This sentence is a learning object. Wayne Hodgins, the “father of learning objects,” first came up with the idea for them while watching his son play with LEGOs. The basic notion is that we can create units of learning so fundamentally simple and reusable that they can be applied in different ways to different objectives and lessons, no matter the context. Hodgins’s dream was of “a world where all ‘content’ exists at just the right and lowest possible size.” Like a single sentence. Like a single question on an exam. Like a photograph, a moment in a video, a discussion prompt. As online learning has grown, learning objects have become something of the Holy Grail of instructional design… Or the windmills at which it tilts.

The problem is that learning cannot be reduced to “testable reusable units of cognition.” Learning doesn’t come in discrete bits that function on their own, outside of meaningful dialogue and examination, even if content often does. This is a recurring dilemma for online education: the difference and relationship between content and learning. Thinking about content as inert, flaccid moments on the screen is to reduce learning to the same. Something about content must be dynamic if learning is to be dynamic.

A proactive (not reactionary) approach to digital pedagogy sees learning as irreducible to 1s and 0s and engages learners as more than mere columns in a spreadsheet. As Jesse points out in “The March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses,” “Most content is finite and contained; whereas, learning is chaotic and indeterminate. It’s relatively easy to create technological infrastructures to deliver content, harder to build relationships and learning communities to help mediate, inflect, and disrupt that content.” Examples of online learning that embrace the “chaotic and indeterminate” are few and far between.

Shortly after “Broadcast Education: A Response to Coursera” appeared on Hybrid Pedagogy, Sean received a message from Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity. He wanted to know what we thought of Udacity’s courses, of their approach to online education. Sean had said that Coursera was silly, and Thrun wanted to know if we thought Udacity was likewise silly.

But Udacity isn’t silly. Not just because of their sleek interface, their jaunty, easy-to-follow videos, or the exercises embedded directly within those videos; nor is it because of their flash mob-style on-ground gatherings (like the upcoming “Global Meetup Day”), the spontaneous way that learners form hybrid clusters with one another around a course, or the nationwide “Secondary School Challenge” they held this summer. Udacity isn’t silly precisely because they have a clear concern for pedagogy. The company has a vision, and they wear that vision on their sleeve. Udacity classes feel like a strange, unpredictable blend of one-on-one tutoring, auditorium-style learning, and small-group work. The classes work because there is space within them for learners to create learning.

The problem with most online courses is that they attempt to neatly map what we do in classrooms into online space. For example, many online courses: include “paper” syllabi (crudely converted into .pdf format); have at their center poorly-edited and overly-long videos of talking heads; actively discourage collaboration by requiring students to sign bizarrely anti-intellectual “honor code” agreements; attempt to reconstruct the unique dynamics of a classroom discussion in an online forum but then hobble students by asking them to use stodgy academic citation practices; include assignments that either don’t function successfully online or have the meat sucked out of them in order to be made to function online. In all these examples, the complex dynamics of classroom learning are reduced to the fetishistic bureaucracies that fail to adequately support them. Learning is perilously imagined as a series of learning objects that can be uploaded and redistributed to meet outcomes. This is a massive failure of imagination.

Udacity’s online courses work, because they’ve freed online learning of its bureaucratic skin. They’ve started over from scratch, rebuilding online education from the ground up, making courses that include all the filling without the usual trappings. There is very little to distract the learner from learning. There is a discussion of outcomes, but in Udacity’s courses, it’s clear from the start that the play’s the thing. A few minutes into the videos for Intro. to Statistics (ST101), Sebastian Thrun says, “Don’t get disturbed if you don’t know the answer. This type of stuff we’ll study in and out.” There’s a playfulness and warmth to his delivery that encourages experimentation — encourages the learner to risk failure. The gist is that there will be outcomes, but we don’t need to worry about them right now. Udacity has made “learning objects” of a different color, not discrete bits to be easily mapped and configured, but lively and engaged platforms that are fun, interactive, threaded to other stuff on the web, and social.

So many attempts at online education fail because they fail to make learning truly immersive. Perhaps, online education could learn a thing or two from online games, which have increasingly become social sites, and sites for learning. People hold classes in World of Warcraft and Second Life; players communicate via forums independent of the games themselves; and people socialize in-game, without ever completing the missions or quests around which the games are built. Players arrive in online games, and, rather than being recruited, volunteer to become learners. Why? Because the game and its environment are addicting.

Sebastian Thrun has said that he wants learning to be that addictive: “I want people to see learning as a drug. To say ‘I can’t live without learning.’” During a phone conversation, Sean got to talking with Thrun about games as models for education, especially those games that can create complex learning environments without the player’s knowledge, where learning and play are complicit. Angry Birds came up as an example.

For Thrun, Angry Birds demonstrates the way that learners’ imaginations can be captured — along with their attention — in an activity that feels immersive and involving. In her article, “What Can Angry Birds Teach Us About Universal Design for Instruction?”, Kathryn Linder points out, “Angry Birds is so fun to play because it helps develop our meta-cognitive skills … Angry Birds is a powerful metaphor for learning.” But there’s more to it. Angry Birds (and every truly successful online game) is also threaded to stuff outside itself — a rabid network of players, sharing tips, touting achievements, sporting gear, making homages and parodies, forming social communities around the game — which allows the game to live in the world, and not just on the screen. It’s fun, but it’s also interactive and social, making every player’s experience unique.

And that’s the principle that online learning can (and successful online learning does) take from gaming: improvisation within a framework. True interactivity is not about letting the user do whatever she pleases. It’s about building a structure and letting the user play within and at the boundary of that structure. Like every good online experience, Angry Birds is not the game the designers built, it’s the game the players play. In “Learning as Performance: MOOC Pedagogy and On-ground Classes,” Chris Friend writes, “Learning happens whenever it can, in whatever order is necessary, in response to real performative needs.”

The content in a Udacity course is tidy, structured; but the learning environment — from forums to meetup groups — is interpretive, allowing students the opportunity to more fully inhabit their own learning, and this is the direction in which we must continue to innovate. We must create learning environments that are not just about the right learning objects, but about the space around those objects. For learning to happen online, content must be presented with enough space around it to allow for dialogue — for mediation, inflection, and disruption. Like the improvisation and music of jazz, learning happens when we pay attention to what’s rising, what’s falling, the staccato and the silent.