D-Lib Magazine
December 1999

Volume 5 Number 12

ISSN 1082-9873

The Standards Fora for Online Education

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Paul Bacsich
Sheffield Hallam University

Andy Heath
Sheffield Hallam University
and Open University

Paul Lefrere
Open University

Paul Miller
United Kingdom Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN)

Kevin Riley
Fretwell-Downing Education

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This paper provides an overview of work taking place in five different working groups/committees, each concerned with developing standards for the description and sharing of educational resources in an online environment. Specifically, we look at the work of the Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC), the European CEN/ISSS Learning Technologies group (CEN/ISSS LT), the Education working group of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DC Education), the IEEE Learning Technology Standardisation Committee (IEEE LTSC) and the Instructional Management Systems project (IMS).

Each of these groups is interested in harmonisation around conventions for knowledge representation based on frameworks similar to or evolving towards the W3C Resource Description Framework (RDF). For interoperability and integration, each is also interested in harmonisation of models for semantics, informed by the requirements of their various constituencies as well as more general requirements such as those articulated in the IFLA Functional Requirements for the Bibliographic Record.

The paper concludes with a brief glance towards the direction in which efforts need to move.


Progress reports on interoperability, on metadata and on related standards activities are perennial topics in D-Lib Magazine, and this paper is no exception. It describes the cooperative efforts of a number of committees and working groups around the world, all of which are working towards a common goal of more effective access to, and integration of, disparate resources needed for education and training. The need for standards to support the interoperation of digital library systems has been reported on before in D-Lib [1], [2] as have efforts to discover common ground in related standards processes (Dublin Core and INDECS [3]). Many of the issues outlined for these apply equally to education and training, which covers a broad range of applications geared towards all members of society from pre-school children through to life-long learners studying through their employer or for self-improvement.

Each forum described here has participation from members of the D-Lib community, sometimes directly (via individual institutions), and sometimes by way of intermediary groupings. In the case of IMS, for example, the membership includes some of the Big Ten consortium that developed the Virtual Electronic Library, as described recently in D-Lib [4] by Barbara McFadden Allen of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), as well as the UK JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), which works on behalf of the United Kingdom’s Higher Education Institutions.

Each of these fora has its own unique approach, diverse set of stakeholders, its own business models and requirements. Sometimes there are requirements and structures disjoint from those of other groups, and sometimes there is overlap. For example, CEN/ISSS LT takes as its focus issues related to modelling the learner, and identifies stakeholder groups directly affected by standardisation as school-learners, university-learners, workplace-learners, lifelong-learners, teachers and mentors, content authors and course designers. IMS on the other hand, with a standards development approach more oriented towards industry and the training market have gathered requirements from stakeholder groups involved with Higher Education, the K-12 school market and training organisations.

Each of these groups does have unique requirements brought about by their geographical, institutional or technical coverage, and by their approach to the problem in hand. Nevertheless, there are also large areas in common to all of the initiatives examined here, and it is upon these commonalities that significant attention is currently focussing. The interests of individual stakeholders can only be effectively served through the meeting of unique requirements and the simultaneous identification and exploitation of common ground. Only in this way can we obtain maximum interoperability between applications whilst permitting the individual flexibility and diversity that modern online learning environments demand. Achieving this goal of inter-initiative interoperability at the same time as intra-initiative flexibility and diversity requires the various bodies to work closely together, and this is increasingly the case.

An important part of any standardisation process is effective and timely dissemination of results to prospective stakeholders. Such dissemination creates opportunities to attract fresh personnel to the effort, and allows working group assumptions to be tested in broader fora. This dissemination process serves an important additional role, as it will often bring the relatively closed work of a working group to broader public attention, allowing members of related efforts to discover levels of progress, to forge new links between initiatives, to identify areas in need of attention, and to identify areas of unnecessary overlap and potential conflict.

In the following section, we provide a brief overview of current work underway in a number of learning object initiatives, and include pointers to more detailed resources in each case. This serves to raise the community’s awareness of these efforts, and aims to illustrate the breadth of work currently underway in this field. The list of projects reviewed is not wholly comprehensive, but does include examples of the main types of work underway.



Coming from a perspective very different to the (primarily) research library world of D-Lib, the Aviation Industry CBT Committee is a membership-based international forum that develops recommendations on interoperable learning technology, principally for the commercial aviation and related industries. As such its members include both aircraft and equipment manufacturers, carriers, software and multimedia vendors, and a growing number of interested parties not directly engaged in the sector, but nevertheless interested in the work being done there.

