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content enable specifications specification

Michael O’Dea
University of Hull, UK


The “holy grail” of e-learning is to enable individualized, flexible, adaptive learning environments that support different learning models or pedagogical approaches to learning to allow any Internet-connected user to undertake an educational program. It is also very highly desirable, from a more practical viewpoint, if this environment can also integrate into the wider MIS/student records system of the teaching institution.

A number of very different technologies in the past have been employed to try and achieve this aim, with varying degrees of success; see Hartley (1973), Muhlhausen (2003) and Okamoto and Hartley (2001) for good accounts of the development of ICT in education. However, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to date, hindering the widespread adoption of these technologies, has been the cost of developing these learning materials and their delivery systems, alongside an inability to reuse the materials.

Addressing these issues is now where much of the main research efforts within the e-learning field are focused, particularly in the developments of Learning Technology Standards.

The learning technology standardization process is leading the research effort in Web-based education. Standardization is needed for two main reasons: (1) educational resources are defined, structured and presented using various formats; (2) functional modules embedded in a particular learning system cannot be reused by another system in a straightforward way. (Anido-Rifon, Fernandez-Iglesias, Llamas-Nistal, Caeiro-Rodriguez and Santos-Gago, 2001)

Currently, a number of standards have been developed. For example, probably the three most commonly employed at present are IEEE’s Learning Object Metadata—LOM (IEEE, 2001), ADL’s Shareable Content Object Reference Model—SCORM (ADL, 2001) and the Open Knowledge Initiative – OKI (OKI, 2004). These standards, in turn, often incorporate other standards and specifications within them; for example, SCORM utilizes the IMS Content Packaging and Simple Sequencing specifications. The result of this is a plethora of acronyms and standards, which can prove confusing, even for some practitioners.

It is the aim of this article to clarify the aims, role and main functions of key current educational technology standards and to highlight the advantages they bring when learning environments are developed with them. The article will also address some of the aspects of e-learning not so well served by the standards and some of the current and future directions of research within the field.

The structure of the article is as follows: It will start with a brief background of e-learning, covering the main types of applications used to enable delivery of e-learning. The main section will be devoted to the considering the main learning technology standards, attempting in particular to highlight the many different standards and the roles they fulfill in enabling interoperability and compatibility between e-learning applications, but also to highlight the connections between the various standards. Finally, the article will examine some of the current issues of debate surrounding the standards.


E-learning is the use of the Web as a medium of delivery for educational ICT applications. The use of the Web potentially enables distance-independent, time-independent, computing platform-independent and classroom size-independent learning far more easily than alternative media of delivery, such as CDROM or broadcast multimedia.

In essence though, e-learning applications, like all educational ICT applications, strive to achieve two main aims: (1) present educational content, and (2) provide facilities and tools to enable learning.

The key technology of delivery of e-learning is the Learning Environment. Commercial examples of these include WebCT and Blackboard. Any brief perusal of e-learning-related literature will quickly reveal a number of terms used to describe Learning Environments. The most common of these are: Managed Learning Environment (MLE), Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Learning Management System (LMS) and Learning Content Management System (LCMS). While it is technically correct to use any one of these terms to describe a learning environment, each has a subtle difference in meaning; therefore, it may be useful at this point to provide a brief definition.

MLEs and VLEs are terms used to describe the two main types of e-learning application.

MLEs can be considered to be enterprise level, large-scale e-learning applications. They aim to provide the whole range of information services an educational institution would require to enable and support the learning process and its operation (see Figure 1). Conole (2002) describes the main function of an MLE as to “integrate a VLE with a university’s management systems” and goes on to note that this “might include a wide range of functional components … (such as) … administrative information about courses, resources, support and guidance, collaboration information, assessment and feedback, evaluation.”

An MLE can, and normally does, include a VLE. A VLE deals with the actual delivery of the learning material or content, including assessment, tutor-tolearner communication and tracking of student progress and activity, as well as linking to any student record or Management Information System (which itself may or may not be part of an MLE). A VLE may also, often, include a content authoring facility. In essence, a VLE is the e-learning application that delivers the course to the learner. For those interested, Conole (2002) provides a good exposition of MLEs and VLEs in more detail.

In turn, a VLE may include the functions of either an LCMS or LMS or of both. There does appear to be some confusion in much of the literature in the use of the two terms. First, often they are used to describe the applications themselves, although it would appear that most definitions of them normally refer to functionality or the services that they provide. Second, the term LMS often is used as a blanket term to describe what others term an LCMS (see Jacobsen, 2002 for a good discussion of these issues). So to clarify this point, in this article, the following definitions will be used:

An LCMS manages the learning material and the learning process. Often they track individual learning progress. Typically, an LCMS will do the following: Course preparation, course delivery, tracking and itemizing of user details; for example, the number of times a user accesses a particular section of content and for how long.

