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Big vendors reaffirm commitment to standards

Which is nice, but what does that mean outside of their marketing departments? For a start, a promise to hold them against. But there's more.

The second day of the eLearningresults conference in Sestri Levante, Italy, was pretty much dedicated to the plans of the major vendors. IBM, for instance, touted its early support for SCORM, as well as its sponsoring of the SCORM related IEEE/LTSC standardisation effort.

Microsoft decided to concentrate on their commitment to SIF, with a goal to keep data as portable and neutral as possible. If that sounds a bit peculiar from that court, it should be remembered that the whole thing was presented by Tim Magner, the former director of SIF. I.e. they liked that standard so much, they bought its brains. Microsoft will even built SIF functionality into its education server product. They can't really buy the SIF standard itself, though, so it represents an interesting direction for that vendor.

Intel had a slightly different take on all this: since they sell PC hardware rather than software, they outlined a rather interesting VLE. They have a high elearning demand internally, and noticed they needed to run their system on some serious big iron, while consuming lots of bandwidth to and from their further flung offices. So rather than continue down that path, they decided to make the system peer to peer, and cache a lot of data locally. This way, they managed to offload 75% of bandwidth off the internet, and onto the local lan. Also, storage and computing capacity increased exponentially- not a problem with shiny new PCs, of course...

Software AG also touted a nice idea: elearning technology as a webservice. This would involve publishing each learning object as a webservice, by putting it into a repository, which would push out WSDL to a UDDI directory. What's in it for them is that it puts even more functionality into XML, a technology they focussed the entire company on.

Commitment to interoperability standards is nearly the USP of Giunti. Hence the fact that they hosted the eLearningresults do, and the fact that they are active in very nearly all of the standards acronyms, and most of the specs and standards within them. Also, with a little help from the European Commission, they are directly involved in the setting of new standards in the mobile sphere via the Mobilearn project.

Sun's take on the whole standards issue revolved around their well known network revolution idea. That is, they have a vested interest in moving functionality away from PCs to dedicated servers- their main revenue stream. Bit of a contrast with Intel there, but it means that Grace Caulfield's "open standards are mandatory" is entirely understandable: Sun can't hope or even want to control the whole network from end to end, so open collaboration with people who make small access devices (mobile phones and PDAs), specific learning applications and other bits is vital.

Cisco is another hardware outfit, but one that actually had quite a hand in designing and using the first learning objects for their own training. Interestingly, Peg Maddocks indicated that the 'R' in their Reusable Learning Object (RLOs) led to quite a bit of resistance, which led to a pronounced de-emphasis and lower-casing of that letter.

WebCT also made quite a pitch of their standard support, but being a pure eLearning company, it is worth examining their motivations for doing so. Kim Voltero pointed to three: collaborating on e-learning challenges, making use of a forum for consensus between partners and competitors and reduction of development costs. The first two are entirely laudable, but don't increase profit very directly. The third one does, to the point that using IMS Enterprise saved them 50% in development costs. That said, WebCT have a thorough notion that standards support needs to be built into the architecture. That's not the cheapest way short term, but it means that supporting integration with an unknown partner is easier, as is the adoption of new standards.

The proof of this standard pudding is in the proverbial eating, of course, but it is encouraging to see that a lot of companies are recognising that playing nice with other people's data and tools is in their own best interest.

Presentations of all these and many more people will be available from the eLearningresults website.

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