Thursday, February 26, 2009

Schools get treated with scorm by content providers

Changes are afoot in the world of online content. What used to be gravy trained ELC-funded sets of resources sold in the guise of DVDs, CDs, access to web sites etc., are rapidly moving towards resources which purport to fit in to the much funded, much discussed Learning Platforms framework.

Any schools or Local Authority advisers might already have got wind of this from the latest mailings and spam “informative” emails from content companies. Here's a relevant quote from one such email:

We have been consulting with BECTA since July to clarify the position with regards to using the Harnessing Technology Grant when subscribing to [the name of our web site].
We can now clarify that on October 2nd 2008 Becta announced '...the Harnessing Technology Grant can be used to pay for such services...'

For any readers using English to take in this information, this might roughly translate as:

We can't take your money in the designated form of ELCs any more, so... we've managed to talk the people who set the budgets into allowing you to spend your Grant 121 money on our content.

But does this make sense? Is it worth sinking your precious funding into this sort of content? I've written before about how many companies portray their content as being the fuel which powers the vehicle that is your VLE / Learning Platform – attitudes which clearly overstate the importance of the content and overestimate the “compellingness” of the material contained within it. This becomes even more laughable when you consider how the content is packaged...

The phrase which will crop up in most literature and was all over the BETT Show is SCORM - which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model.

First of all, a quick primer on what a piece of SCORM content usually looks like. It's a .zip file, which is placed inside the VLE and then is unpacked by the VLE when a user accesses the content. A giveaway that a piece of content is SCORM formatted is that immediately inside the .zip file is a file called imsmanifest.xml – which describes how the content in the .zip file is structured, and instructs the VLE on how to access and present it. Any 'assets' (web pages, documents, video & audio files, Flash movies, etc) might be stored in folders in the .zip file and accessed by the VLE when the SCORM file is being used, according to how the imsmanifest file offers them up.

But why have SCORM content anyway? Well, within a VLE it's a simple process to link to something like an educational game or activity on a BBC site (like the KS3 Geography Sustainable Development activity) and have learners attempt the activity, play the game, or take the quiz in question. However, as a teacher there's no way of confirming that the pupil completed the activity, or how well they did, or anything really, since the activity isn't contained within the VLE. A piece of SCORM content (so the theory goes) will report on a learner's progress and (importantly for some schools), retain their progress and/or marks within the VLE.

Anyway, what normally happens when a school purchases “SCORM content” is that a it will receive a DVD or CD (normally the former, whose larger storage capacity is a clue to the nature of one of the problems) with the content it. Sometimes the content is already packaged up into .zip files, ready for uploading into a VLE, but sometimes, there's a menu system which the school can use to choose which elements it wants in the SCORM packages it uses. This tool generates the zip files.

At this point, I would propose that there's one simple criteria which can be used to separate out Good Content from Bad Content. Any piece of content which doesn't allow the school to decide what it wants in its .zip package can (to my mind) be classified as Bad Content, or Content Not Worth Wasting Your Money On. Packages which do – where a school can select a couple of activities and make an easy-to-deploy .zip file stand a better chance of being Good Content Worth Shelling Out For. This goes back to an old post of mine inspired by Gerry Graham from Learning & Teaching Scotland, which talked about how small, bite-sized chunks of learning content were better suited to schools real needs, rather than gargantuan, monolithic slabs of learning – which are better suited to the convenience of the companies that produce them and sell them, with little or no regard for the way in which they'll be used inside or outside of the classroom. So, if your provider of online content insists that you present the resources according to how they think the curriculum works, rather than how you would like to teach it, then I'd step backwards and think again.

I should point out that I'm not commenting on the quality of the actual content here, but on its ease of use by schools. The content might be fantastic, it might be shoddy, but how it's packaged, how easy it is to access, deploy and meet the needs of those who are teaching it, might be some of the biggest factors which prevent anyone from ever using it.