An LMS manages the student and learning events that support the administration of the learning. The functionality described by an LMS may include: hosting the course catalog, administration of the course, such as scheduling of courses, tracking and reporting completions and results for individual students.

Jacobsen (2002) provides a much more detailed definition of the two terms, but has a very simple and effective description of the difference between an LMS and LCMS. An LMS “handles what takes place outside of the course” whilst an LCMS “handles what takes place within the (virtual) classroom.”


The role of educational technology standards in elearning has been to attempt to enable interoperability and compatibility between VLEs, MLEs, LMSs and LCMSs. The standards attempt to provide interoperability specifications for certain key elements of the e-learning process and for the various support functions required to enable the process to take place. The fundamental concept, upon which virtually all current educational technology standards and specifications have been developed, is reusable chunks of information. These have variously been termed knowledge objects, content objects and, most commonly, learning objects. All of these concepts refer to small, self-contained objects of knowledge that offer the ability to enable reuse of content, enable modularized development of learning environments and applications, and enable standardized presentation of learning materials and content.

On top of this concept of there being a basic unit of learning material or content learning, technology standards have also focused on enabling semantic information to be attached to these, primarily to enable content management. The idea behind this is that the base learning material, the learning object, can be described in a richer way, can be interchanged more effectively and can be searched and stored more efficiently by a content management system. The work done on the standards that build on the basic learning object description can be seen as providing for the main semantic criteria of classification, metadata and ontologies.

A useful model to conceptualise semantic information is Berners-Lee’s layered model of the semantic web, as shown in Figure 2. The WWW Consortium (W3C) describe the semantic web as “an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in co-operation” (w3c.org). If we consider the objectives of learning standards, we can see a correspondence between the objectives of learning technology standards and the semantic web; that is, defining meaning to enable cooperation. We will see that the semantic definitions of learning material are the basic building blocks upon which most of the standards outlined later in this article rely.

Learning Objects

The base level standard for learning technology is the Learning Object (LO). The IEEE describes them as “Any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used and referenced during technology-supported learning” (IEEE, 2001), while others have described them as chunks of learning content that can be combined to comprise teaching modules or courses. Each LO has the ability to communicate with a learning system that organises and manages it. This learning system may be a VLE or LCMS.

LOs have been designed not only to be reused, but also so that they can be easily delivered via variety of media, particularly the Web, and this enables any number of people to access and use them simultaneously. They provide a means for efficient development of computer-based, interactive, multimedia instruction. Examples of LOs suggested by the IEEE include: multimedia content, instructional content, instructional software, software tools, learning objectives, persons, organizations or events.

Learning Object Metadata

The first main standard to be developed upon the concept of LOs was the facility for each LO to have information—in particular, semantic information—attached to it that describes its contents. This information is called Learning Object Metadata (LOM). The aim of the LOM specification is to enable the reuse, search and retrieval of the LO’s content and the integration of LOs with external systems.

A number of different LOM specifications exist. Each differs slightly, but significantly, in terms of the metadata it specifies and provides. The basic LOM specification is set out in the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) specification, LTSC 1484.12.1. This is based on the Dublin Core metadata schema and specifies a set of 47 metadata elements in nine categories (General, Lifecycle, Metametadata, Technical, Educational, Rights, Relation, Annotation and Classification) that have been selected to describe the most important aspects of a LO in order to enable reuse and interoperability.

To date, the IEEE LOM standard has been specified in two formats: XML and RDF. To be of any use within a VLE or LCMS, representations or bindings compatible to the semantic web are required; that is, XML and RDF. These were specified by IEEE in 1484.12.3 and 1484.12.4, respectively, in 2002 and, at present, the XML representation has been ratified, but the RDF representation is still at the draft standard stage. Nilsson, Palmer and Brase (2003) provide a detailed exposition of this process and the standards’ details.

However, there are a number of variants of the IEEE LOM specification, which have been based on the IEEE LOM standard but are essentially subsets of the IEEE standard with some extensions. Perhaps the most well established and widely used of these is the IMS Learning Resource Metadata specification (see IMS, 2004a), but other significant alternatives include the CanCore (CanCore, 2004) and SingCORE (E-Learning Competency Centre, 2004) Learning Resource metadata specification.

The rationale for the development of the IMS variant of LOM has been summarised by the MIT Libraries Metadata Advisory Group. They comment that the original IEEE LOM specification defined a very large set of items, and many organisations within the IMS community preferred to use a smaller subset of the elements. However, it was also felt that other elements were needed, so the IMS specification enables the extension of certain elements for “proprietary purposes” (MIT Libraries, 2004).

