Q&A

Philip Hutchison Talks SCORM and E-Learning

In this candid and eye-opening interview, Philip Hutchison, a household name in SCORM and the man behind Pipwerks, gives his thoughts about the current state of SCORM and e-learning in general, touching on subjects such as how he became one of the go-to SCORM resources, why the authors of SCORM were trying to do too much, and how the PowerPoint-ization of training isn't a good development for e-learning.

Usually, the words "confused" and "ignorant" are not ones readers would prefer to hear from the author of a particular piece, but those words are certainly relevant when applied to your humble author's relationship with SCORM. If you happen to be unfamiliar with SCORM, the official definition describes it thusly:

The Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) integrates a set of related technical standards, specifications, and guidelines designed to meet SCORM's high-level requirements--accessible, interoperable, durable, and reusable content and systems. SCORM content can be delivered to your learners via any SCORM-compliant Learning Management System (LMS) using the same version of SCORM. (source: ADLNet.gov)

Quite a lofty goal set forth in that description, but, in the real world, even partial adherence to the SCORM spec can prove challenging at best. However, if you're doing anything associated with e-learning, at least passing familiarity with SCORM is a must.

So, what to do?

If you happen to be among the legion of e-learning professionals who have struggled mightily to arrive at a certain level of "SCORMiness," for lack of a better word, you're probably already aware of the handful of individuals and organizations who are continual sources of SCORM expertise. One such name that every SCORMer should know is Philip Hutchison, who, on his personal Pipwerks site, provides tools and insight that have proved especially helpful for those having issues navigating the often tangled Web the SCORM standard weaves.

Hutchison was good enough to take some time recently to have a discussion about SCORM and the state of e-learning in general.

Kevin Schmitt: Philip, can you give me some background on yourself and Pipwerks, and how you came to be well known in the SCORM community?

Philip Hutchison: Well, I started a blog. (laughs) That's all it takes, really. I worked with educational media for a long time. I worked in radio for about 10 years; I worked in a little bit of video; and I did prepress print work as my job for probably around seven years. I've always been drawn to media, and then when the Internet "thing" happened, my brother said, "Dude, you gotta get into this Internet thing--it's going to be big!" That was back in 1994, and so I started dabbling in Web sites. Through the years, I was working here and there, and my brother, once again, talked me into moving to California, which was right at the end of 2001, beginning of 2002. I came out here right when the dot com bust happened, and I couldn't find a job to save my life, so I went back to school. I went to grad school, and the program that I wound up joining was instructional technologies, which I thought was a nice bridge for all the different types of media work I had done before. It kind of put a nice little bow on it.

One thing leads to another, I wind up getting jobs doing e-learning, and anybody who has a job in e-learning has to know SCORM. Or, you have to at least be familiar with it. I had no idea what it was when I started. I was grasping at straws and trying to figure out what the heck is this, and I found some help here and there on the Internet, most notably from Claude Ostyn--who passed away a few years ago--and Aaron Silvers ("mrch0mp3rs" on Twitter), and I started piecing things together. As I started figuring things out, I said, "You know, I should probably start writing about this stuff." If I had this hard of a time finding it, I know other people are too. If I write it down, it will help me remember it, and it might help somebody else who might start looking for things. Next thing you know, a few years go by, and there aren't that many people writing about how to do SCORM stuff. So, I'm not a guru, but I'm kind of the de facto high visibility guy just because there aren't that many people who are doing this type of work.

Schmitt: Let's take a step back for a second. For the unfamiliar, what is SCORM, and how does it fit into the larger landscape of e-learning?

Hutchison: The simplest way to explain it is that SCORM is what is used to communicate between an online course and a Learning Management System (LMS). SCORM simply says, "Hey, LMS, here's some data from the course; we want you to save it." And the LMS says, "Hey, Course, here's some stuff that I'm giving back to you." All it really does is it standardizes the language that they're using, the formats that they're using, and by standardizing the way that this communication happens, it enables you to take an e-learning course from LMS to LMS, and it should "just work." You shouldn't have to re-program anything. That's the interoperability part of SCORM, and that's really the main reason people use SCORM today.

Schmitt: Let me get personal here for a minute, at least from my end, and bear with me as I ask a question worthy of a congressional hearing. You mentioned this a little during your intro, and I know from experience, I've been banging my head against the wall trying to come up with a picture of what SCORM means, exactly. Let me put it another way: I'm finding SCORM is kind of like the tax code--lots of obscure documentation, and all you can do is try to distill it down to the parts that affect your particular situation. You do your best and hope you did it right, but all the while you're just waiting for the audit to drop. You know what I mean?

Hutchison: Yeah.

