The title is adapted from a critique of learning objects (orginally defined as digital resources used to aid learning) in the field of instructional design by David Wiley. What follows is borrowed heavily/paraphrased from his writings.
Author Julie Moore raises intellectual rights and copyright issues with the idea of having editable materials from course books. However there is a deeper paradox in editable or re-usable material.
If we look at a typical unit in a coursebook it may have sections such as language focus and practice, input reading and/or listening and output speaking and/or writing all centered around the unit topic. We could describe this unit has having an internal context, that is the elements which make up the unit – instructions on how to use a language point, practice exercises on this language point, a picture that goes with the reading text, a role play that goes with a speaking activity etc. The more elements that are in the unit the larger the internal context of the unit.
External context would be the other units in the coursebook. A learning object is said to have no external context independent of its instructional use. That is external contexts exists for a learning object only for the purposes of some instructional procedure.
The number of external contexts in which a learning object will instructionally fit varies according to the internal context of the said object. An instructional fit is the effectiveness of the object.
A large object (i.e. one with many elements) has a greater internal context than a small object. Larger objects fit into fewer external contexts than smaller objects.
To restate this the fit of an object with other objects is a function of 1) its internal context and 2) its external context with other objects. The more internal context you have i.e. the more elements, the better will be the (pedagogical) effectiveness of the object. But the internal context is inversely related to the number of other objects in the external context. So the paradox is that the effectiveness of a learning object and its potential for reuse (i.e. to fit in with external context) are contradictory.
So you have a trade-off between effectiveness and re-usability. For editable materials the more you make it re-usable the less effective it will be pedagogically.
Now one could argue that learning objects is concerned with conceptual knowledge (e.g. teaching someone how to develop web pages) whereas language goes beyond the limits of such knowledge. Language avoids the re-usability paradox. It has both a lot of internal context (systems such as phonology, syntax) and a lot of external context (systems such as semantics, pragmatics).
However as the world of language course books currently exists it could be said to follow the path set by other books that deal with conceptual knowledge. If this is the case then the re-usability paradox applies.
Furthermore the paradox is due to the author rights issues covered by Julie Moore. In the copyright context “reuse” means more or less “use as exactly as is”. So is there a way out of the re-usability paradox?
As David Wiley puts it:
The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license. If I publish my educational materials using an open license, I can produce something deeply contextualized and highly effective for my local context AND give you permission to revise and remix it until it is equally effective to reuse in your own local context. Poof! The paradox disappears. I’ve produced something with a strong internal context which you have permission to make fit into other external contexts.
How likely are we to see open content from commercial parties judging by the state of current play in the ELT publishing world? Happily individual teachers and grassroots organizations are already thinking and working on this.
Thanks for reading.