Scale the e-learning curve/ SCORMing the market

Three Advanced Distributed Learning labs ? including one in Alexandria, Va., where lead software engineer Clark Christensen is test-bed manager ? provide a forum for research, development and assessment of new technology specifications, including SCORM.

Tom Fedor

Michael Parmentier

Olivier Douliery

Mike Miller

Susan Whitney

Industry, agencies line up behind emerging standard for e-learning.

At first, there were two standards for videotape technology: VHS and Beta. In the end, there was VHS.

"When VHS became a de facto standard, the videotape industry took off like a shot," said David Grebow, a marketing manager for Armonk, N.Y., IBM Corp.'s e-learning business, IBM Lotus Mindspan Solutions.

Grebow compares the advent of the VHS standard to the emerging e-learning standard known as SCORM. Buyers of e-learning products and services -- especially federal agency buyers -- are demanding that their vendors build to SCORM, which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model.

The specification enables reuse and sharing of Web-based learning content and interoperability with learning management systems. These management systems perform functions such as recording grades on tests and enabling online discussions.

"With SCORM ... you can input contents once and publish it in print, digitally, to a PDA, to audio," Grebow said. "Suddenly, content becomes usable by many people in many ways and places, and becomes much more valuable. That's when e-learning really takes off."

SCORM is a compilation of technical specifications adapted from multiple sources, such as IMS Global Learning Consortium Inc., the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Aviation Industry CBT (Computer-based Training) Committee. The SCORM project is an undertaking of the Defense Department's Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, begun in 1997 to promote cooperation between government, industry and academia to develop e-learning standardization.

The first version of SCORM was released in January 2000. The fourth version, SCORM 1.3, is in development. Version 1.3 will allow varied sequencing of course material, depending on factors such as student performance.

In the federal market, agency requests for proposals increasingly ask bidders if their products comply with SCORM, Grebow said. And because corporate buyers are quickly following the government's lead in requiring SCORM-conformant e-learning technology, vendors that do not implement it may find themselves shut out of the e-learning marketplace, experts said.

"You may be out of business" if you don't adopt the SCORM specification, said Michael Parmentier, a principal with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in McLean, Va. He is former director of readiness and training at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and a founder of the ADL Initiative.

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The ADL partnership resulted in the establishment of three ADL Co-Laboratories, which provide a forum for cooperative research, development and assessment of new learning technology prototypes, guidelines and specifications, including SCORM. The labs are funded for fiscal 2003 with $14 million from the Defense Department, said Bob Wisher, director of the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative.

Before SCORM, the e-learning marketplace was fragmented with proprietary systems that couldn't talk to one another. With SCORM, buyers don't have to worry that their investment will be wasted because their e-learning courses don't work with their learning management system, or vice versa.

What's more, vendors who conform to the specification can access a larger marketplace, said Wisher, who works at the ADL Co-Lab in Alexandria, Va.

The investment in SCORM has paid off in increased government sales and allowed VCampus Corp. of Reston, Va., to better meet its customers' needs, company officials said.

"SCORM allows us to find other standardized content and grow our library. We've gone from a couple hundred courses to thousands, because we adhere to the standards," said Tamer Ali, director of product management for the e-learning application service provider.

The company has contracts with several large agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration and Social Security Administration. About 25 percent of VCampus' business is with the federal government. Two years ago, its federal business was less than 3 percent, said Ron Freedman, vice president of government and security solutions. VCampus had revenue of $7 million in 2001.

The biggest e-learning content companies are building courses to the specification, but smaller, boutique companies are not moving as quickly, said Elliott Masie, president of the Masie Center, an e-learning think tank in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "The overwhelming forward motion is toward this functionality," he said.

John Alonso, chief technology officer of Outstart, said SCORM conformance was one of the primary reasons his firm won a $7.5 million e-learning contract with the Navy. The Boston company makes software used to create e-learning content.

"Of all clients we have, there is not a single one that does not see SCORM as a necessary part of the solution," he said.

Jamie Watt, associate director of government solutions at Blackboard Inc. in Washington, has seen similar interest in SCORM.

"A year ago, SCORM was always part of the discussion during the evaluation process, but there was always question as to what [compliance] meant," Watt said. "Now it's more crystallized, and it's pretty much a check box in every evaluation in the government market."

Blackboard, a learning management system provider, recently launched a "building block" that allows SCORM-conformant content to communicate with the Blackboard learning management system. The project was undertaken by Blackboard and the National Defense University's Information Resources Management College.

The college, at Fort McNair in Washington, provides its entire program via e-learning, said Mike Miller, chief technology officer for the college.
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The Blackboard learning management system offers access to all course materials, online discussions and the college library, Miller said, but without the building block, for example, students' grades for online exams would not be recorded by the management system.

The building block also will allow the college to share e-learning content with other institutions even if the colleges use different management systems, Miller said.

"It's a win-win for ADL, us and Blackboard," he said. The building block is available to other agencies for free at the Blackboard Web site, www.blackboard.com.

Like the National Defense University, many federal agencies want to share their content, said Mike Fitzgerald, e-training project manager at the Office of Personnel Management. OPM manages a cross-agency e-training initiative, the Gov Online Learning Center.

Since its launch in July, about 40 agencies have signed up to receive training for employees via the center, at www.golearn.gov. More than 30 free courses are offered on topics ranging from project management to government ethics. In January, the center will make available additional courses on a fee-for-service basis, Fitzgerald said.

Commercial content used at the learning center must conform to the SCORM specification, and OPM asks agencies that want to share custom content to do the same, he said.

"It's not a legislative or policy requirement, but from a business standpoint, to be able to share and reuse content objects, it makes sense," he said.

Through portals such as golearn.gov, federal agency managers are just beginning to learn about the potential of reusability, Parmentier said. With SCORM, they'll be able to provide better learning experiences, faster and cheaper.

Like the VHS standard, "when they learn the power of that ... it will spiral from there," he said. *

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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