Schmitt: It just seems there are a lot of different interpretations of what SCORM is and how "SCORMy" something has to be, depending on how and where your content is going to be delivered. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you today is because you've one of those rare people who have managed cut through the red tape. Your JavaScript and ActionScript API wrappers for SCORM are enormously valuable and provide a common currency, so to speak, between the front end and the back end like you were talking about. I don't want to dogpile on SCORM out of hand, but like many standards, it can move slowly and can seem like a hindrance rather than a help for someone trying to make sense of it. That, in a nutshell, has been my experience, so I wanted to balance that perhaps narrow and admittedly jaded view of SCORM by getting the perspective of someone who clearly gets it and has put it into a language that people can understand. So, with that as the rather long buildup, what's your take on the promise of SCORM, measured against the realities and challenges of working under SCORM guidelines?

Hutchison: My personal feeling is that the authors of SCORM were trying to do too much. The way that I use SCORM is not exactly how it was originally envisioned. If you use SCORM as it was originally conceived, each LMS, when you launch a course, it usually shows up in a popup window. That window contains some kind of player, and the player is owned and controlled by the LMS--it's not part of your course. It simply loads pages in the window on your behalf. If you want to think of an analogy, think of online video. If you watch a video on YouTube, you're looking at the YouTube player. YouTube controls the player; all you can do is put a video into it, but you can't really do anything with the player. They do give you a few small configuration options, but that's it. That's originally how SCORM was supposed to be--the player part was actually controlled by the LMS. It would give you the forward button, the backward button, the table of contents and all that. You, as a developer, would never do that part of the course. You would simply make your IMS Manifest, which is a manifest just like on a ship; it lists all the contents. So you would simply be listing your contents, and you would be saying what you're allowing the LMS to do with this content. Are you allowing them to go forward sequentially? Are you allowing them to move around in a non-linear fashion, etc.? So it was originally intended to be used in that way, and that makes it so that the content is supposed to be very reusable. One page that explains how to use a hammer in a Navy course, that exact page can be used to explain how to use a hammer in an Army course--they don't have to develop it twice, or have two copies. It's stored in one place; both courses can use it.

The problem is that the LMSes don't implement their player equally. Some are better than others, and most all of them are kludgey in one way or another. It's a bad user experience.

So a lot of people, and a lot of companies, like Adobe and Articulate, they use SCORM, but they bypass using the SCORM player. So instead of letting the LMS control the navigation of the course, they take over those duties within their course code itself. With Articulate and Adobe Captivate, they both use Flash, and their ActionScript code handles all of the logic of the course, of what page can be viewed and when it can be viewed. So that really simplifies what portion of the SCORM spec is being used. There are some people who, if they are trying to use the sequencing and navigation feature of SCORM, yeah, they're going to keep hitting their head up against the wall because it's really painful. It doesn't work the same from system to system, and as they've made revisions to the standard--SCORM 2004 is now in a fourth edition--very few LMSes actually support the fourth edition. So if you create a course that works with the fourth edition, it's probably not going to work in a lot of systems. You wind up having people who just say SCORM is broken, and it doesn't work. So what I do is I avoid all that. I don't use the LMS for the navigation--I control that with my own course logic. The SCORM APIs that I put out there--the JavaScript wrapper and the ActionScript wrapper--are designed to make it easy for other people to do that too. Now, you still have to build your own navigation logic, but as far as the communication part--sending data from your course to the LMS--those classes are meant to make that a lot easier.

Schmitt: That's interesting to hear you say that because I've been very sheltered the last couple of years dealing with SCORM, and the things that you're saying have been exactly my experience. Is that what you're finding in the e-learning community at large? It sounds like there's almost a community-driven sub-standard of the SCORM spec, where you target a base set of the spec, where we know that much is going to work across LMSes, and that's the content that you're seeing put out, so you know that it will be truly portable and live up to the promise of the standard, if not the actual breadth and depth of it.

Hutchison: Actually, by using the approach that I'm using, which is the same as all the major vendors--Adobe and Articulate and Rapid Intake and whoever else is out there--it makes it so that your content is not reusable. And that's a trade-off that most people are willing to make, because most courses that are being made are one-time deals. Now, really large organizations like the Department of Defense, they really do care about reusability. That's why, for instance, right now at the Veteran's Administration--the VA--they're talking about potentially dumping the LMS vendor that they have, Plateau, because Plateau is not currently supporting the full spec the way that they need it to be supported, in order to do these things that they want to do. There's been a lot of writing about that lately; there's been a number of articles about that. They have a $10 million contract, and just because a couple of parts of SCORM are not currently implemented in their LMS, they could lose the whole contract. But most people don't use that part. Usually it's only the very large corporations, that have huge training departments or who are global, and they need to be able to send things from place to place and re-use their content, those are the ones who care the most about the reusability portion of SCORM. In order for it to be reusable, you have to use the sequencing and navigation, you have to let the LMS control how you get from piece to piece. That's when you get into the whole conversation about a single SCO (Sharable Content Object) versus a multi-SCO course. If you're building it yourself, with your own course logic handled by Flash or JavaScript, or whatever, then usually you can put all your content that you want into your course however you like, and from the LMS's perspective, no matter how much content you have in it, it's a single SCO. If you're using the LMS course player, then more often than not you'd probably wind up doing a multi-SCO course.

