pipwerks SCORM Wrappers now available on GitHub

I’ve been considering adding my pipwerks SCORM wrappers to GitHub for a very long time, but my n00bness and general lack of free time were major obstacles. However, the time has finally come to buckle down and get these puppies OUT! So without further ado, I present:

https://github.com/pipwerks/scorm-api-wrapper

I should note that these are my original SCORM wrappers (JavaScript, ActionScript 2 and ActionScript 3); I’ve been (very slowly) working on a completely new SCORM support codebase that I plan to release separately. However, these oldies are still running like a champ, so don’t be afraid to use them.

Many people have contacted me over the last few years with suggestions for improvements, but due to my general busy-ness I haven’t really made any modifications for a long time; I recently made a few small tweaks, including updating the StringToBoolean function that caused problems in Plateau, but the bulk of the code remains largely the same.

If you’re one of those die-hards eager to tweak the source code, you’re in luck! This is a public repository, which means anyone and everyone is now free to fork and edit the code as they see fit. If you have any suggestions or ideas, please go to GitHub and show us what ya got!

And for the curious, I’m using Tower to handle my Git commits — command lines are not my cup of tea. Tower is a very nice Git GUI that integrates seamlessly with GitHub. I’m new to Tower, but so far I like it very much.

Instructional Technologist, Explained

I bill myself as an instructional technologist, which means I’m often met with blank or puzzled stares. I thought it might be useful to explain my rational for using this title.

Warning: this post may bore you to death, or cause you to get caught up in a tangled web of semantics.

In my opinion, an instructional technologist is a person who specializes in utilizing technology for instructional purposes. (Duh!) It’s a very broad title that can cover many different and often only tangentially-related duties.

When I was younger (so much younger than today), I worked in a number of educational and non-profit organizations in a technology support capacity, including print production, radio broadcasting, audio engineering and video production. With the dawn of the internet, I expanded my skill set to include web development. I relished working in a variety of mediums, and began to think of myself as a media generalist. Being a jack of all trades* was fun, and it felt good to know that most of my projects were educational or somehow helped the community.

When I decided to go to grad school, San Francisco State University’s Instructional Technologies (ITEC) program seemed like a perfect fit. I assumed that the program’s title meant that we would learn how to use technology in an educational capacity. Turns out I was only half right — technology was definitely involved, but I was also informed that “technologies” sometimes referred to adult learning theories and principles, not just just tools. Instructional design, which is completely independent from common notions of technology, was the primary focus of the program. I learned a lot about educational psychology and learning theories while in the ITEC program, and oddly didn’t really learn much about technology as I had traditionally defined it.

Once I graduated from the ITEC program, I jumped right into e-learning development, as both a content author, a course developer, and a course delivery systems programmer (SCORM, course development tools, etc… probably what pipwerks.com is most associated with).

As a content author, I often performed instructional design tasks, including needs assessments, research, writing, and content sequencing. For these tasks, instructional designer seemed most appropriate. However, because I also handled the media authoring and programming side of the courses, many people thought of me as a programmer, web developer or e-learning developer — all of which I felt were also too restrictive. I don’t want to be stereotyped or painted into a corner.

What to do? Well, I hearkened back to my grad school days and copped the title instructional technologist. It felt flexible enough to work for my needs, while still being accurate and even a tad mysterious. Mystery is fun, especially when most of your co-workers have bland titles like “analyst.”

Instructional technologist is also portable. Last week I left my old job and started a new one. While I used to focus on e-learning development and LMS administration, I now work with classroom support in a university setting, with a focus on administering a lecture capture system. Although I’m working in a completely different environment with very different technology, I’m still working with technology in an instructional or educational capacity. I was able to retain my working title of instructional technologist (kudos to my new bosses for agreeing to it).

Many people in universities use a title such as educational technology specialist. That’s a nice title, and very fitting for what they do. However, it also has the connotation of educational institution, such as university or even high school. Since my work has spanned corporate training as well as community and university work, I prefer the word instructional over educational.

So there you have it. Instructional technologist, explained. Think it’s great? Ridiculous? Have a better idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”
[ citation ]

Speaking of IMS…

IMS produces standards they want everyone to use.

Why, then, do I have to log in to their site in order to VIEW the documentation for their standards?

Situation: I found a link to a PDF on their site. When I clicked it, I was presented with this warm greeting [link no longer available]:

Sorry
The page you are trying to access is reserved for participants in the IMS GLC Public Community or is reserved for IMS GLC Members, Affiliates or Alliance Members.

