E-learning lessons learned

Standards reduce compatibility problems

At first, there were two standards for videotape technology: VHS and Beta. In the end, there was VHS.

“When VHS became a de facto standard, the videotape industry took off like a shot,” said David Grebow, a marketing manager for IBM Lotus Mindspan Solutions of Armonk, N.Y. Now the Defense Department-inspired SCORM e-learning specification seems to be taking off in the same way, Grebow said.

Federal requests for proposals increasingly ask whether electronic-learning products and services comply with the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, which lets content be shared and reused on multiple learning management systems, Grebow said.

“With SCORM you can input content once and publish it in print, digitally, to a handheld device, to audio,” he said. “Content becomes usable by many people in many ways and places. That’s when e-learning really takes off.”

SCORM’s specifications were adapted from many sources. The first version of SCORM came out in 2000, and Version 1.3 is in development by the DOD-funded Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative. Version 1.3 will permit reordering of material based on factors such as student performance.

DOD established the ADL Initiative in 1997 to standardize government, industry and academic e-learning specs. There are now three ADL Co-Laboratories for cooperative research, development and assessment of new learning technology. The labs are funded for fiscal 2003 with $14 million from DOD, said Bob Wisher, director of the initiative.

Compatibility concerns

Most proprietary e-learning systems can’t talk to each other. But SCORM buyers needn’t worry that their investments in courseware and learning management systems will be incompatible, said Wisher, who works at the ADL Co-Lab in Alexandria, Va. Also, vendors that conform to the spec can reach a larger market, he said.

SCORM has increased government business for VCampus Corp. of Reston, Va., company officials said.

“SCORM lets us find other standardized content and grow our library. We’ve gone from a couple hundred courses to thousands,” said Tamer Ali, director of product management for the e-learning application service provider.

The company has contracts with the General Services and Social Security administrations and the Veterans Affairs Department. About 25 percent of VCampus’ business now is federal, compared with less than 3 percent two years ago, said Ron Freedman, vice president of government and security solutions.

Corporate buyers are following the government’s lead in requiring SCORM-compliant e-learning technology, others said.

“You may be out of business” if you don’t follow SCORM, said Michael Parmentier, a principal of Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. consultants in McLean, Va. Parmentier, former director of readiness and training at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, is a founder of the ADL Initiative.

“The overwhelming forward motion is to this functionality,” said Elliott Masie, president of the Masie Center, an e-learning think tank in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The biggest e-learning content companies are building courses to the spec, but smaller companies are not moving as quickly, he said.

John Alonso, chief technology officer of OutStart Inc. of Boston, said SCORM conformance was a major reason his company won a $7.5 million Navy contract. OutStart’s software is used to create e-learning content.

“Of all the clients we have, there is not a single one that does not see SCORM as necessary,” he said.

Jamie Watt, associate director of government solutions at Blackboard Inc. of Washington, said he has seen similar interest.

“A year ago, SCORM was part of the discussion during the evaluation, but there was always a question as to what [compliance] meant. Now it’s more crystallized, and it’s pretty much a check box in every evaluation in the government market,” Watt said.

Blackboard, a learning management system provider, recently launched a building block that helps SCORM-compliant content work with the Blackboard learning management system.

Blackboard collaborated on the building block with the National Defense University’s IRM College at Fort McNair in Washington. The entire curriculum is available online, said Mike Miller, the college’s chief technology officer.

The Blackboard LMS provides access to all course materials, online discussions and the college library. “Across the government, a tremendous amount of money is spent developing lesson materials. One of SCORM’s goals is economic—to share content regardless of the LMS. We really wanted to be able to do that,” Miller said. “We are on a glide path to take full advantage of SCORM.”

Other agencies can get the building block for free, Miller added, at www.blackboard.com. “It’s your tax dollars,” he said. “It made sense to say ‘When we’re done, let’s just give it away.’ ”
E-learning content built on SCORM can be shared across agencies and with nongovernment entities such as colleges and universities. It also can share small pieces of the courses, called learning objects, such as book chapters or videos.

SCORM-compliant courses can be updated without recreating them. If, for example, the Supreme Court rules on a diversity case, “it’s relatively inexpensive to just change that piece” of an e-learning course, Masie said.

Shares well with others

Many agencies want to share content, said Mike Fitzgerald, e-training project manager at the Office of Personnel Management. OPM manages a cross-agency training initiative, the Gov Online Learning Center. Since its July launch, about 40 agencies have signed up to train their employees via www.golearn.gov. More than 30 free courses are available on topics ranging from project management to government ethics.

In January, the center will make more courses available on a fee-for-service basis, Fitzgerald said. OPM requires commercial content to conform to SCORM and asks agencies that want to share custom content to do the same, he said.

“It’s not a legislative or policy requirement, but from a business standpoint, to share and reuse content objects makes sense,” he said.

Through portals such as golearn.gov, federal managers are discovering the value of reusability, Parmentier said. With SCORM, they’ll be able to provide better learning experiences, faster and cheaper.

Like the VHS standard, “it will spiral from there,” he said.

Gail Repsher Emery is a staff writer at Washington Technology, a Post Newsweek Tech Media publication.

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