NEW YORK and REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 8, 2000 — When you do things very well, and for a very long time, you tend to get noticed. Take SmartForce, for example, a Redwood City, Calif. based operation that’s been providing solutions for eLearning since well before the term was even coined. Just recently, the company picked up a Best of the Best award from PC Computing magazine, accolades from the Smithsonian Institution and a coveted ISO 9002 certification for its quality-management system.
Doing things well at SmartForce also means taking notice, especially of customers and their concerns. One of the company’s product marketing managers, Scott Trumpower, spends most of his time doing just that — listening to customers and trying to learn from what they have to tell him.
Lately, customers have been telling Trumpower that what they want most in an eLearning solution is the ability to customize. SmartForce customers want to be able to tailor eLearning solutions to their own corporate environment. In a SmartCourse on Windows NT, for example, system administrators might want to be able to learn how their own company prefers to set up groups in an NT domain. In a solution supporting chat sessions with an online expert, students might want to be able to select someone from their own company’s talent pool. Or perhaps in a SmartCourse on C++ programming, development managers might want to be able to insert their company’s own documentation guidelines.
Now they can, thanks to new industry initiative designed to enable more flexibility in how eLearning content is assembled. That initiative, known as the Instructional Systems (IMS) Global Consortium Content and Management Systems Specification, was developed by a consortium of providers, customers and academics determined to streamline and simplify the way eLearning products are made.
“The publication and adoption of common standards is a critical step in the development of any industry,”
SmartForce President and CEO Greg Priest said.
“We support these standards because we see how critical it is not only to the eLearning industry, but to the multiple industries using our services.”
The Microsoft implementation, called Learning Resource Interchange (LRN) is an XML-based schema for putting the specification into practice. Along with the schema, Microsoft is offering an LRN toolkit, including a viewer, a validator, and two LRN-compliant samples: eBooks from Microsoft Press and an MSDN Windows 2000 developer course.
For eLearning professionals like Trumpower, LRN provides a common methodology for
content so that eLearning solutions can be easily extended or customized with an XML editor. Within minutes, any content that’s tagged accordingly can be incorporated into any eLearning solution that also follows the IMS specification,
This is a far cry from the almost impossible task of editing proprietary content descriptors — and the tedious job of creating one-off converters for accessing content — that until now have been the norm in our industry.
Supported by SmartForce and an array of other eLearning leaders, LRN will enable developers to describe any eLearning content — its type, location, format, assembly method, and so on — through a set of XML commands. Accordingly, anyone with access to an XML editor can change the course content or structure just as easily. As Trumpower points out,
“This arrangement can vastly simplify course modification, not only so for our customers who want to tailor our solutions to their own environment, but also for our own developers, who now can easily build new courses on top of existing ones.”
That’s because LRN can be applied as easily to existing courses as to new ones. For SmartForce, this is a significant advantage, since the company already has a vast selection of SmartCourses available in its online library. Using LRN, SmartForce developers can easily update those courses for a general audience or customize them as requested by a given customer.
Getting Into the Content Business
LRN will also enable SmartForce to offer its content independently of its courses. As Trumpower explains, any content that’s addressable through a URL or readable by a browser can be made LRN-compliant, and at SmartForce, that’s a lot of content — more than 1,400 titles. Once this content is made LRN-compliant, he adds, it will fit smoothly into any LRN-compliant eLearning solution.
“We’ll be able to think of content components much like modular learning objects, enabling features such as rich searching and analysis,”
“Customers will be able to incorporate these components in their own, internally developed courseware or into courseware they license from another provider. Either way, we’ll be able to market our content as well as our solutions — and just think of the doors that will open.”
eLearning Leaders Echo Support
Besides SmartForce, other eLearning leaders have joined Microsoft in formal support of LRN and the IMS specification. They include platform and services companies ARIS, Blackboard, Cambridge Technology Partners, Centra, Click2Learn, Cyberstate U.com, DigitalThink, eCollege, Eduprise, IMG, Infotec, IntraLearn, KnowledgePool, Pinnacle Multimedia, Southrock, Training Associates, and WinEducation and content developers Forum, Harvard Business School Publishing, and NETg.
The LRN Toolkit continues Microsoft’s ongoing support of eLearning through products and technologies such as NetMeeting, Exchange Collaboration, Chat Server and Internet Information Server (IIS), as well as content from Microsoft Press, the Microsoft Official Curriculum and the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN). Moreover, as part of the LRN introduction, all forthcoming material produced by Microsoft Developer Network, Microsoft Training and Certification and Microsoft Official Curriculum will be LRN-compliant.
“Microsoft is committed to helping make eLearning more viable for customers with standards-based means of fostering knowledge sharing,”
said Robert Stewart, general manager of the Microsoft Official Curriculum Group.
“The LRN Toolkit and Microsoft® LRN-based content are designed to give customers and partners a head start in creating exchangeable online learning content.”