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Thoughtful creation of online course content: implications of SCORM for educators.


There has been a tremendous increase recently in the number of online classes offered by universities and other institutions. Unfortunately, professional development for teaching online courses has not increased in kind. Thus, many faculty are uncertain of the most appropriate ways to put content online. In this article, we describe SCORM, a set of industry-based standards used to control Learning Management Systems. Due to SCORM's wide acceptance by industry, faculty need to be familiar with SCORM and the implications it has for education. We discuss those implications and conclude with strategies for content design and delivery.


Online courses, and the colleges, universities, and businesses that offer them, are continuing to rise steadily (Shea and Boser, 2001). This is due, in part, to the opportunity online education presents for global competition, an important topic in times of shrinking budgets (Schwartzman & Tuttle, 2002). This can also be attributed to a new type of student and consumer who wants learning on his or her own time and schedule. Finally, this increase coincides with the growth of research supporting the notion that technology can help teachers teach and students learn (Ferdig, 2001).

Unfortunately, this increased interest in teaching and learning online does not necessarily mean college faculty are equipped with the knowledge and skills to teach online. Many faculty have not taught online; most have never even taken a course online. Simply digitizing material does not work, as online education requires faculty to change from being content providers to content facilitators (Smith, Ferguson, & Caris, 2001). For this to happen, faculty developing online courses need scaffolding in creating, teaching and managing online courses (Ellis, 1999). This need to support faculty has been handled with two simultaneous approaches. The first approach consists of professional development, some of which has taken the form of innovative training methods. In some cases, faculty become online students first in order to understand the differences between face-to-face and online instruction (Lorenzetti, 2002).

A second approach is to purchase or create Content or Learning Management Systems that streamline and organize content for online delivery. Rather than asking faculty to learn authoring products or computer languages to develop online courses, tools such as Blackboard, E-College, and WebCT allow faculty to easily upload content and manage student data. These technologies also provide for synchronous and asynchronous chats, resource sharing, and evaluation instruments.

Both approaches are important. Online courses are labor-intensive, and they require an innovative way of thinking about the role of the instructor. Training provides faculty with this support technologically as well as pedagogically. Professional development also leads to faculty 'buy-in.' Learning Management Systems, the focus of this paper, are also important as they help standardize how faculty create content. However, many of these systems are now being based on industry-wide, content specifications that require faculty to think differently about their electronic courses.

In this article, we will describe SCORM, a collection of specifications that aim to standardize content management. Many of the current and proposed Learning and Content Management Systems are based on SCORM; thus, online educators will need to become familiar with the government and industry-based model. We will also discuss its implications for educators, specifically as a theoretical model for designing online content. These implications, and the accompanying rationale, will help faculty understand and explore ways to put information online for student learning.

Defining SCORM

In 1999, an executive order commissioned the US Department of Defense (DOD) to work with other government agencies and private businesses to develop a set of standards for online learning systems. The outcome of DOD's Advanced Distributed Learning group's work was a model called SCORM--Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model. SCORM establishes a set of technical standards or specifications that enable web-based learning systems to find, import, share and re-use content in a standardized way. SCORM standardizes how "Learning Management Systems" (LMS) launch and track directed learning experiences, as well as how they define the intended student behavior so content can be reused, moved, searched, and re-contextualized.

There are a number of major content and system goals addressed by SCORM. These include reusability, durability, interoperability, accessibility, adaptability, and affordability (Shackelford, 2002). Reusability refers to the ability to use content or learning objects for multiple courses or lessons. This relates to the consistency of e-learning resources. Durability is synonymous with upward compatibility. Courseware that is designed in earlier LMS versions should have the ability to be used in later versions of that same software. Interoperability is defined as the courseware's ability to operate on various operating systems and platforms (Jones, 2002). Content must be structured to allow it to be used in multiple environments, by multiple tools and systems. Accessibility means the availability of learning objects. For example, content should be universally accessible to all, and not limited to specific area networks or media (i.e. on a DVD). Adaptability refers to the ability of the learning content to conform to individual learning preferences, or ability. Affordability refers to the ability of the product to widely make learning available at low costs. Affordability is a compilation of a number of the other topics in that they allow for the cost of creating e-learning environments to be significantly diminished (Shackelford, 2002). (See for more history, technical specifications, and structural coding components of SCORM.)

Benefits of SCORM

The SCORM model will help faculty develop online learning courses by establishing a clear set of standards and specifications for how to create content, Interoperability standards will create a system to categorize computer based learning materials. This can help solve the problem of data being stored in proprietary formats, therefore making it easier for the transfer of information between institutions. An established delivery system will help to establish a more unified global education system where faculty and students will be able to transfer their work from one learning management system to another. The concept is to create an application that separates content from delivery and can be put into small pieces or modules that can are accessible, interoperable, transportable and durable throughout different e-learning environments.

