Overview of E-Learning Standards

Standards bring order to the world and e-learning standards are bringing great new benefits to this domain. Where would we be without standards like the metric system, international distress signals, and TCP/IP? World travelers know how to deal with the absence of uniform electrical standards. The lack of interoperability is quite evident when the electric shaver plug won't fit the electrical socket. By adhering to standards, courseware builders can construct components completely independent of the management systems under which they are intended to run—that's interoperability. The life expectancy of a courseware component is greatly increased when we know that we can upgrade a management system and it still works, or when we reuse that component in a totally new course. The proprietary learning technologies of the past, while providing good service in their time, do not provide the benefits available by adopting standards. E-learning standards promise —and deliver—interoperability as well as reusability, durability, and accessibility.

HTML is a specification that is a de facto standard. It has evolved over the years through HTML, HTML+, HTML 2, HTML 3, HTML 4, and now XHTML. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the international body that defined the specifications that ultimately set the standards. WBT developers know that if they create content formatted to the HTML 4 standard, for example, that any browser that supports HTML 4 will also display that course content. Of course, in actual practice no browser supports the HTML standards flawlessly, but for the most part HTML content is durable, meaning it will be useful long into the future; it is accessible, here meaning that it can be easily accessed across common networks; and it is interoperable, meaning that it will play on various operating systems, devices, and browsers.

Standards specific to computer-based training and online learning have been around for years, though general adoption of these standards has been slow. The aviation industry was one of the first to formulate standards. The Aviation Industry CBT Committee, AICC for short, defined a specification for interoperability between CBT courses and computer-managed instruction (CMI) record keeping systems. The AICC' CMI Guidelines for Interoperability presents a standard syntax and application programming interface (API) for communication between courseware and CMI. Though not widely adopted outside government and commercial aviation circles, the pioneering work of this committee set the stage for standards to follow.

The IMS Global Learning Consortium asks the question, How do we describe learning content, discover and reuse that content, and assure that content is fully interoperable when moving from one administrative system to another? XML, itself a specification of the W3C, is the lingua franca of all IMS specifications. That implies a level of built-in interoperability and durability. However, the IMS specifications go much further. For example, the IMS Meta-data Specification defines a method for describing learning content: a description of the content, the title, the author, location (URL), cost and payment structure, prerequisites, learning taxonomy, and much more. Once I "tag" a chunk of learning content with meta-data, someone else can discover that object and use its description to see if it might fit into their course. Before the meta-data tagging scheme and these formal specifications, consumers of learning content had a difficult time determining what was out there to reuse.

Leaders within the U.S. Department of Defense saw a need to fuse a number of more narrow specifications; like those of the AICC, IMS, W3C, and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC); into an all encompassing standard for next generation online learning. That work began in with the formation of the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative in 1997. ADL built upon the work of other initiatives and defined new specifications to glue everything together. The result is the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM). SCORM is a model for defining, packaging, and managing learning objects. The sharable content object (SCO), the ADL name for a learning object, is the building block of a topic, a lesson, or a course. SCORM defines an API for a learning management system (LMS) to manage and communicate with SCOs and for SCOs to communicate with the LMS. SCORM is a model for designing an interoperable, durable learning system. It does not specify a programming language, authoring tool, or operating system; however, you will find most implementers using XML, Java, JavaScript, and HTML. Furthermore, SCORM does not (currently) address instructional design issues, nor does it prescribe specific functionality for LMSs.

Section 508 is a relatively new standard for improving accessibility to Web content and applications, including WBT, for persons with physical and cognitive disabilities. Section 508 refers to a specific rule in the United States government Federal Acquisition Regulation that took effect in 2001. This standard followed an earlier and more extensive standard in the form of a recommendation, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The latter standard provides three levels of conformance: Priority One, which is relatively easy to achieve and is mandatory; Priority Two, recommended but somewhat more difficult to achieve; and Priority Three, desirable but difficult to achieve without a shift from common and wide-spread coding practice. Many organizations now specify that new courses must be developed to a learning object standard (SCORM) and an accessibility standard (Section 508), too.

These online learning standards are a solid foundation for refinements and additions to come in future years. There are, of course, other groups around the globe that are discussing the issues and establishing specifications. While all the standards mentioned should be considered for their benefits today, and durability is certainly of major concern, one should expect that they will be refined and in some cases modified in only a few years—that is the nature of technological innovation in Internet time.

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