New standards for nonstandard learning

Most students who use distance-learning programs don't really care about the standards that facilitate the interaction between the two parts of an e-learning system: the learning management system (the administrative part) and the courseware (the actual training materials). And with some products now available, they don't have to care.

For example, LearningSpace software — from IBM Corp. and its subsidiary Lotus Development Corp. — is so tightly integrated with the courseware in the Army School of Cadet Command's e-learning system that Eric Miller, a training technician at the school, can barely tell where the boundary is between the learning management system and the courseware. At the same time, he said, he wants flexibility from the integrated system.

E-learning users should be able to enjoy an increasing amount of flexibility once a newly formed technology group delivers the results of its work on e-learning standards. Formed in April by e-learning industry leaders, the Customized Learning Experiences Online (CLEO) group is building specifications to achieve what IBM and Lotus call "prescriptive learning."

"It's not defined yet, but the expectation is that CLEO would make it easy to change the order of course tasks," explained Dennis Careri, senior director of product management at Lotus. "And it will help to provide prescriptive learning, which is based on personal preferences or need."

CLEO will first affect course or content designers by enabling them to build logic around the structure or sequence of courses. "We'll take a hard-wired data model to a more flexible framework, in a more modular way, so pieces can be added as necessary to support different kinds of learning," explained Tyde Richards, the e-learning interoperability expert with IBM Mindspan Solutions. Eventually, the standards will benefit users by giving them more freedom and flexibility in how they learn. An early example is in bookmarking, an ability that Lotus incorporated into the latest version of LearningSpace 4.01. Most e-learning systems can show users whether they have started or completed a module in a course, but they don't let users bookmark where they left off in the middle of a module, which would allow them to return to the same place when they resume working.

It's not enough for LearningSpace to offer the ability to recognize bookmarking. It must be built into the courseware. "Bookmarking resides in the content," said Martha Mealy, product marketing manager for IBM Mindspan Solutions. "If the logic hasn't been built into the content, then the learning management system can't track it. But bookmarking logic must be built with standards that both the content and the learning management system have implemented."

The CLEO group hopes to advance those standards as well as standards that provide a consistent look and feel across divergent e-learning systems. As learning management systems such as LearningSpace have grown more sophisticated, they have become more capable of managing more content from different sources, Careri said.

But the increasing sophistication ushers in another problem — that of user interface consistency, also known as graphical skins. "If you take content from multiple sources, how do you guarantee some degree of user interface consistency across them for things like navigation?" Richards asked. The CLEO group hopes to establish a solution.

But greater flexibility and ease of use will not arrive overnight.

"It's still going to be a while before you see products that take advantage of CLEO standards," said James Lundy, research director for knowledge and information management at Gartner Inc.

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