Here’s a non-technical look at evolving e-learning standards, what the standards intend to achieve, the key players involved in developing the standards, and some implications for the future.
The e-learning industry continues to expand every day, and the methods and tools necessary to create and maintain content and infrastructure applications are complicated. Enter e-learning standards.
The goal of standards is to provide fixed data structures and communication protocols for e-learning objects and cross-system workflows. This enables interoperability between applications, such as an LMS and third-party or in-house developed content, by providing uniform communication guidelines that can be used throughout the design, development, and delivery of learning objects. When these standards are incorporated into off-the-shelf products, developers can base their purchasing decisions on quality and appropriateness rather than compatibility.
Unfortunately, the typical components within a learning environment are supported by multiple products and vendors. Not surprising, if all the points of interoperability among e-learning components vary from vendor to vendor, then it is very difficult and costly to implement an integrated learning environment.
Currently, most e-learning standards can be organized into some general categories:
Metadata. Many developers argue that metadata content is the heart of e-learning. Learning content and catalog offerings must be labeled in a consistent way to support the indexing, storage, discovery (search), and retrieval of learning objects by multiple tools across multiple repositories.
Content packaging. The goal of content packaging specifications and standards is to enable organizations to transfer courses and content from one learning system to another. This is crucial because content can potentially be created by one tool, modified by another tool, stored in a repository maintained by one vendor, and used in a delivery environment produced by a different supplier. Content packages include both learning objects and information about how they are to be put together to form larger learning units. They can also specify the rules for delivering content to a learner.
Learner profiles. These standards allow different system components to share information about learners across multiple system components. Learner profile information can include personal data, learning plans, learning history, accessibility requirements, certifications and degrees, assessments of knowledge (skills/competencies). In addition, systems need to communicate learner data to the content, such as scores or completion status.
Currently, e-learning standards are being developed by four main organizations: AICC, IEEE, IMS, and ADL.
How a Specification Becomes a Standard
To understand standards, it's important to understand how they’re developed. Standards typically start out as a specification, which is a detailed, exact statement of the functional requirements and particulars for something to be built, installed, or manufactured. For a specification to reach the status of an accredited standard, it must receive some sort of stamp of approval from an accrediting body.
If a specification is certified by an accredited body such as IEEE, it is referred to as a de jure standard. Most e-learning standards fall under the designation of de facto standard, however, meaning they exist when a critical mass chooses to adopt and use a specification. For example, HTML is a de facto standard based on its common use by web developers.
A report by the Masie Center, Making Sense of Learning Specifications & Standards: A Decision Maker's Guide to their Adoption 2nd Edition, outlines the process:
1. R&D: Research and development is conducted to identify possible solutions.
2. Specification development: When a tentative solution appears to have merit, a detailed written specification must be documented so that it can be implemented and codified. Various consortia or collaborations, such as AICC and IMS, dedicate teams of people to focus on documenting the specifications.
3. Testing/piloting: The specifications are put into use either in test situations or pilots to determine what works, what doesn't, what is missing, customer reactions, and so forth. For example, ADL SCORM plugfests or co-labs.
4. Accredited and international standard status: The tested and roughly complete specifications are reviewed by an accredited standards body and then made broadly/globally applicable by removing any specifics of given industries and originators. They are then and taken through an open, consensus-based process to produce a working draft that is officially balloted. If approved, the specification receives official certification by the accredited standards body and is made available to all through this body.
AICC (www.aicc.org) is an international group of technology-based training professionals that creates CBT-related guidelines for the aviation industry. AICC publishes a variety of recommendations, but its standards with the most impact on the e-learning arena are its computer-managed instruction (CMI) guidelines.
IEEE (www.ltsc.ieee.org) is an international organization that develops technical standards and recommendations for electrical, electronic, computer and communication systems. Within the IEEE, the Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) provides specifications that address best practices, which can be tested for conformance. Basically, they wrote the standard on how to write standards. The most widely acknowledged IEEE LTSC specification is the Learning Object Metadata (LOM) specification, which defines element groups and elements that describe learning resources. The IMS and ADL both use the LOM elements and structures in their specifications.
IMS Global Consortium (www.imsproject.org) is a consortium of suppliers that focus on the development of specifications that focus on the use of metadata to address content packaging. The specifications are used to define how an LMS communicates with back-end applications and content objects or libraries. Several of its standards are made available on its website at no fee.
ADL (www.adlnet.org) is a U.S. government-sponsored organization that researches and develops specifications to encourage the adoption and advancement of e-learning. The most widely accepted ADL publication is the ADL Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM). The SCORM specification combines the best elements of IEEE, AICC, and IMS specifications into a consolidated document.
A closer look at SCORM
Because SCORM is the standard document with the most impact on the e-learning industry, it’s worth a closer look.
The Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) was first developed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to address training development and delivery inefficiencies across its service branches. E-learning content was being developed on different platforms, using different standards and specifications, and delivered on different, incompatible systems. To address these costly inefficiencies, the DOD knit together the best emerging e-learning specifications with those developed in the prior decade by the AICC. The result was a field-tested common reference model published by ADL.
The SCORM standard comprises of four major elements. Book 1 of SCORM provides an overview. It contains high-level conceptual information, the history, current status and future direction of ADL and SCORM, and an introduction to key SCORM concepts.
Next, SCORM lays out its Content Aggregation Model in Book 2, which describes the components used in a learning experience, how to package those components for exchange from system to system, how to describe those components to enable search and discovery, and how to define sequencing rules for the components. The Model includes a metadata dictionary based on IEEE, content packaging guidelines and XML binding and best practices from IMS, and content structure specs from AICC. ADL’s contribution to its development was to make the language describing these guidelines from various standards bodies consistent.
