Interview with folks at Element K

Key Points:

  • Customer wants to allow learners to share and comment on notes: within a topic, or across courses.
  • There is increasing demand for mobile delivery.
  • We have extremely large libraries of content.
    • Clients desire a simpler way to find, manage, and deploy content from within their LMS.
    • Each LMS provides different properties to adjust course behavior.
    • Some systems don’t provide bulk import.
    • Cross-domain, JavaScript issue.  We would prefer to host the content, and just deploy meta-data.
  • Discussion of marketing new API.
  • Meta-data should be more extensible, content provider should be able to add meta-data that will be displayed, and acted upon if understood.
  • Trend: tracking, reporting on more detailed assessment data.
  • People want to have access to one and the same library of content from a range of different devices.
  • Versioning: important to keep track of what version of a course was experienced, but also the fact that multiple versions are logically the same course.
    • Multi-lingual content is an important use-case for versioning.
  • We provide robust simulations, and have added gaming concepts. But we would like to share some information across users, e.g., add a competitive component.
  • Monolithic courses will to some extent be replaced by smaller, or interactive experiences.
  • Another trend is vLabs, our virtual labs product that provides live sessions to actual hardware.

TinCan: If you want to go around and do introductions, that would be great.

Tom: I’m Tom Stone. I used to be an instructional designer here at Element K, years ago, and now I’m in a learning evangelism role.

Jim: Hello, my name is Jim Renner. I work in Element K’s platform services group as a technical consultant and I provide pre-sales support for our clients, focusing on our platform products, KnowledgeHub and ContentHub. Specifically, the areas of integration and customization, and you get quite a bit of exposure for clients looking to deploy all sorts of content, SCORM and otherwise, through our platform.

Chris: This is Chris de Turk, I’m an analyst at Element K, and I work mostly with the Element K LMS.

Jen: Jen Turney, I’m a systems architect, I’ve done a fair amount of work with the LMS side of SCORM communications, both SCORM and AICC, both with our LMS and with our ContentHub product through which we expose content to other people’s LMS.

Paul: Paul Sleeman, integration consultant. I am a technical resource for our sales team and customers who are actually doing the integration of Element K content into other LMSs and integrating their content into the Element K LMS. So I do a lot of hands on work with SCORM content and customers who are using SCORM.

TinCan: What would you say are the most new and innovative things you are working on, either in your training or what your customers are doing?

Jen: We’ve got a customer where they want us to have the user able to take notes within a particular topic and have those notes shared across the topic or possibly even have that information shared across courses. And we were sort of fleshing out similar to, the way we had approached other, similar scenarios in the past, where we essentially introduced custom data model elements and behaviors associated with those and make those data model elements available for our own courses.

Tom: Mobile delivery of content to smartphones and tablets is certainly something we’ve been pursuing in a couple of different ways. We have an app-based solution that primarily focuses on smartphones, and we’re also pursuing tablet-focused content for the iPad in particular that is sort of re-engineered so it’s not Flash content, but rather HTML 5. So that’s certainly a big trend we have been pursuing lately.

Jim: From a business-perspective, I think one of Element K’s biggest challenges (and we’re somewhat unique in the industry because we’ve got both, content and an LMS), is content deployment. We’ve got extremely large libraries of content and the standards currently don’t support a good solution for asset management. Specifically, for a client to query a content delivery system, to say, “What assets do you have that meet this criteria?” So that I can go and get those assets and deploy them, that’s currently a relatively manual process. So anything in that area, around asset-management, and improving the overall deployment process as it relates to standards, would be helpful. The additional characteristics or attributes of a course, that are defined by each unique LMS, make the content loading and deployment process very burdensome. Every LMS seems to have a different approach to what are the additional required fields, how do you categorize and tag the content for search and cataloguing, and that’s very frustrating for our clients.

The introduction of standards for asset-management and asset-deployment within the LMS could go a long way to improving client experience. From my perspective, that’s one of the biggest deficiencies in the standard right now.

TinCan: You started out mentioning asset management, and then you were talking more at the course level. Are you talking also about, what I would think of as assets are pieces of the course — are you talking about managing at that level, or more the overall course packages?

Jim: I think at the course package level, it’s the most important. In my experience, we just haven’t seen enough reusability so that the multi-SCO structure works. Element K is a big supporter of multi-SCO content; unfortunately, the vast majority of third-party content we deploy into our LMS is single-SCO. The industry in general has avoided multi-SCO structures for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is course completion requirements and how unstructured that is in the 1.2 specification.

Paul: I do agree with you that we have never seen the real benefit of the granular sharing of assets that was a big part of the original specification. In practical experience, our customers are interested in deploying courses, and knowing about what courses are available to them, and by extension, getting those courses actually deployed in our LMS. They consider that one big project as far as the implementation of e-learning goes. So anything that is designed to make that easier to deal with — and from their point of view, across multiple vendors, would be a huge benefit.

