Learning to share

From the Defense Department to the Internal Revenue Service, federal officials are embracing e-learning to teach managers the ins and outs of team building, help soldiers earn a computer science degree or teach the basics of

microeconomics.

But in many ways, building an e-learning system can be a lesson itself. One of the biggest problems organizations face is how to integrate into the electronic courseware the content that is often located in different places on different systems and in different formats.

E-learning content can come from many sources — agency experts, books, course libraries and random documents. It can come in the form of a PowerPoint presentation or a 10-minute video clip. It can be created from scratch and customized to meet a unique need. It can be purchased as an off-the-shelf package from a content provider. Content can be an agency asset that hasn't been discovered yet.

The challenge in many cases is not only defining and locating what content belongs on an e-learning system but also integrating that content so that it can be managed centrally, shared and reused by many people.

Many e-learning systems grew up in piecemeal fashion without consideration of the big picture. This created content and e-learning islands. Now, agency officials are thinking about

e-learning on an enterprisewide scale and, as the Office of Personnel Management's e-Training initiative illustrates, even on a governmentwide basis.

For these ambitious projects, agency officials understand that finding standard ways to manage and reuse content is critical to making the effort more affordable.

"The reusability aspect is where the Navy hopes to save money," said Michelle Bruce, founder and vice president of services at OutStart Inc., which is helping the Navy revamp its e-learning systems. "They are now identifying where there is overlap and tagging content and putting it into the system so it can be reused."

Off-the-shelf technology and industry standards provide part of the solution for integrating e-learning systems and content. Agencies are also discovering that the procedures they use to identify content worth integrating, paired with cost-

effective strategies for bringing it into a unified system, are equally important.

Defining integration

Part of the problem with discussing integrating e-learning content is that people do not agree on a single meaning of the concept.

The idea includes the ability to incorporate different types of content into an electronic system and for the content to interact seamlessly with the learning management system (LMS), which is the central recordkeeping software that lets managers plan, track and assess employee training. With e-learning systems, agency officials commonly buy an LMS from one vendor and canned content or content development tools from another.

Content integration also means allowing administrators to move content to different systems on the network or mixing and matching content on a single system. The differing objectives may involve separate approaches.

In government, agencies also are struggling with a tremendous amount of existing content, which makes integration more challenging, according to Ed Cohen, chief technology officer at LMS vendor Plateau Systems Ltd. "It's like having thousands of albums and buying a CD player," he said. "What will you do with your albums?"

One of the first questions agencies must answer is whether there is a compelling reason to rewrite or repackage the content and offer it in a different format, he said. Often agencies don't have the source code for the older content, or no one knows the software language in which the content was written.

If people are learning well from courseware stored on a CD-ROM, does it make sense to move those courses to a Web-based system? Officials shouldn't "move content from one media to another just for the sake of a standard," Cohen said.

For newly developed content, the best way to get some measure of interoperability is to buy products that support one or more industry standards.

A popular specification is the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), which sets guidelines for developing online course materials and makes Web-based training materials interoperable and therefore easily shared. Officials at DOD's Advanced Distributed Learning initiative endorse SCORM. Another specification that some government agencies use is from the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC), a standards organization.

Macromedia Inc. is among the many vendors offering content development tools that support SCORM. Breeze, for instance, allows users to add narration, audio, Flash movies and quizzes to PowerPoint presentations. Similar to other Macromedia tools, it makes a self-contained SCORM content package that contains the content, metadata about the content, and an Extensible Markup Language packing list. Users can import and upload the content into the training catalog on the LMS. Student performance is tracked and sent via the client Web browser to the LMS using the standard SCORM JavaScript application program interface, according to Tom King, manager for e-learning integration at Macromedia.

"An LMS without content is useless," King said. "The key from a vendor perspective is supporting a wide variety of media formats" so that users can create the content and integrate it into their e-learning system.

There is also broad support among LMS vendors for e-learning standards. Plateau Systems Ltd., Saba Software Inc. and Thinq Learning Solutions Inc. are among the companies that offer SCORM-compliant learning management systems. As part of their support for the standards, LMS vendors test their systems with SCORM-

compliant content to make sure the integration works. Saba and Thinkq offer fee-based testing labs for verifying interoperability between content and their learning management systems.

But standards don't solve the problem completely, and true plug-and-play products won't be here for some time, said Joe Dougherty, president of NETg Inc., which develops and sells e-learning content.

"Standards help, but it's misleading to say that standards make everything seamless," he said.

For example, the company's

e-learning courses comply with AICC standards and SCORM, but the company still had to work with LMS provider Thinq to develop some custom code so that both companies' products would work together seamlessly, Dougherty said.

Standards often don't address complex scenarios such as the ins and outs of a customer's infrastructure, said Joe Blasko, director of content engineering at Thinq.

So where do you turn when you want to integrate content with an LMS but can't or don't want to rely on the original vendors to work out the kinks? One option is to use a service provider who can take care of the integration.

Trifus N.A. LLC is one of numerous companies that offer an integration framework that sits between an LMS and the content to make sure they work together. Trifus focuses its support on the most popular LMS and content providers and can deploy the integration solution on the customer's network or host it on a Trifus-maintained server as a fee-based service, according to Kimberly Woodward, vice president of product strategy at the company.

Of course, a main reason to integrate content is to reduce the cost of creating and managing e-learning course material. Along these lines, OutStart is among several vendors that have been working with Navy officials on their evolution-in-training initiative, which aims to expand access to and thus reuse various types of online training materials across the Navy.

The program is built on an infrastructure called the Integrated Learning Environment (ILE). Much of the content for the initiative comes from existing material that has been redesigned, repurposed and incorporated into the ILE, OutStart's Bruce said.

OutStart's Evolution product acts as the central learning content management system (LCMS) for the Navy's effort. This LCMS ties into the various learning management systems around the Navy and provides a way to store, manage and track the content the Navy uses.

Without the LCMS, Bruce said, content would be stored on individual LMS content servers and would not be accessible to those elsewhere in the Navy for reuse. Now, courseware metadata is stored in the LCMS, and because it supports SCORM standards, Navy employees can easily search for specific content, even down to levels such as a chapter in a book, on any LMS.

The content assets are aggregated into chunks of data called reusable information objects that are stored in a repository. All of the content is mapped into a SCORM-compliant model, which is expressed in a common, machine-processable vocabulary, said Pericles Haleftiras, chief technology officer and director of software solutions at Antin Engineering Inc., which also is working on the Navy project.

This package of information can then be more easily exchanged and understood among different groups once the groups are mapped to each other, he said.

"Content integration now is the next step in the Navy being able to reduce their content development costs," said Mike Bennett, manager of large-scale systems integration for Antin.

Experts say that before agencies dive into the how-to's of e-learning content integration and the various standards and technical issues, they should first figure out what they want to accomplish.

"You have to have a clear understanding of what you want to do with content," NETg's Dougherty said. "Once you have that in mind, it will make it easier to select vendors to converse with and try to formulate a strategy."

O'Hara is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.

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