Karlgren, K. (2002), p. 1).


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ITFORUM PAPER #79- Cognitive and Logical Rationales for e-Learning Objects by Hansjörg (George) von Brevern. Posted on ITFORUM on June 24, 2004. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at