In case you may have missed it e-learning, or online learning as I prefer to call it these days, has gone mainstream. From YouTube to Lynda, from iTunesU to MOOCs everyone is learning online. But one surprising aspect of this frenzy of online learning activity is the simple fact that almost none of it uses SCORM. If you don’t know what SCORM is this probably won’t bother you, but if you’ve been involved in designing, building or buying conventional e-learning then you will know that SCORM is key to making e-learning work. If you build an e-learning module in a tool like Articulate Storyline and want it to work on your LMS it had better be published as a SCORM package. So if SCORM is so important how are LMSs like iTunesU or Udemy ignoring it completely?
To answer this we need to remind ourselves just what SCORM is. SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model) was developed back in 2000 by the US Department of Defense as a way to standardise the way e-learning objects were built so that they could be shared on various platforms (LMS) and combined to create courses. Hence the shareable content object in the name. In practice, outside of very large organisations learning objects are rarely re-used. However the portability and interoperability was useful since there are many tools and ways to build e-learning and lots of LMS’ to put it on so what was particularly useful about SCORM was its role as a ‘connector’ technology. In practice this role is performed by the SCORM run time environment (RTE).
So back to our video. Is this able to communicate progress? No. is there a score recorded? No. Video has none of this functionality built in.
The other aspect of a typical SCORM e-learning module that is missing from video is learner interaction. Most e-learning is built using either Flash or HTML5 and is designed for interactivity. This isn’t a feature of SCORM but of Flash and HTML but it adds an extra dimension to content that isn’t available with video. Video is essentially a passive medium. As a learner you just watch it.
So why are iTunesU, Udemy and most MOOC platforms going with video and not supporting SCORM? There are two reasons. Firstly SCORM adds complexity. Secondly, and probably more significantly, SCORM is much less likely to run on mobile devices. Actually it’s not the SCORM that’s the issue but the interaction environment. Mobile devices don’t support Flash and they don’t always support HTML5 reliably either. Videos on the other hand will happily run on pretty much any device.
As a learning designer video’s lack of interactivity makes it a second rate choice compared to a SCORM module (what I call an iLesson these days). However if it’s combined with other learner activities such as assignments, discussions or quizzes then it can play a useful role within a course. And we are going to see a lot more innovation in video with interactivity already featuring on some platforms.
So does this mean that the days of SCORM are numbered? Yes it does, but it will probably take a while to die and it will be replaced by another very different middleware technology known as the Experience API (formerly TinCan) but that’s a subject for another article.
Conventional e-learning relies on the SCORM module (sometimes called the SCO – ‘shareable content object’ by those in the business). The SCORM module is a good concept – effectively an online learning activity that includes interactions and assessment that can be delivered via any SCORM compatible LMS (effectively all LMS’). But there are some serious limitations to SCORM so are there other ways to develop e-learning or online learning that don’t require the use of SCORM?
Yes there are, and they are becoming increasingly popular for a number of reasons.
I’m currently working with WillowDNA where we are busy ‘unpacking’ e-learning and creating what we call ‘learning pathways’. This isn’t a new term but there are some nuances to the way we are designing and building learning pathways online.
Why unpack SCORM? Well there are some key things that SCORM doesn’t support and the most important of these in my view is interaction with other learners or with a facilitator or trainer. By packing everything into a single object (the SCO) SCORM also creates barriers to access. You really enjoyed a video you saw or liked the scenario at the end – you can’t access these unless you are within the SCORM module.
Online learning pathways allow for a wider range of learning activities organised in a more flexible format. They can still include SCORM objects of course but the SCORMs are generally much shorter. Learning pathways can also incorporate existing assets such as documents, videos or web based resources.
So what does an online learning pathway look like and what learning activities are possible?
Here’s a graphic that illustrates the pathway approach.
Creating learning pathways isn’t exactly rocket science but they do need some insightful learning design if they are to be truly successful. Designing online learning pathways requires the skills of an instructional designer combined with the skills of a good face-to-face trainer or facilitator.
Learning pathways come in a variety of types depending upon the level of learner to learner and learner to trainer interaction. There are four basic types:
This has no social elements at all. It performs the same type of tasks as conventional e-learning. The advantage is that it can be completed independently by the learner so it’s good for compliance or other types of basic knowledge acquisition.
This adds learner to learner interaction into the mix. To be successful this type of pathway needs to have a number of learners working through the material at the same time. We call a learner group in this context a ‘cohort’. The cohort can be loosely connected – for example they don’t all need to start and finish on a specific date/time. Adding a social element really helps transform e-learning from something that you do on your own to something where you can genuinely interact with others and hopefully learn from them as well as from the course materials.
This adds both learner to learner interaction and also facilitator or trainer support. The facilitation can be light touch but adding it enables social activities to be included in the learning mix (for example a workplace assignment). Supported learning paths can also include synchronous (live) events such as webinars.
This mixes online elements and face-to-face elements. This is ideal where you have a course where some elements are best done face-to-face whilst others are ideally suited to being delivered online. This type of learning path can also adopt a ‘flipped classroom’ approach with knowledge building activities done online prior to a face-to-face workshop where skills or techniques are practised.
I’ll look at the various types of pathway in more depth in a future post.
The only downside is that pathways generally need to be designed with a specific learning platform (LMS or VLE) in mind.
Willow have their own platform – called unsurprisingly Pathway – but learning pathways can also be created on other platforms. Moodle is good at supporting the pathway approach. But of course a pathway is less simple to move between platforms so it’s less flexible than a SCORM module if you want to distribute it across the planet. But in practice most online learning is bespoke for the organisation and the audience – it is rarely shipped and distributed (unless you are attempting to compete with an off-the-shelf provider such as SkillSoft). On the positive side many of the ‘activities’ in a learning pathway are even more transferable – PDF files, video files, audio, and SCORM lessons can all be moved and re-used simply and easily. It’s just the ‘conversations’ that will need re-creating but then they are unique to each learner cohort anyway.