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Learning Technology Standards: An Overview

Before Standards

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.

Defining specifications

There are two key difficulties in achieving the standards described earlier. These are:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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