In 1997, discouraged by the difficulty of sharing distance learning across various learning management systems, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) formed the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) specification group. ADL’s purpose was to make it possible to move learning content from one system to another. ADL released the first version of SCORM (sharable content object reference model) in January 2000 in order to enable the DoD to move course content and related information from one platform to another, to turn course content into reusable modular objects and to allow any LMS to search others for usable course content.
SCORM is based on extensible markup language (XML) and is a set of technical specifications meant to create a single content model. SCORM affects the vendors of learning management systems and content authoring tools, instructional designers, content developers, training providers and more. For the chief learning officer making learning technology decisions for a large organization, SCORM and other standards like it come into play when considering the ability to reuse content, to launch content that has been authored using tools from multiple vendors, to port content across platforms and to ensure the viability of learning investments.
One of the major training benefits SCORM can provide is the ability to reuse content—to take content from one course and repurpose it for different training goals. Michael Brennan, a senior analyst with IDC, gave the example of a new product rollout. For the new product, a course might be developed for the existing salespeople in an organization, he said. “But what happens when someone new comes on board? HR and training and development might have a program in place where new salespeople get employee orientation plus whatever product training they have in place,” said Brennan. “If someone’s already created e-learning content around that new product rollout, they can reuse it.”
Every time that content is reused, Brennan said, it’s value goes up. “It’s kind of like the money multiplier in economics,” he said. “If you have a dollar that’s plugged into the economy, as it gets used, the value of that dollar goes up. The same principle applies to a learning object that’s created using a standard or that complies to standards. So if there was a separate LMS being used in the training department than was being used in the sales department, that same piece of content can still be used.”
SCORM ensures interoperability between various learning technologies, from content to delivery infrastructures, from learning object repositories to learning management systems. The main reason standards such as SCORM are important, according to Brennan, is that they keep organizations from being tied to any particular proprietary platform.
“I think the biggest fear is that they don’t want to be locked into any one proprietary platform, so it basically becomes freedom of choice,” said Brennan. “For the most part, they (the buyers) are going through pretty extensive due diligence, and standards compliance becomes one more criterion when they investigate a vendor.”
John Higgins, chief learning officer for BearingPoint, the global business and systems integration consulting company formerly known as KPMG, said that standards that ensure interoperability are critical. “I don’t think any one supplier can fulfill all the needs of the marketplace,” he said. “As you know, a lot of companies that are present today will not be present tomorrow. We have seen companies in this industry come and go pretty quickly, so I don’t want to standardize on a platform where I couldn’t move content and courses elsewhere.”
SCORM and other standards like it have been addressing interoperability in particular over the past two years, said Brennan, because interoperability is the key to e-learning adoption in the short term. But, he said, people will be looking for standards to do more as they evolve.
“I think going forward, what people are going to be looking for in standards is the ability to create individualized learning paths for people,” said Brennan. “And that’s one of the holy grails of e-learning when you compare it to the efficacy of classroom training. So I think that’s really what standards will be addressing next—instructional soundness as opposed to interoperability.”
Higgins asserts that more changes will come for SCORM and other standards like it when the international community gets involved. “There will be some interesting debates and perspectives on the international l,” he said. Higgins said he has not yet engaged in these discussions with his international colleagues.
The only problem with SCORM, according to Brennan, is that it is still not completely formed. “I’m not sure if the specifications are close enough to being standard yet,” he said. “I think right now, while it certainly does take away some confusion—it’s becoming the acronym that people hang their hats on—it’s still not completely formed, so it’s not been formalized.”
Higgins agrees with Brennan’s assessment. “I still think these standards are emerging and maturing, and the industry is trying to get its feet,” he said.
There is no end to the development of standards, according to Brennan. “Once a standard’s created, it will probably evolve—it’s still in the early stages of evolution,” he said. “So inasmuch as that does do away with some confusion, I think people who rely on it too much may be disappointed.”
While the standards may still be in the earliest stages of their evolutionary development, Higgins said, it’s important to get agreement and avoid letting a debate over standards get in the way of reaching the final stages of this evolution. “Does there seem to be a debate between standards that will get in the way of reaching a final standard?” he asked. “I saw that happen in the technology world, and it really tied us down for years. At the end of the day, …I think it’s important to get a standard, get agreement, get on with it and build the world around that standard.”
Emily Hollis is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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