At the center of the e-learning standards debate is one key issue: interoperability. Interoperability is the capacity of the learning management system (LMS) to manage and deliver e-learning content, such as online courses and simulations, in a meaningful way. For example, an LMS should be able to communicate with and deliver meaningful data on a variety of e-learning courses developed by a multitude of providers. This requires independent makers of learning technology, including content developers, synchronous learning tools, authoring tools and learning management systems, to work together and agree on standards in technology design.
The aviation industry was among the first to develop standards for learning and training technology. The aviation manufacturing industry was comprised of autonomous vendors with a common denominator in training. These organizations all used computer-based training (CBT) to advance the skills of the workforce. Given the uniformity in aircraft manufacturing, the sharing of such training was in the industry’s best interest and resulted in the creation of the Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC) in 1988.
The AICC established interoperability standards for CBT, allowing the aircraft manufacturing industry to reuse training material, benchmark testing, track certifications and exchange data between systems used for learning management. The AICC standards were unanimously accepted, and the influence of the committee even crossed over to CBT initiatives in other industries.
The advent of the Internet and the use of Web-based training introduced yet another dimension to the interoperability challenges associated with electronic learning. A variety of organizations moved to address these challenges, but perhaps none more prominently than the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The DOD folded several standards initiatives into the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM).
SCORM allowed for new efficiencies, derived, for example, from the ability to reuse content objects. Traditional software programs viewed computer programming as process-oriented, and applications were written to define a given process—or the logic of manipulating data. Object-oriented programming, which gave birth to computer languages such as Java, revolutionized computer programming by focusing on the description of the data or content objects rather than the processing of that data. Essentially, SCORM consists of detailed instructions for tracking, tagging and storing content objects, which are commonly referred to as metadata (data about data).
Ironically, the greatest benefit of SCORM may also prove to be its largest drawback for three main reasons. First, the breadth and depth of the details as stringently defined by SCORM may prove stifling to innovation. Next, SCORM’s new rules pose a daunting obstacle for organizations with dubious amounts of legacy data. Finally, SCORM leans toward a vendor perspective and does not currently address the issue from the view of organizations that actually use e-learning or LMS platforms.
Of the three reasons, the last is perhaps the most important. The lack of user input—specifically from the training managers’ view—is most noticeable in SCORM, which emerged from a number of vendors jockeying to influence standards. While some might be averse to adding yet another voice to the public discussion on standards—especially since gaining consensus in a crowded debate is so arduous—the voice of the enterprise end user cannot be left out; rather, it should be sought after with vigor.
This brings us back to standards as a benefit and useful tool for the end user. SCORM itself is still an unfinished work, and to pass judgment too early would be irresponsible. However, ignoring the obvious warning signs—such as a lack of customer voices—would be equally irresponsible. Like learning itself, the standards for learning technology are a cumulative and evolutionary process. The technology industry should apply its cumulative knowledge of interoperability with the cumulative knowledge of the end user needs to provide clarity in standards as it moves toward the next evolution in standards.
Ed Cohen is the chief technology officer of Arlington, Va.-based Plateau Systems, www.plateau.com.