If we consider the current state of the standards’ development in relation to Berners-Lee’s layered model of the semantic web, we can see that these standards sit at layer 2 for the XML binding and layer 3 for the RDF binding; however, the LOM metadata element content itself is written in Unicode 3.0.1, also known as ISO/IEC 10646-1:2000, which sits at layer 1. In terms of functionality, the XML binding’s main function is to enable reuse and interoperability of the LO. It provides the structural semantic information, while the RDF binding enables more effective search and retrieval of the LO by content management systems. For example, it provides the full semantic information needed for specialist ontologies to be developed to assist automated or semi-automated information retrieval to take place.

Standards and Specifications that Pperate on Top of the Semantic Representations

Working alongside the main standards discussed above are a wide variety of standards and specifications that have also been developed to enable other aspects of reuse and interoperability between elearning applications.

These can be considered to be of four types, dealing with:

  1. The presentation of educational content
  2. The provision of facilities and tools to enable learning
  3. Enabling the management of learning programs
  4. Combining other specifications or work alongside these to enable the development of learning environments

Standards or Specifications that Deal with the Presentation of Educational Content

While LOM enables reuse and integration of LOs, Content Packaging (CP) enables the aggregation of a number of LOs into a course or part of a course and allows this agglomeration of LOs to be treated as a unit. One of the shortcomings of the LO and LOM specifications is the lack of ability to enable different levels of granularity, or to hierarchically organise LOs, especially when they are required to be combined into modules or parts of modules. The IMS Content Packaging Specification partially addresses this issue.

A CP is described by the IMS as:

The objective of the IMS CP Information Model is to define a standardized set of structures that can be used to exchange content. These structures provide the basis for standardized data bindings that allow software developers and implementers to create instructional materials that interoperate across authoring tools, LMSs and run-time environments that have been developed independently by various software developers. (IMS, 2004b)

Closely related to this is SCORM’s Content Aggregation Model. It goes a little further in its functionality by enabling the creation of Sharable Content Objects (SCOs), which comprise a set of LOs and which can be managed as a single entity by an e-learning learning environment, LMS or LCMS.

Standards or Specifications that Deal with the Provision of Facilities and Tools to Enable Learning

Content aggregation provides the platform for a VLE to deliver learning content. Operating alongside this within a VLE can be a number of other processes or functions, as shown in Figure 1. These aim to enable the learning process itself or provide tools to do so, in effect, to enable a degree of structure or process to the delivery of the modules within the e-learning application. Typically, this means managing the order of delivery, ensuring prerequisite modules have been taken before a student can undertake a module and enabling constraints on or specifying the modules that a student is able to attempt at any point in time during the course of study.

Both of the CP specifications discussed above provide no information on how the LOs they contain can be attempted or undertaken by the learner. They are pedagogy neutral; that is, their designs favour no particular pedagogical approach. In addition, they make no attempt to enable any pedagogical structure or strategies, but leave this to other parts of the learning environment. They do enable prerequisites to specified against LOs, but do nothing to implement them.

This role of structuring the delivery of the learning content and in enabling certain aspects of pedagogy to be implemented is currently handled by sequencing. The main sequencing specification currently in operation (mainly because it is included as part of the SCORM suite of specifications) is the IMS Simple Sequencing specification. This is described by the IMS as:

a method for representing the intended behaviour of an authored learning experience such that any learning technology system can sequence discrete learning activities in a consistent way. The specification defines the required behaviours and functionality that conforming systems must implement. It incorporates rules that describe the branching or flow of instruction through content according to the outcomes of a learner’s interactions with content. (IMS 2004c)

Essentially, Simple Sequencing defines how a learner can progress through the content of an elearning set of activities. It does this by implementing an activity tree, which enables and constrains what options and in what order they can be attempted by the learner. So while Simple Sequencing is still pedagogy neutral, it is pedagogically aware.

Many commentators, such as Abdullah and Davis (2003), have argued that the Simple Sequencing specification is not flexible enough to fully implement an effective pedagogical model within an elearning learning environment. One possible solution is the IMS Learning Design specification. This has been described “as one of the most significant recent developments in e-learning” (Dalziel, 2003). It goes a step further than the Simple Sequencing specification and enables the consideration of context on the learning process; in particular, it aims to enable the implementation of pedagogical approaches to the learning activity.

The IMS Learning Design specification supports the use of a wide range of pedagogies in online learning. Rather than attempting to capture the specifics of many pedagogies, it does this by providing a generic and flexible language. This language is designed to enable many different pedagogies to be expressed. The approach has the advantage over alternatives in that only one set of learning design and runtime tools then need to be implemented in order to support the desired wide range of pedagogies. (IMS 2004d)

The Learning Design specification provides facilities to assign people to roles, facilitate different types of interaction between the content and the learner, learners and other learners, and learners and tutors.

