Standards & Technologies for Digital Learning (part I)

I have been working in the education field for quite some time now. I am mainly working with metadata but I have also been quite involved in managing technical work related to learning repositories and related apps or services for multiple audiences (K-12, adult education, etc.). For that matter, I know very well that keeping up with all the standards, technical documentation, technologies and the likes, is not easy.

On the contrary, it’s a really daunting task and a project that has a life of its own. Some would say that it’s not necessary if you just focus on your area of expertise. And while this may be true in general, I feel that if someone wants to engage in meaningful discussions about metadata for example, they should definitely have a couple of facts straight about what’s out there in terms of standards or technologies.

Standards and Specifications image
Image of random civil engineer that is used to showcase the need for specifications and standards as the foundation of digital learning (image source)

Having this in mind, I decided to assemble some of the technologies, standards, tools and the works that someone needs to be aware of, if he/she is working with ICT in education. I am planning to enrich this post from time to time, just to keep a reference point for myself but also all of you out there that work in the same field. Please feel free to add any references or other stuff in the comments’ section below. If I was to make a rough categorization of the existing standards and technologies for e-Learning, the following would be a great start:

  1. Digital Learning Content Quality: Including all the standards and specifications that define and measure the quality of digital content created to support education,
  2. Digital Learning Content Format: Including standards and specifications that exist to define the format of digital resources in general but also specifically for the ones used in education.
  3. Digital Learning Content Packaging: Referencing all these standards that provide a structure that allows us to package educational content of various formats in order to share and distribute among platforms.
  4. Educational Metadata: Including all the standards that are out there, focusing on how educational content is annotated with metadata that facilitate its discovery, use and reuse within the boundaries of the services offered.
  5. Interoperability: Referencing all the standards that allow different systems to “talk” to each other and communicate. These standards and specifications are seen as the necessary backbone in order for an ecosystem of e-Learning systems to be deployed.
  6. Learning Goals, Skills and Competences: Including all the standards and specifications that are utilized to express and define learning goals as well as credit skills and competences earned through the consumption of digital learning content.
  7. Accessibility: Referencing all the specifications and standards that allow for greater accessibility of the content by various platforms but mainly by users that need extra support in using the digital content available.
  8. Other Building Blocks: This part includes all the other technologies that may not be specific to learning but are used to deploy e-Learning solutions. These technologies may include repository software, programming languages and other components that are widely used in the e-Learning field.

So, having established some “wide” categories, I am just going to dive into each one, providing (hopefully) a series of posts, depending of the depth of each category. For this one, I will focus on (1), (2) and (3). Content Quality, Content Format and Content Packaging.

Content Quality

Image taken from here

When it comes to content quality, there are a set of instruments and rubrics that may be used to assess the quality of a learning resource. The most used ones are the following:

  • Learning Object Review Instrument (LORI): It was developed to assess/evaluate learning objects. It contains nine (9) dimensions based on which the user can evaluate a learning object. The dimensions used are: Content Quality, Learning Goal Alignment, Feedback & Adaptation, Motivation, Presentation Design, Interaction Usability, Accessibility, Reusability and Standards Compliance.
  • 21st Century Learning by Design (UNESCO): The scope of the 21st Century Learning Design rubrics is to help the educators to comprehend how they can enhance 21st century skills through learning activities. Six rubrics are used, namely: Collaboration, Skilled Communication, Self Regulation, Real-world Problem Solving, Knowledge Construction and Use of ICT for Learning.
  • Achieve OER Rubrics: The eight rubrics were developed to help states, districs, teachers and other users to determine the quality of OER in relation to college and career-ready standards. Through these rubrics, tools can be developed that assess the quality of content and produce quality scores. The rubrics used are the following: Degree of Alignment to Standards, Quality of Explanation of the Subject Matter, Utility of Materials Designed to Support Learning, Quality of Assessment, Quality of Technological Interactivity, Quality of Instructional and Practice Exercises, Opportunities for Deeper Learning and Assurance of Accessibility.

A study on how some quality dimensions can be translated into specific metrics, can be found here. Also, an influential piece of research by Nesbit et al., can be found here.I have not identified any other noteworthy approaches to the quality of learning objects. The big challenge here is to effectively assess the quality of learning objects. The dimensions proposed make lots of sense altogether, but there are not easily translated into tangible and measurable parameters.

Crowdsourcing for quality assessment can be a way forward, using approaches like the ones used in commercial apps like TripAdvisor. Having users of the services assess the resources based on their experience and expertise, can be a solution to scaling up the evaluation of resources. Also, usage data from the portals and repositories where resources are made available, can also contribute to the overall quality assessment. My interest would also be to see how quality indicators can be embedded into the object metadata, and updated regularly based on their usage or new evaluations coming in.