Schmitt: It sounds like, in the corporate world, they're hurdling over whatever roadblocks are in the way by doing their own thing, and then you've got the public sector, who has to strictly adhere to the entire spec. Do you have a sense of how the SCORM spec is being used in the education community?

Hutchison: I wouldn't say that I have a very strong feeling about it. Most of my experience with higher education is in Hawaii and in California; I grew up in Hawaii and I live in California. I don't really see SCORM being used in those places. For instance, at San Francisco State, they're part of the CSU, the biggest University system in California. It's huge. They're using Moodle, and when they use Moodle, the courses that they have aren't self-paced, asynchronous courses. Most of the time, if they're using Moodle, they don't launch a popup window and then do a page-turner kind of deal. They usually are doing forums, or submitting papers, or having some kind of interaction with classmates or with their professor. It follows a very different approach to learning and to education. I wouldn't call it training. It's more of a semester-long thing. SCORM is really only used when you have a nice, tidy little package, and you launch it, and you click a next button a whole bunch of times. That's when you'd use SCORM, and they don't really do that too much in my experience.

Schmitt: Let's broaden for a second. I want to wrap up on a note about e-learning in general. I know there are some really slick and innovative things being done in this space, but the stuff I've come across, and this may be a limitation of what SCORM itself is dictating, but by and large, a lot of e-learning courseware is basically "PowerPoint delivered through an LMS," and that's considered good enough. E-learning in many ways seems stuck targeting and using older technology and techniques, either due to legacy equipment on the user end in a school environment or, for lack of a better phrase, legacy thinking on the part of those responsible for moving e-learning forward. Generally, there's not enough attention being paid to the user experience--they're forgetting the student or learner on the other end--and whether the end products enhance and enable actual learning. What's been your experience with how e-learning is progressing?

Hutchison: Well, I agree with what you just said. PowerPoint for e-learning is one of my biggest pet peeves. Now, in the right hands, you can make some pretty cool stuff, but more often than not, people who are using these products are amateurs, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way, but they're amateurs. Usually they're not very technically savvy. All they know is that they kind of know how to use PowerPoint, and if they buy some program, they can run their PowerPoint through it and hey, all of a sudden I've got something that works in an LMS. There are all kinds of issues with that. From a usability and user interface point of view, there are issues. From an interactivity approach, there are issues. From just learning theory, there are issues, because no matter what, you're going to wind up with some kind of page turner, and you don't get the interaction, you don't get the engagement that you would get with other approaches. But, most of the people who are using these programs are not experts. They have a job, and they need to get their job done, and that's the easiest way for them to do it. Most of them don't know much about graphic design, they don't know anything about programming, and a lot of them might not even know that much about training. It's usually, in my experience, a subject matter expert who has been charged by their boss with making some kind of training on the topic that they're an expert in. They go and make a PowerPoint presentation, they see all these shiny ads saying, "Hey, buy our product, convert your PowerPoint to a course, and you're golden." It says, "works with SCORM," so they say, "Okay, well, I don't know what SCORM is, but everyone says I need it, and this product has it, so I should be good." They make their PowerPoint, they buy the product, they stick it through there, they come out with a SCORM course, and they think that's all there is to it. It does work from a compliance point of view; if you just need to say, "Have you made a course? Have your people taken a course?" yes, you can check off those boxes. But if you're talking about really making an effective course, I think you need more experience, and I think you really need to take a closer look at what you're training and how you're training. More often than not, in my opinion, those tools fail.

So, as far as where things are headed, I kind of have a dim view of that, because I see more and more of these PowerPoint-focused tools coming out, and I don't see enough people talking about making things better. There are some people who give really good advice about how to use PowerPoint wisely, if you're going to use it--Tom Kuhlmann from Articulate is really well-known for that. But for the most part, nobody is explaining that there are better ways to do things, and until somebody says, "Hey, hey, there's a better way to do it," the people who don't have that technical experience don't know, and therefore they're just going to keep doing what they're doing. They see the ads, they buy the products, and I don't see any vendors saying that they're going to come out with some alternative that's better. We saw what happened with Authorware. ToolBook was very similar to Authorware, and it was great in its day, and it's completely past its prime now, so we're really waiting for the next thing to come out. I haven't seen it yet, so until then, I'm building all my own stuff.

There are a lot of people talking, but I think the problem is that most of them are not commercial vendors. There are people making their own stuff in their own little corner of the world, and more often than not, they're not really sharing how they do things or what their ideas are. So, there are people out there, but they're not contributing so much. The LETSI (Learning Education Training Systems Interoperability) Group, they have some really cool stuff going on, but they tend to get really bogged down in the techie talk, talking about specs and things like that, which is a complete turn-off to most people, including me. So, it's kind of like, okay, can somebody just make something that's cool, and let me see how it works, and then I can copy it, you know? (laughs)

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