Being able to customise what's in a SCORM package isn't the only measure of the ease-of-use of a piece of content. There are good reasons that sites like YouTube have a limit on the size of uploads – among them being that most users' ADSL connections will choke, or at least take a long time to digest the prospect of uploading enormous files. So, dear reader, what do you think are the typical filesizes schools are expected to upload into their VLEs to cope with the content being offered to them by content providers nowadays?

  • 10MB? A few do that, but that's not really a sign of some serious curricular intentions now, is it?
  • 100MB Quite a few are around this size, but many are far greater.
  • 1GB? At least – I've dealt with a number of queries from secondary schools who are being offered SCORM packages which are provided in a format requiring the school to upload a single file of over one or two gigabytes in size.
Besides the obvious practical limitations of this, there are obvious implications about how such a piece of content probably contains the entirety of part of the curriculum which, as I've written elsewhere, probably impacts on people's willingness to use it. Have the people foisting these inflexible, monolith, too-large-to-use-practically pieces of content ever thought about how people in schools might use them? I can’t believe they’ve ever been into a school and worked out how their content might be used. It would only take five minutes to realise that what they’re offering is imipractical, inflexible and inaccessible for most schools.

So, what are alternatives are there? Bearing in mind that there are many more pieces of content out there which aren’t listed below (or were exhibited at the BETT Show recently), here are some I’ve experienced and would recommend if you’re starting out with SCORM:

Bear in mind though, that any of these samples vary enormously in size - and differ greatly as they rely on the publishers' different ideas of what counts as a "SCORM-compliant" piece of learning content (whatever that means).

Is it worth it?

Hang on though, there’s a big assumption, always unwritten in publishers’ blurb and mostly unspoken by those involved in this, that SCORM is the answer. But what’s the question that it’s the answer to?

Of course, the USP of SCORM is supposed to be its ability to report back to the VLE / LMS / Learning Platform – so you’ll see plenty of marketing speak about how a system which works well with SCORM content is the answer to every teacher’s prayer, and the soothing balm to every person in charge of assessment’s statistical nightmare. However, to my understanding, SCORM is based on a number of principles, some of which are more relevant to schools in the UK than others:

  • Individualised learning - SCORM assumes that an individual will sit down, access a piece of content (possibly in more than one sitting) and “complete” it. If you want something to report on collaborative types of learning activities, or measurements that are qualitative, SCORM won’t really do that for you
  • SCORM is a specification of the ADL initiative, which originated from US Department of Defense.This might be technically proficient, it might be a mess, but it's not based around the needs of a primary school in High Wycombe.
  • An important thing is that SCORM is not a standard, more of a reference model. One of my most memorable moments during a Becta Expert Technology Seminar a few years ago was when a speaker from CETIS, during a session on learning standards, said that the best thing he could say about what the acronym IMS (a framework for describing any learning design inherent in certain types of online content) stood for was “It Means Something”. SCORM has similar issues - ask ten different content providers about what should be in a SCORM package and how it should work, and you'll probably get about eight different answers.

Issues such as this vagueness, the inability to describe all sorts of learning activities which might take place online, and the ease with which almost any piece of content can be badged as “SCORM” make it (for me anyway) hard to recommend to schools unless they know what they’re doing.

I think Becta missed a trick with things like Curriculum Online which I've always thought of as a missed opportunity to set some standards about what interactive online content should be. Just think, by making it a pre-requisite of the fabled ELC-approved badge of the past that content had to conform to these standards (whether SCORM or something more appropriate) Becta could have ensured more accessibility and a better understanding among both content providers and schools about what interactive content might look like, how it should look and behave and why it's useful to schools, teachers and learners.

