The E-learning Standardization Landscape

Norm Friesen, September 2004

The observation "the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from" (Tanenbaum, 1981) has been circulating in e-learning standards circles for some time.› Although no one involved in standards development would claim to be seeking a situation in which standards and specifications compete, overlap, or develop in parallel, this statement certainly reflects the varied and complex nature of standards organizations and standards development processes.› This editorial provides what is hopefully a gentle overview of e-learning standardization --specifically as it relates to e-learning and Canadian interests.› In doing so, it also explicitly introduces the themes and issues developed in the articles on learning objects and e-learning standards that have been included in this special edition of the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. ›This overview of e-learning standardization focuses specifically on three key organizations and on the e-learning specifications and standards they develop.› These organizations are the IMS Global Consortium, the IEEE LTSC (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., Learning Technology Standards Committee), and the ISO/IEC (International Standards Organization/International Electrotechnical Commission).›

Standards for e-Learning: What and Why

Standards can be defined as "documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics, to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose" (ISO, 2002).› In the context of e-learning technology, standards are generally developed for use in systems design and implementation for the purposes of ensuring interoperability, portability and reusability.› These attributes should apply to both the systems themselves and of the content, data and processes they manage.› The articles in this special edition of the CJLT also make frequent reference to "specifications."› Specifications represent standards early in their development, prior to receiving approval from standards bodies.› Specifications can often be experimental, incomplete and rapidly evolving.› They capture a rough consensus, and are meant to enable technology development and manage short-term risk.› Standards, on the other hand, are much more conclusive, complete, and evolve much more slowly.› They should capture general acceptance, can serve regulatory purposes, and be used to manage long-term risk (Lim, 2001).› In e-learning, standards are often multi-part, typically consisting of: 1) a "data" or "conceptual" model which specifies the standard's "normative" content in abstraction; 2) one or more "bindings," which specify how the data model is expressed in a formal idiom, which is most often XML; and (less frequently) 3) an "API" (Application Programming Interface) or "service definition" that defines points of contact between cooperating systems.›

Data models are referenced quite frequently in the articles included in this collection.› By far the most frequently referenced data model is that of the IEEE's "Learning Object Metadata" standard (IEEE 1484.12.1-2002).› This standard specifies the way that learning objects can be consistently and systematically described --much in the same way that a library catalogue record reliably describes a book or other publication.› The expression of this and other data models in XML --or any other formal idiom-- receives somewhat less emphasis in the articles in this edition.› One notable exception is the article by Petrinjak and Graham ("Creating Learning Objects from Pre-Authored Course Materials"), which focuses quite specifically on the "mark-up" of course contents using XML, and provides examples of what such mark-up might look like.

The development of technical standards in e-learning can be seen as part of the maturation of this recently emergent field or industry.› According to a recent survey of the Information Technology (IT) industry in The Economist, similar process of industry maturation has occurred in a wide variety of sectors:

railways, electricity, cars and telecommunications all learned to love standards as they came of age. At a certain point in their history, it became clear that rather than just fighting to get the largest piece of the pie, the companies within a sector needed to work together to make the pie bigger&.› Today, the IT industry is finally getting the standards religion. (2003)›

Although there is certainly some debate on the matter (e.g. Friesen, 2004a), "getting the standards religion" can also be said to characterize what has been happening the e-learning sector as well.›

Since the advent of the personal computer, digital technologies have of course become increasingly common in education --both in distance and classroom education and training settings.› However, these technologies have typically been applied in ad hoc and divergent forms:› Innumerable courses, course components and systems for managing and delivering them have been developed independently of one another, often at great expense.› Moreover, this content and these systems are often created in a manner that makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to support their interchange or their successful interoperation.› Standards in e-learning address these shortcomings by ensuring the interoperability, portability and reusability of this content and of these systems.›

Alphabet Soup: IMS, LTSC, and ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36

This document provides an overview of the major organizations mentioned above that contribute to the development of e-learning standards --the IMS, IEEE LTSC, and the ISO/IEC.› There are other standards organizations (many of them national standards bodies) that may make significant contributions to international e-learning standards development, but which fall outside of the scope of this introduction.› These include ANSI (American National Standards Institute), NISO ([US-based] National Information Standards Organization), DIN (Deutsches Institut fłr Normung), BSI (British Standards Institute) and the CSA (Canadian Standards Association).


The IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc. (IMS) " develops and promotes the adoption of open technical specifications for interoperable learning technology" (IMS, 2003).› It is the standards-related organization that receives by far the most frequent mention in the articles in this special issue, and can be said to enjoy the highest recognizability within the educational technology community.› The IMS is a non-profit organization that includes more than 40 Contributing Members and affiliates, a significant number of which are American and British commercial entities, and a smaller number which are universities and federal governmental agencies.› Members are mainly English speaking, which sometimes leads to a de-emphasis on multilingual and multicultural requirements.› The IMS is the only standards development organization highlighted here that has significant, direct representation from those involved in the K-12 sector.› Moreover, the nationalities and sectors represented by this membership have recently been changing.› Canada has been represented in the IMS though the sponsorship of Industry Canada, and at least two IMS working groups have been co-chaired by Canadian representatives.›

Numerous IMS specifications are discussed and referenced in the articles included in this collection.› The first article alone (Mohan's "Building an Online Course Based on the E-Learning Standard") discusses at some length two IMS specifications: "IMS Content Packaging," which is designed to standardize the way learning objects and metadata (or systematic descriptions of them) are "parceled" for easy delivery and access; and "IMS Digital Repositories Interoperability" specification, which recommends ways in which repositories can operate together (or interoperate) to simplify their access and use.› In the next paper, Petrinjak and Graham reference at least two IMS specifications in their discussion of "Learning Object Semantic Structure."› These specifications are the IMS Question and Test Interoperability specification (which allows questions and other data to be shared between test banks and testing applications) and the IMS Reusable Definition of Competency or Educational Objective (which allows for the standardized expression of competencies and outcomes).› The article by Magee mentions yet another specification, the IMS "Vocabulary and Definition Exchange," which, as Magee explains, is "designed to allow the description and creation of controlled vocabularies that could be easily interchanged."› Finally, the last two articles in this collection (Buzza et al, and Paquette et al) have as their primary focus an IMS specification which has been receiving a great deal of attention among researchers in Canada as of late.› This is IMS "Learning Design," an especially complex and ambitious specification which has as its aim the standardized expression of units of instruction (including activities, environments, roles, resources and services) in order to allow these units to be shared, reused and executed or "played" like a script by software systems.› The first of these two articles considers what would be involved in the construction of collections or "repositories" of these instructional units or scripts.› The second and final article in this collection presents a conversation among researchers who are very intensively involved in the implementation of the IMS Learning Design specification.


The IEEE " is a non-profit, technical professional association of more than 380,000 individual members in 150 countries" (IEEE, 2003).› It is also an accredited standards development organization.› Within the IEEE, the Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC) is chartered by the IEEE Computer Society Standards Activity Board to "develop accredited technical standards, recommended practices, and guides for learning technology (LTSC, 2003).› The LTSC also "coordinates formally and informally with other organizations that produce specifications and standards for similar purposes" (LTSC, 2003).› These other organizations include the IMS Consortium and the e-learning standards development body in the ISO/IEC.› The LTSC's active membership includes individuals from small and large private sector organizations, the US military and military contractors, and from governmental organizations and universities of various nationalities.› LTSC meetings are held annually, in locations around the world. ›The LTSC, like the IEEE as a whole, is a respected source of standards, especially in the English-speaking world. This e-learning standards body is responsible for having produced the first e-learning standard: the aforementioned "Learning Object Metadata" standard or "LOM." ›Despite the prominence and productivity of this group, IEEE e-learning standards are seen as benefiting significantly from the approval that can only be conferred by organizations such as the ISO and IEC --those with official, delegated international representation.›


The ISO is a standardization body that is recognized internationally, and was established under the auspices of the United Nations.› Founded in 1946, it is responsible for creating standards in many areas, including computers and communications. Its members comprise the national standards organizations of approximately 140 countries, including the Standards Council of Canada.› The IEC is a similarly international organization that "prepares and publishes international standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies." (IEC, 2002)› To avoid duplication of efforts, the ISO and IEC formed a Joint Technical Committee (JTC1) to "develop, maintain, promote and facilitate IT standards" in a number of areas of common interest (JTC1, 2002).› One of the Sub Committees of JTC1, SC36, was formed in 2000 with the task of developing standards specifically for "information technology for learning, education, and training" (ISO, 2002).› In SC36 (as is the case in JTC1, the ISO and the IEC generally), participation occurs on the basis of national representation. [1] › In passing resolutions, drafts and standards documents, one vote is given to each country at the table, with each nation being represented by a nationally appointed delegation or body.› The Canadian delegation to SC36 is administered and supported through the Standards Council of Canada, and has recently received support from Industry Canada.› Plenary meetings of SC36 are held twice annually, in conjunction with multiple meetings of the SC36 working groups that are individually responsible for developing standards in different sub-domains.› Of the e-learning standards development organizations described here, SC36 is unique in the explicitly international, multi-lingual character of its representation, and in its emphasis on formally coordinating standards development in e-learning with relevant standards activities in other areas. [2]

