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The Standard Bearers Close Ranks

Collaboration is bringing the education community closer to long-held dreams of content portability and access to next-generation tools.

For most educators, the various eLearning specifications and standards organizations seem far removed from the classroom. Certainly, many have heard of IMS, OKI, and ADL SCORM. However, most would have difficulty explaining how any of these key specifications might affect their online teaching. The reality is that several groups are producing specifications that will affect the way technology is used in online education.

Behind the scenes, there is a revolution going on in the way eLearning specifications and standards are being developed. This is not a newly discovered way to provide features for online education. Instead, it is the result of the increasing collaboration and cooperation between key organizations to share the workload and build on the accomplishments of others.

Among the five key organizations developing specifications and standards for eLearning are: the IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS), the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI), the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Co-Labs, the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), and the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (IEEE LTSC). These five organizations represent the collaboration occurring across the entire eLearning spectrum.

Each is structured as a vertical or a horizontal organization depending on its mission and constituency. Vertical organizations are generally designed to represent one online learning constituency. For example, OKI focuses on higher education, ADL focuses on training, and SIF focuses mainly on K-12. The horizontal organizations serve many constituencies and thus cut across the verticals. For instance, IMS and the IEEE LTSC attempt to provide specifications and standards that meet the needs of many vertical efforts.

When these vertical and horizontal organizations cooperate with each other, they do so in many different configurations that ideally lead to more robust, general specifications.

Three-Tiered Collaboration
There are three main ways that collaborative efforts can be used in specification development, says Ed Walker, chief executive officer of IMS. The first is for an organization to find an existing specification to adopt. The second option is to influence or modify an existing specification. And the final alternative is for an organization to create its own specification with the help of other groups. In all cases, collaboration is the key to a successful plan.

This three-tiered model is useful in examining eLearning collaborations from the perspective of each partner.

One example involves the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) co-laboratory initiative initiated in 1997 by the Department of Defense to "foster platform-neutral, interoperable, reusable educational content at the object level." Since then, ADL participation has expanded significantly to include academia, government, and industry on a global level. The reference model for this project is called the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM).

SCORM is a diverse family of specifications originally developed by organizations worldwide, including IMS, the Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC), IEEE LTSC, Dublin Core, and others. The SCORM model is an evolving one, with each of the organizations contributing pieces of the puzzle depending on its focus.

SCORM is a good example of both the first and second type of collaboration opportunity. Whenever possible, SCORM adopts existing specifications that meet their design blueprint, such as using the "runtime" design from the AICC as its basis.

When SCORM updated to Release 1.1, it needed a different kind of collaboration to fulfill its objectives. In order to address deficiencies in content structure, SCORM examined IMS's efforts to develop the IMS Content Packaging specification. The IMS specification was designed to meet the needs of the broad IMS community, but SCORM found that the specification could also address its needs. Following the approval of the specification by the IMS community, SCORM added this specification to SCORM 1.2.

Paul Jesukiewicz of the ADL believes the good working relationships the organization has formed during collaborations has allowed SCORM to rely on major partners to produce the specifications of SCORM without duplication of effort.

A second example involves the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF). SIF is an initiative to develop open specifications for K-12 instructional and administrative applications. SIF's goal is to provide a technical framework that will enable diverse applications to interact and share data seamlessly. More than 100 organizations are members, including vendors and software providers, school systems, educational organizations, and state education departments.

In its current development road map, SIF is interested in adding assessment to its suite of specifications. SIF has already done significant preliminary work on defining the needs of its constituents. To translate these into specifications, SIF surveyed the specification landscape, and found IMS to have significant experience in addressing that target.

SIF examined the IMS Question and Test Interoperability (QTI) specification to determine its possible applicability to SIF's preliminary work. SIF found the QTI specification to be "an expansive specification with lots of potentialities," according to SIF Director Tim Magner. From a subset of the QTI specification, SIF then created a product that meets the vertical needs of the K-12 community. The collaboration shortened development time significantly.

This SIF-IMS collaboration is a good example of the first type of collaboration opportunity: namely, adopting an existing specification to meet the needs of a particular constituency.

The third type of opportunity for collaboration can be seen in IMS. As an early participant in the development of eLearning specifications, IMS was developing specifications during the pre-collaboration period. Today, IMS is cited as a leader in promoting cooperation and collaboration between the various eLearning specification groups, but it still takes the lead in developing new specifications.

For instance, when the need arose for a specification to address assessment, IMS surveyed the landscape to find a solution to adopt. Finding none, they set about developing the QTI specification. Rather than operating in a vacuum, IMS actively sought the input and participation of the higher education, training, and government sectors, as well as assessment experts to develop the specification.

The result was a QTI specification that drew attention from a broad cross section of the eLearning community. In response to comments from organizations such as ADL SCORM and SIF, the specification was revised and generalized to meet the needs of a wide range of verticals, including higher education, training, K-12, and global markets.

As the number of collaborative organizations and projects has increased, other models of cooperation have emerged. One of the most important models is the collaboration of shared activities, as illustrated by the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI).

Focusing on Function
OKI is defining open architectural specifications to support the development of educational software and focusing on the architecture and interactions between modules, programs, and systems within and across institutions. Its goal is to develop a platform for building both traditional and innovative educational applications while helping institutions leverage existing infrastructure. Specifically, OKI efforts include developing the means to exchange educational content or student information and to synchronize information across the educational community. Another goal is how to share applications and services in disparate environments.