If you have already set up an account and just need to login, please do so here. If you would like to register for a free public community account, just head on over to our registration page.

So… in order for me to even read their standards, I have to tell them who I am and put my personal information in their database? How does this foster adoption of standards?

Geez these guys burn my britches…

UPDATE:

The IMS site requires the following information before you can view any of their documentation: Name, email, organization name, job title, job description, country

Pretty invasive if you ask me.

UPDATE #2:

After registering for site access, I was greeted with a second page asking for persona information, and asking me to agree to IMS’s licensing terms. They require the following information: Name, email, “entity on whose behalf you are accepting this agreement”, street address (includes city, zip, country), phone number

(Phone number? Seriously?)

The license terms are FIVE PAGES long after pasting into a Word file.

Interesting bits (emphasis mine):

IMS specifications are published solely for the purpose of enabling interoperability among learning products and services used by the education and training communities served by IMS members and are made available under license to Registered Users solely to further that purpose.

I guess this means the standards aren’t meant for public consumption after all, though the end result of the standards are?

Users of the Specification(s) are encouraged to engage directly with IMS as IMS members, including registration of all applications of specifications, in order to enhance the level of interoperability in the education and training industries worldwide.

I read this as: tell us who you are and how you’re using IMS specifications so we can include you in our next press release (you know, the part where we pat ourselves on the back).

Any use of the Specifications(s) or other Materials provided by IMS must be accompanied by the copyright legends provided with full attribution given to IMS.

If this were the case with the HTML, ECMAScript, or XML standards, our documents would be bloated with useless attribution credits. (Side note: I wonder how this affects SCORM, as SCORM uses IMS specifications for packaging? Is anyone who produces a SCORM-based course supposed to pay respect to the Don provide attribution to IMS in their courseware?)

Licensee agrees to publicly and visibly acknowledge and attribute to IMS the Specification(s) upon which products are based to any and all Development Partner(s).

So if Company X uses an IMS specification, they’re supposed to go over to each “Development Partner” — many of whom may be commercial competitors — and let them know?

IMS issues press release for new e-learning interoperability standards

News from the IMS Global Learning Consortium:

The IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS GLC) today announced the public review of the first phase of the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standards to allow open and seamless integration of educational web applications. Called “Basic LTI or BLTI,” this first standard addresses the most common roadblocks to achieving a seamless experience for teachers and students.

Reading this press release, I couldn’t help but notice two things:

  1. There’s an awful lot of chest-puffing and self-congratulation going on here — people’s credentials are thrown around an awful lot, and over half of the press release is filled “Statements of Support.”
  2. There’s no hyperlink to the standards that are being announced, nor is there any information about how you can read the new standard proposal, whether you can try it yourself, how long it’s open for review, etc.

If the new standards are written as poorly as this press release, it’s going to be 1,000 pages of useless spec. All filler, no killer.

DevLearn 2009 Recap

(Okay, I admit it… this post is WAY overdue.)

Let me begin by saying this is not a rant, but rather an honest account of my impressions regarding this year’s DevLearn.

Nearly two months have passed, and when I think of DevLearn I think of two things: Social media gone wild, and hallway conversations.

Social Media Gone Wild

DevLearn 2009 was absolutely wonderful if you’re into incorporating social media into e-learning. Or should I say “using social media for learning,” without the “e.”

Unfortunately for me, I’m not really interested in using social media for learning. I mean, I learn via social media all the time — Twitter and RSS feeds are a raging river of information flooding my head with ideas every day. But when it comes to creating e-learning projects at work, we’re not ready for social media. It doesn’t really have a place in our plans yet, and we’re A-OK with that.

So upon attending DevLearn, you can guess how dismayed I was about the lack of breadth regarding session topics… it seemed as though every other session was about social media. Perhaps the conference should have been named SoMeLearn.

I believe this was my fourth DevLearn conference — I live nearby so it’s not difficult to attend — and I’d have to say this one felt the lightest when it came to the Dev part of DevLearn. There were so few hands-on technical sessions that I had a hard time finding them. I know I’m not the only person who felt this way, as a number of folks confided similar sentiments. Chad Udell, one of this year’s presenters (probably the best technical session I attended) had [link no longer available]:

[T]he conference wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns for me. There are some real underlying problems I have with the conference’s overwhelming love affair with Social Media or Web 2.0 or whatever you may want to call it. […] Do we really need 5-6 sessions about “Leveraging Twitter in your Learning Organization”? […] Given that Mark Oehlert so masterfully managed the Social Learning Jam as a dedicated area for discussion about using Social Media for learning in the eneterprise, it seems a tad silly to have so many concurrent session on the topic.

