Learning Technology Standards: An Overview
Learning Technologies have been evolving over the last two or three
decades, and have gone through many phases and approaches, including
early mainframe based programmed learning systems, microcomputer software
packages written in native programing languages for specific machines,
bulletin boards, CBT systems, authoring systems, and more recently after
the internet explosion, web-based systems and Learning Management Systems.
For much of this time, learning software development has often been
the result of individual ideas and initiative, and little regard has
been paid to ensuring that learning software can survive the rapid change
in technology. Those who wrote high quality learning materials for BBC
micros now find them trapped on floppy disks that cannot be read by
modern PCs, and even of they could, the software on them would not run.
Further, unlike the well elaborated ways we have for categorising and
describing text that libraries have evolved, no such system exists for
computer based learning materials. This has made the learning content
world somewhat chaotic, and many excellent materials are underused for
one or both of the above reasons.
Other aspects of technology application suffer similarly from a lack
of interoperability. Student records are stored in proprietary formats
by different record systems, making it difficult or impossible to transfer
them between different suppliers' systems, and hindering student movement
between institutions. This is equally true for student lists, course
descriptions and other administrative information.
The growth of the internet, followed by the use of intranets, groupware
and learning environments, has highlighted this problem. People want
to find content easily wherever it might be on the internet, and incorporate
it into their courses; learners want to move between institutions taking
their learning records with them; and teachers using eLearning systems
want to have good information support from administrative systems. In
fact, achieving these is key to the realisation of Life Long Learning
and a global education marketplace.
The promise of standards
To prevent this situation arising again, interoperability
standards are needed that address all of these areas. For learning content,
not only technical standards like graphics interchange formats are needed,
but also formats for the way in which the packaging, sequencing, and other
management of the software is handled, so that it can be transferred between
platforms and environments. Likewise standard ways of describing educational
materials are needed so that they can be easily searched for and located.
Administrative systems need to agree on what information and
how they save it so that it can be transferred to other suppliers' systems,
and between systems wanting to use this information, like virtual learning
environments. If agreement could be reached between those supplying systems
and those buying and using systems on these matters, eLearning would be
freed from the constraints of lack of information exchange. Getting this
agreement is however easier said than done.
There are two key difficulties in achieving the standards
described earlier. These are:
Users needs and suppliers needs are very different. Implementing
standards represent a cost for suppliers, and stops them from protecting
their user base from other suppliers, whereas for users, standards
gives them felxibility and choice. Consequently, suppliers want the
smallest possible specification of standards, and users want a broad
and well defined set of standards.
It is very difficult to define interchange standards that do not
have some effect on functionality. It is not the job of specification
bodies to define what systems do, but rather the format they save
their data in. But the priorities that different specification make
can represent a bias towards one educational approach amongst others.
Nevertheless achieving interoperability standards for learning technology
can have such a profound effect, that these problems must be tackled,
challenged and overcome.
Who is producing specifications and standards
The IMS project was launched in 1997 by Educom (now Educause)
in the USA. It set out to tackle the problem of interoperability at the
time when learning management systems were emerging as a new type of learning
technology, and rapidly built a fee paying consortium of users and suppliers
active in the field. Initially, the IMS project set out to produce a unified
specification covering all the areas described earlier - metadata, content,
administrative (enterprise) systems, and learner information. This proved
to be too large a specification for suppliers to swallow, and commercial
members rejected this initial draft. IMS responded by breaking the specification
into component parts, with separate working groups developing each, and
each being released separately. IMS later relaunched as a non profit organisation,
the "IMS Global Learning Consortium", and has been releasing
new specifications addressing different areas regularly.
More recently, other bodies have become involved in Learning
Technology Standardisation. These are described in detail elsewhere on
this website, and include IEEE, ISO, and the European CEN/ISSS and Prometeus
initiative. There are also other user led bodies who are driving the development
of specifications, including the American Aircraft Industry (AICC), and
the Department of Defence's Advanced Distributed Learning programme (ADL).
All of these are committed to collaboration to achieve the prize of establishing
learning technology interoperability standards.