Reusability, interoperability, and extensibility have arrived in the area of e-learning. The Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) standard allows compliant e-learning content to be deployed on any Learning Management System (LMS) and assembled with other SCORM-compliant e-learning content to create a course that brings together best-of-breed learning components. This article explores the SCORM initiative.

What is SCORM?
The SCORM specifications have been developed by the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative, which was launched in 1997 by the Department of Defense. ADL is a collaborative effort among the various agencies of the federal government, private enterprises, and education and training community. The goal of this initiative is to create a business/market for modular e-learning content and associated tools.

If your organization plans to upgrade or build a new training system, take a serious look at SCORM. Prior to SCORM, e-learning content was not interoperable (an entire course or its components could not be moved from one LMS to another) and therefore not sharable.

A good way to understand SCORM is to start from the end product. SCORM courses or subcourses are delivered as a package in Package Interchange Format (PIF). An example of a package is a ZIP file, which contains all the files relevant to a course/subcourse: content, metadata about the content, metadata about the course, and the course structure (such as a table of contents with information about sequence and navigation). The key to making the package interoperable is that at least one of the content files contains methods (prescribed by SCORM) that allow the package to interface with any LMS.

Notice the similarity of SCORM to component technologies (Enterprise Java Beans in J2EE or DCOM). A course package is like a component. The course package is a standalone unit with contractually specified interfaces to LMS and no other dependencies on LMS; the package contains metadata about course and individual content resources in the package. Therefore, a SCORM package can be deployed on any SCORM-compliant LMS and can be searched, reused, and assembled with other packages.

SCORM contains two specifications: the Content Aggregation model and the Run-Time Environment. The Content Aggregation model specifies how individual learning content is described and how a sharable and interoperable course is composed from the content. The Run-Time Environment specifies an Application Programming Interface (API) and data model for course packages to interface with the LMS.

Figure A illustrates SCORM.

Figure A

SCORM Content Aggregation model
In SCORM, content is of three types:

  • Asset—A file that can be launched on a Web browser. Examples are text files, HTML, GIF, applet-based applications, plug-in based applications, and so on.
  • Sharable Content Object (SCO)—A collection of assets, where one of them implements the prescribed methods to interface with LMS. The minimum set of methods that must be implemented by an asset in SCO includes the means to locate LMS’s API adapter, LMSInitialize(“”) and LMSFinish(“”). An SCO is the lowest level of granularity for learning content that is interoperable—any LMS can launch and track SCOs.
  • Content aggregation—A structure like a table of contents to organize the sequence and navigation of content in a course. Notice the separation of content from the sequence and navigation logic.

A metadata XML file is associated with each piece of content. This enables contents to be searched and discovered on any LMS where the course package is deployed, thereby facilitating sharing and reuse.

SCORM Run-Time Environment
For a SCORM package to be interoperable, each SCO must contain the “contractually specified interfaces” to LMS. The Run-Time Environment specifies the three components of interfaces:

  • Launch—The HTTP protocol to start an asset or a SCO resource. Because a SCO needs to initiate communication with LMS, the SCO must contain methods to find the API adapter after it has been delivered to the Web browser. LMS has the responsibility of delivering the API adapter, which is a Domain Object Model (DOM).
  • Application Programming Interface (API)—Standard functions for a SCO resource to send status information (initialized, finish, in an error condition) and exchange (get and set) data. SCO resources initiate all communication to the API adapter, which in turn communicates with the LMS. The LMS does not initiate communications.
  • Data model—Input and Output data elements exchanged between the LMS and the SCO resource. The SCO resource can get and set only these data elements, and the LMS maintains the state of these data elements across user sessions.

SCORM process
The process of delivering a course is presented in Figure B. The cycle ends when the LMS server has dispatched the last piece of content referenced in the content aggregation.

Figure B
The SCORM process of delivering courses

To illustrate how SCORM benefits course developers, consider a collaborative course-development project with five chapters and five authors. Content authors create a chapter by developing:

  • Text, images, video, assessment questions, and other forms of content with their favorite authoring tools.
  • Metadata for the individual content and the chapter.
  • An XML file to describe the sequence and navigation of the content.

Authors then package these three items per SCORM specifications into a deployable learning package. After the five authors have created packages, the course integrator then creates a course by creating a course package that uses the services of the five chapter packages.

SCORM 1.2 is the latest release from ADL. New developments include specifications for dynamic course delivery based on student/instructor settings. Future plans for SCORM (release 2.0) include specifications for simulation-based training.

I believe that SCORM will be the future standard for e-learning. It will significantly increase competition in the areas of content development and LMS, thereby enhancing quality, reducing the cost of development, and reducing the time-to-market for e-learning course material.