Content Format

Image taken from here

The discussion here, concerns both the simple (or more common) content formats as well as more complex ones. Quality is of essense when looking for example at the quality of the digital file of an image, a sound or a video. Since an image can be thought of as a learning resource when coupled with the appropriate metadata, its quality (resolution, colour depth, etc.) directly affects the quality of the learning resource as a whole. Having an interesting image of any kind, in a low resolution that cannot be edited or magnified to serve an educational purpose, can be a problem.

So, in this part of the discussion, even for learning resources, it’s crucial that a specific threshold of quality is set. For example, images that are too small to be resized efficiently, or videos that are low-definition, should be removed if a better version can be created. Of course there are cases when historical videos or low quality photos are all we have, so in this case they are accepted. But even so, it would be nice to get an indication of their quality through the use of some visualization technique or a filter of some sort.

In addition to that, knowing the format of a resource, can also affect specific aspects of quality for the resource as a whole. Looking for example at proprietary file formats (no matter how high the resolution), or file formats that are no longer supported in specific web browsers or devices, can affect the quality of the learning resource as a whole. For example, a resource that cannot be reproduced on half the browsers out there, does not rank high on either accessibility or reusability. So again, the need for a specific checklist when it comes to digital content format is clear. One that will be updated regularly, making sure that content is updated and curated/preserved based on new technological advancements.

Content Packaging

Image taken from here

Content packaging concerns the bundling of learning resources and accompanying files in a format that will allow them to “travel” across platforms and services in a uniform and compatible way. Put simply, it’s a standard way of describing learning content that can be read by many programs. The main standards and specifications on content packaging are the following:

  • Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC): This is considered to be the predecessor of SCORM. It is used by Learning Management Systems (LMS) and other systems. It was created before XML but it’s nevertheless really consistent, clear and reliable. It is considered by many to be safer than SCORM (look at this comparison article).
  • Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM): It was created to deal with issues of interoperability, reusability and preservation of learning objects. Like a reference-model, it was designed to support web technologies but also existing specifications of educational technologies. It is comprised by a collection of interelated technical specs and instructions for developing digital learning content that can be consumed through a web browser. SCORM defines a way in which learning contetn can be packaged into a ZIP file, called “Package Interchange Format”.
  • Tin Can API (xAPI): Its first version was completed in April 2013. It solves many of the shortcomings of previous SCORM version. Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) is also in charge of xAPI as they are for SCORM. It’s a web service that allows software clients to read and write data in the form of statement objects. In their simplest form, these statements are about “actor-verb-object”. More complicated statements can be created as well. Statements are stored in a data store that is called “Learning Record Store”, which can be within an LMS or not.
  • Common Cartridge / Thin Common Cartridge: CC is a group of standards that describes the format for the creation and sharing of digital learning content. It has been developed by the IMS Global Learning Consortium and it outlines the format in which the content is packaged as well as the infrastructure that is needed to show the content to the final user. Thin CC supports faster deployment and content application from publishers in various systems without being too data-intensive. It also work with Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) that offers a standard way of integrating rich learning applications with platforms like learning management systems, portals, learning object repositories, or other educational environments.
  • CMI-5: It has come from the AICC committee and it was intended to replace SCORM originally. Its development was transferred to ADL in 2014, so now it exists as the bridge between SCORM and xAPI. CMI-5 is an easily implementable specification that provides structure and rules for those using a LMS with xAPI. It is the communication piece that provides data about the formal learning occurring in the LMS to the Learning Record Store.
  • LEAP2A: LEAP 2.0 is a standard that aims at offering a solid base for interoperability among e-portfolio systems and other similar systems that manage content. LEAP2A can be used to describe digital objects created by the e-portfolio manager, structured information for these objects, for learning goals, human actors, skills, etc. It can also describe links to other objects or definitions, structured or unstructured claims and relations among the aforementioned.
  • EDUPUB: EDUPUB emerged as a profile for EPUB, specifically targeted at educational/textbook content. It provides a content model, structural semantics, extended metadata, LMS integration, shared annotation, distributable objects and scriptable components. Its draft specification can be found here as of 22/2/2016.

Well, that’s all for now! I will just stop here, before the post turns into a chapter or something. I assume that not everything is mentioned and that you may have more than one additions to my lists. I hope that you’ll spend a minute or two to provide your feedback through the comments’ section and I promise to spend some time updating the article from time to time. Hope it serves as a nice reference to all of you that are looking for a quick overview of what’s out there!

Next stop: Standards & Technologies for Digital Learning (part II)


4 thoughts on “Standards & Technologies for Digital Learning (part I)

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