I may be cast out by talking so candidly about this, but here’s the crux of it for me: If the conference really is called “DevLearn” shouldn’t their (sic) be more “Dev” in the schedule?

I wholeheartedly agree, Chad. I have nothing against social media and finding its place in learning, but did it have to steal so much focus from other areas? Despite my MA in education, I consider myself a developer first and foremost. I like to get my hands dirty. I want more “developy”-type sessions, especially considering the price of the conference. This is meant to be constructive criticism… hopefully next year DevLearn will have a more rounded/balanced session lineup.

Hallway Conversations

Returning to the positives, it was wonderful to meet so many people in person. I’ve “known” many people via Twitter and the blogosphere for quite some time, but it’s a real trip to meet these folks in person. Janet Clarey had a nice post about it (great to meet you, fellow introvert!). In fact, if there was anything about Devlearn 2009 that really stood out for me, it was how great the hallway conversations (and after-parties) were.

Gary Hegenbart said it nicely in his DevLearn recap:

Almost everyone I met included their Twitter name as part of the introductions. […] Twitter accelerated the conversation because if you just met someone you follow or who follows you, then you already knew a lot about the person.  It felt like a reunion and conversation flowed easily and freely.

It was absolutely awesome to finally meet The Beard (aka Aaron Silvers) in person, even if we never really found much time to chat. (Does this guy command a crowd or what? I should start calling him “The Mayor.”) And it goes without saying that if Brian Dusablon and Steve Howard are in the house, we have to hit a pub for a beer and a chat! In my case a Coke since I had to commute an hour by car. Sad, I know.

I learned firsthand that (Mark Oehlert + Kris Rockwell + Koreen Olbrish) === instant mischief. This time it was zombie mischief. LETSI’s Avron Barr was there, and I had the pleasure of driving Mike Rustici to the airport (sorry if I scared you with my crazy driving!). I could go on and on. I’m something of an introvert, so I may not have seemed very excited, but trust me, it was fun.

Following BJ Schone’s footsteps, here’s a list of tweeps I chatted with (apologies if I left you off the list, it wasn’t intentional):

The pipwerks forum is dead, long live the new eLearning Technology and Development Google Group!

A year ago this week, I launched the not-for-profit and ad-free pipwerks E-Learning Development Forum. It was mostly intended to be a way for me to answer questions about some of my projects, such as the SCORM API wrapper, SCORM ActionScript classes, and my many Captivate hacks. The forum wasn’t a vanity project so much as an attempt to avoid email… I’d rather post answers online where everyone can see them than reply to individual emails. I had also hoped other people in the e-learning community would get involved and ask/answer questions beyond the scope of my pipwerks projects.

Now that a year has passed, I decided to step back and evaluate the success of the forum. The numbers aren’t bad: over 200 members, over 550 posts. Of course, it isn’t about the numbers, but about helping people; I’d like to think that most of those 200 people found the answers they were looking for. This is great, and makes me happy. If I helped even one person, the forum can be considered a success.

However, I also noticed a considerable lack of participation from others. Aside from a few helpful folks, I wound up answering most of the questions myself. This means it wasn’t so much a forum as an “Ask Philip” column. Not exactly what I had in mind.

When combined with the effort it takes to maintain a website (security patches, compatibility issues, styling, etc.), the forum started to feel more like a weight on my shoulders than anything else. So, as of today, I have closed down the forum and moved over to a Google Group: the eLearning Technology and Development group.

I’ve been using Google Groups for over a year with the SWFObject Google Group and Aaron Silvers’ Flash For Learning Google Group (no longer online). It isn’t a perfect system, but I’ve learned to enjoy its simplicity. It’s also free and relieves me of administrative hassles such as applying updates and backing up data. Sweet. Plus you can use Google Groups via email, which means you never even need to visit the site. Bonus.

I’d like to say thank you to all the people who posted in the pipwerks forum, and invite you to join me in the new eLearning Technology and Development group.

I’d also like to ask anyone and everyone who develops e-learning to drop by and sign up for the eLearning Technology and Development group. Ask questions — lots of questions — and let’s see if we can get a good community going!

PS: If you’re wondering why I bothered creating a new group considering there are many other discussions groups/forums out there, the answer is simple: no product favoritism and no advertising. Product forums by vendors such as Adobe and Articulate are focused solely on their products, while bulletin boards by organizations such as the eLearning Guild tend to have a ton of ads and a focus on their events and sponsors. I’d like less clutter in my life, and a simple Google Group (even with the AdSense ads) is a nice clean way to handle discussions. Hope you agree!

