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SCORM in a teacup? Practical advice on the new e-learning standard – feature

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Dr Tabetha Newman, Communications Consultant at corporate communication and training consultancy Information Transfer, explains what SCORM is, and gives indepth practical guidance on how you can implement these new e-learning standards.


E-learning – it’s a jungle! So many different systems, so many different suppliers. You know you need to move forward – but how can you be sure that your hard-won investment won’t be leading you into an electronic dead end?

It’s a problem that’s common to many areas of technology. And in e-learning, as in other areas, the solution that offers most hope is the establishment and adoption of standards. If all systems have a common core of functionality, then you can be sure that they’ll work together and that your investment will be protected no matter which supplier you choose – so long, of course, that they comply with the standards. And that those standards are future-proof.

In the case of e-learning, the standard that has emerged as the most widely accepted over the last year or so is called SCORM. There’s little argument that SCORM is, in principle, a good thing. The problem is that, whilst standards bodies have our best interests at heart, there can be a huge gap between the theoretical ideals that they recommend, and what’s actually happening in the real world. So in an effort to add some clarity to the situation, this article sets out to explain what SCORM actually is, why it is important – and what (if anything) you need to do about it.


What is SCORM?

SCORM stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model. It is a product of the US Government’s initiative in Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). SCORM conformance aims to guarantee interoperability between online management systems (more about these later), and e-learning courseware.


But aren’t there other standards?

When ADL devised the SCORM standard they incorporated specifications concerning e-learning that had previously been devised by various international standards organisations, including AICC and IMS. This composite of specifications has ensured that the best standards from each organisation have been amalgamated. Such a system also ensures that SCORM should be future-proof. The current version of SCORM is version 1.2, but 1.3 is expected late 2002/early 2003. We won’t go into the details of this update here, suffice it to say that it will include additional features rather than big changes to the current model.


How does SCORM help me?

You can think of the e-learning world as having three main components:

- Courseware – the e-learning programmes themselves, sometimes bought off the shelf.

- Authoring software – the programs that are used to create courseware.

- Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). These are the systems that manage the e-learning – they enable students to log in, they show students their allocated courses, they run the courses, record the scores, and produce reports for the training manager. They can have many other functions as well, but these are the main ones that we are concerned about here. There are some minor differences between an LMS and a VLE, but again these aren’t relevant at this point, so from now on we’ll just talk about LMSs.

Now in the perfect SCORM world, every piece of courseware works with every LMS. As soon as you acquire new courseware, either bought-in or created in-house, you can add it to your LMS, whoever supplied it. Full details of the course are automatically visible from within the LMS. When the course is run, scores are automatically collected and stored in the LMS. It’s what the hardware designers call ‘plug and play’ – though in the e-learning field it tends to have the rather more unwieldy title of ‘interoperability’.

But there’s more! In SCORM-land, every course includes a description of the elements that it is made up of. That means that it can be searched easily in order to find elements that can be used in another project, such as a video clip, an audio file or a web page. So a SCORM course is also recyclable. (In SCORM-speak, a chunk of e-learning material is a ‘Shareable Content Object’, or SCO for short.)
ADL envisages a future where, rather than the wheel being continually reinvented, e-learning content is held in vast repositories. Users (such as training managers) can then search through it to find that video clip of legs being bandaged, or that course about money laundering risks in St Lucia, rather than having to produce the content themselves. Imagine a “www.google.com” for e-learning content – a pretty powerful goal.

So we’ve seen why SCORM-ed software would be useful. Let’s now take a look at what it needs to have in order to be considered SCORM-ed.


What are the requirements of SCORM?

SCORM courseware must contain three basic components. These are:

1. Run-time communications. In other words, a standard language that the courseware and LMS use to talk to one another. This is primarily of importance in order that the course can be started and finished from inside the LMS. Secondarily it is important in order that the course can send scores back to the management system.

2. Content package ‘Manifest’ file. This is an overall description of the course and its component parts – so for example it would say, “I am a course about animals, I have ten screens, the components of this course include ‘picture_of_cat.jpg’”.

3. Course meta-data information. This is where every bit of the course - every picture, or HTML page, or video clip – has an associated file that explains where and what it is.

A SCORM LMS/VLE must have:

1. An appropriate ‘API wrapper’. This set of functions sits in your browser and translates the run-time communication language that the courseware emits.

2. Facilities to utilize details from the Manifest file.

3. Facilities to utilize details from the meta-data files.


How does software get SCORM-ed?

So now that we’ve seen the benefits, you may want to find some e-learning software that complies with SCORM. But how do we know that providers selling their products as SCORM compliant are telling the truth?

Well SCORM is still an emerging standard, and no independent certification process is in place as yet. This means that software shouldn’t really be described as ‘compliant’ – instead it is better to use the term ‘conformant’.

Instead of offering a compliance process, ADL (the body that produces the SCORM standard) at present provides software that can be downloaded, so allowing developers to self-test their software.

