As an interested party in the developments around online training course and technical standards, we here at BizLibrary have been watching courseware standards unfold over the last couple of years with a high degree of interest. Our clients are confused, and so, it seems, is most of the market.
The confusion, truthfully, is well-founded.
Amid all of the confusion and writing about courseware standards, we know a few things:
- SCORM 2004 never really grabbed the market.
- SCORM 1.2 standards are nearly 15 years old.
- AICC—the association that managed these standards—ceased to exist effective January 2015, and these standards are two years older than SCORM 2.1.
- xAPI looks like the future of courseware standards, but we are all waiting on the next round of published standards.
Confused? You’re not alone if you are, and to be honest, that’s OK. SCORM and AICC courseware are going to be around for quite some time. The Advanced Distributed Learning initiative (“ADL”) took over for the Aviation Industry CBT [Computer-Based Training] Committee to keep up with AICC developments while they work on the next round of updates to xAPI. SCORM courseware is all over the market, and with so much legacy courseware and so many legacy technology platforms still using SCORM standards, don’t expect rapid migration to anything new.
However, the current situation isn’t working all that well. A little bit of history and context might help explain the challenges we all face in the current environment and why the move toward a new set of, dare we say this, more open and less structured standards has great promise for the entire training industry.
Why Standards at All?
This strikes us as the most fundamental of all questions, and, unfortunately, it’s one that frequently is not answered very clearly. The genesis of both sets of legacy standards—SCORM and AICC—is found in U.S. government training programs.
SCORM stands for “sharable content object reference model.” It is a set of design standards that are supposed to result in the production of small, reusable e-learning objects. The standards are the product of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative. The ADL remains a prominent player in the learning technology and standards space.
AICC stands for Aviation Industry CBT [Computer-Based Training] Committee. This association of technology-based training professionals developed training guidelines for the aviation industry. Effective January 2015, the committee formally closed shop and the ADL assumed responsibility for the standards as part of its effort to publish the next iteration of xAPI standards. The AICC standard has always applied to e-learning content developed to be delivered and evaluated through technology platforms—usually learning management systems.
So the standards came about to bring some degree of uniformity to the technical specifications of “old-school” e-learning content. When courseware conforms to either SCORM or AICC standards, the theory is that the course can be deployed in any compatible technology platform. There wasn’t much about the early development of these standards that addressed the end-user experience directly.
SCORM 1.2 and SCORM 2004
The major commercial player in development of SCORM and keeping SCORM evolving presented at a conference where a new standard called “Tin Can” (which we will cover below) was introduced. Here is a slide from the actual presentation available at SlideShare: http://www.slideshare.net/mikerustici/project-tin-can
The caption is deliberately out of focus, but it says “SCORM is [the word “is” has a strikethrough] WAS State of the Art.” Now, when the primary commercial proponent of a set of technical standards presents at a major conference and declares that those very standards are no longer state of the art, it’s worth paying attention. It’s not that SCORM isn’t widely in use, because it is. The e-learning world is literally awash in SCORM-compliant content, and for many valid reasons. Nearly every major self-authoring tool publishes content in SCORM. Many learning management system (LMS) platforms are SCORM compliant. So what is going on?
Well, it turns out that SCORM standards don’t work particularly well in today’s technology environment. SCORM standards were first published when the term, “CBT,” described “state-of-the-art” learning technology. Smartphones were a futuristic ideal. The Web 2.0 was still in its infancy. The world changed. SCORM 2004, the latest update to the standard, is more than 10 years old, and this version has never really caught on for a range of reasons. Some 75 percent of all SCORM content remains on SCORM 1.2 more than 10 years after SCORM 2004’s release. That really says it all about whether SCORM 2004 fixed anything.
See http://blog.efrontlearning.net/2013/04/why-scorm-2004-failed-what-that-means-for-tin-can.html for a great explanation.
Here’s another way to think about it. A large segment of the training profession and industry is http://blog.efrontlearning.net/2013/04/why-scorm-2004-failed-what-that-means-for-tin-can.html using courseware technical standards (SCORM 1.2, released October 2001) that were developed and published before:
- Toyota Prius
- iPhones (smartphones)
- iPads (tablets)
The upshot of this reality is that the prevailing and dominant SCORM standards were designed and published in a technology world that bears no resemblance at all to today’s technology and Web environment. Learning today is widely dispersed and mobile, video-centric and shorter than ever before. SCORM standards, while at one time state of the art, do not currently reflect the existing market realities of employee learning and technology.
AICC standards, like the SCORM standards, have been updated over the years since they first were introduced. Like SCORM, not every aspect of AICC has kept pace with market conditions, but there are some aspects of AICC that work in today’s market, and they have to do with their genesis—aviation industry training. Right from the start, aviation training relied heavily on images and simulations to deliver simulated training environments for users. Consequently, AICC standards have helped LMS and content vendors alike continue to deliver video-based content that can be readily accessed on mobile devices. Now, that’s not to say AICC is perfect. Far from it.
In fact, in 2012, AICC and ADL announced a partnership: http://blog.efrontlearning.net/2013/04/why-scorm-2004-failed-what-that-means-for-tin-can.html . This partnership and collaboration with the “Experience API” is an effort to bring uniformity to the specification area. AICC had been working on a new specification called Computer Managed Instruction (CMI 5). Had the AICC standards been more up to date and on target, this partnership would never have been necessary.
