Educators who purchase, use, or create educational content for digital instruction should be aware of an emerging set of standards that are sure to have a profound impact on eLearning.

The Sharable Content Object Reference Model–or SCORM–is a collection of standards and specifications adapted from multiple sources to allow for the interoperability, accessibility, and reusability of digital learning materials: everything from a video clip illustrating how cells divide to a PowerPoint explication of a sonnet.

The SCORM specifications are becoming increasingly important for ensuring that digital content can be integrated into any learning management system (LMS) software, regardless of its manufacturer. What’s more, SCORM is opening the door for the creation of “digital repositories,” or collections of sharable, reusable online content that educators can search through to find items they can incorporate into their own instruction.

In the late 1990s, disparate standards-setting and specifications bodies from the United States and Europe were working on similar learning standards for digital content. The U.S. Department of Defense, which uses many online training programs in its security and defense training efforts, eventually assumed a leadership role in bringing these disparate standards-setting organizations together. Led by Defense’s Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) division, this collaboration produced the SCORM standards, the third permutation of which is set to launch in May.

SCORM has been described as the “first step” on the path to defining a true, shared eLearning architecture. SCORM identifies technical standards that enable web-based learning systems to find, import, share, reuse, and export digital content in a standardized way.

Earlier versions of SCORM, which has been around since 2000, permitted learning “objects”–presentations, tutorials, animations, simulations, audio or video files, and so on–to be shared among various LMS programs, but developers had difficulty standardizing the components that allowed for the repeatable tracking of student progress and remediation.

The developers who put together SCORM 2004 answered that concern, pulling together what is considered to be a complete reference model for creating a reusable learning object with built-in student remediation functionality. SCORM 2004 Version 3 will improve on these standards even further, its developers say.

“I usually tell administrators who are interested in SCORM that this is an insurance policy for your content,” said Judy Brown, founder of the Academic ADL Co-Lab, a public-private partnership based at the University of Wisconsin.

“If you’re developing content, the vendor that has your learning management system may go away–you don’t want that content to go with your vendor,” Brown said.

The Academic Co-Lab works with content providers and schools to promote the use of SCORM in education. As of press time, the group counts as its partners at least 60 institutions of higher education in the United States, and at least 148 companies claiming products that are SCORM-compliant.

Philip Dodds, technical director of the Academic ADL Co-Lab, said SCORM-compliant content is important for any educator who intends to deliver web-based learning content administered via some form of LMS that tracks the learner’s progress, can provide remediation, can know the learner’s proficiency in the given subject, and can guide that learner to the next level of proficiency.

Though SCORM might sound complicated, its desired outcome, explained Dodds, is quite simple–to facilitate the sharing and reusability of digital learning materials among educators.

“My ‘hobby horse’ has been that people put a lot of effort into creating good content, then it ends up being captive to a certain format or approach. It can’t be accessed, used elsewhere, and recontextualized,” said Dodds, who is described as “the chief architect of SCORM” by his colleagues. “We hope that [the untethering of content from its method of delivery] will be a big outcome of SCORM.”

Toward that end, the standard’s developers recommend that educators build SCORM compliance into their specifications when evaluating and purchasing online content and delivery systems.

Virtually all of the major LMS solutions used by schools today comply with the standard. Blackboard, WebCT, and Pathlore, for instance, all have been certified as SCORM-compliant by ADL–and the open-source Moodle system is on its way toward compliance, Brown said. But educators shouldn’t take compliance for granted; a list of SCORM-certified products is available at ADL’s web site (see the link at the end of this story).

Providers of virtual schooling solutions also are incorporating the standards into their instructional content.

The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) delivers internet-based instructional content to students nationwide, and it now requires all of its content to be based upon SCORM. Besides enabling content to be easily shared, distributed, and reused, SCORM also allows users to customize this content, said Julie Young, president and chief executive officer of FLVS.

“Our faculty doesn’t like to be handed a whole course to teach–at least not at the post-secondary level,” Young said. “Typically, they’re educated people, and they have great ideas. We want to support their creativity. They bring certain things to the classroom that we want to build on. I think that what [SCORM] will do is bring educators the ability to assemble resources and information in a way that’s best for them.”

