photo depicting Tim Kilby presenting commentaryWill E-Learning Standards Improve Quality?

It is interesting to watch the evolution of online learning standards. While great progress has been made in formalizing technical standards, we rely on faith that questions of instructional integrity jeopardized by the adoption of learning standards will be resolved. There are knowledgeable and competent individuals working steadily to find solutions. The ultimate success of e-learning standards will be determined by maintaining a sharp focus on the higher goal, that of enhanced knowledge and performance through higher quality training.

Most of the work so far has addressed technical issues, How do I create fully interchangeable and interoperable learning objects and learning management systems? Standards impose a degree of inflexibility, yet it is flexibility in content selection and presentation, adapted to the individual learner's needs and preferences, that is the essence of tailored learning. The ADL, IMS, and IEEE, among other organizations, have recognized this problem and have penciled in their to-do lists.

Of course, to make e-learning standards pervasive, the software systems and authoring tools must be compliant. But that is a matter of technological, not instructional, innovation. The learning content management system vendors, the authoring tool vendors, and the e-learning standards initiatives are each hard at work creating the toolsets needed to build, deliver, and manage standards-based learning. For the first two groups, however, the motivation is to be a market leader and to sell product. Thus, solving technological problems becomes their highest priority and addressing instructional quality issues secondary. This is as it should be in a free enterprise system. Yet, rich, standards-compliant toolsets do not assure the creation of instructionally superior training.

This triad of activity cannot produce the promised result without greater involvement from another direction; that is, from us—the training managers, the instructional designers, the architects and engineers, and all the end users of training for which we must speak. What about distributed simulation, group role play, independent discovery? Will the standards accommodate instruction that adapts to the learner's performance, learning style, and preferences? We must insist that as e-learning standards mature, they support and encourage the instructional strategies that provide rich, individualized learning experiences.

Now, before you say that I am the naysayer, the antagonist of innovation, let me assure you that I am an enthusiastic supporter of technological advances and e-learning standards, one who has implemented many standards in real web-based training. The standards developed so far work. Let us not lose sight, though, of the fact that instructional quality is not measured solely by the level of compliance with technical standards. Remember that our real clients are the learners and that the standards we adopt must support their needs.


(The fascinating diffusion of innovation theory presents a template for which the adoption of e-learning standards might be applied. The innovators have established preliminary standards and created proven prototypes, and early adopters have created the first standards-based learning object repositories and compliant management systems. In coming years we will see the early majority get on board, followed by the late majority. The laggards will always be—well, lagging. The wild card in using this model to predict the speed of acceptance is technology itself, technology that reinvents itself at breakneck speed.)

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