Hoping for a Year of Standards in 2004

There's a gift left unwrapped from the holidays. One that I have been waiting to open for seven years, but I really hope I can open in 2004. Standards are coming of age, and I am really looking forward to taking advantage of all the work that is maturing. Inside my package are eLearning standards for Course Management Systems.

Before proceeding, you need to know I am lumping specifications and standards into one package. To help you out, think of specification as being the early consensus of an approach to the solution for a problem. Think of a standard as the peer-reviewed blessing of the solution.

For the past few years, there have been a number of consortia working on creating standard solutions to key aspects of most course management systems. Until recently, most groups have worked in isolation. However, for the past year or so, there has been increased cooperation between groups and this has accelerated the progress in the release of workable and implementable specifications. It appears that we have reached the time to open the package.

The range of organizations working on these specifications is broad. It includes the IMS Global Learning Consortium, the Open Knowledge Initiative, and the Advanced Distributed Learning SCORM project. Others are contributing as well. Working in cooperation, one by one, these group are defining and documenting specification for key aspects of the underpinnings of eLearning.

Let's take a look at some examples of areas where standards are needed and being defined. Typically, Course Management Systems include ways of packaging course content, handling test and examination information interchange, or exchanging information between the CMS and the campus administrative systems. Of course, these functions are secondary to the delivery of course materials and other course-related activities. The problem, however, has been that the vendors, whether commercial or in-house, have taken different approaches these issues. Consequently, we have a number of solutions to common problems. We have made it more difficult to leverage fully the power of our course management system.

To illustrate a problem with the multiple solutions approach, imagine you for a second that you just opened your holiday gift. It's an electronic gizmo. However before you can use it you need to search for an adapter to plug it in. Then you need to calibrate the gizmo to match the voltage in your house. I think you would be less likely to be excited about your present, and far less likely to use it. It is a wonderful advantage that we have standard plugs for our electricity, and standard voltages behind the plug. These are key standards we rarely think about in our daily lives.

Just like our standard solution for plugs and voltage, CMS administrators and users should expect to find standard solutions in their CMS. eLearning standards are important stepping stones to improved CMS functionality. Increasingly, we are seeing more acceptance that key aspects of eLearning can have standard solutions to free resources to extend the capabilities of course management systems.

An example of how specifying solutions can lead to progress can be seen in the evolution of the work of the Open Knowledge Initiative from defining specifications to the open source implementation efforts by a number of participating OKI universities around the country.

While most specification and standards organization are not-for-profit, this d'es not mean that the commercial sector has been sitting on the sideline. It is true, that commercial vendors have not necessarily always had a strong commitment to implementing standards. For a while, it was thought that implementing proprietary solutions was a way of locking in the customer and locking out the competition. What resulted was a diversion of vendor resources to reverse engineering the competition's products to make it possible for the customer to be move from one CMS solution to another. Most notably, this was found in a number of conversion programs written to translate course packages.

Recently, the old strategies have begun to change. No longer are standards an anathema to the interests of commercial vendors. Many significant vendors are now active participants in the various specification efforts. If one thinks about it, when vendors can agree upon the "plumbing" issues, then they are free to spend more of their resources developing features that differentiate their products in the marketplace. The result of this acceptance of standards and the commitment to implement them means several things. First, customers benefit with the addition of differentiating features. Secondly, everyone benefits from the more active participation of the vendor community in the specification effort because the developed specification will be richer and more robust. Finally, standards can make campus implementations easier in multi-CMS environments.

So where d'es this leave my package? I'm hoping when I open it, my package will contain a rich set of eLearning specifications. We are getting very close to this wish. Then I am looking for implementations of these specifications in open source and commercial products. I think we are getting close, and I can't wait to open my present.

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