A number of other benefits are inherent in SCORM. First are the potential cost benefits. With the high cost of producing online course materials, the reusability of SCORM allows for significant decreases in the costs for faculty and administration. The cost benefit of SCORM is evident when creating labor-intensive, high-cost learning objects using applications such as Flash and Authorware. The reusability and durability of these learning objects will decrease overall development time for course creators by providing a database of graphics/charts that are ready to be retrieved by anyone using or creating SCORM compliant courses. Teaching the concept of "the scientific method" using charts and graphs is an example of this. This concept is taught in almost every science course. In each instance, the text or explanation that the teacher provides can be easily modified for each type of audience for whom this graphic is intended. In other words the graphic is reusable (Bratina, Hayes & Blumsak 2002).

A second benefit is that instant feedback is provided for both students and instructors. (Welsch, 2002) This allows for immediate modifications to be made in the learning environment. If certain segments fail, course creators can immediately replace it with a different module. Third, inherent in SCORM's design is a resulting comprehensive list of learning materials. With a standardized format for creating content, a library of materials is created. This provides faculty or students with the opportunity to choose multiple content to accomplish the same objective. Fourth, the reusability of learning objects offers an efficient way to facilitate and support instruction of commonly taught concepts, procedures, applications, and skills; we can re-adapt some learning objects for different types of users (Bratina et al., 2002).

A final benefit is that with the format and standardization of SCORM, educators creating online courses customize their content to fit the different learning needs of diverse student populations. Highly personalized learning experiences will be provided by either the instructor or chosen by the student--experiences that can interoperate across technologies from different vendors (Oakes 2002). In effect, each student will have an individual learning plan (ILP) in each course. Learning objects will be imbedded in each LMS, and presented to students based on their different learning preferences and abilities. This may happen through instructor choice, pre-assessments, by comparing content to results of standardized testing, or by allowing students to choose content that is appealing to them. For example, textual learners will choose modules that are text specific, other visual learners will choose content that incorporates graphics and other visual aids, auditory learners will choose learning objects that incorporate auditory components and so on. Or, students who are advanced will have different choices and tools to scaffold their development than will those who need remediation.

Limitations of SCORM

These benefits will have a large impact on educators who develop online courses; however, faculty will have to rethink how they will organize and create information that they will utilize in their online courses. There are at least two other current pedagogical pitfalls with SCORM models. First, opponents of SCORM believe that it is not pedagogically sound to cut content up, and expect learning to be effective. (Welsch, 2002). In other words, there is a potential for the interactions between the content to be significantly diminished with this approach. How will the content be sequenced to provide pedagogically sound learning? A second problem relates to current online pedagogical approaches that highlight the concept of learning as a result of interaction between learners (i.e. online collaborative learning environments). SCORM is currently viewed as a model for e-learning that is focused on a single self-paced learner interacting with the instruction.

Implications of SCORM for educators

The aforementioned pitfalls have created controversy about whether the SCORM model is pedagogically sound. This controversy is important, as it is creating more dialogue between designers and will hopefully have the effect of helping SCORM develop a stronger pedagogical base. Withstanding this critique, exploring the model of SCORM has important potential implications for educators. Jones (2002) argues that the emergence of SCORM in world of academia provides a number of challenges, as well as opportunities to both creators and students of e-learning courses. At the very least, faculty who create online content will have to develop their content so that it can be easily merged into SCORM-compliant systems. Knowing more about SCORM will assist in the content reorganization and development processes.

Although this may initially sound like another set of mandates faculty will be forced to adhere to, there are a number of benefits in creating SCORM-compliant content. As highlighted above, faculty creating content in this manner will be ensured that their content is reusable across classes, durable within classes over time, and operable across whatever learning management system the university has decided to create or purchase. Instructors will also be able to share material between colleges and universities, and this content will be accessible from any computer that has an Internet connection. Faculty will be able to create low-cost content that will help them manage their work as well as their students' work. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, developing SCORM-compliant material will make their content more adaptable. Thus, following a constructivist model of learning, each individual learner will be able to create his or her own individualized learning plan.

The problem with the aforementioned list of benefits is that SCORM has been--and continues to be--discussed in detail for producers of learning management systems. Less has been written for faculty who create content for these SCORM-compliant systems. So, what does that mean for faculty who want to--or know they will have to--create such content? How should faculty think about the creation of online content in order to attain the benefits associated with SCORM?

Strategies for SCORM Educators

The answer to these questions, and the related strategies for educators, can be found in the SCORM acronym--Sharable Content Object Reference Model.

