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Demystifying Learning Technology Standards Part I: Development and Evolution

Part I: Development and Evolution

Standards play an important role in the development of innovative processes and technologies. Historically, the development of standards indicates that a particular process or technology is maturing and has achieved a degree of commercial success, such that there is a need for standards compliance. Standards provide a measure of quality assurance and build consensus among stakeholders regarding accepted norms for compliance and criteria for certification. However, the primary benefits of standards, for both software and hardware technologies, are interoperability and integration.

Simple examples to illustrate interoperability are the standards for compact discs (CDs) and what were originally called Digital VideoDiscs (now simply DVDs), which allow data to be stored and transferred between systems without any problem. A simple example of integration can be seen in building IBM-compatible PC systems; in this case, the assembly of PCs is only possible because of the hardware compatibility specifications. In the area of hardware, the standards are often measurable parameters of physical systems and their operational behavior; in the case of information technology, they emerge more often as normative and informative specifications for interoperability and integration.

Standards Development

In the context of learning technology, standards are still evolving. Standards organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) keep records of normative standards that provide references necessary for conformance and interoperability. As such, the development process of formal standards is laborious, tedious, time consuming, and requires numerous components (shown in Figure 1) as described in the IEEE P1484.1/D9 draft standard for Learning Technology Systems Architecture (LTSA).

In Figure 1, the requirements and functionality steps describe the need for the intended goals of the specification, the conceptual model proposes the framework for the development of standards, and semantics are the exact definitions related to the interoperable components and systems. The details of the formal standards are then developed in the form of (a) an application program interface (API) that provides the calling conventions, (b) the binding coding, provided for the data formats, and (c) binding protocols that define the communication layers. The specifications/standards have two kinds of wording: normative, the sections that describe technical requirements imposed for conformance; and informative, the sections describing specifications and best practices that are not requirements for conformance.

There is a common perception that commercial vendors try to make their technological implementations "inoperable" with other similar products in order to keep—and in some cases force— customers to stick to their proprietary products. And consumer organizations have a reputation for striving to work with "interoperable" standards in order to provide freedom of choice and encourage competition. There is, however, an inherent commercial opportunity for innovative companies that put their inventions in the public domain to become the industry standard (e.g., Red Hat Inc.’s Linux). Of course, at the end of the day, consumers ultimately decide, through the widespread adoption of one standard over the other. At the onset of technological development, there are always competing methods and technologies vying to become the industry standard; the challenge is to make a standard that is easy to implement and thus win widespread adoption in the public domain.

The Organizations

In the past decade, and particularly since 1997, several organizations have begun work to evolve standards related to learning technologies for the development of metadata, curriculum taxonomy, course structure hierarchy, data models, learning objects, assets, sharable objects, content aggregation and system architecture, and personal and private information.

These organizations present documentation to the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee, P1484, the designated body with a recognized charter to create standards. The IEEE LTSC P1484 membership has several working groups to develop specifications and standards related to aspects of learning (see The key organizations that are currently proposing standards for learning technologies are described below.

IMS Global Learning Consortium Inc.—originally known as Instructional Management Systems (IMS) and now retaining the name IMS but not the original meaning of the acronym—began its existence as a project of EDUCAUSE. The group was chartered to provide open market-based standards relevant to learning technology and, in particular, specifications for content metadata. IMS proposed and collaborated with the IEEE LTSC to propose metadata specifications to the IEEE P1484 committee. That work later became a draft for the Learning Objects Metadata specification. Similar efforts started in the Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks for Europe (ARIADNE) on metadata definitions, and those groups are now closely collaborating with IMS. It is important to note that the IMS work being done now is not limited to content metadata, but includes areas such as content packaging, the Learner Information Package (LIP), the enterprise information model, and others (see

TheAviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC) is a group formed in 1988 to provide interoperability standards for computer-managed instruction (CMI) systems, now more widely known as learning management systems or course management systems. AICC primarily caters to the CMI systems developed for the aviation industry and related vendors, and it provides AICC guidelines and recommendations. The contribution of AICC is particularly important in the CMI database schema and the interoperability of the database objects extending to several computer-based training course management and assessment systems. AICC is working closely with the IEEE LTSC in several areas of mutual interest. It also provides test suites for AICC certification (see

TheAdvanced Distributed Learning (ADL) effort, started by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1997, received initial support from the Department of Defense (DOD), though it now falls within the Department of Labor. The activities of ADL Co-Labs focus around the development of the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) specifications, which include metadata standards from IEEE LTSC P1484 (as submitted by IMS) and CMI database schema (submitted to IEEE by AICC).

The ADL Co-Laboratory Network supports the ADL initiative with a network of collaborative laboratories (Co-Labs). This network currently has three independently supported entities with distinct operational responsibilities. They are: the DOD ADL Co-Lab in Virginia, the Joint ADL Co-Lab at Orlando, Florida, and the Academic ADL Co-Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The ADL Co-Labs are collaborating closely with ARIADNE, IMS, AICC, and IEEE. At present, SCORM 1.2 is distributed and includes the content packaging and sequencing recommendations proposed by IMS. The specific goal for SCORM is to create learning technology standards for creation of durable, reusable, interoperable, and accessible courses for defense and industry training. ADL also provides a test suite for checking conformance to SCORM 1.2 specification. The ADL Co-Labs regularly organize "plugfests" for commercial and university systems to demonstrate SCORM conformance (see

Process and Evolution

In 1999, the ISO Joint Technical Committee 1 created Subcommittee 36 to address and create ISO standards in the area of learning technology to support automation for learners, learning resources, and learning institutions. It is expected that the specifications and standards developed by IEEE will be submitted to ISO for formal internationalization—a process that may take several years until final acceptance.

The organizations highlighted above are working closely together to promote standards for learning technologies. All are trying to achieve essentially the same overall objective, but each one has a specific expertise it brings to the host of issues that need to be addressed for the future of learning technology standards.

Figure 2 shows a schematic of the integrative collaboration model adapted by most learning technology standards organizations. The procedure illustrated is as follows: (1) write specifications within AICC, IMS, or ARIADNE; (2) integrate, extend, and test in SCORM/ADL; and (3) formalize nationally and internationally in ISO/IEEE. It is expected that this process will lead to a formal ISO standard in a few years. As illustrated, the technical specifications originate in the consortia. The Co-Labs then create and operate test beds for conducting conformance testing. The test results generate reference models for selected technologies. The reference models, or applications profiles, are then submitted to the standards bodies for accreditation.

Associated Efforts

Besides the work of the organizations already described, there are other efforts focused on developing standards related to learning technology. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), headed by Tim Berners-Lee at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, is devoted to pushing the technological forefront ahead and has provided numerous useful specifications and standards. These include standards relating to Extensible Markup Language, Web accessibility standards, and standards and a framework for Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language implementations (see

Another emerging organization of note is the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI), started at MIT with major funding through an Andrew W.Mellon Foundation grant (see OKI now includes several prominent universities as partners, and it is focusing on an approach to creating an open API environment as a glue for a host of support activities related to online education.

These efforts are intended to encourage interoperability of both the educational content and the underlying technology that will support the deployment of online courses. Standards will point toward the best practices that allow educational content to be used, reused, and deployed online. The educational content objects that enhance the learning process can be incorporated into the curriculum to enhance the educational experience. If existing content objects can be converted to adhere to interoperable standards (e.g., SCORM), then they may be used by a large number of community colleges and universities, as well as by the online training initiatives of the DOD.

Success will depend on demystifying standards in terms of implementation for instructional design and on the development of content sequencing models that allow multiple learning strategies that address individual learning needs. Part II of this article will focus on the acceptance and implementation of standards for instructional design, management of learning objects, metadata, and content aggregation.


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 their contributions

to this article and for permission to use SCORM 1.2 figures

and references.

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