The cross-domain aspect, the JavaScript API was going to be my big issue to bring to the table. As far as just a general complaint, it seems like you guys already addressed that in the beginning. I think that, to me, would be the biggest single improvement to SCORM: making the API communication something that was cross-domain friendly, and could enable us to more easily pursue the deployment model we prefer: over the internet with us host the content. That is, the scenario where we just deploy meta-data to the customer.

TinCan: The JavaScript API just doesn’t solve the problems we are setting out to solve.

Paul: Having a simple way to use SCORM as the standard for the communication in the hosted model would be huge. We’re using AICC, because of the HACP implementation. It’s just that much easier to do this kind of thing. So, I can see that as being able to take the best of what SCORM offers and not have to be tied to an older standard to do the communication piece of it. It just makes a lot of sense, and it would make SCORM a better standard, from my point of view.

TinCan: What are the key things you think you are missing out on by using HACP that you would be looking to get back?

Paul: It’s more the meta-data when you get down to it. The AICC model doesn’t have some of the nicer things that SCORM supports. It’s kind of limited: you have your title, description, keywords, some information about the course that’s available in the aggregation model that you can leverage, but there’s more and other custom things that each LMS provider is doing and perhaps incorporating some of those things into the standard would make it easier for customers to use the content. Our content is reasonably simple when it comes to what we communicate. So from an actual data-model perspective, we’re not really missing anything. There are some limitations, just in trying to stuff everything into suspend data. So overall, I don’t think from a run-time point of view that we’re really missing much. I mean, to me, it’s more aggregation, and then it kind of explodes into the whole catalogue and asset-management component, which there’s nothing for now.

Jim: I’d say, just to piggyback on what Paul said in terms of implementations, of what we’re missing — I think there’s a level of marketing and name recognition. Clients are always asking for SCORM. Is your content SCORM-compliant? Absolutely. And then we get to implementation, and we want to deploy 1,000 courses, and we want to use our ContentHub product, which is our over-the-internet solution, and we fall back on AICC. That can be challenging, occasionally, because of the various AICC implementations. I think, Paul, would you agree that some of the content-loading practices for AICC courses are a little more archaic than their SCORM counterparts, in certain LMS providers?

Paul: I totally agree. I think that’s one of the great things about SCORM. The XML-based meta-data and communicating that meta-data through a standard, like XML, is far superior than what AICC ever really got to in their standard.

TinCan: To go back to what you were talking about in terms of marketing, I’m curious, if this new API comes out, and it’s not called SCORM, do you think that it would be significantly more difficult from a marketing point of view to say, This isn’t SCORM, but it’s from the same folks who developed SCORM, and it’s their next thing, or does it matter if it’s called SCORM?

Jim: I think it comes down to what vendors you’ve got supporting it. I think there’s name-recognition for sure. The client just wants the content and the LMS to interoperate. I think I mentioned the marketing because they want SCORM, we tell them we use SCORM, and then we ultimately implement with AICC. But they’re happy, because ultimately, they’ve gotten what they asked for.

Jen: Look at what happened with SCORM 2004. The LMSs never really adopted it because it wasn’t being used by the content. Same kind of thing — maybe if there’s enough new features and enough new capabilities in whatever the next new thing is, then it’s not so much about marketing.

Jim: I would say your biggest marketing challenges would be to your vendors. The general population, your end consumer, they’re going to live with it whether it’s called SCORM or something else. I think the starts and stops we’ve seen in SCORM, there are vendors that are a little gun-shy about yet another version of SCORM that will fix all the ills. And so a name change might not be a bad thing from that perspective.

TinCan: So, going along the adoption lines, what would be a really compelling or series of features together that would be a really compelling, sort of must-have feature in a new standard that would make you folks want to adopt really quickly?

Jim: I think Paul answered the big one, which is the new communications protocol. I think the asset-management piece and improved — I’ll call it generically “extensibility,” the ability for us as a content provider to say, “This is everything we want to tell the LMS about our content, it may or may not be part of the standard.” We can be confident that when the LMS gets that information, they are actually going to display it to the user, that we’re not just putting it in the meta-data for our own sake. We’ve seen a lot of LMSs that basically do the bare minimum as it relates to SCORM attributes, and some standards there in terms of support, in terms of extensibility, would be important.

TinCan: It’s interesting — you say it would both be extensible and something the LMS is sure to display to the user so is that — really an extensible set of meta-data that the LMS knows that everything that’s within this area, it has to be displayed to the user somehow.

Jim: Exactly.

TinCan: Besides a description of the content, what other sorts of things would you be putting in there? Would you just wind up with named value pairs you want the LMS to display? How would you want that to look?

Jim: Yeah, I think it could be as simple as that. It could be a way to say: This is information we’re providing about the content that we need the user to see. It could be mobile-platform compatibility; we just don’t know where our content is going to go and what types of attributes we want to communicate to the users. Not expecting, necessarily, the LMS to take action on it, but it could. It could make those now search terms, or integrated into catalogue tagging.