Given the costs associated with the aviation sector (the initial purchase of the planes, as well as ongoing operational costs such as maintenance, regulated safety procedures and staffing levels, etc.), it is not surprising that cost benefits of online training and digital manuals were perceived here at an early stage. Along with some pioneering thinking, this has led to the aviation sector generally being an early adopter of the technology.

One of the key goals of the AICC participants is to extend the usable lifetime of multimedia training materials to match that of the equipment with which they are intended to be used. A plane is intended to fly many hundreds of thousands of miles over a number of years. The lifespan of a particular version of a software authoring tool or delivery environment, on the other hand, may be just one to two years before significant change is introduced. Whilst this is inevitable, given the rapid state of flux within the IT industry, it creates problems in terms of running and maintaining legacy systems and/or re-engineering content for new platforms. A major thrust of the AICC, therefore, is to define a mechanism for translating content across operating environments. This effort is directed at creating a CBT Interchange Language intended to be common across platforms.

Given the sector's experience of using CBT for online training, the AICC have developed a detailed model for Computer Managed Instruction (CMI) which is extensive in its coverage from LAN-based delivery of traditional CBT to current work on web-based delivery. The specification covers content formats and structure and mechanisms for retrieving data from the content being used by learners. This work has attracted interest from the Advanced Distributed Learning initiative (ADL) being run by the US Department of Defense []. ADL is a forum to promote widespread collaboration, exploit Internet technologies, develop next generation learning technologies, create reusable content, and lower costs, with object-based tools in support of distributed learning. It thus shares many of the goals of the AICC.

A subgroup of the AICC have been working with the ADL, and other players from the IEEE LTSC and elsewhere, to define a subset of the CMI specification that is solely concerned with online web delivery. This work has generated a lot of interest and appears to be gaining widespread support.



In Europe, the Information Society Standardization System of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN/ISSS), in co-operation with Directorates General III and XIII of the European Commission, has set up a working group to address European requirements for Educational Technology. This working group aims to achieve a consensus view in this area through the following actions:

The output from this work group will be in the form of:

To its credit (given the scale of standardisation activity ongoing globally for education) this group has decided to follow a course of examining standards emerging from international fora and assessing these for their ability to meet the multicultural and multilingual requirements within Europe. Only in circumstances where there is a need identified that is not being addressed elsewhere, or an external standard (e.g., US-based) needs extension for adoption in Europe, will they embark on creating something afresh. A number of the participants in this group are also active in the various international fora and they thus maintain a liaison with these groups. This working group held its first working meeting in July and have at time of writing just published an interim report [5]. The final report is currently scheduled for release late in the first quarter of 2000.

DC Education


The work of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) has been reported in D-Lib before [6].

DCMI has recently announced the formation of an Education working group within the Initiative. The fifteen Dublin Core elements were originally defined to describe and enable discovery of electronic resources in a manner that could be common across metadata communities (e.g., libraries, museums, archives, and the Geospatial community). These core elements have been widely adopted by various bodies (e.g., European SchoolNet, IEEE/IMS Learning Object Metadata Group, US Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM)) as the starting point for defining their own metadata to describe online educational resources. Inevitably, as these have evolved, they have diverged somewhat from the original vision of Dublin Core. The DCMI itself has continued to progress, too, with work currently underway on expressing means by which the existing fifteen elements might be qualified to improve the resolution of their descriptions.

It is to be hoped that the DC Educational working group will give a steer on how the educational community should support DC, both in its current form and for the future as the element set continues to evolve. This group will also play an important role in feeding the requirements of the educational sector back into the ongoing development of the Dublin Core.



The IEEE Learning Technology Standardisation Committee is the only body engaged in the educational domain which has a recognised standing as a formal standardization agency. As such, many of the other groups (e.g., AICC, IMS, CEN/ISSS participants, and representatives from branches of the US military) participate in the IEEE process and aim to progress their working specifications through IEEE’s adoption procedures. Given the diversity of the fora represented by the participants in the IEEE, there exist a large number of working groups focused on specific activities, as well as more horizontal activities (such as the Architecture and Reference Model and the Glossary working groups) that attempt to tie the wider ranging work together. The IEEE working groups and study groups can be broken down as follows:

General Groups

WG01 - Architecture and Reference Model *
WG03 - Glossary *

Learner-Related Groups

WG02 - Learner Model
WG04 - Task Model WG
WG13 - Student Identifier
WG05 - User Interfaces (study group)
WG19 - Guide for Application of ISO-9001 to Self-Managed Learning and Knowledge Management (study group)
WG20 - Competency Definitions (study group)