Standards or Specifications that Enable the Management of Learning Programs

Working alongside the specifications described above are other specifications that address many different aspects of e-learning learner support, in particular, the management and administration of students and courses. These include the IEEE LTSC Public and Private Information (PAPI) specification, which defines learner records and portfolios.

Another important specification aimed at administration is the IMS Enterprise Data Model. This provides standardized definitions for course structures and enables learning environments to schedule student activities from course structure definitions and the movement of courses between learning environments.

The AICC guidelines for interoperability of Computer Managed Instruction (CMI) systems propose a Web-based runtime environment scheme that enables learning content of different origins and formats to interface with a CMI compliant Webbased management system and launch on a browser and be controlled by the system. It also allows different learning resources to be managed by heterogeneous management systems. (IMS, 2004a)

Standards or Specifications that Combine Other Specifications or Work Alongside these to Enable the Development of Learning Environments

The standards and specifications discussed so far in this article can be considered to be micro-level specifications, based on LOs and the use and management of them. At the macro level, the specifications address the architecture of learning environments.

Probably the most significant of this type of standard is the Learning Technology Systems Architecture (LTSA). According to Conole, “the LTSA specification covers a wide range of systems (learning technology, computer-based training, electronic performance support systems, computer-assisted instruction, intelligent tutoring, education and training technology, metadata, etc.) and is intended to be pedagogically neutral, content-neutral, culturally neutral and platform-neutral” (Conole, 2003) It provides a “framework for … promoting interoperability and portability by identifying critical system interfaces.”

The LTSA is a five layer framework. It was developed as part of the IEEE P1484.1 project of the 1484.1 working group of IEEE LTSC. The main use of the LTSA framework is as a model for framing interoperability issues.

However, in the field, the most significant of the macro-level standards is probably SCORM. Not only because alongside LOM it is the most well known and most widely employed and implemented of educational standards, but also because it comprises a collection of many of the standards discussed earlier in this article, plus a Run Time Environment that provides a foundation for learning environments to run these standards and so be developed upon a standard “engine.” It currently provides the most comprehensive architecture upon which to develop an LCMS or LMS that is standards based.

SCORM has been developed by the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) and has been heavily supported and promoted by the United States government. Among others, it collects together a number of standards; notably, IMS Learning Resources Metadata, IMS Content Packaging, AICC CMI and IMS Simple Sequencing and combines them to provide a set of specifications that enable the “reuse of instructional components in multiple applications and environments regardless of the tools used to create them” (ADL, 2001). The SCORM architecture operates in a way that enables the separation of content from context-specific run-time constraints and the specification of common interfaces and data. By doing this it enables applications to provide different levels of functionality; for example, from simple LOM metadata editors and annotators to full-blown VLEs, and still be interoperable.

The second significant high-level set of specifications is the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI). Developed at MIT and Stanford, this is an open-source reference system for Web-enabled education. Similar to SCORM, it provides a set of resources and an architecture designed to enable the development of easy-to-use, Web-based environments and for assembling, delivering and accessing educational resources. There does appear to be some overlap between SCORM and OKI; however, while the functionality of SCORM is very much focused on what can be considered the operation of a VLE, the OKI specification extends to address the functionality required for MLE development. Additionally, OKI is based on a set of APIs, the Open Source Interface Definition (OSID), which defines a set of programming interfaces, as opposed to SCORM, which is based on data definitions. This means in theory that they should work together side by side.


This article has shown that during the past 15 or so years there have been significant developments in the field of education technology standards. There is now a comprehensive and well-specified suite of standards and specifications that address many of the aspects of learning environment functionality, both for VLEs and, to a lesser extent, MLEs. It is fair to say that the aims of interoperability, reuse and flexibility that initiated the efforts in the field are much further on the way to being achieved.

However, the debate regarding the pedagogically neutral model upon which the standards are based is a significant one. Wiley (2001) places it in perspective:

Many of the problems … only actually become problems as desired learning outcomes climb further up Bloom’s taxonomy. Issues of decontextualisation, mediation and socialization are all but non-issues when the desired learning outcome is acquisition … of information and the assessment is recall. However, to the degree to which higher-order learning outcomes (such as synthesis and evaluation) are called for, or to which an explicit emphasis would be placed on transfer from an institutional context into a later performance context, we believe these issues become critical problems. (Wiley, 2001)

A potential solution to these issues exists in the semantic web, in using ontologies as the basis for the development of domain models, user models and pedagogical models, which in turn can provide the ability to implement context into learning based on educational technology standards.

If we do not address these issues, we run the risk of the issues that Downes (2003) identifies: Instead of reusable content, we may have to move to models based on disposable content, which then goes against the one of the major foundations of the whole move towards standards and standardization.

In short, yes, the move towards standards for learning technology has resulted in progress towards the aims for which it was commenced—reusability, interoperability and heterogeneity. However, we are not there yet, and there still is a long way to go in certain areas.

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