Jen: We’re actually just putting that in portable content. It’s sort of a way of specifying an arbitrary number of attributes, and so it’s really set up so that if there are attributes there, we display them. We don’t put any restrictions on what attributes can be there.

TinCan: What is it that your customers usually want to track as part of a learning experience or course?

Jim: Completions are the core tracking element. Is it complete, and when did they complete it. That’s at the center, the most important to all of our customers. From there, it goes in all sorts of directions. We’ve seen a big trend recently in assessments. There are a lot of assessment authoring tools out there now, and clients want to see the minute details of what the user accessed, and how they responded to questions. And unfortunately, in 1.2, each of those vendors is providing different levels of information.

Jen: Sort of related to that is the idea of context of having interaction with the course in a particular context. Like right now, we only have the ability to save one set of values for this person for this SCO, but they may actually be interacting with that SCO in a different context, whether that be within the context of some greater development plan, or is it a particular period of time we are trying to track their interaction.

Tom: Or they accessed the same content object from multiple devices: One from a laptop, one from a smartphone or tablet. People want to have access to one and the same library of content from a range of different devices.

TinCan: You would actually want to know at that point, at the interaction level, that okay — this interaction occurred from this device?

Paul: Sure.

Jim: I think versioning to some extent is a bit of a challenge too. Versioning the content and thereby keeping track of what user participated with what version of the course. Some clients would like to be able to run a report, to say: I don’t care what version of the course the user completed, did they complete this course? So some level of version management would be helpful.

TinCan: So the difference between an identifier for the course and also being able to declare that this is a particular version so that you have to have something in your LMS to tie it together.

Jim: Exactly, yes. Because our typical approach, when we advise clients, is if your instructional content is changing, or the structure of the course itself, in terms of SCOs, is changing, you probably want to deploy it as a new course. But again, that’s not a great answer when the client doesn’t have a mechanism in the LMS to tie those versions together. And the other big one, as it relates to various versions, is multi-lingual. There is not a good approach to managing multi-lingual content. Element K has taken the approach of doing separate courses in specific languages, but we’ve seen some vendors that have done one course with a selector at the beginning of the course where you choose the language. The downside to that approach is that you have one set of meta-data and it’s probably going to be one language. The positive side of that is that I can run a report in the LMS to see who has completed that course and it doesn’t matter what language they took it in. So that’s another issue that comes up on a fairly regular basis.

TinCan: What do you think about e-learning will change in the next five to ten years, and what should?

Tom: Some of the things we’ve been talking about are things like mobile delivery of content, social learning, and users generating their own content whether that’s tied back to formal training courses or it’s sort of independent content emphasizing more social and informal learning on LMSs. At this point, pretty much every LMS vendor has some sort of social learning or web 2.0 functionality. That wasn’t true a couple years ago. They don’t all have mobile learning support in a strong way, but as described earlier we have a couple different tracks we’re pursuing on mobile. From an industry perspective, I think those are sort of the two hottest trends.

Some of the things we are proud of doing on the e-Learning content side are interactive business skill simulations that are multi-branching. Also, we have introduced gaming concepts into our e-learning courses.

Jen: Or even, this is going a little farther towards competitive types of activities, where you would want to be able to expose information to other users –

Tom: Right now, most of the things we’ve done in this regard are things a user does on their own. If standards could support more competitive gaming for learning purposes inside of a course experience, that would be appealing to us.

Jim: More broadly, and not just in gaming, but in general, I think we will see a move to cloud-based e-learning. What I mean by that is, the emphasis on the monolithic start-at-the-beginning-go-to-the-end course is decreasing, and whether it’s mobile delivery saying you’ve got five minutes, I’m going to go in and refresh myself on how to create a pivot table, or because it needs to be a head-to-head competitive learning experience between two people online, there is server-side functionality that’s going to have to start to be introduced into this content. Anything we can do on the standards side to get ahead of that and support that is going to be very beneficial. So I would recommend the standard comprehend server-side content delivery and that not all content will be the traditional “bunch of files” loaded on an LMS.

Tom: As Jim was just saying, the course isn’t going to be the be all and end all. I think it’s taken ten years for the industry to fully wake up to that, and wake up to the possibilities, but at this point, certainly the thought leaders, and now even some of the vendors are really diving into some of these other approaches.

Jim: And just to put it in context to what we’ve done in that realm of extending traditional course content: We have a virtual lab product we call vLabs, which is integrated into our e-learning content, and when the user launches the lab, they are actually going out to Element K servers and participating in a live session via a virtual connection to actual hardware. It could be a Cisco router or a Microsoft server; but they are on the hardware, interacting with it virtually, and that’s the type of interactivity and server-side extended functionality that I think we’re going to see more prevalent from the primary producers, but I also think that you’re going to see a lot of interesting combinations of social interaction tools and e-learning coming together.


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