Red Hot to Cool Blue: The Standards Development Process

A widely circulated diagram that lays out the e-learning standards development process has been provided by the IMS.› It serves as a good starting point for understanding how the IMS, LTSC, and SC36 work together and with the e-learning community.› This diagram depicts the standards development process as a predominantly linear one.› Although this process is depicted as cycling through iterations and feedback loops, it ultimately appears to move from "research and development concepts" and "user needs" to eventually arrive at "approved standards."› In the original version of this diagram, the work and activity of stakeholders and developers is shown in "hot" red, with the colour blue used to suggest the "cooled" stability of officially approved standards.

This diagram indicates how implementations, reference models, specifications and standards can be understood as fitting together into an overall standardization process.› Implementations and reference models refer to ways that specifications and standards are applied in communities.› They include systems and tool development, as well as "application profiling" work that integrates multiple specifications or standards (e.g. SCORM, the "Sharable Content Object Reference Model") or interprets and applies a single standard (e.g. CanCore; see Friesen, et. al. 2004; Duval, et. al. 2002 for more on application profiles).› A significant proportion of implementation and profiling work mediates between the abstraction of many standards and specifications and the particularities and requirements of implementation.››

The IMS diagram also makes it clear that the activity of the IMS and of similar organizations applies only to the development of specifications.› Examples of other organizations that focus particularly on specifications development are the AICC (Aviation Industry CBT [Computer-Based Training] Committee) and the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).› The AICC has developed nine "AICC Guidelines and Recommendations" resources --one of which is referenced in SCORM, and has been adapted by the LTSC for standardization.›› The W3C "develops interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) to lead the Web to its full potential" (W3C, 2002).› It has been responsible for developing XML and other specifications that form the foundation upon which e-learning and other standards and specifications are now being built.› One of its activities, the W3C "Web Accessibility Initiative," is central to the article by Kelly, Phipps and Swift in this collection, entitled "Developing an Holistic Approach for E-Learning Accessibility."

The IMS diagram is slightly less accurate in indicating the way that user and stakeholder needs and input are integrated into the standards development process.› These inputs often inform standards at all stages of their development --not just at the beginning.› SC36, for example, has its own standards development cycle in which standards can be developed "from scratch" --based only on needs and concepts of stakeholder communities.› Moreover, on its way to becoming a standard, a given specification tends not to move in linear or even circular/iterative fashion that is easy to delineate.› As will be illustrated below, work is can be shared across the IMS, LTSC and SC36 in a manner that sometimes appears to be ad hoc, through arrangements derived from mutual need, or as a result of political considerations.

In the case of the IMS, the LTSC and SC36, standards development work is apportioned to working groups, with each working group developing a specification or standard during a period of time that can last from 9 months to 2 or more years.› Because a standard or specification can develop through a number of successive generations, the lifetime of working groups tend to be longer rather than shorter.› A second diagram from the IMS clearly schematizes this standards or specifications development cycle --showing very clearly how it occurred at one point in the IMS itself.

In the case of each of the three standardization organizations considered in this paper, a plenary body governs working group activity.› This body must approve formal applications for starting new working groups or working group activities.› As the diagram also shows, working group activity simultaneously feeds into and draws from the community of developers and implementers, whose feedback and requirements are expected to be incorporated into standards as they are being developed.› Also, each organization develops standards or specifications documents through a prescribed set of stages, beginning with a proposal or scope, and proceeding through base or committee drafts through to a stable version of a specification or standard that is released to the public.› In the case of the LTSC and ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36, documents proceed from one stage to the next through highly formalized balloting procedures, in which numerous ballot comments must be individually addressed.›

Lifecycle of a Standard

This section briefly presents the history of two particular areas of specification activity --the development of the IEEE Learning Object Metadata (LOM) standard and the IMS Learning Design specification (IMS LD)-- as case studies in standards development.› The history of these normative documents illustrates the intricate, inter-organizational dynamic of the standards development process, and highlights the complex interaction of community requirements and standards development.›

