29 Using Online Learning Objects to Enhance Technical Theory and Practical Labs

Barry Thompson


Relative to some of the other technology tools described in this handbook, learning objects are a rather old learning technology. The technology is “old” in terms of several decades of usage but learning objects are still being created with newer coding and having direct application to today’s learning environment. Definitions for learning objects date back as far as 1994. The simplest definition of a learning object is “[a]ny digital resource that can be reused to support learning”(Wiley, 2002, p. 6).

The learning object described in this chapter is an online hydraulic simulator developed by Durham College that digitally duplicates actual face-to-face practical lab exercises performed by the students taking various levels of hydraulics in the School of Skilled Trades, Apprenticeship and Renewable Technology (START). It meets Cullata’s(2020) characteristics of a learning object in that it can be accessed from all devices (laptop, mobile phone, campus computer), it is infinitely reusable since the students can access and repeat exercises as many times as they need, it is accessible to anyone inside and outside of Durham College (the user simply needs the link) and it is manageable in the sense that its usage can be tracked and the application can be updated over time.


Image 1: The online hydraulic exercise simulator (learning object)
Image 1: The online hydraulic exercise simulator (learning object)

The mechanical programs at Durham College’s School of Skilled Trades, Apprenticeship and Renewable Technology use a number of learning objects (see Resources below) in conjunction with technical theory and practical laboratory exercises to reinforce student learning while giving the students a safe environment to practice in-class theoretical concepts and practical exercises.

 This specific tool was developed as a joint project between the School of START and the Centre for Academic Faculty Enrichment (CAFE). In 2006-2007 online learning opportunities were burgeoning for all disciplines at Ontario’s colleges and for skilled trades education in particular at Durham College. These opportunities drove the need for online learning objects that could simulate in-class learning as much as possible. By 2008, a multimedia specialist from Durham College’s CAFE and a subject matter expert (faculty member) in hydraulics had collaborated and created a hydraulic simulator learning object for online courses in hydraulics.

Image 2: The real-life hydraulic exercise trainer
Image 2: The real-life hydraulic exercise trainer

What began as an exclusively online tool proved to be invaluable in face-to-face classes as reinforcement of theory and practice. It proved useful for students to prepare for actual labs and it provided a safe clean environment for work with hydraulics. As you can imagine, hydraulic oil is messy (the mess is one issue but some people are susceptible to skin rashes in reaction to hydraulic fluid) and operates at high pressures (we run at 500 psi in the lab, 2000 psi is typical in industry and for comparison, a good city water supply operates at about 80 psi). Since there are only ten physical trainers in the lab, a class of twenty students must pair up to complete actual labs. This makes the learning object a valuable tool for individuals to practice labs at their own pace.

In summary, this hydraulic simulator learning object provides reinforcement and repeatable practice of theoretical concepts and actual lab exercises, a risk-free learning environment and individual application of learning.


Physical and digital materials required to carry out the strategy.

  • The learning object.
  • A host site if developed in-house.
  • Internet with browser set to allow Adobe Flash for this particular tool
  • A curriculum that embeds use of the learning object

Steps for Implementation

These steps outline how the hydraulic simulator is used in a typical face-to-face class and lab as support and alternative to the physical trainers.

Step 1. Familiarization

Introduce the students to the learning object in the learning management system as a link before the first face-to-face actual lab. Encourage its usage as a safe risk-free method to become familiar with the components and methodology of the real-life hydraulics trainer.

Step 2. Practice and Preparation

As the students become more familiar with the theoretical concepts and circuit symbology in hydraulics, encourage continued usage of the learning object by reminding the students to use it as preparation for next week’s real-life hydraulics trainer exercise. The real-life trainer exercises are graded and practice with the simulator will result in better grades.

Step 3. Achieve Learning Outcomes

Synthesize the students learning with a final real-life hydraulics trainer exercise that uses all of the learning incorporated into the learning object in one final in-depth exercise.


Image 3: Students using the learning object and the real-life trainer simultaneously
Image 3: Students using the learning object and the real-life trainer simultaneously

Dealing with Challenges

  1. Adobe Flash is no longer supported universally. This is our most challenging issue with this learning object. It was created when Adobe Flash was the go-to graphics tool and it has increasingly fallen out of favour since 2008.
  2. Mobile devices are increasingly the student’s access tool of choice and the problem with Adobe Flash is particularly frustrating.
  3. Developing an in-house learning object is expensive.
  4. Development requires two skill sets that are typically mutually exclusive:
    1. Programming/Coding Skills
    2. Subject Matter Expert (in this case hydraulics)

Further Reading

Culatta, R. (2020). Learning Objects. InstructionalDesign.Org. https://www.instructionaldesign.org/concepts/learning_objects/

Wiley, D. A. (Ed.). (2002). The instructional use of learning objects (1st ed). Agency for Instructional Technology : Association for Educational Communications & Technology.

Additional Learning Objects:

  1. shaft alignment LO http://learningobjects.durhamcollege.ca/shaftalignment/
  2. metrology LO http://learningobjects.durhamcollege.ca/metrology/


Faculty Member of the School of Skilled Trades, Apprenticeship and Renewable Technology (START), Durham College

Barry Thompson enjoyed a rewarding twenty-six-year first career as an Industrial Mechanic Millwright. His second career as an instructor at several colleges in Canada as well as a one-year contract in Saudi Arabia has been equally rewarding. Currently employed as a full-time instructor at Durham College in Whitby Ontario, he treasures each new day educating the next generation of tradespeople. His research interests include instructional design, liberal education and the place where the head, hands and heart meet in trades’ education. As part of this new career, he has completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature and a Masters degree in Adult Education.