Imagine how efficient operations could be for chief learning officers if online training material was as easy to subscribe to as a podcast. Consider the benefits in streamlined training processes if educators could point a learning management system (LMS) to a content provider and browse a full listing of available titles, costs and relevant meta-data. The time and resource savings would be significant.
In fact, such a scenario is not far off. In the near future, learning officers will not have to worry about downloading package after package of learning content, or wonder which standards they must use to ensure proper content communication and integration.
How will this be possible? It is through collaboration within the industry, and a top-level commitment to codify proven standards that can be easily integrated with the many different technologies in use at corporations around the world.
As educators, trainers, developers and learners, our industry as a whole must join forces to deliver relevant, real-time training with measurable results. For years, the industry buzz has focused on the fact that training and learning could occur at any time, in any place. However, the reality is that a majority of training still takes place in traditional classrooms using PowerPoint presentations.
Technology Drives Change
A collective goal of the training industry should be to embrace proven standards and technologies that would allow LMSs to “play nice” with the rest of the technology world. After all, our mission is to create and deliver training material designed for, and about, the rest of the world.
In the past, the learning industry has instead attempted to re-invent the wheel, building new authoring tools designed to make operations smoother. But in the end, we have continued to rely on presentation software like PowerPoint to create content. The learning industry’s strength is in engineering instruction, not software.
A clear problem with using a software program such as PowerPoint as a development tool is that it is not compatible with proprietary LMS standards such as Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), which supports reusable educational content through plug-and-play interoperability, or the Aviation Industry CBT (Computer-Based Training) Committee (AICC), an international association of technology-based training professionals that develops guidelines for the aviation industry. This failure to communicate and integrate content in a standard way has created difficulties for content providers as well as their customers. In fact, both now spend a tremendous amount of time and money trying to solve this incompatibility problem.
Evolution of E-Learning Standards
The current training industry standards emerged out of necessity. In the 1980s, the aviation industry needed a way to standardize information collected by courseware and created the original AICC file-based standard. Over time, this standard grew to accommodate the LAN world and later the Internet.
Although the data model that defines the information to be collected about a student still goes far beyond what most trainers would ever need, the method for transmitting that information has become outdated.
Over the past five years, the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL), a developer and implementer of learning technologies for the Department of Defense, has attempted to update the AICC standard and package it within the new standard known as SCORM. This created some excitement within the industry, but it still failed to solve two basic problems training managers faced:
Recently, significant progress has been made in the way content is packaged and attempts are underway to standardize the industry. Still, industry leaders can learn valuable lessons from the methods organizations use around the world to solve similar problems.
The Future of Web Services
While learning industry experts worked to define SCORM, a new technology known as Web services evolved online. This technology allows one server to talk with another and securely exchange information. The method also can be used to connect a client – or in our case, content – and a server. Web services are Web-based enterprise applications that use open, XML-based standards to exchange data with calling clients.
Web services are secure, fast, efficient, widely accepted and well documented. They have proven to be the best way for enterprises as diverse as financial institutions and Google to exchange information between systems. Web services drive consumers’ ability to subscribe to multimedia podcasts, browse through hundreds of available titles and select those to download to a PC or iPod. The technology and its applications seem so mainstream that we take them for granted today. However, this simple, widely supported technology has not yet been applied to enable the same level of user-friendliness with learning material.
So, what must be done for the learning industry to make its courseware and catalogs so easily accessible? Surprisingly little, in fact. There is already an effort underway to map the industry’s current SCORM model to a new architecture that would foster greater integration of learning content.
Known as the Simplified Deployment Architecture (SDA), this new set of standards supports the following goals:
In addition to solving content integration problems, the SDA would provide a repository for housing and implementing key industry Web services including catalog exchange and curriculum exchange. At a high level, SDA involves the creation of a reference relay server for relaying data between a content server and a tracking system such as an LMS.