Strategy #1 Make your content sharable. Making your content sharable means that content is made available to all members of the teaching and learning community. This has the potential to be the most controversial for educators, specifically because of copyright and legal issues. These are important concerns; however, it is still possible to think of sharable as sharing between members of an organization, sharing with permission, or sharing between multiple courses from the author. How does one make content sharable? Part of that answer is to structure it differently, a point discussed in strategy #2. Another way to make it sharable is to embed it with meta-data. Meta-data can best be thought of as important data about the content itself. For movies, this would include the producer, actors, genre, etc. For academic content, it might include the goals, objectives, content areas, dates, etc. Adding meta-data to content affords immediate decision-making about what content pieces to put together to create a course or learning module. It also affords reusability.

Strategy #2 Structure your content from a bottom-up design. If strategy #1 is the most controversial, perhaps #2 is the hardest for faculty to understand. Many faculty try to create online content by creating online courses. They try to package the entire content into a course at the beginning, rather than seeing the content in the lowest common denominator--activities and tasks that make up the course. Faculty should begin with the simplest piece of content, embed that into learning objects, and then move upwards into lessons objects and courses. Adopting this bottom-up rather than top-down design allows for reusability and sharing between content providers or courses.

Strategy #3 Construct your content as reusable learning objects (RLOs). We have already suggested the development of content should take place from a bottom-up design. Once those initial pieces are created, authors can place them together in an order related to the objectives of the lesson or module. These learning objects are not courses; they are smaller objects made up of various content to achieve certain goals. The smaller these objects are, the more reusable they are. Courses then consist of a combination of RLOs, or a combination of lessons that consist of RLOs. Using this approach, if a piece of a course is not working, it is easier to remove that piece than it is to replace the entire course. By creating content bits, designers also help create learning objects that are interoperable within the SCORM world and therefore have the potential of being reusable in a wide range of e-learning courses (Carnevale, 2001). "If a single object's main purpose is to be reusable in many different contexts, its usefulness should be documented by many users with different needs and perspectives in many contexts over time" (Williams, 2000, p. 18).

Strategy #4 Reference your content. From a SCORM perspective, this notion entails referencing the content through meta-data so that smaller units can be combined into larger ones (bottom-up design). However, from an educational perspective, we would like to suggest that referencing content may include tying it to such things as NETS Internet standards, state achievement tests, learner descriptors (i.e. visual vs. textual), or other learning standards. Tying your content to learning standards allows maximum flexibility in adapting your content to individualized learning plans. It will even allow related content to be created dynamically based on the results of individual testing.


Regardless of whether or not SCORM is accepted, the model provided can be beneficial to faculty that prepare online course content. Using the strengths of the SCORM model, while being cognizant of the limitations has the potential to significantly improve future experiences with online learning environments for administration, faculty, and students. As highlighted above, future research should examine whether online content created through a SCORM model can be made pedagogically sound.


Bratina, T.A., Hayes, D. & Blumsak, S.L. (2002). Preparing teachers to use learning objects. Faculty and Staff Development, November/December.

Carnevale, D. (2001) "Some Online Educators Turn to Bite-Sized Instruction," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 3, 2001.

Ellis, A. (1999). Instructor support for web-based courseware development and delivery. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 5(4), 387-399.

Ferdig, R.E. (2001, April). Psychological investigations of educational explorations with technology: Understanding what makes a "good innovation". Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA.

Jones, E. R. (2002) Implications of SCORM[TM] and Emerging E-learning Standards on Engineering Education--Publication in the Proceedings of the 2002 ASEE Gulf-Southwest Annual Conference, March 20-22, 2002.

Lorenzetti, J. (2002). Training online for teaching online in Baltimore. Distance Education Report, 6(17), 3.

Oakes, K. (2002). E-learning. T & D, 56(4), 68-70.

Schwartzman, R. & Tuttle, H. (2002). What can online course components teach about improving instruction and learning? Journal of Instructional Psychology, 29(3), 179-88.

Shackelford, B. (2002). A scorm odyssey: The University of Wisconsin's journey through standards has lessons for anyone about to embark on e-learning. T&D, 56(8).

Shea, R. H. & Boser, U. (2001, October 15). So where's the beef?. U.S. News and World Report, pp. 44, 46, 48, 50, 52-54.

Smith, G., Ferguson, D., & Caris, M. (2001). Teaching college courses online vs face-to-face. T.H.E. Journal, 28(9), 18-26.

Welsch, E. (2002). SCORM: Clarity of calamity. Online Learning. Summer, 2002, 14-18.

Williams, D.D. (2000). Evaluation of learning objects and instruction using learning objects. In D.A. Wiley (Ed.), The instructional use of learning objects (chap. 3.2, pp. 1-32). Retrieved December 3, 2002, from
Richard E. Ferdig, University of Florida
Carl Fields, University of Florida
Youngok Lee, University of Florida
Richard Hartshorne, University of Florida

Dr. Ferdig is an assistant professor in Educational Technology at the University of Florida. He studies technology, literacy, and online learning. Carl, Youngok, and Richard are all doctoral students in Educational Technology at the University of Florida.
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Author:Hartshorne, Richard
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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