Why don’t more e-learning developers use standards?

I’m proposing we create a community-defined set of simplified e-learning development standards that can be viewed more as ‘rules of thumb’ than law.

Question: Why don’t more e-learning developers use standards?

I don’t know for sure, but I have a number of guesses. Here’s a quick list off the top of my head:

  • Lack of knowledge about standards
  • Confusing or obtuse documentation
  • Competing standards
  • Misconceptions about cost effectiveness
  • Difficulty / Lack of support in development tools

This is a sort of stream-of-consciousness post, so I’m sure I’m missing a few things. Feel free to add your two cents.

Lack of knowledge about standards

It’s my opinion that a large number of e-learning developers are non-technical, or are mid-level techies who came into the field from other areas. Not having a background in web development, many of these developers probably don’t know that using tables for layout purposes is a faux-pas, or realize the power of well-written CSS. Many of these developers probably rely on their e-learning development tools to handle that stuff for them.

And for those who know all about web standards, e-learning standards are a whole ‘nother beast. Being a master with CSS doesn’t mean you’ll easily grasp the depths of SCORM’s murky sequencing features. Which leads us to…

Confusing or obtuse documentation

I like SCORM. I also hate SCORM. Such is life.

There are a number of proposed standards for e-learning courseware, with SCORM and AICC probably leading the way. However, AICC is considered out of date, and SCORM is considered difficult to use. As with many proposed standards, I believe SCORM’s steep learning curve lies largely in the really hard-to-read documentation and unclear examples.

My apologies to those who wrote the documentation — I do think it’s very thorough — but for someone who isn’t familiar with SCORM, trying to get a handle on it by reading those documents is a very frustrating experience. I think Claude Ostyn’s Cooking Up a SCORM and Eye of the SCORM documents were the most reader-friendly SCORM documents available, but with his unfortunate and untimely passing, they probably won’t be updated.

Competing standards

SCORM isn’t the only standard out there. As some of you may recall from my previous post, the IMS Global Learning Consortium (among others) has created a number of proposed standards for the world to use, including the IMS manifest (which accompanies every SCORM course), the Question and Test Interoperability specification, and most recently, the ultra-secretive Common Cartridge proposal.

Having tried my hand at using these IMS standards, lemme tell ya, they are not easy or fun to use. Big disincentive from the start. (The IMS takes inconvenience one step further by making it difficult to even figure out exactly what their standards are.)

The IMS is working on the Common Cartridge Alliance. According to some, it’s a SCORM killer that will revolutionize e-learning courseware.

However, SCORM is much more established, and has been adopted by every major LMS vendor. Assuming the Common Cartridge is as good as promised (and the specification ever becomes publicly available), it will force developers to choose sides.

Backing off of e-learning standards for a minute, what about other competing standards? There are no shortage of standards to choose from: HTML 4 versus XHTML 1.0 (and soon HTML 5 versus XHTML 2.0); Internet Explorer (and its proprietary ActiveX controls) versus Firefox/Safari/Opera/et al, Adobe Flash versus the new kid on the block Microsoft Silverlight, etc.

Making sound choices involves homework on the issues. Oftentimes, I think people make their choice based on ease of use (“does my WYSIWYG editor support it?”) or cost. This is a fair point; after all, we can only do what our budgets allow, right? Well…

Misconceptions about cost effectiveness

One of the biggest arguments against standards and best practices is the amount of time it takes to get up and running with standards.

When it comes to web standards such as valid XHTML markup and CSS-based layouts (separating content from presentation), I think a small amount of time getting acquainted with the techniques pays big dividends in the long run. When using standards and best practices, you’ll spend less time troubleshooting browser compatibility, less time updating the look and feel (external CSS makes it so much easier!), and less effort making the course work in different mediums (standard web browser versus mobile versus text reader, etc.).

Using standards also ensures your courseware will have a longer shelf life.

It’s too expensive to NOT use standards and best practices.

Difficulty / Lack of support in development tools

A hot topic of late is the quality and capabilities of e-learning development tools. Personally, I don’t use them very much except for special needs, such as making animated screen captures in Captivate and/or Camtasia. I normally stick to standard web development tools such as Dreamweaver and Flash Professional.

However, I totally understand the needs of many others out there who don’t have the time and/or expertise to make courseware from scratch; there’s a reason the e-learning development tool field has really bloomed the last few years, and it won’t slow down anytime soon.

But as I’ve mentioned before, these tools most often do not support web standards or best practices. What’s worse, they often completely ignore standards while making the purchaser/user of the software think they’re getting top-notch, state-of-the-art stuff. It’s false advertising, but it’s also effective marketing. Very effective.

I wish the e-learning tools market would shape up and self-regulate! (Riiiight…) Hey tool developers: Use standards because they matter. Use best practices because they’re best practices for a reason. If you incorporate standards and best practices in this young niche market, you could very well find yourself top-shelf in a matter of months. If you were already top-shelf, you could become uber-elite. Think about it.

So what can we do?

I know I keep espousing standards without really giving enough concrete know-how and direction. Honestly, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have the answers — but maybe together we can do something about it. I’m proposing we create a community-defined set of simplified e-learning development standards that can be viewed more as ‘rules of thumb’ than law.

For starters, a standard like SCORM is very intimidating because of its intricacies and density. Claude Ostyn’s writings were enlightening if only because the first thing he did was show an extremely simple example of a single-page course. His point was that just because SCORM can be used in-depth doesn’t mean it has to be. We can just use it for what we need and ignore the rest. A great example is SCORM’s page sequencing and navigation system; it’s really tricky to figure out, and requires a really complicated imsmanifest.xml file. If your course only has a few pages, or if you already have a decent navigation system worked out, don’t use SCORM’s navigation features. You can still create a SCORM-conformant course (SCO) that will work with any SCORM-conformant LMS!

Got ideas?

So how about it? I’m going to start writing down simple, easy-to-digest rules of thumb that I hope someone will find useful. I intend to provide examples and/or links with every concept. Will you help me? Maybe together we can get this thing turned around.

3 thoughts on “Why don’t more e-learning developers use standards?”

  1. totally agree – I’m really new to this game after being in the ICT industry for many years and recently transferring to education. Standards and a rigerous approach are given lip service, but rarely followed through from what I’ve seen. Perhaps developers need more time to get a good idea right in the first place – I’m all for piloting but in the end we must implement ‘best practice’ to ensure our works long term viability.

  2. I can say that the advantages to using standards has become increasingly valuable to me in this last year. Having begun to carve my way out of a very non-standard approach to course development, I have stronger allegiance to using standardized approaches to developing course materials and course systems.

    Using standards is a practical approach toward developing lasting content, and as you suggest, is worth getting through the growing pains of learning to do things differently. For myself, it’s been strongly supported at work to the extent that I leave the old content alone and implement standardized practices for new courses…

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