Object based learning at scale

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Context & Scale

This pattern is concerned with active learning strategies for large classes in Higher Education. Object Based Learning (OBL) is a student-centered approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning.

This pattern is useful for shifting student perspectives. OBL as a pedagogy is particularly effective for group work and skill development in empathy, communication, observation, analysis, deductive reasoning, problem solving, and creative and critical thinking. This solution is related to the Connected Learning at Scale (CLaS) principles of active learning and connected participation. It provides opportunities for students to actively engage with content rather than passively receive it and develop broader transferable skills necessary for developing graduate qualities.

OBL can be implemented in both face-to-face and online environments and produce similar benefits. When implemented online a larger number of students can work collaboratively with the same objects in real time.

Research shows that engaging with digital objects has certain benefits. For example, digital objects have more contextual information which can stimulate thinking on related topics. They provide an opportunity for collaboration amongst a larger number of students with the same objects in real time, and in some cases the digital objects provide an entirely different experience from physical objects, such as engaging with 3D objects that can be further analysed including composition and internal features etc (Frost, 2009).


Research shows that active learning can lead to improved cognitive outcomes for students (Michel, Cater & Varela, 2009). However, active learning is difficult to implement at scale in large units of study.


Object based Learning (OBL) is a student-centered active learning strategy, which can be implemented at scale using digital objects. OBL facilitates active hands-on engagement with objects which aids in the acquisition of transferable skills (Chatterjee & Hannan, 2016) such as deep observation, analysis, reasoning, teamwork, communication, retention of knowledge, and drawing conclusions based on an examination of evidence.


  • Pre-select digital objects that are linked to the topic and learning objectives of the lesson.

  • Create a Padlet for students to record their activities.

  • Decide on the type of activity (see divergent and convergent thinking in the example below).

  • Assign students to groups.

  • Provide instruction for the activity and post the links to the objects and the Padlet in the chat.

Examples of pattern in use

Example 1: Master of Commerce core unit

This specific example was implemented in Semester 1 2021 in a core MCom unit of study (BUSS55221, Analytic and Creative Mindsets).

We would like to acknowledge the unit coordinators and lecturers closely involved from the Master of Commerce program, including Abdul Razeed and Elly Meredith. In addition, we would like to acknowledge Eve Guerry and Jane Thogersen, the Academic Engagement Curators from Chau Chak Wing Museum, for designing the OBL activities.

The unit was designed to teach postgraduate Business students about creativity and analytics and to emphasise that both mindsets are complementary and necessary graduate attributes. Students often think that a creative mindset means you must be born creative. Our aim was to emphasise that creativity is not just in the students’ minds and that their material environment and creative practices are important for developing creative solutions in business. We sought a creative solution to teach students about creativity in business and thus instigated collaboration with the on-campus Chau Chak Wing Museum to design an Object Based Learning (OBL) workshop for students. During the semester when the students attended the museum workshop, there were over 2,100 students enrolled in this unit. Six of the tutorial classes were face-to-face and a further 53 online classes.


The problem in context: Teaching students about a creative mindset in business is not a straightforward process. A lot of students think that a creative mindset means that you have to be born creative or that it is a state of mind only.

Why was it important: In order to teach students to look at a problem in a new way and find innovative solutions and novel alternatives, they need to understand that creativity is not only in their heads. They need to know that the material lived environment and creative practices play an important role. Engaging in creative and pleasurable activities is important for the brain. As one study found, when we are engaged in creative activities, our brains release alpha waves which are associated with relaxation and mindfulness (Conner et al, 2018).

The solution in context: In order to teach students that creativity is not just in their minds and that material environments and creative practices have an important role, an Object Based Learning (OBL) workshop was designed in collaboration with the Chau Chak Wing Museum (CCW).

Implementation: The face-to-face tutorial classes visited the museum on campus and engaged in OBL activities. The remaining 53 online tutorial classes engaged in digital OBL. The museum provided a pre-recorded lecture by two museum curators to provide an example of how the CCW museum uses creative and analytical approaches to curating the museum exhibitions. Students watched this video on Canvas before the museum workshop. Training was provided for tutors by the museum’s academic engagement curators to help them plan and implement the digital OBL activities in their classes.

Tutor training session at the museum

Activity design

­The following activities were designed by Dr Eve Guerry and Jane Thogersen, the Academic Engagement Curators at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. You can read more about this collaboration in our article published in the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education (JLDHE).

01 > Task 1: Divergent thinking

Object selected: Lantern slide strip

Source: Macleay Collections, Historic Photography

Jack and the beanstalk


  1. Ask students to examine the scenes and see if they can recognise the story (Jack and the Beanstalk)
  2. Discuss each scene briefly, then explain the task: each group will be assigned a scene, they need to deduce why THEIR scene is actually the most important/pivotal part of this story and form a creative argument to convince the other groups.
  3. Randomly assign the group into 6 breakout rooms (depending on class size, minimum 4 maximum 8 breakout rooms) and rename each breakout room with as their assigned scene. E.g. ‘Scene 2’, “Scene 3’, etc.
  4. Leave students in breakout rooms for 5 mins before closing the rooms and meeting back in the main room as 1 group. Each group takes a turn at presenting their argument to the rest of the class.

02 > Task 2: Convergent thinking 

1) Pick any three objects from the following list of Chau Chak Wing Museum objects.


2) In your group, weave a creative story to link these three objects. (5mins)

3) Share this with your class. (5mins)


We conducted two student surveys and one student focus group to evaluate this activity. The majority of students indicated that the museum workshop made it easier to learn about creativity and analytics. Some students also indicated that interacting with the museum objects motivated them more to engage with the topic on creativity and analytics. The majority of students also strongly agreed that interacting with the museum objects helped them engage with their peers. Most of the comments provided indicated students had fun and appreciated the museum environment for its aesthetic qualities. Some comments included, “Keep this kind of workshop in the future”, “I want to go [to the museum]”, and “The museum staff has given us some items, and we can have excellent interaction with our peers. Sharing ideas, making stories, and I like the environment that allows us to sit and talk freely”.

About the Authors

Dewa Wardak

Lecturer in Educational Development at the University of Sydney Business School – Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) – Learning Scientist

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