A consortium of educators and technology executives has developed a common set of standards that will allow any kind of digital learning content–such as an electronic text, an online exam, or even a social-networking application–to be used with any type of learning management system (LMS) or student information system (SIS), or web portal.

In theory, implementing this set of free, open standards, called Common Cartridge, would give K-12 and college educators the flexibility to use any combination of materials in a collaborative, content-rich digital learning environment, without worrying about compatibility issues.

Using Common Cartridge standards also would "require less custom integration work to deploy" LMS or SIS software, said Rob Abel, chief executive of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which oversaw development of the standards.

Common Cartridge aims to solve two problems, according to the IMS web site. The first is to provide a standard way to represent digital course materials for use in online learning systems, so that content can be developed in a single format and used across a wide variety of systems. The second is to enable new publishing models for online course materials and digital books that are modular, interactive, customizable, and distributed online.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because many educators and content providers believed an earlier set of standards, called SCORM, would be able to do the same thing.

Developed by the Department of Defense, SCORM–short for Sharable Content Object Reference Model–also aims to make digital learning materials accessible, interoperable, and reusable in a variety of learning environments. (See "Gathering SCORM could transform eLearning.")

But SCORM is a much more limited set of standards, IMS says. While it works fine for stand-alone content objects–such as a video clip illustrating how cells divide, or a PowerPoint explication of a sonnet–it cannot be used to define the more collaborative, interactive learning experiences, such as an online assessment or a wiki, that are typical of today’s Web 2.0-enabled course environments.

"SCORM was developed to support [the] portability of self-paced, computer-based training content," IMS says. "This is a very different set of needs than those of digital course materials that are used to support an online course where there is a cohort of students and an instructor, teacher, or professor."

Common Cartridge is supported by a host of publishers, vendors, and LMS platforms, including McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Blackboard, and Sakai. Its supporters say it will allow greater flexibility for professors creating online or hybrid courses and could reduce the cost of deploying software solutions.

Annie Chechitelli, vice president of products at learning software company Wimba and a member of the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability Working Group, said Common Cartridge could be invaluable for professors who teach the same course on different campuses.

If a professor uses Desire2Learn to create a course platform, for instance, the standards will allow her to "reuse the learning content" if she is hired to teach the same course at another college that uses Blackboard, Chechitelli said. Without the standards, the professor could not import her course from one platform to another, meaning she would have to take hours to recreate the course online.

Abel said the standards also will make life easier for students. Teachers and their students will be able to log onto several web sites through the same account, he said, and there will be integration between each site–combining the best of every online educational resource.

"It becomes a much more seamless experience for the teacher or student," he said. "If you’re making [students’] life more complex, they’re probably not going to do well. We think it’s going to really improve [online learning] and open up the door for much more innovation for how digital learning can come together."

Chechitelli said campus IT administrators should ask their current or prospective vendors if they support (or are planning to support) Common Cartridge and its capabilities.

More than 35 organizations have contributed to the development of Common Cartridge. Formal ratification of version one (v1) of the standards was completed in December.

Developers of online courses or digital course materials can make these items Common Cartridge compatible by downloading one of many tools available to create common cartridges, such as the open-source eXe tool (http://exelearning.org).

You can also convert existing content to Common Cartridge format; IMS says the Open University converted 399 online courses to Common Cartridge by using the specification and a manual process.

With additional reporting from Managing Editor Dennis Pierce.

Links:

IMS Global Learning Consortium

Common Cartridge FAQs

Common Cartridge eLearning Product Directory

Common Cartidge specifications