XML: New formula for e-learning

As the electronic-learning market matures, a growing number of vendors and federal agencies are embracing XML—Extensible Markup Language—to streamline the way e-learning software is built and handles information.

XML provides a standard way to tag or mark up information, such as student data and course material, so that it is easy to read and exchange. Among its many uses, XML helps e-learning ven-dors develop applications faster, reuse course content more easily, and smooth data exchange between the Web-based courseware, or content, and the learning management system, which is the student administration system.

It also allows agencies to make their e-learning systems more useful through tighter integration with other software, such as human resources management systems and e-commerce Web sites.

Although surely gaining in popularity, the use of XML is still not universal in the e-learning market. And when it is used, it is not always done so in a consistent manner. For now, the lesson for agencies interested in using XML- enabled e-learning products is to understand clearly the benefits they want to obtain and choose products carefully to make sure they can deliver those benefits.

One point is clear—the word on XML is out. "We get [requests for proposals] all the time now asking if we are XML-compliant," said Lori Gavin, director of software development at Learnframe Inc., a learning management system provider in Draper, Utah.

Indeed, the Interior Department's DOI University plans to require XML compliance when it selects a new learning management system. Interior provides training to 75,000 employees in its many bureaus, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey. It already uses NETg and SkillSoft Corp. e-learning courseware that it tracks through a Microsoft Corp. Access database.

Interior is waiting to buy a learning management system until it finds one that will work with the enterprise resource planning software from SAP Public Sector and Education Inc., which the department is in the midst of deploying. "We want to use XML to link e-learning to employee records, to link training management to HR management," said Ross Allan, a computer specialist at DOI University, Washington, D.C. Allan said he is also hoping to use XML to tie the department's bureaus together.

Both Allan and Gavin said XML is relatively easy to use. "Anyone who can use a commercial reporting tool should be able to define reports using XML," Gavin said. "You don't have to be a programmer to use XML, but you do have to be an above-average user."

Learnframe uses XML in three areas of software development, Gavin said. First, it is used to communicate a mapping of user requests to server-side requests. Second, it defines reporting queries, and third, XML is used as a data input and export mechanism.

"XML has helped us in our development cycle, when we had a reporting group and a database group developing in parallel," Gavin said. "They both used XML as the data descriptor, making the integration between the components much easier."

E-learning content provider SkillSoft, Nashua, N.H., began using XML in the past year. "When we moved from our first-generation to our second- generation tool development, we changed the design to use XML internally instead of using old database formats," said Mark Townsend, SkillSoft's vice president of product development.

Sun Educational Services also embraced XML last year. "We decided in the last six months to move from a proprietary format to XML to store user profile and personal preference information," said Chuck Young, data architect for Sun Educational Services, Broomfield, Colo., and the Sun technical representative on the Instructional Management Systems standards board. The IMS Global Learning Consortium, run by Eduprise in Boston, originally developed the IMS standard from the academic community. It has been using XML for two years.

XML also gives vendors the flexibility to create a customizable user interface architecture. "Using XML, third-party developers can easily customize our user interface to integrate with their products," said Learnframe's Gavin.

Although most learning manage-ment system providers use the oldest e-learning specification, created by the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC), the standard gaining the most traction today is the Shareable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM), which is based mostly on XML. To encourage the widespread use of e-learning, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy developed SCORM three years ago.

"AICC has made it possible to use XML files, although it's a retrofit," said Bryan Chapman, an e-learning analyst at brandon-hall.com, a research firm in Sunnyvale, Calif. The AICC standard "doesn't take advantage of how XML is structured to show relationships and subrelationships in groupings. The standard existed long before XML was available. On the other hand, SCORM is centered around how XML is structured."

The SCORM standards group hopes its basis in XML will encourage not only cross-application but also cross-industry data interchange. "We are trying to adopt in the e-learning world some of the successes we have seen with XML in the e-business world. It's a user-friendly, easy language for e-business transactions between suppliers and their customers," said Jerry West, technical director at the Advanced Distributed Learning Co- Laboratory, the organization leading SCORM development.

Within e-learning, XML will facilitate the development of online searchable content repositories, West said. But that may not happen right away. The refinement of standards still has a way to go.

"It's pretty clear that XML will be the underlying standard technology for exchanging courseware," said Ron Yanosky, a senior analyst at the Higher Education Technology Strategies research group of Gartner Group Inc., Stamford, Conn. "But the standards are so immature that compliance doesn't result in interoperability. You see a lot of halfway compliance." One reason for the popularity of the new SCORM standard is the hope that it will progress toward a more defined idea of what constitutes compliance. With AICC, there are nine or 10 specifications, and it is not necessary to be compliant with all of them, Yanosky said.

Regardless of the standard, the standards development process is similar across groups. "Creating standards remains a political process," Yanosky said. "Inevitably, there are interested parties that want it to go this way or that way. And there's enough wiggle room in all of these standards so that people are still dependent on the peculiarities of the individual e-learning system."

One major vendor is proceeding with caution. "You won't see much XML in [Lotus] LearningSpace until the standards expand," said Dennis Careri, senior director of development for IBM Corp.'s Mindspan Solutions. "AICC doesn't give us all the capability we need. SCORM has far more capability."

IBM would like to see the standards incorporate collaboration in tracking, such as in a discussion database. This would infuse e-learning with the groupware-like capabilities in Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes product. (IBM acquired Lotus in 1995.)

Interior has set up a steering committee to follow standards development and to decide which to use. "The steering committee sets up guidelines that the department follows," Allan said. The guidelines determine which version of XML the department has to use in its e-learning products, he said.

Some users are intrigued, but they are not rushing toward XML. "We've started to look into it for a lot of the dynamic abilities it will give us. But there's only so much time and capital available, so we haven't gone yet to XML," said Maj. Wayne Mann, mission crew commander, Air National Guard, McChord Air Force Base, Tacoma, Wash. Mann uses Learnframe's Pinnacle system.

Gerber is a freelance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

XML helps teach same lesson twice One of the chief strengths of Extensible Markup Language is its flexibility. Instead of having to rewrite content for different formats, electronic learning vendors can use XML to separate content from the way it is presented. That allows them to repurpose the content and makes tailoring courses for specific audiences easier and faster.

"We do single-source authoring utilizing XML," said Chuck Ferguson, Sun Educational Services' e-learning instructional technology manager. "XML allows us to create structured content that we can then manipulate in different ways to achieve different educational deliverables."

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