IMS is a primary collaborator with OKI in these efforts. "IMS is the place to be ... especially for data exchange and definitions specifications," says Jeffrey Merriman, OKI's project leader. Merriman describes the collaboration this way: IMS provides the nouns while OKI focuses on the verbs in the form of application integration. In general, OKI is providing the functional or behavioral components while IMS is providing the data.

In this collaboration, OKI is focusing on the places where data is to be stored, leaving the actual data model to projects like IMS. For example, the OKI digital asset model points to content and a variety of metadata formats. Merriman describes OKI work with ADL and IMS as, "not on orthogonal problems but rather exploring the other side of the coin."

Next-Generation Applications
OKI is also feeding into IMS the new methodology for next-generation applications. As OKI services mature, OKI plans to focus future efforts into IMS, with the knowledge that IMS can take OKI frameworks and release and maintain specifications.

ADL and IMS are also involved in multiple back-and-forth collaborations. While ADL is an active participant in IMS specification activities in order to address the specific needs of SCORM, it also gives back to IMS. After an IMS specification is released, ADL becomes an important test bed for the IMS specifications included in SCORM. Then ADL acts as a neutral party and safe haven where vendors can test implementations of various SCORM-adopted specifications. For IMS, this provides broad validation and implementation of the specifications across the vendor community.

From Specification to Standard
The IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (IEEE LTSC) represents another type of collaboration. By its nature IEEE LTSC falls at the end of the specification-to-standards continuum. Traditionally, standards organizations such as the IEEE have taken existing specifications and massaged them until there is a consensus within the organization. Only then is the standard approved.

For a few years, the IEEE LTSC took a different approach by forming working groups to develop standards. This was done in much the same way specification efforts like IMS or the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative have done before, submitting specifications to IEEE for the final standards process. One goal of the IEEE's change in approach was to shorten the time required for finalizing a standard.

Recently, the IEEE LTSC has scaled back its internal work group specification efforts in favor of promoting more involvement between IEEE LTSC and organizations like IMS and ADL. Collaborations include the co-location of meetings to promote more opportunities for discussions among the various groups. The IEEE LTSC also has begun to assemble developments in a particular learning technology area and is passing this information to various specification groups. The hope is that, with additional early input and collaboration, the specification efforts will provide the IEEE LTSC with specifications that accommodate the wide-ranging needs of its participants.

In general, these collaborative efforts have led to more productive efforts and to the development of new relationships. As a result of its cooperative efforts with IMS, SIF has an increasing awareness of other organizations that collaborate under the IMS umbrella.

For example, the ADL worked with SIF during SIF's profiling of the QTI specification. Similarly, SIF has initiated limited involvement and dialogues with OKI.

Tim Magner of SIF considers ADL and OKI to be "separate verticals with different requirements." However, he d'es see a time when the verticals will come closer together and bilateral projects might be possible. Magner believes that, "awareness of each other in a positive way is a great opportunity for the future. We may be alphabet soup in terms of identity, but we are all in the same bowl."

So what d'es all this collaboration mean for faculty members using technology to teach their classes? The sooner usable specifications are developed, the easier it will be for educators to take advantage of technological advances and produce more effective online pedagogies. Collaboration is bringing the educational community closer to long-held dreams—such as content portability—and is accelerating access to the next generation of tools to support eLearning.

Alphabet Soup: eLearning Standards Organizations

Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative

The ADL Initiative, sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, is a collaboration between government, industry, and the education community. Its goal is to establish a distributed learning environment that permits the interoperability of learning tools and course content among government agencies, schools, and businesses. To do this, the organization is developing tools, specifications, guidelines, policies, and prototypes that are: reusable; accessible from multiple remote locations; adaptable by multiple organizations; affordable through the reduction of inefficiency; and interoperable among operating systems, tools, and platforms.

IMS Global Learning Consortium Inc.
IMS began as a project of EDUCAUSE to provide open market-based standards for learning technology, particularly specifications for content metadata. Such standards would facilitate locating and using educational content, tracking learner progress, reporting learner performance, and exchanging student records between administrative systems. IMS's work includes areas such as content packaging, the Learner Information Package (LIP), the enterprise information model, and others. IMS proposed and collaborated with the IEEE to propose metadata specifications that later became a draft for the Learning Objects Metadata specification.

Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI)
The OKI, started at MIT with funding through an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, is focusing on defining open architectural specifications to support the development of educational software. Its architecture is intended to provide a modular, extensible platform for building educational applications and helping universities leverage their existing infrastructure. The organization wants to create an application programming interface (API) specification of the OKI that will be published for use by the developer community. This specification will include the common services and components of the OKI architecture. MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan have agreed to adapt their current learning management systems to the OKI architecture.

Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)
SIF is an industry initiative to develop an open specification for ensuring that K-12 instructional and administrative software applications work together effectively. SIF is not a product, but an industry-supported technical blueprint for K-12 software that will enable diverse applications to interact and share data seamlessly. SIF is backed by more than 120 education technology providers.

Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM)
When specifications become stable, the ADL incorporates them into a SCORM release. In this way SCORM is viewed as an integrative model that relies on and extends specifications from other groups. SCORM is a collection of specifications designed to enable interoperability, accessibility, and reusability of Web-based learning content. SCORM covers learning management systems, content authoring tool vendors, instructional designers, content developers, and training providers.

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