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SCORM, LMS’s and the E-Learning standards mess

Posted by bryan on September 5, 2009 in AJAX, E-Learning, Flash, HTML with 1 Comment

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The field of E-Learning is desperately in need of a new standard; one which unifies rather than further divides the existing options for course and class content Packaging, Run-Time, Metadata and Sequencing.

I don’t mean to disregard or unfairly diminish the value of the work that has gone into the current ot past editions of the SCORM standard, however the fact remains that after almost 5 years it has still not yet replaced SCORM 1.2 as the de facto E-Learning format. Many say that is alot of vendor preference after already being tied to a SCORM 1.2 format for so long, while others say it is a political stance on the part of most SCORM developers, while others and that people are busy so it takes time to upgrade a standard, and this all makes sense. But look how the developer and open source communities are embracing the new HTML5 spec as an example in positive developments and updates to an old spec (old in terms of web years) being actively embraced rather than delayed and procrastinated. Although the (almost sarcastic sounding) announced 2022 release date of the W3C HTML5 Recommendation spec speaks hands to the problems of releasing a successive version of a software standard that is more rather than less complex, and thus, more difficult to implement and switch to across the industry.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) are perhaps equally as confusing for users and developers alike. They vary widely in functionality and implementations.

I’m no expert in the field of E-Learning, this much is certain, but I can’t help but see some patterns there’s also the following links on various technical aspects:

Most useful for my SCORM LMS research in general though, was the late, great Claude Ostyn’s SCORM/E-Learning resources. He had created the simplest run-time ever, with a purely xHTML/Javascript browser-based system that can tell you if your “.sco” file is valid or not.

One of the reasons my organization decided against full SCORM implementation was the incompatibility of versions of the standard, though the benefit of it being ISO-approved almost convinced them. Personally, I’d love to see SCORM-Next fast-tracked (in terms of getting resources and people together on a standard, while taking the time required to get the spec right and maintain a minmum level of backwards-compatibility).

As it stands today SCORM is a bold attempt at a big problem in E-Learning but probably suffers from the “too many cooks spoils the soup” phenomenon. It is clear that many bright people have contributed, but the end result shows how brilliant minds often have disparate forms of conceptualizing and describing their vision. So going back to the drawing boards, we need to answer the following questions:

  1. How can we present the same courses and learning sequences to multiple users in many locations, over many different LMS platforms?
  2. Can different LMS’s users ever really all experience the same activities and educational content?

If that is still the goal, a consistent, cross-browser experience, then let’s look to the successes and blunders of similar initiatives, like HTML5, and see how openness coupled with the right industry support can make or break any technology specification process. I’ve ofter heard the analogy of a DVD working in any DVD player, which is only possible thanks to movie studios and DVD player manufacturers working from the same standard.

UPDATE (2010-08-18): I shared more thoughts on this at the following Evolution of SCORM post.

“After researching it the past few weeks (note the disclaimer) SCORM 1.2 .vs. SCORM 2004 seems to be more like the Blu-ray .vs. HD debate that took the movie industry by storm and ended not too long after your post, than DVD .vs. VHS.

By this I mean, you didn’t necessarily need entirely new players to support both formats (i.e. to get a basic view of the film you could “rip” the packaged contents off your disk and watch it on your computer in an intermediary format like MP4, FLV or AVI)… However for the best experience you’d be better off with new players, and it was the hardware that really differentiated how the images/sound got displayed, how much/where the contents were stored and presentation of additional special features.

In the end they were really almost identical though, and it didn’t matter to the consumer much whether it was HD or Blu-ray. In fact, the only time they really cared about it was when one format one out over the other and they discovered that discs in the format they purchased no longer worked in the latest players. Even then, the final solution was players that supported both formats…

This post also gave me some ideas about SCORM 2.0, do you know how to go about getting involved in its development?

First and foremost, I think SCORM 2004 already has a 2 in it, and really should have been called SCORM 2 if it followed sequence (though I have heard it referred to as SCORM 1.3)… I think it’s alot simpler if we start referring to the next iteration as SCORM 3.0

Secondly, I think it has the chance to be the intermediary format and the multi-format-supporting player… Something which can be even more self-contained than previous versions, yet gracefully fallback to previous versions.

Now we have another lesson in format wars playing out right before us with the HTML5 video debate (Ogg .vs. MP4 .vs. WebM).

The HTML5 video solution is quite elegant and scalable though, a simple tag with a few new configuration options, nothing too exciting… but:

allows three separate formats to play together nicely… can’t SCORM be so simple too?

Then again, maybe I’m a dreamer…”