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AODC day 3 – Content, standards, learning and SCORM

Last week I attended the 2009 Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) in Melbourne. This blog post is part of a series about some of the AODC sessions I attended.

Here are some notes I took from the session on content, standards, learning and SCORM, by Allyn Radford of Learn’ilities’. I hope these notes are useful to people who couldn’t be at the conference this year.

Content, Standards, Learning and SCORM

Allyn started by giving us some context of what is happening right now. Within content domains, the key themes of the information age are being adopted: Modularisation, specialisation, integration and interoperability. Our communication is changing in volume, purpose and channels. The emphasis is more on collaboration and less on expert-to-novice teaching. And there’s a stronger emphasis on openness.

Allyn says we need to rethink the focus of reusability. Now we have to reuse content across disciplines, and we have to assume that the content’s destination is unknown.

Everything is 2.0 and everything is social. We are living in a mash-up world. As an illustration, Allyn walked us through parts of Mashable, The Social Media Guide. It’s like a directory of mash-up sites that combine different data sources to produce some interesting conclusions, statistics and visualisations. One of Allyn’s favourites is the fun mash-up called If I dig a very big hole, where will I end up?

What are the implications for learning systems?

We are looking at moving from monolithic learning applications to modular services, across different sources and services.

Learning content and organisational content should no longer be seen as two separate things. Marketing information, specifications, etc, can also be used in learning material or in brochures. So you start to develop a whole different appreciation of how you determine the value of content in your organisation.

Content is one of the most expensive things an organisation will create, compared to the technology systems that support that content.

There has to be a bi-directional relationship between three key things: The content, the process/practice used to create the content, and the technology infrastructure. Before you create content, you need to set up procedures for how that content will be maintained in the future.

What’s the role of standards in all this?

Interoperability, reuseability, maintainability — all the “ilities”. (Hence the name of Allyn’s company.)

Management of content is key. Traditionally in learning systems, not enough effort has been put into this.

Allyn showed us a list of standards related to LET (Learning, Education and Training). One of them is SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model). Allyn listed these 6 key concepts that SCORM was designed to support:

  • Interoperability
  • Accessibility (different devices and locations, as needed)
  • Reusability
  • Durability (content must outlast changes in technology)
  • Maintainability
  • Adaptability

SCORM allows you to take courses from one learning system, where they were developed, and put them into other learning systems where required.

Granularity and reusability are interrelated. You need to consider reuse versus context. You lose context as your content become more granular. So you have to find the best mix for your environment, depending how important context is to you.

Allyn says that the problem with most existing standards is a “walled garden” attitude. This does not work well with the move towards open standards. There are significant costs to development and adoption of standards.  The “no-strings-attached” licensing is essential in LET standards.

Allyn works primarily with LETSI at the moment. The LETSI model is very open. LETSI does not develop standards, but works towards the adoption of available standards in learning technology and related fields like HR and Knowledge Management. It focuses on the interstitial work i.e. the bits that need to happen between the existing systems.

LETSI was asked to look at what “SCORM 2.0” might look like, focusing on interoperability. They started reconceptualising what was actually happening, in the areas of learning activities, resources, people and competency frameworks. It turns out that SCORM 2.0 is nothing like previous versions of SCORM.

Nowadays, people in universities and schools are not locked into a particular learning management system. They’re using podcasts, the web, and a number of other tools. Part of what’s needed, says Allyn, is to implement software that coordinates the bits of content used.

  • A new solution for content orchestration (sequencing of content, e.g. based on how the learner performs).
  • Integration of training with policy or technical documents. Also integration of data for learning and non-learning purposes, and integration of social learning content.
  • Integration with HR, SIS and enterprise standards (so that we know what type of learning the person needs, to do the job required).
  • Incorporation of competency models.
  • Support for new pedagogies (such as collaboration).

So a new infrastructure model may have a set of “resources” that are data stores such as published content, user information systems, competency store, and so on. Users will access the stores via portal interfaces and portal applications. It’s the mash-up idea. There will also be an external integration layer, to allow access to external content sources.

Open educational resources

We must differentiate between “open education” and “open educational resources”:

  • “Open education” is the provision of educational experiences with few, if any, barriers to participation and often no cost.
  • “Open educational resources” (OERs) are resources that can be used in learning under some form of open licence governing usage and adaptation. So you can include the open courseware into your learning system.

OERs improve access to educational content, e.g. in third-world countries like Africa. The aim is to reduce cost (text books are very expensive) and to improve quality (by pooling the knowledge of experts and taking the content that’s most relevant to your environment). This can be bad news to publishers of learning materials.

OERs are built to be reused, so that you can adapt and remix them to suit your needs. So it’s very interesting to look at OERs to see what’s happening with open learning at the moment.

Allyn emphasised that we need to have a structured content model in learning content, to support granularity (essential for content reuse) and interoperability (essential for mixing content).

One big problem at the moment is the editing and aggregation tools available. Allyn has used and reviewed a number of tools and has not found a satisfactory one yet.

XML is the appropriate format to support content and structure, ignoring presentation. Useful formats are CNXML (an open education resource format), DITA and others.

What can you do?

Next steps, particularly when considering co-operation between creators of technical documentation and creators of learning materials:

  • Participate in common activities (e.g. LETSI).
  • Be aware that your content may be used in ways and places you don’t know about.
  • Write for broader reuse scenarios.
  • Have a joint focus on reuse and interoperability.

Question time

Comment from the floor: “I don’t think it’s possible to re-use content. A lot of speakers at this conference have talked about it, but I don’t think it’s possible.”

Answer: Granularity is the key. Identify the content that is suitable for reuse. There’s no intention to reuse all content. When you write content in a narrative form, you are tied to writing in a particular way. But when you write structured, granular content, you’re not thinking about the presentation or where it’s going to be used. You concentrate on the content itself. That makes the content more reusable (where applicable).

Thank you Allyn for a very interesting presentation.

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