Disabling those pesky pop-up blockers

As a web surfer I LOVE pop-up blockers. They keep my web surfing sane and somewhat clean (though there always seems to be a few Netflix pop-ups that get through the cracks).

However, as an e-learning course developer, pop-up blockers are a major pain in the rear end. Our courses almost always need to be launched in a pop-up window, and the pop-up windows are very frequently blocked. This certainly doesn’t help us when many of our end-users — the infamous and vaguely named “learner” — are often resistant to taking the course in the first place.

Well, I can’t help fight la resistance, but I can help configure those pesky pop-up blockers.

Here’s a list of common pop-up blockers with links to the manufacturer’s instructions for handling said blocker. Enjoy.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, the universal default for bypassing a pop-up blocker is to hold “ctrl” while clicking a link that causes a pop-up, such as the old chestnut “start course”.

Toolbars with Pop-up Blockers

Browsers

Other blockers

Want to add more to the list?

I know I’ve left a few things off, such as Opera and the MSN toolbar. If you have the link for any of these, or if you’d like to add something else to this list, just post a comment. Thanks.

IFrames and cross-domain security, part 2

Update 10/2010: A new working example with cleaned up code is available.

About six weeks ago, I wrote a post about some issues I was encountering with iframes and cross-domain security. I promised I would write about whatever workaround I decided to use; this post details that workaround. Warning: it feels more complicated than it is, and may take a while to get your head around. Once you get the gist of it, it’s actually a pretty straightforward system.

The problem

Recap of the issue

  1. I have a JavaScript-powered HTML course interface residing in our learning management system at domain A. For the purposes of this post, let’s call this domain myLMS.com.
  2. The course interface loads content stored on a website at domain B, which is a completely unrelated website and not a subdomain of domain A. Let’s call this site content.org.
  3. The interface loads the external content into an iframe; this content includes course activities that must send a completion notice to the interface.
  4. Since the content is from an external domain, JavaScript communication between the iframe and the parent frame is explicitly forbidden, meaning the content can never send the completion notice to the parent frame.

Illustration of iframe communication with parent frame

Example scenario

  1. The interface at myLMS.com loads a JavaScript-powered quiz question from content.org into the iframe.
  2. The user is not supposed to be allowed to move forward until the question is answered; this means the interface must disallow forward progress until it gets a completion notice (via JavaScript) from the quiz question.
  3. Since the quiz question is loaded into an iframe and is not from the same domain as the parent frame, it is not allowed to interact with the parent frame and can’t use JavaScript to communicate with the course interface. This means the completion notice can’t be sent to the course interface, and the learner can’t move forward.

The hack

What’s a boy to do? Make a hack, of course. 😉

After searching high and low for answers, I decided to use a nested-iframe hack. From what i can tell, it’s a fairly common workaround. Here’s how it works:

  1. Parent frame is from domain A.
  2. Content in child frame (iframe) is from domain B.
  3. Child frame loads a hidden iframe which is served from domain A. Since this nested iframe is served from domain A, it has unrestricted access to the JavaScript in the parent frame.

Iframe workaround: Nested iframe inside content iframe.

Ok, ok, it’s starting to make your head spin, right? Well, what makes it even more complicated is that the nested frame can’t communicate with the child frame, either! In fact, it all seems like a pointless exercise until you add in one crucial ingredient: a querystring in the nested iframe’s URL.

The querystring

The HTML page loaded into the nested iframe is a dedicated proxy (helper) file; it only contains JavaScript, and includes a JavaScript-based querystring parser that examines the string and executes a function based on the content of the querystring.

Here’s how the final sequence of events would look:

  1. myLMS.com loads quiz question from content.org into an iframe.
  2. When quiz question is completed, it uses JavaScript to dynamically create a nested iframe.
  3. Before loading the nested iframe, a querystring is added to the URL, such as proxy.html<strong>?result=passed</strong>.
  4. The JavaScript in the proxy HTML examines the querystring and acts accordingly. In this example, it sees that the variable “result” has a value of “passed”, so it sends a completion notice directly to the JavaScript contained in the parent frame.