Having a single set of standards on which to build content from the ground up–standards that allow educators to easily share and reuse content, or take the best elements from this content and tailor it to meet their own unique needs–has the potential to revolutionize instruction.

John Rathje, president and CEO of New Focus Network, a technology management firm that aims to provide a new focus on the value of technology for organizations, described the unprecedented power the SCORM reference model gives educators to tailor content to the needs of each learner.

“Before, with textbooks, you had to offer students information more or less how it was put together by the textbook company,” Rathje said. “Now, those that adhere to SCORM as a reference model can plug and play these learning [objects] to the learner’s needs. Take, for example, this whole idea of science–there are different theories. SCORM permits educators to pull content from different experts.” So, for instance, a science instructor could put together a lesson using a Flash presentation from one source, a PowerPoint presentation from another, and some mathematical calculations from a third source, he said.

SCORM, Rathje said, “defines the intended behavior and logic of pretty complex learning experiences, so the content can be reused, moved, searched for, and [presented] in different contexts.”

Rathje said textbook providers should understand what SCORM means for the future of instruction and actively anticipate those needs.

“As a textbook provider, I would want to ‘object-ize’–create learning objects out of the content–in a way that would make sure my content could be replayed for years to come,” Rathje said. “I would want to make sure that components of my content could be reused in ways that I might not even think of today.”

Content publishers did not return an eSchool News reporter’s telephone calls before press time. But, given the means to produce reusable content and share it easily online by using the SCORM reference model, some eLearning organizations aren’t waiting for traditional textbook providers to dictate how educational content will be used in the future.

In one example of SCORM’s power to transform how instructional content is assembled and distributed, the Florida Distance Learning Consortium is putting together a K-20 digital repository of high-quality learning objects collected from Florida and educational institutions across the country and mapped to Florida educational standards.

Thanks to SCORM–and an extension of these standards, the Learning Object Metadata (LOM), which is an open standard for uniformly “tagging” learning objects to make them easily searchable–the Orange Grove Project will give educators across that state a means to quickly find and use a variety of digital learning materials in their lessons.

Users of the Orange Grove repository can search by subject, keyword, or “common course number” to find content that is relevant to their needs–whether it’s a Flash demonstration on the parts of a cell, or a virtual tour of the Parthenon of Greece.

Educators have permission to incorporate all or parts of these various resources into their instruction at no cost. They’re also encouraged to contribute their own resources to the repository, so it becomes an ever-growing, dynamic collection of freely shared content objects. Educators who contribute content to the project reportedly can control the distribution of this content by specifying which users have permission to access it.

“It’s really become a global initiative,” said Susie Henderson, associate executive director of the Florida Distance Learning Consortium, of the effort to aggregate sharable, reusable digital content in repositories like hers. “I really think that, in the end, we’ll reduce cost and redundancy in terms of content and course development. I think that’s a real key thing.”

Henderson believes SCORM ultimately will be an “invisible, ubiquitous, behind-the-scenes” way for delivering instructional content.

“In the end, we don’t want people to have to understand SCORM, we really don’t want to have to talk about SCORM,” Henderson said. “It should just be a given.”

Until then, she warned, textbook providers must rethink their status and conform their content to reference models like SCORM–or suffer the fiscal consequences.

“I think that if [textbook companies] do not embrace and develop and meet the SCORM specs, they will lose market share,” Henderson said. “That is absolutely critical. The Department of Defense is requiring that all content it purchases be SCORM conformant. I think education is following [Defense’s] lead. It’s only in [schools’] best interest. I think that’s where education is headed, as people become more knowledgeable and aware.”

Links:

Advanced Distributed Learning
http://www.adlnet.gov

SCORM-Certified Products
http://www.adlnet.gov/scorm/certified/index.cfm

Academic ADL Co-Lab
http://www.academiccolab.org

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

CORDRA
http://cordra.net

Florida Distance Learning Consortium
http://www.distancelearn.org

The Orange Grove
http://lor.theorangegrove.org