If you’re a school, try contacting a content provider and asking them if their content is SCORM compliant (don’t start me on the word “compliant”). They’ll almost certainly say “Yes” or “Not yet but it’s on the way”. Then ask them why this is important. They’ll tell you something along the lines of “it means it works within your Learning Platform”, often without having a clear idea of what this means or what your VLE/LP can retrieve from it. Content publishers who also provide a Learning Platform might tell you that their content works best with their platform (there’s been a plethora of dog-eat-dog moves, such as Pearson buying out Fronter

Beware mutton dressed as SCORM

As mentioned before, one problem with SCORM is that it's seen as the answer to any content that needs to go near a VLE, rather than an appropriate format for some content. I have lost count of the number of schools I've been to who are having "VLE friendly stuff" pushed down their throats by desperate-to-sell publishers. Take a look again at two of the pieces of demonstration SCORM content offered by ER4L - they're in the JSH Education SCORM package and are entitled Cells and Leaves and Photosynthesis. Now, if you were being sold a SCORM package on leaves and photosynthesis, you'd expect something interactive, something which tested you as a learner - maybe a quiz or interactive activity. However, have a look at what's actually contained in them - here are the pieces of content for Cells and Leaves & Photosynthesis extracted from the SCORM .zip files. Have a look:

27th March 2009 edit:
Well, due to communcations from the nice people at JSH (see comments below) I've removed their content - which is at the time of writing still freely available from the ER4L SCORM samples page - click on the JSH Education link. If you download it, unzip it and examine the SCORM packages you'll be able to see what's included and the following paragraph will still hold true. Heck, it holds true even if you don't download it - it's still just a PowerPoint dressed up as SCORM. Some of the other exercises are interactive, but the content referenced in this post might as well be an animated picture for all of the interaction it provides. You can download this - though be aware, you may well receive a similar "Cease and Desist" email if you publish it anywhere anyone can see it. Pupils, for example?

How to find it:
Once you've downloaded the
(>40MB) JSH SCORM Samples file, it's in the Presenting Biology folder, then inside is (the SCORM zip file containing the imsmanifest.xml file mentioned above), then inside this there's another folder called B01.CellsScorm1.2, then inside that the Flash file named B01.Cells.swf contains the content you're after. Sorted! If you don't have a local Flash player installed, just drag it into any web browser window, it should play fine.

Can you guess what it is yet? Well, if you've used iSpring Converter - a free tool to convert any PowerPoint file into an .swf Flash file - you might recognise it. Both of those files are simply PowerPoint files which have been converted into .swf files using the paid-for version of iSpring's tool. There's no interaction (other than sleeping looking through the slides) and the .swfs have been bundled up into a "SCORM package".

What this means for the publisher is clear - they can now tout this as being a "VLE-friendly piece of E-Learning" - all because it can be referred to as a piece of SCORM content, and the company can suddenly try to tap into the deep pool of Harnessing Technology monies which any school which doesn't want to do a lot of thinking might throw at any vendors who mention HT enough in their promotional blurb. (The phrase you're looking for there, by the way, is ker-ching.)

What this means for the school is that they pay a lot of money for a PowerPoint file dressed up to be something it isn't. If you are really that bothered about getting a PowerPoint into your VLE and want to make it accessible to everyone, not just those with PowerPoint at home, then use something like the iSpring Converter and upload it as a Flash file.

What sticks in my mind in all of this are the conversations I've had with those looking after VLEs in schools. When asked about the quality of the 'VLE content' being offered to them by publishers the overwhelming opinion is "it's rubbish, really, really poor and unusable". I've seen (as above) simple converted PowerPoints, simple Flash videos and even pictures packaged as "SCORM" - which again points to the vague nature of the standard being the reason why anyone can get away with almost anything if it ends in .zip and contains some alleged learning content.

If you're a publisher, I'd love you to understand this - people in schools know rubbish when they see it (and won't use it), and no amount of Scormifying or VLE-ising your content makes it any good simply because it sits in a learning platform. Schools have rumbled you, they know it's poor quality and frankly, if you try and foist substandard on them, people need to be told...

so... if you're a teacher, or someone from a content provider willing to be honest (no adverts please) about your experiences with SCORM then I'd love to hear from you. Any good or bad pieces of SCORM content you've used - please give an example by leaving a comment - and name & praise / name & shame them!