Demystifying Learning Technology Standards, Part II: Acceptance and Implementation

In our March issue, Part I of this two-part article on learning technology standards introduced the development and evolution of standards and presented the key organizations promoting these standards. Here, Part II provides a glimpse into acceptance and implementation, illustrated by SCORM specifications as they may be applied to courseware development.

The rise of interest in standards that apply to learning technologies is only the beginning. Proposed standards are just starting to have their initial impact on institutions and on individual teaching faculty. In the future, releases of SCORM specifications and IMS metadata standards may be somewhat more generally familiar to faculty developers, but it is probably safe to say that at present most have at best a vague notion of their existence and utility.
The hope is that widespread acceptance of learning technology standards will foster shared resources among institutions and provide new efficiencies for program administrators. Standards will play a larger role in institutional planning and program development discussions in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, in order to illustrate the implementation of the proposed standards, it may be useful to describe a few points about how the proposed standards can be applied by courseware developers.
It is important to reflect on the process of evolution that standards take. This was described briefly in Part I of this article (Syllabus, March 2002). Most formal standards for learning technology, accepted by the IEEE and ISO, are likely to be years away. At present, developers may act on proposed standards and those adopted into releases such as SCORM 1.2.

SCORM Specifications

The intent of ADL Co-Labs in the development of standards is to make SCORM an integrative model that relies on and extends specifications from other groups. ADL participates with other organizations, such as AICC and IMS in the development of specifications, and when the specifications become stable, it incorporates them into a SCORM release. The expectation is that the implementation of SCORM specifications can help learning technology—in our present example, courseware—to become reusable, interoperable, stable, and accessible.
For an instructional designer or online course developer to comply with SCORM specifications, there are five essential elements to implement: the course structure, multimedia assets, sharable content objects (SCOs), content aggregation, and content packaging. The proper implementation of all of these elements in courseware development constitutes basic conformance with SCORM 1.2.
With the implementation of the first element, course structure, it is essential to define content hierarchy, similar to writing a conventional table of contents. Multimedia assets are identified within the course structure, along with SCOs. Context-specific metadata (data about data) is needed to describe the context in which each of these course elements is presented. Information about sequencing and navigation within the course content resources of a dynamically delivered course is necessary and will describe how a given sequence meets specific learning objectives. Figure 1 outlines a generic course structure as an example.
For the purposes of our example of courseware development, metadata can be defined as data about the course content data. The asset, SCO, and content aggregation information is required to have metadata to facilitate content discovery and maintenance. Metadata standards are developed through collaborative efforts. The IEEE LTSC P1484 committee contributed the Learning Object Metadata (LOM), and IMS Global Learning Inc. provided IMS Learning Resources Metadata XML binding specifications. SCORM 1.2 has adopted the two to provide a schema for content tagging.
The current release, SCORM 1.2, employs a new content aggregation model. As described in the SCORM 1.2 content aggregation model, "The content structure is intended to represent a wide variety of content aggregation approaches. The content structure can represent a content aggregation ranging from very, very small learning resources—as simple as a few lines of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) or a short media clip—to highly interactive learning resources that are tracked by a [learning management system] LMS. The content structure is neutral about the complexity of content, the number of hierarchical levels of a particular course (i.e., taxonomy), and the instructional methodology employed to design a course."
The SCORM 1.2 release has adopted the IMS content packaging specifications. The IMS content packaging specifications utilize a specific data structure for the interoperability of the Internet-based content with various authoring environments. The proposed model has two major components. The first is the definition of the course structure in a manifest file coded in XML, and the second is the provision of specific file references to the various course structure elements included in the manifest (see Figure 2).
With each new release, SCORM specifications will offer increasing benefits. An example of this progression is that SCORM 1.2 allows SCOs anywhere in the content hierarchy structure. The previous release of SCORM allowed SCOs only in the leaf nodes. The significance is, of course, that the ability to move the sharable content objects further up in the hierarchy means that more of the course will be sharable through any given SCO.

Toward Learning Style-Based Content Sequencing

The course content can be sequenced with a wide variety of content aggregation approaches. But at present, learning technology standards do not provide specifications to handle the pedagogical learning style-based content sequencing. A simpler sequencing model is being adopted by SCORM and proposed by IMS.
The pedagogical framework proposed in Learning Cube (Syllabus December 2001 and January 2002) could be used to provide content sequencing based on learning styles, i.e., apprenticeship, incidental, inductive, deductive, and discovery, as well as to provide adaptive use of assets, SCOs, and content aggregation in terms of text, graphics, audio, video, animation, and simulation content resources. The interactivity and the synchronous communication objects such as discussion boards and chat could also be incorporated as SCOs.
The author has proposed a best practice extension to the content packaging model that includes a learning style taxonomy-based content sequencing scheme. The proposal has been provided to ADL Co-Labs for future consideration. The SCORM 1.2 specifications have advanced the purpose of resource sharing. As standards continue to develop, additional attention to learning styles could provide extensive new benefits to learners. Nishikant Sonwalkar, Ph.D., is the principal educational architect at the Educational Media Creation Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and serves as the pedagogical adviser for Web-based educational experiments and projects.

Categories of Metadata in SCORM 1.2

The General category groups the general information that describes the resource as a whole.
The Lifecycle category groups the features related to the history and current state of this resource and those who have affected this resource during its evolution.
The Meta-metadata category groups information about the metadata record itself (rather than the resource that the record describes).
The Technical category groups the technical requirements and characteristics of the resource.
The Educational category groups the educational and pedagogical characteristics of the resource.
The Rights category groups the intellectual property rights and conditions of use for the resource.
The Relation category groups features that define the relationship between this resource and other targeted resources.
The Annotation category provides comments on the educational use of the resource and information on when and by whom the comments were created.
The Classification category describes where this resource falls within a particular classification system.

Source: SCORM 1.2 Content Aggregation Model Specifications


Special thanks to:
Dan Rehak (Carnegie Mellon University), Jeff Merriman, Vijay Kumar (MIT), Bill McDonald (AICC), Judy Brown (Academic ADL Co-Lab), and Philip Dodds (DOD ADL Co-Labs) for useful communication and permission to use SCORM figures and references.

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