eLearning Content

Jun 05, 2007


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This year is the tenth anniversary of the Defense Department's development of the Sharable Content Object Reference Model and SCORM is on its way to dominating the content marketplace for on-line courseware, both educational and corporate. SCORM is now managed by the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative, a part of the office of the Secretary of Defense, which now requires that all eLearning materials be SCORM compliant.

This could have a huge impact on content providers, especially those using the latest structured authoring tools based on DITA to develop reusable content. The philosophy behind a SCO and a DITA topic is the same: Author a stand-alone piece of content so it can be assembled into a book, a website, or an on-line course and later be reused in other books or courses as desired.

Most content in today's on-line courses is not reusable. It is also highly proprietary. Proprietary courseware can function only in the Learning Management System (LMS) it was written for. An LMS is a Content Management System with support for sequencing through lesson materials, grading, branching depending on performance, etc.

If a course is developed at Ohio State and Wisconsin would like to offer it to their students, they are out of luck unless they own the same proprietary LMS--or if the course has been written (or rewritten) to the SCORM standard. SCORM courses can play in any SCORM-compliant LMS, an increasing number of which are open-source tools.

Chalk One Up for LMS
The leading proprietary LMS is Blackboard, which in 2006 was granted a very suspect patent on some eLearning technology and acquired its major competitor WebCT, the first virtual learning environment that was a commercial success. WebCT had an estimated 10 million student users in 2003. The educational community was up in arms at the attempt to patent on-line learning techniques, some of which had been in use for decades. Blackboard responded by pledging never to sue the open-source LMS developers.

The leading open-source LMS, Moodle, is growing exponentially. It is used by over 10 million students registered in over a million courses, and was recently adopted by the Open University of the UK, which has 180,000 students on-line.

Proprietary LMS Vendors like Blackboard and open-source developers like Moodle have all banded together in an industry association called the IMS Global Learning Consortium, including over 50 major players like Apple, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Sun, several large publishers, and a few big universities. IMS Common Cartridge is a proposal for a single LMS standard.

When computer-based training (CBT) was distributed on CD-ROM, the leading development tools were Adobe Authorware (Macromind-Paracomp > Macromedia) and SumTotal Systems Toolbook (Asymmetrix > Click2Learn). Both of these tools are fully SCORM compliant and support online course development, but their strength is still in older media formats.

Today, most simple page-oriented courseware is being prepared in Powerpoint and Dreamweaver. More sophisticated interactive animations use SCORM-compliant tools like TechSmith Camtasia and Adobe Captivate (formerly Macromedia RoboDemo).

Learning All About DITA
At last month's meeting of the Boston DITA Users Group, John Hunt of IBM described a new OASIS initiative to develop a DITA specialization topic for eLearning. Hunt's Learning Content Subcommittee is studying the Cisco/Clark model of Reusable Information Objects (RIO), similar in ways to DITA topics, assembled into a sequence of seven plus or minus two RIOs, which becomes a Reusable Learning Object (RLO).

Cisco Systems worked with Dr. Ruth Clark to create a reusable object strategy. They identified five core content types--concept, fact, procedure, principle, and process--based on established information types developed in the nineteen-sixties by Dr. Robert Horn at Information Mapping.

The DITA Learning Content Subcommittee, with members from Comtech Services, IBM, IXIASOFT, PTC/Arbortext, Sun, and JustSystems, hopes to complete an eLearning specification by early 2008. The effort will result in a set of specialized learning topic types that represent the information types needed for learning content and a map domain to structure them as learning objects.

The goal is to enable hundreds of thousands of technical writers moving to structured content to be producing SCORM-compliant corporate learning materials with the same tools they use today for technical documentation.

On a personal note, SCORM was created a decade ago by an old business colleague of mine, Philip Dodds, who helped develop pioneering electronic music synthesizers and the first digital piano, at Kurzweil Music Systems and ARP Instruments. At ARP he worked with two friends who helped me build the first hand-held electronic games in the nineteen-seventies, Christopher Wright and Michael Suchoff.

Dodds is now chief architect for the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative. At the recent ADL Summit in Alexandria, VA, John Hunt's OASIS DITA team presented the preliminary plans for integrating the DITA "holy grail of content reuse" into the world of SCORM and eLearning.


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Four and a half years of columns, on top of a couple of years prior studying content management systems at CMS Review, taught me a lot about how information is created, managed, and published today, especially on the web.