The scripts

Parent frame (myLMS.com)

For this example, we’re going to assume the parent frame contains a JavaScript function named interactionCompleted.

function interactionCompleted(result){
   //Do something with result
}

Content iframe (content.org)

The content iframe, which is loaded from the external domain content.org, contains a function that creates the nested iframe element, then loads the proxy.html file with the proper querystring. You can invoke the proxy whenever you need it. In this example, it gets invoked via the setCompletion function.

function setCompletion(result){

    //The name of the frame
    var id = "proxyframe";

    //Look for existing frame with name "proxyframe"
    var proxy = frames[id];

    //Set URL and querystring
    var url = "http://myLMS.com/proxy.html?result=" +result;

    //If the proxy iframe has already been created
    if(proxy){

        //Redirect to the new URL
        proxy.location.href = url;

    } else {

        //Create the proxy iframe element.
        var iframe = document.createElement("iframe");
        iframe.id = id;
        iframe.name = id;
        iframe.src = url;
        iframe.style.display = "none";
        document.body.appendChild(iframe);

    }

}

Nested “proxy” iframe (myLMS.com)

When the content iframe creates the nested proxy frame, it appends a querystring. The proxy frame therefore needs to examine the proxy’s window.location parameter for a querystring, then act on the value of the querystring.

window.onload = function (){

    var result, pairs;
    var querystring = window.location.href.split("?")[1] || false;

    //Ensure querystring exists and has valid result identifier
    if(!querystring || querystring.indexOf("result=") === -1){ return false; }

    //Ensure all ampersands are single (not entities) so we can split using "&"
    querystring = querystring.replace(/&/g, "&");    

    //Create an array of value pairs. This gives us flexibility
    //to add more items to the querystring later.
    pairs = querystring.split("&");

    //Loop through the pairs and act on each one.
    for(var i = 0; i < pairs.length; i++){

        //We're currently only looking for the 'result' value
        //We can add more if needed by adding more 'if' and 'switch' statements

        //Find 'result' variable
        if(pairs[i].indexOf("result=")){

            //Extract the value from the string by replacing the
            //identifier/assignment portion of the string with nothing ""
            result = pairs[i].replace("result=", "");

        }

    }

    //Only act on valid values.
    //DO NOT try to use eval() here.  Big no-no.
    switch(result){

        //Must specify "top." before the function invocation so that
        //the browser knows to send the JS to the topmost parent frame

        case "passed" : top.interactionCompleted("passed"); break;
        case "failed" : top.interactionCompleted("failed"); break;

    }

};

If you remove the comments and extra line breaks, this is a very short script that weighs in at 16 lines. Also, as I mentioned in the comments, please don’t try to use eval() on the querystring; it would be very unwise and would cause major security vulnerabilities, much like an SQL injection.

Thoughts and observations

Now that I’ve covered the basics, here are some general thoughts and observations on the topic.

Does this hack work in all browsers?

I can’t guarantee anything, but in my personal tests it worked in the following browsers: IE6 (XP), IE7 (Vista), Firefox 3 (XP, Vista, OS X, Ubuntu 8.10), Safari 3.1 (XP, Vista, OS X), and Opera 9.5 (XP, Vista, OS X).

Where is the proxy.html file stored?

In my example, the proxy.html file (used for the nested iframe) must be stored on the same domain as the parent file (the course interface); the key to this workaround is that the proxy.html file has unrestricted access to the topmost parent file, which it can only have when being served from the same domain.

Do the nested iframes screw up the back button?

Yes and no. I didn’t document what happens in which browser, but I know some browsers’ back buttons are unaffected by the nested iframe, while others will require one extra ‘back’ click. I don’t know about you, but I can live with one extra back button click.

What if I have some files that aren’t on a different domain?

Sometimes you’ll have some files that are on a different domain, and some that aren’t. If you have files on the same domain, you certainly wouldn’t want to use the iframe hack — it would be completely unnecessary. In my system, I expanded on the previous example by adding a domain-matching check before invoking the proxy. It requires specifying the parent’s domain in the querystring for the content iframe. The JavaScript in the content iframe looks like this:

//Get the querystring
var querystring = window.location.href.split("?")[1] || false;

//Create boolean indicating whether domains match.
//If domains match, no need for proxy workaround.
var isSameDomain = (querystring && querystring.contains("domain=" +document.domain));

function setCompletion(result){

    if(isSameDomain && parent){
        top.interactionCompleted(result);
    } else {
        //do what's in the previous example
    }
}

document.domain can be used to find out what the current domain is for security purposes. A simple string search will tell you whether the content frame’s domain is found inside the querystring that was passed from the parent.

What if I have multiple actions I’d like to perform using the proxy?

Simple: Just add it to your querystring and build the logic into your proxy.html file’s JavaScript. You can make it as simple or complicated as you like!

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any real sites that may be located at mylms.com or content.org; these addresses were picked at random and only used for demonstration purposes.