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IMS member exchange: Conformance Now!

Two topics were billed for the IMS Open Technical Forum: conformance issues and e-Learning Implementation in the UK. As it turned out, specification conformance was the main topic of practically all presentations. The why and how as well as the why not was illuminated by representatives from a wide variety of organisations.

The clearest call for reliable conformance testing came from John Bell, already billed as the chief architect of the UK's nascent e-Learning Conformance Authority. The authority is projected, among other things, to produce stricter, national versions of the main elearning specifications (i.e. application profiles) and set up a conformance system for content, systems and tools. Ideally, the system should be in place within a year. While their organisations have broader remits, similar conformance initiatives were reported by Lim Kin Chew from Singapore's e-Learning Competency Centre and Kiyoshi Nakabayashi from Japan's Advanced Learner's Infrastructure Consortium (ALIC). Needless to say, all these organisations are well aware of the need to coordinate such efforts internationally.

But why is conformance such an issue to begin with? In the words of Kirk Ramsay of LearnDirect Scotland, "compliance isn't compliance, standards are not standards, objects aren't objects". That is to say, the expectation of elearning users that learning objects can simply be taken out of one Learning Management System (LMS) and work in another has not been met yet. There are specs, but they don't give a guarantee of plug and play, as a representative of the National Learning Network put it.

So what's to be done? One approach is that outlined by Jonathan Darby of the UK eUniversities Worldwide: build your own LMS, and do not worry too much about interoperability. That is not to say that UK eUniversities Worldwide is not at all interested in being able to exchange learning objects, but the priority of smooth operation and the right functionality is simply higher. Most other organisations, including specification bodies like IMS and ADL, prefer to develop conformance suites and appoint certified conformance centres, alongside the existing plugfests where developers get together to verify interoperability between their products.

The conformance certification approach is controversial, however. Xavier Sanchez of Apple, for example, expressed a preference for many, relatively simple and ubiquitous specifications that aren't necessarily tested for conformance- much like the W3C's recommendations, for example. Microsoft's Mark East put more emphasis on self-certification, as exemplified by the freely available SCORM compliance tools available from ADLnet. Smaller vendors and customers tend to be a bit suspicious when big vendors propose such loose approaches, though. Self tested conformance does mean that there are no high certification fees that raise the barrier of entry, but it also means that large vendors can easily get away with implementing their own interpretations. From the more academic side, as exemplified by Prof Laurillard's keynote, come concerns that the present state of educational technology is simply not mature enough. Pushing certification of the current standards may mean that many educators feel too constrained in the pedagogic approach they want to take.

A number of the open technical forum are available from the IMS website.

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