In addition, ADL are setting up the ADL-CC – the ADL’s Certification Council. They aim to train people from companies around the world, who will act as auditors to properly certify software. This is unlikely to start happening before mid-2003 at the earliest. But once that is set up, certified software will be able to use ADL’s logo, and will be entered onto ADL’s database of certified software companies.


The nitty-gritty – what’s really happening out there?

Well a lot of people are now looking to purchase SCORM conformant software. But the truth is that at the present time, very few software providers could be considered to be fully SCORM conformant as intended by ADL. I can hear you screaming already! But wait, it’s not all bad.

I would still advocate looking for SCORM conformance in a product that is to be used for e-learning, because firstly it can save you time and money, and secondly it doesn’t shut you out of an e-learning future where the need for standards based materials is likely to increase. Plus, if you remember, SCORM is an amalgamation of all the best bits from the many standards bodies out there - if anything is going to last the test of time this will, because it has room to evolve.

But what you, the purchaser, need is to be armed with a few cold facts, and be prepared to ask a few probing questions. Because as always with these things, software providers have taken the academic principles of SCORM and converted them into something that is relevant to the present day market. In other words, everyone has done the important bits and left out the rest until they really have to.


Give me some examples!

General examples
Once you know the jargon, you’ll be able to see what is really on offer. If some authoring software says it’s ‘SCORM compliant… at the run time level’ you now know that it is only run-time conformant – it’ll be able to start and finish (and perhaps pass scores) to your SCORM conformant LMS, but it won’t tell the LMS what its name is, or give a course description.
Several VLEs in use at the moment understand the content package but have no API wrapper – so you can see the course title and description from inside the system, but you can’t get it to start. And some LMSs might kick off and finish courses, but have no facilities to store scores – in other words, they speak the same language, but don’t know too many words.

A specific example
I work for a company that sells SCORM conformant e-learning authoring software, called Seminar. Now I’m not trying to plug it, but I need to use it in order to show you what is happening ‘under the bonnet’.

Once a course has been authored in Seminar you can export it to web. If you decide to choose the option to export to a ‘SCORM conformant LMS’ then the course that comes out the other end has added SCORM bits attached. It’s got the run-time communications that mean it will communicate with a conformant LMS. It’s got a content package Manifest file that describes what the course is about, and what’s inside it. But as yet it doesn’t have meta-data files linked to every component. Why not? Simply because there is currently no demand for this function, and at present I think most software providers are wondering if there will ever be (although it’s a great idea in theory).

What do I mean? Is this a cop-out? Well, remember, the aim of the meta-data files is to fully describe all bits of the course. But software can’t do all of that – the author has to be involved. And in practice that means that every time you, the author, bung picture into your course, a little box pops up saying ‘describe me please!’ Imagine that! Like MS Office’s handy little talking paper clip, us software providers can see this as something that wouldn’t exactly please our customers! So that fact is that we, like other suppliers, are monitoring the situation until we see a time where these developments become justified.


Questions to ask yourself before buying any software

OK, well I hope you now have more of an idea about SCORM. So let’s talk practical solutions, and we’ll start with the questions you need to ask yourself before going anywhere near a software provider. These include:

1. Does your company have an LMS/VLE?

2. If so, which one? Is the version you are using SCORM conformant?

3. If not, are you planning to get a management system? Will you want to hang units of courseware made in another application from it?

These questions will determine whether you even need to worry about SCORM. For example, if you’re never going to get an LMS then stop reading now, because remember this is all about getting e-learning courseware and management systems to talk to one another. And if your management system isn’t SCORM conformant, there’s no point in buying authoring software that is.

Alternatively, if you are looking for authoring software that is compatible with your conformant LMS, you need to know what information it is designed to collect from courses that hang from it. For example, does it collect a learner’s score? Just the overall score, or section scores? Once you know the answer to these questions you are ready to approach a provider.


Questions to ask potential providers

If you want true SCORM interoperability, then this is what you should ask.

1. First, is the software SCORM conformant?

2. If so, is it fully conformant at the run-time, content-package Manifest and course meta-data level?

3. If not, are the producers planning towards that in the future?

4. More importantly, have they ever tested their courseware in practice with the LMS/authoring software that you want to use?

5. If not, will they work towards solving the problem should the two not meet in the middle?

6. What data is the LMS/authoring software designed to receive/transmit? Just start/stop, or scores too?

Well, that’s the end of the SCORM lesson. Its important to emphasise that some e-learning software is interoperable without being SCORM conformant – though it will almost certainly be limited to communication between an LMS, an authoring tool(s) and courseware produced by the same supplier. And many people are obviously reluctant to tie their company to one supplier.

So I say SCORM is good! In a world where e-learning software can be trusted to interoperate, you, the customer, can choose the best software for every job. In addition, an environment is created where a larger diversity of products can co-exist, because they can be the best at what they do, rather than having to transform themselves into one total solution.

I hope you now feel able you to make informed decisions about implementing SCORM within your e-learning strategy. It is worth remembering that whilst these additional complications may seem like unnecessary extra hassle, they could save you time, and your company money in the future. So don’t pour SCORM on it!

Dr Tabetha Newman
Information Transfer
Tel: 01223 312227
http://www.informationtransfer.com

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