E-Learning Solutions Worldwide

Straight Talk About SCORM & Learning Management

Tampa, FL - January 23, 2007

This paper introduces the concepts behind the SCORM initiative, an overview of what can be expected when SCORM interfaces with a Learning Management System, and basic information about how FlexTraining processes SCORM-based content. It is not intended to be a detailed primer on SCORM or the integration of an LMS with outside content.

Introduction

SCORM is a widely-misunderstood protocol for integrating vendor-developed packaged online learning material with a Learning Management System developed by a separate vendor. It is not a "plug-in" standard that provides instant interoperation without development or testing.

Basically, some learning content vendors develop packaged courseware and then add behind-the-scenes programming that sends codes and data to an LMS when content is viewed by the learner. It also sends data to the LMS (and it assumes that an LMS is listening for this transmission of data) when the user completes an exercise or a test that is imbedded in the content itself. Imbedding online tests directly inside of packaged learning content may or may not be a good idea, but content vendors often do this.

SCORM-based learning content also contains information about the structure of the learning content, which may include many separate files, images and lessons. This information is contained in a file called a "manifest," which can be used to organize the content into courses and lessons by an "Import" function within an LMS.

Incidentally, there is a great deal of learning material that does not contain SCORM links or coding. For example, if you create your own content in an authoring package, such as Adobe's popular Captivate tool, you don't need to set up any background hooks for reporting SCORM data, or any other kind of data, to your LMS at all. In fact, this can be said of just about any authoring tool available. External learning content with no imbedded hidden reporting (like SCORM generates) is sometimes called "clean learning content." It is simply organized, delivered and tracked by an LMS like FlexTraining without using SCORM, or any other complex data communication scheme.

What FlexTraining Does

FlexTraining is a versatile, robust LMS that includes built-in content authoring, testing, tracking, book-marking and reporting. It also tracks and delivers content that the customer provides in almost any web-deliverable format, such as MS PowerPoint, MS Word, HTML, Adobe PDF, Flash, Audio and Video files.

The structure of each course is defined directly within FlexTraining, so a SCORM-like manifest file is not needed. And with built-in testing and learner exercises, adding these items to the learning material itself is similarly unnecessary. (Note: Some LMS products are mainly limited to reporting, and using such an LMS might give rise to a need to imbed exercises, testing and book-marking directly in the learning material. This would suggest using an interface like SCORM to continuously pass data to the LMS.)

Built-in authoring, exercises, flexible testing with automatic grading and the ability to handle most web-deliverable formats mean that everything happens right in the LMS. So, delivering external third-party packaged content, whether SCORM-based or not, is a very small part of what FlexTraining does.

Thus, the SCORM support in FlexTraining is somewhat limited and basic. Essentially, FlexTraining handles SCORM background integration when the content structure is very simple. In technical language, FlexTraining can open, parse and navigate a SCORM manifest file only if it contains just one "SCO" or learning module. Multiple SCOs in a single manifest may or may not be properly navigated and tracked by FlexTraining. Typically, SCORM-based content comes in packages - collections of files that may be zipped into a larger file - that have one manifest each. FlexTraining expects a package of SCORM-based content to have just one manifest.

If you have SCORM-based content that limits each package to a single manifest and a single module or "SCO" in each manifest, you can probably use FlexTraining to launch and track the material. If you are using third-party packaged courses and can ask your content vendor for a clean content (no SCORM) version of the same material, deployment will be simplified. If you are using your own authoring package (such as Captivate), you can decide whether to enable SCORM, so this should not be a problem.

Whether you are using SCORM or generating clean content, operating your LMS with externally-authored content will be much easier if you follow these guidelines:

  1. Build your course structure in FlexTraining. The more FlexTraining knows about your courses and lessons, the more functionality it can provide.
  2. Testing should be done in FlexTraining, not in your learning content. This allows recorded results and analysis reporting, as well as progress tracking.
  3. Learner exercises (results not recorded) may be created in your learning content and/or using the built-in templates in the FlexTraining authoring environment.

The vast majority of FlexTraining customers build their courses in the FlexTraining integrated authoring environment or use external files like Flash, Video or HTML. Therefore, most FlexTraining users do not have any need to use SCORM-based content.

Third-party SCORM add-on solutions are available that some LMS vendors have elected to integrate into their core product. These additional modules increase SCORM capabilities but inevitably add costs that are passed on to the customer. More importantly, including an add-on for this purpose may mean a long-term financial commitment to the provider of the add-on and may require the customer to stop using the SCORM features unless third-party fees are paid annually and certain other terms and conditions are met. More vendors mean more complexity.

SCORM is not going away anytime soon. It still represents the packaged content industry's best attempt to design a methodology to allow back-door communication between learning material and an LMS. But for most customers, complex inter-product communication schemes like SCORM will remain a non-factor. The bulk of online training, interaction, exercises, tracking and testing will continue to be done with clean content like Flash, PowerPoint, HTML and flexible customer-authored courses.

Conclusion

If you have already invested heavily in SCORM-based packaged learning material (with imbedded exercises and tests), you may need to spend the additional funds for an LMS with very strong SCORM credentials. Plan on extensive testing and plan on spending some time tweaking the content and/or the SCORM-related code in the LMS you acquire.

Let's suppose your strategy is to buy high-end, third-party content that is advertised as "SCORM compliant" and you are implementing a Learning Management System that is also SCORM capable. If you have an IT staff with expertise in JavaScript and SCORM coding and integration, you have a good chance at successfully deploying your online courses. Otherwise, all bets are off.

If you plan to author your own learning material, as many companies do, then you should consider an LMS with built-in authoring, delivery and tracking, such as FlexTraining. Even if you use an external authoring tool, you'll want to create "clean learning content" with it so the importing, delivery and tracking of your learners' activity will be handled directly in the LMS.

FlexTraining itself offers basic SCORM support, but only for simple course structures. As the online training industry evolves, we will continue to monitor trends in this area and may add functionality that handles more complex SCORM data over time.

It is worth remembering that you can utilize existing training material, such as Flash, Video, HTML or PowerPoint without using complex interfaces like SCORM. And most customers simply author their interactive, multimedia courses from scratch, using the FlexTraining authoring tools. The bottom line is that you can make life simple for your training department, keep your content options open and hold down costs and complexity by utilizing a full-featured LMS such as FlexTraining.

FlexTraining is a complete Learning Management System that works with any web browser over the Internet or a corporate Intranet. It lets customers author, build, deliver and manage custom online training and testing over a local or distributed network. For more information on this online training tool visit www.flextraining.com or call 1-888-957-7771.