In the mid 90’s, before there were commercial LMSs, we built one. At a major U.S. company, management tasked me with reducing the cost of our training registration call center by moving typical enrollment, student records, and classroom management online. We succeeded, except for one thing: at the time, we could not figure out how to seamlessly manage all the online content we were starting to buy from a variety of emerging e-Learning courseware firms.
As you might imagine, the burgeoning online courseware marketplace presented great opportunities for a global company like ours. Visions of efficiencies, economies of scale, and cost reductions danced in our heads. But as we spoke to e-Learning content companies, we became acutely aware of a major problem – each company’s product line came with its own, proprietary management system. We asked repeatedly how we could use and share courseware from multiple vendors in an integrated environment. And each time we got the same answer, “if you buy our courses, you must use our delivery platform.” And who could blame them? It was a brilliant way to lock-in their customers and keep out competitors.
OK, we blamed them. Like the fictional Howard Beale in the movie Network, we got mad as “you-know-what” and we weren’t going to take it anymore! Lots of other companies felt the same way we did.
Enter ADL, the Advanced Distributed Learning initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense. In 1999, it established a laboratory to develop technical interoperability standards for e-Learning. The result was SCORM, ADL’s “Sharable Content Object Reference Model.” SCORM allowed courseware from multiple vendors to run on the same platform and communicate seamlessly through a single LMS. Today, online courseware that is “SCORM compliant,” created by SCORM-compliant authoring tools, is pretty much assured of working with SCORM-compliant LMSs. With SCORM, the online courseware and LMS markets exploded.
SCORM’s success depends on strict observance of standards. While this is great for interoperability, it creates problems for instructional design. Like any set of rules, there were things you could and could not do. After all, if everyone did their own thing, how would SCORM be able to manage and track everything? It wouldn’t. Yet instructional design, by its very nature, is as much art as it is science, and instructional designers are, by their very nature, artists and experimenters, as much as they are technical specialists. Building to SCORM standards often meant eschewing more engaging creative and innovative approaches. Over the years, new versions and updates to SCORM offered more flexibility in course design in an effort to keep up with the advances taking place in the field, but the speed of the advances outpaces these efforts.
The emergence of new technologies and the rise of informal and social learning create new challenges for ADL that go beyond the purpose and capabilities of SCORM. As learning strategies expand and as the very nature of e-Learning is redefined, standardized interoperable courseware becomes just one of many tools in an ever larger e-Learning toolbox. Knowledge management, social media, and performance support are not SCORM compliant; they were never intended to be. As information, collaboration and real-time support solutions become as important as instructional solutions, if not more so, it’s becoming clear that, going forward, SCORM may be too limited for these new approaches.
Recognizing this, ADL has launched its Future Learning Experience Project. According to the project’s Website, “Learning experiences involving non-traditional electronic content, distributed content, shared learning data, team-based learning, and multi-modal delivery are beyond what SCORM was architected to enable. ADL supports new work that meets distributed learning needs beyond SCORM.”
That ADL will continue to support current SCORM standards is good news. That it will be embarking on a new direction beyond traditional courseware standards is great news. At DevLearn last fall, when Aaron Silvers, the Community Manager for ADL, noted that the initiative “…is on the design of these future experiences, rather than on the architecture,” he was signaling ADL’s recognition of the complexities of new learning design strategies and their transcendence of technical standards.
Back in the day, cries for interoperability fell on deaf ears until ADL came along and brought SCORM to reality. SCORM’s usefulness remains, but its role in an increasingly complex e-Learning future may be less critical. Today, smart designers and e-Learning specialists, and ADL itself, recognize the need to go beyond SCORM. One of the most intriguing and valuable qualities of any organization willing to change is its readiness to stop what it is doing, no matter how valuable and loved that work is, and move in a new direction, to re-channel its energies with pride without abandoning its accomplishments. Beyond SCORM itself, this may be one of the main reasons for ADL’s staying power and its continuing influence on our field.
Alexander Graham Bell once said, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” As ADL moves us in a new, interesting, and important direction, Bell’s comment is something to keep in mind.
(Editor’s Note: Marc Rosenberg is hosting the Foundations Intensive Program, March 21-22, and delivering the session “Learning 2.0: Implications for Managers” as part of the Management Xchange track at The Learning Solutions Conference & Expo in Orlando, March 23-25. Both of these offerings deliver information and skills that will be critical to your success during the next 12 to 18 months. Please see the program information online at http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/content/1780/learning-solutions-conference-2011-home )