The IEEE LOM Standard

The IEEE LOM, a standard that is central to a number of articles in this collection, was originally developed in response to the very practical needs of those assembling online collections of reusable learning materials ("learning objects") that required standardized metadata for the purposes of discovery, management and resource sharing within and between collections.› In 1996, the IMS (then known as the "Instructional Management Systems" consortium), and ARIADNE (Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks for Europe) began the joint development of the Learning Object Metadata, (at approximately the same time as the emergence of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative).› The development of the LOM was subsequently handed over to the IEEE LTSC, where, after multiple drafts and revisions, it was developed into an official IEEE standard.››

While the LOM was being developed, implementers and others required stable, publicly available versions of the specification --both of the abstract data model, and of its bindings in XML and other encodings.› This need was addressed by the IMS, which developed these versions or documents, and in effect "hosted" open and stable versions of the specification for the general community.› Now that the IEEE has standardized the LOM, the IMS will be officially referencing the IEEE document, rather than referring implementers to its earlier versions of metadata documents.› The next step generally envisioned for standards like the LOM is formal standardization by the ISO/IEC through SC36, with one option being to "fast-track" the standard through a high-level JTC1 committee.› However, because the LOM is already very widely accepted and implemented in its current form, and its further standardization in SC36 --either via SC36 balloting procedures or "fast tracking" through JTC1-- brings with it risks of significant revision or even outright rejection.› Consequently, it has been agreed by many stakeholders that stabilizing and supporting the standard in its present form is currently more important that its further standardization.› As a further result, the LOM will not be subjected to further incremental revisions and minor changes.› Instead, a longer term perspective is being taken, and ways are being considered for the IEEE LTSC and the SC36 subcommittee to work together in the future to develop "next generation" or "2.0 version" of this metadata standard over a number of years.› In 2003 and 2004, Canadian representatives have been submitting documents and studies (e.g. Friesen, 2004b) in the hopes of initiating productive discussions about the development of new versions of this standard.›

IMS Learning Design

IMS LD is a specification that has a much shorter history than the LOM.› However, as mentioned above, the IMS LD has been the subject of great interest in the Canadian e-learning community --an interest which is clearly registered in the final two articles in this collection. ›This specification has its beginnings in the Open University of the Netherlands, in the form of an "Educational Modeling Language" developed by Dr. Rob Koper.› This modeling language was brought --more or less mid-stream-- into an IMS working group that was originally charged with the task of developing a specification related to instructional design.› This working group, co-chaired by Canadian Dr. Katy Campbell, subsequently undertook the task of simplifying this modeling language or system, and adapting it to existing IMS specifications, including the IMS version of
"Learning Object Metadata."› IMS Learning Design was released as a "Version 1.0" IMS specification in February 2003, and its subsequent uptake and implementation has involved a wide variety of international initiatives or groups, as well as some systems vendors.› These include the Valkenberg group featured in the last article in this collection, the European-based "UNFOLD" community, as well as Blackboard, elive Learning Design, and
LAMS (Learning Activity Management System) International.


Despite the permanence, stability and univocality implied by the term "standard," it is clear that the processes and histories of their development are anything but predicable, unambiguous and simple.› Perhaps especially in an emerging domain such as e-learning, standards development involves the difficult task of hitting a moving target from a position that is itself changing.› The "target" is represented by emerging and accepted practices, capabilities and requirements, and the "changing position," by the standards development dynamic itself.› The articles in this special edition of the CJLE demonstrate, however, that a gradual alignment of these two factors seems to be occurring. ›Many of the articles foreground the opportunities and challenges that have been encountered as existing activities, content and requirements are applied to emergent standards and specifications.› In his article "E-Learning Lifecycles," Magee reflects on this process quite explicitly, and refers the notion of "communities of practice" as a way of conceptualizing and clarifying complex implementation and adoption issues. ›Magee concludes that "It is apparent that if e-learning specifications are going to achieve adoption and become more than just a tool for organizing information, they need to be able to give each community of practice the power to place information into a meaningful context."›› The articles in this collection can be seen in many ways as describing means through which abstract information --data models and XML expressions-- is made concretely meaningful and useful in the context of implementer and user communities.



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[1] American representation in SC36, which is not strictly coordinated through a governmental body, presents a notable exception to this.› American participants are often sponsored by separate private-sector organizations, but must ultimately speak and vote as a single entity.

[2] SC36 maintains formal liaisons with a number of other subcommittees in JTC1, in the ISO itself, and with other standards organizations, including the IMS and LTSC.