Different from creating a whole new standard, this represents a new way of deploying existing content and media in a more industry-standard way. Under the current model, the student browser acts as the bridge between the LMS and the content. The content is either manually downloaded or installed via CD-ROM in the LMS. This forces the student browser to act as the bridge between the content and LMS, which results in many of the difficulties our industry faces.
What SDA allows for is a single Web services interface between the LMS and the content provider. This means that the LMS is always communicating with the same server to get its information, and not the student browser. In addition, it is using an industry standard to communicate. It has been designed so that all legacy AICC and SCORM content can be supported without modifications.
There are many advantages to this architecture. First, it only defines the method and a base list of services between the LMS and content server. It does not define what is being said between the content and the LMS. For example, the LMS could request the list of titles being offered by a particular content server. The LMS administrator would then be able to browse the list and choose which ones he would like to subscribe to or purchase. After that point, the LMS can be completely blind to the actual method of communication between the content and relay service. The LMS is only concerned about the data model and not the method of communication. So the content server can pass along student data using the SCORM Learning Object Model by sending the XML data to the LMS. The content could have used a proprietary method to communicate back to the content server and the LMS would never know.
The content server also could pass the exact same data from a PowerPoint presentation, simulation, PDA, WMV, QuickTime movie or any other media type. The relay service can report any information from any activity as long as it conforms to a known data model. This opens up a whole new way to exchange information with LMSs because this architecture provides a universally acceptable way to communicate. The only limitation is on the LMS vendors and how many different data models their products will support.
Changing the architecture has other implications for the industry as well. Using SDA, content providers could effectively host and track content usage, just like iTunes or podcasters. Under the current model, they have no ability to track individual access to data and can only monitor the fact that someone downloaded a piece of content to the LMS.
Fortunately, the industry is taking steps to make this simpler architecture a reality. This spring, key members of the learning industry met to discuss common interests and concerns about the implementation of Web services and related integration issues. The forum united key industry players from the LMS, content management and application spaces to engage in a frank and open discussion with a shared goal of identifying best practices and developing common approaches that eliminate unnecessary complexity and duplication of efforts. Building on this collaborative momentum, forum participants have committed to future discussions detailing the different approaches to Web services being taken by each of the participants, identifying the most important Web services to be shared across the industry, establishing common vocabularies for the industry and defining the role of standards bodies.
In the near future, the group plans to develop a Web services registry where Web services (WSDL and related files) can be published, commented on, reviewed, requested and used to test integrations.
Build on Existing Systems
SDA uses an existing technology to make the e-learning world compatible with the rest of the world. It is essential for our industry as a whole to embrace accepted and proven technologies to make our systems easier to use. The fact that many CLOs purchase content based on which LMS it is compatible with, rather than how well it teaches relevant course material, is evidence that we must implement a new standard.
The proposed architecture can also open up new business models for content providers. The best parallels are in industries that provide media to consumers via different technologies and methods. Using SDA, content providers could adopt similar models. For example, cable companies provide on-demand movies and then bill customers at the end of the month. Likewise, the same model could be applied to the end-user or at the company level in the following manner: A CLO could purchase a title on sexual harassment for a 30-day rental period and deploy it to the whole company. Or, one could subscribe to a business school curriculum and have it automatically recorded as part of an employee record at work.
As interesting and compelling as these ideas might be, some of the bigger implications come from integration with other systems. The ability to purchase and access entire third-party competency libraries is a strong motivation. Imagine the efficiency of receiving training material on how to operate an airplane, for example, and simultaneously seeing all of the vendors’ recommended competencies and performance metrics associated with operating that airplane.
By making it easier to exchange data with the LMS, SDA opens up a host of opportunities for businesses to provide information that in turn will make the tracking and training of individuals more effective.
Ed Cohen joined Plateau as chief technology officer in 1999 as part of a merger between Plateau and Sensory Computing. He founded Sensory Computing, which produced instructional titles, an LCMS and reusable learning objects functionality within an authoring tool. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.