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The dynamic appearance model and implementing SCORM 1.3

About a year ago, the Canadian Department of National Defense presented a white paper about means to make SCORM type content truly re-useable by separating content from presentation. Now they've followed up with another white paper that gets into the nitty gritty of implementing the model while working around a number of SCORM 1.3 issues.

Though not formally presented at last week's altIlab interoperability conference at MIT, the about-to-be released white paper by the DND and Sun Microsystems is starting to do the rounds among attendees.

In essence, the white paper makes the case for truly re-useable content by providing the ability to alter the look and feel of e-learning content on the fly. Where IMS Content Packaging (and, by extension, SCORM) were specifically designed to allow re-useability, it only does so by providing a structure that can roll one or more learning objects (SCOs, in SCORM parlance) into a single, bigger object.

Which is very useful indeed, but leaves the problem of logos, navigation structures and multiple pages to the actual HMTL pages in the object itself. That is, if object A from course vendor Foo is combined with object B from vendor Bar the resulting object will look and feel distinctly disjointed because the design from Foo is unlikely to be the same as that of Bar.

What's needed, then, is a means of styling disparate content in the same way, without having to re-author all the content inside a learning object.

This is not just about nice pictures and groovy colours, it can also help provide a much more consistent learning experience by providing consistent navigation schemes within a learning object, and between several learning objects.

Not just that, it also ought to make it possible to adjust content to suit learners. This can vary from a range of accessibility features like changing the font size and colour scheme to switching to a learner's preferred language.

What the paper does is outline a framework for implementing such a Dynamic Appearance Framework by considering alternatives, and lining up existing technologies that can be used for the purpose.

One of the most crucial of these -the actual XML content format from which the rest will be derived- does still require discussion, however. As Captain Peter Hope of the DND explains, the Docbook format is specifically designed for the purpose, and also has a track record in e-learning by its inclusion in the Open University of the Netherlands' EML. But it is also fiercely complex, which is why it was dropped when EML was morphed into IMS Learning Design.

What makes the white paper compelling reading for all SCORM implementors right now, however, is the detailed discussion of SCORM 1.3 implementation issues.

Because dynamic appearance directly affects the relation between structure and the learning experience, it shows up a whole list of points where the SCORM model and its underlying specification are torn between the controlled and tracked path nature of the CMI model it inherits and the every-action-is-new, user controlled nature of the web. The authors do a good job of picking out all these chafing points, and relating them to each other.

The "Dynamic Appearance Model; Analysis and Alternatives" whit paper has not been officially released yet, but more information can be obtained by emailing the principal authors: Lieutenant Commander Roger St-Pierre and Captain Peter Hope.

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