Book 3 of SCORM, which is derived from IMS guidelines, outlines how to sequence and navigate learning objects. It describes how SCORM-conformant content may be sequenced to the learner through a set of learner-initiated or system-initiated navigation events.
Finally, Book 4 of SCORM covers the run-time environment. It describes the LMS requirements in managing the run-time environment, such as the content launch process, standardized communication between content and LMSs, and standardized data model elements used for passing information relevant to the learner’s experience with the content.
ADL’s latest release, SCORM 2004 2nd Edition Documentation Suite, offer clarifications and details to the overview. One new area covered in SCORM 2004 that is garnering some attention is the Content Object Repository Discovery and Registration/Resolution Architecture (CORDRA), which is a model for indexing stored content. CORDRA describes how to design and implement software systems for the purposes of discovery, sharing, and reuse of learning content through the establishment of interoperable federations of learning content repositories. It’s important to note that CORDRA is not an actual repository of content.
SCORM 2004 also addresses the use of intelligent tutoring systems (ITS). ITSs are computer software systems that seek to mimic the methods and dialog of natural human tutors, to generate instructional interactions in real time and on demand. Specifically, ADL is actively engaging in research and implementation of the digital knowledge environment of the future in the areas of standards and authoring tools that give instructors the ability to create ITS functionality within a virtual training environment.
If your organization is putting out an RFP for a new LMS or content library, it’s not enough to ask whether a product is SCORM-conformant. According to Ed Cohen, chief technology officer for Plateau, you need to understand the methodology and purpose behind a certain set of standards. For example, ADL was originally developed specifically to ensure consistency among off-the-shelf products used by the U.S. federal government.
Cohen also advises buyers to know the implications of what you’re really asking for in your RFP. Make sure you don’t need to spend more money ensuring that your content complies with the standard than developing the actual content. For example, do you want the every element metatagged? That option is very labor intensive and time consuming. But opting to metatag just the content objects to describe the title, authors, objectives, and so forth, is far less labor intensive and, therefore, less expensive.
Finally, you need to determine which communication method you want to use. Because both AICC and SCORM communicate the same information to the LMS, the only real difference is how they send the information back and forth. This is important because not all organizations allow all types of communication. For example, the Air Force doesn’t allow applets to be loaded on a browser, but ADL specs use an applet. So, if you choose SCORM and you work with the Air Force, you’re going to fight some battles. But if you pick AICC, which uses HTTP posts, you won’t have that issue—but you may have other problems. The point: If you can’t send the data, it doesn’t matter what data elements you select.
What lies ahead
As new versions of standards emerge—and new product releases conform to them—increased functionality between systems grows. Supporters of e-learning standards are looking forward to some new developments among key players in the standards movement. For example, standards followers are excited about AICC’s recent release of CM1010—Package Exchange Notification Services (PENS), which is an interoperability guideline that defines an interface between authoring tools and LMS systems to automate publishing and testing of learning materials accessed thru LMS systems. PENS was actually developed by various suppliers, including Macromedia, Pathlore, Plateau, Documentum, and QuestionMark, and is also being reviewed by the ADL as complementary technology to SCORM.
Other developments catching the attention of standards adopters is the reorganization of IMS. Following a six-month strategic planning effort that involved meetings with industry leaders and a survey of key decision makers in the IMS membership, the Board and staff of the Consortium have realigned the eight-year-old organization. Participants in the IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS/GLC) have reconfigured their international organization to accelerate the adoption of innovative online learning technology and techniques in the education and training industry. In addition to conducting face to face and virtual meetings of its Project Groups and inaugurating alt-i-lab, an annual workshop where decision makers evaluate technology and develop strategy for products and programs, IMS/GLC has released 15 technical specifications that are in wide use across the industry. Profiles of IMS specifications constitute the content description and sequencing component of SCORM 2004 and underlie UKLeaP, the forthcoming British Standards Institute standard for describing learner information.
More interesting, players from both AICC and ADL are working on the convergence of new communication method for testing whether products and objects conform to standards. The current standards testing environment requires that every piece of content test against every LMS. The new model inserts a communicator tool into the process that would enable all content to be tested against a single server that checks for the different standards—provided that every LMS uses the same service. The idea will be presented by Plateau’s chief technology officer Ed Cohen at a session of the upcoming EDEN 2005 Annual Conference in Helsinki.
What can practitioners do to stay abreast of future developments in e-learning standards? Cohen advises developers to pay attention to developments of non e-learning standards. For example, Cohen recommends learning about WebDav (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning), which is a set of extensions to the HTTP protocol which allows users to collaboratively edit and manage files on remote web servers. Why is this standard important to e-learning? Basically, WebDav allows off-the-shelf tools to provide LCMS-type functionality using existing software. Moreover, it’s supported by Macromedia products, Microsoft Products, Document Management Systems, and many more web development tools.
Also, Cohen notes that most e-learning standards initiate within AICC environment with a ripple effect to the other standard bodies. For example, SCORM guidelines on the run-time environment first appeared in AICC specifications, which were then published by IEEE, and later adopted by ADL and republished as a part of SCORM. So, always check what’s going on with AICC.
For some, standards may have fallen off the e-learning radar screen. But in reality, standards are and continue to be a part of all aspects of learning. To be successful with standards, keep in mind that although standards are helpful, you might not always need to use every aspect of each standard. No standard is perfect for every use, so be ready to pick and choose. Most important, because e-learning standards are constantly evolving, be prepared to educate yourself about developments among the standards organizations that create the guidelines as well the suppliers that use them to develop their products.
Published: July 2005