Technical Challenges with Content
There are several technical challenges for courseware on the Web. The competing standards try to deal with these items, but not always with great success. SCORM was plagued with Cross Domain Security problems. Cross Domain Security is serious. Content from one site may not typically interact with content on another site. In SCORM, content served from one domain (www.vendorxyz.com) doesn’t link or talk to an LMS that resides in a different domain (www.mycompanyLMS.com). This protects us all normally but causes problems for SCORM and e-learning. In October 2003, ADL published http://www.adlnet.gov/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ADL_CrossDomainScripting_1_0.pdf to outline some resolutions, but they are not uniform for the industry. These Cross Domain Security issue remains a constant for organizations choosing SCORM standards.
Browsers change and evolve. Java in the browser is a huge challenge, not to mention that it never worked for mobile device Web browsers. In fact, the final countdown whereby Java script will no longer play in Chrome has begun: http://blog.chromium.org/2014/11/the-final-countdown-for-npapi.html
You don’t want to deal with Java? Use Ajax calls. However, that pesky Cross Domain Security issue then hits you when you use any flavor of SCORM and sometimes even AICC. So neither set of standards is perfect in this regard, but SCORM really suffers.
A great alternative from Java that can be used with Ajax for cross domain communication is window.postMessage. You can view Mozilla’s write-up here: https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/API/Window.postMessage
So what is the solution? Thankfully, one might be coming!
Tin Can API
When Rustici Software first announced the introduction of yet another version of SCORM called the Tin Cap API, it quickly became the “buzz word de jour” in the training technology industry. Everyone, it seemed, wanted their LMS to be “Tin Can” compliant. The problem was, nobody had time to develop the code to meet the supposed need for the new standard, and further, it was unclear exactly what benefits the new standard brought to the industry, especially from the end users’ perspective.
Tin Can API—n/k/a The Experience API (xAPI)
Tin Cap API was re-labeled after a few initial versions and now we have the Experience API (xAPI). Maybe this “standard” finally will get standards out of the way of the learning experience. Maybe not. That said, the current movement in the standards area contains some encouraging signs for everyone. The strict structures of the old SCORM standards look like they may be a thing of the past. The Experience API will allow for developers to determine exactly what is tracked and when. But the standards allow for the core architecture of courseware to be far more open, meaning far less standardization. This will be uncomfortable for many Learning professionals. However, neither SCORM nor AICC is going anywhere for a while.
The developers of xAPI learned from the technical constraints and failures of the past. xAPI represents an effort to do the yeoman’s work of creating tangible learning data and metrics from distributed reporting systems. Is this unique in the world? No. Is it useful? Definitely.
We feel that xAPI probably will have more impact in the learning environments not by number of people using the standard but how the standards are starting to create conversations about data. xAPI is a de-normalized, data-centric view of learning. What does that mean? For those of us non-technical types, it means the standard puts data about learning at the forefront of the technical aspects of courseware. We will see far fewer constraints on what courseware can do inside technology solutions. In other words, we might see some interesting and innovative advances in the end-user experience. Does that mean xAPI will solve all the problems of the training world? Probably not, but the new standards that are forthcoming represent a significant step in the right direction.
BizLibrary and the Standards
At BizLibrary we are starting to think beyond standards and courseware. The standards are not the greatest for modern, short-form video content. Video works seamlessly inside a platform that is made to display video, and the end-user experience is exactly what we want. That’s one of the reasons our platform works the way it does. It is made with content delivery as its focus and a defined end-user experience as the goal. The video content loads quickly, launches and plays reliably, and clients get the full reporting they expect from the data points they typically want.
AICC can be used for mobile content delivery at a rudimentary level. But let’s face it, mobile isn’t the future of employee learning. It’s the present. Will xAPI enable mobile delivery? No. A responsive immersive user experience will enable mobile delivery. xAPI might be utilized behind the scenes for reporting learning in a uniform way. In the end, we need content developed with mobile consumption in mind, not built to conform to any type of courseware standard.
The Web Is Changing and Distributed
The technical challenges are very real. The emergence of courseware standards introduced 15-plus years ago represented real solutions to market problems that existed at the time the standards were introduced. But that’s the catch: When were they first published? SCORM 1.2 was released in 2001. AICC was first published in 1998! Websites and apps that are six months old sometimes now are considered out of date. How can we hold ourselves to standards and issues identified so many years ago?
Ultimately, standards shouldn’t matter. Really. Not at all. All clients should care about is the user experience. Does content work? Does content get in the hands of employees quickly, effectively, and efficiently? Is the content of high quality? If these questions all can be answered, “Yes,” the technical standards surrounding the content ought to be irrelevant.
For a good summary of the standards, read: http://scorm.com/scorm-explained/business-of-scorm/scorm-versions/
Les Wight is the chief technology officer and Chris Osborn is the vice president of Marketing at BizLibrary, a leading provider of online employee training and e-learning solutions. The BizLibrary Collection contains thousands of online videos and e-learning courses covering every business training topic, including: business skills, leadership and management, sales and customer service, HR compliance training, IT, software, industry specific content, and workplace safety. The BizLibrary Collection can be accessed online through BizLibrary’s Learning Management System (LMS) or through any third-party LMS. Technology solutions include: BizLibrary’s Learning Portal, Content Management System, LMS, and BizLibrary Mobile App to help clients improve and manage employee learning across the entire organization. Learn more at www.bizlibrary.com.