Content-Related Groups

WG10 - CBT Interchange Language
WG06 - Course Sequencing
WG17 - Content Packaging

Data and Metadata

WG12 - Learning Objects Metadata *
WG09 - Localisation (study group)
WG14 - Semantic and Exchange Bindings
WG15 - Data Interchange Protocols
WG16 - HTTP Bindings

Management Systems & Applications

WG11 - Computer Managed Instruction *
WG18 - Platform and Media Profiles
WG07 - Tool/Agent Communications
WG08 - Enterprise Interfaces (study group)

NB: Those marked * are the most advanced areas and the Learning Object Metadata and the Computer Managed Instruction will probably enter initial voting stages during 1999.

Most groups are concerned with technical standards, but others such as WG19 (Guide for Application of ISO-9001 to Self-Managed Learning and Knowledge Management) are addressing broader issues. WG19 is looking to define something akin to a "passport to learning" which will require a new learner who is not already accredited to go through a formal induction process ensuring that they have the basic personal skills (e.g., time management, report writing, assessment preparation) to take full advantage of their proposed learning programme in an online setting. For learners working online, possibly remotely and under self-paced study, this is an important consideration in both retaining learners and ensuring that they achieve their full potential. It could be viewed as learning to learn.



The Instructional Management Systems project is a US initiative, driven by EDUCAUSE and incorporating some 600 educational institutions across the USA as well as many non-US participants. The current project will run until December 1999, after which time it is the intention of the members to transform this into a "non-profit" incorporated organisation. The consortium also includes a number of industrial partners, many of whom have made a significant financial contribution to the project as investment members of IMS. Over and above the substance of the work, it is this direct participation by a large number of multinational corporations that has fuelled global interest in the IMS and has led to the setting up of satellite IMS centres in Australia, Canada, Singapore and the UK, operated by local agencies.

The IMS started work with the academic community in the US in constructing a detailed requirements specification for online learning. This was originally intended to be followed by a pedagogically and platform neutral, functional specification and design leading to a reference implementation which would then be used by others as guidance for their subsequent commercial developments. The original draft specification did not prescribe the distribution environment to be adopted and by way of demonstration, played equally to both CORBA and DCOM. Through increasing involvement from the vendor community (each with very strong views on the tools, protocols and technologies to be used for the delivery platform, development environments and management systems) the IMS vision has been broken down into a number of fairly modular areas. Members are able to participate in the specific areas with which they are most concerned.

Key areas include:

Specifications for Metadata and Enterprise Systems were released in the third quarter of 1999. The metadata specification was developed in collaboration with the IEEE LOM Working Group. In addition to the LOM specification, the IMS specification describes a set of core elements that it is desirable that developers support, and gives guidelines on implementation.

The second published IMS specification, at present, is the Enterprise Systems Specification. This group consulted widely during its work, drawing input from::

The specification describes a data model for representing student data encompassing personal data, groups, group membership and grades.

Another area in which progress has been made is the Content & Packaging group. This group is producing a specification for packaging educational content for delivery to the learner, addressing issues such as which files might be required on the user’s machine through to supported installation and usage, etc. A piece of demonstration software has also been produced called packman, which incorporates the metadata and package description files along with the content in a single file. The Question & Test group have developed an extensive hierarchy for classifying question modes and suggested developing an XML schema for passing the results back to a Learning Management System. Proposals have also been put forward on Content Management.


In this short review of learning object work world-wide, we have been able to do little more than outline a number of the common issues, illustrating them with examples of some of the work being done to address them. As stated before, this review is not comprehensive, and omits the equally important work being done in projects such as Ariadne and Gestalt, to name but two.

Nevertheless, hopefully we have succeeded in illustrating the range of initiatives currently underway and provided a sufficient taste for the reader to feel confident in pursuing more detailed information at their leisure.

At first glance, many of the standards in this area appear relatively advanced in that a great deal of work has been done and a number of specifications have been released, most notably concerning metadata for learning resources. On the other hand, there are as yet extremely few tools with knowledge of the published specifications (IMS have one metadata entry tool [7] for example) and practically no content, despite a clearly perceived need within the educational sector.

We must surely assume, as with all previous complex and as yet unimplemented specifications, that when we get down to implementation, we will discover that some things simply don’t work. Further down the road, when we have specifications that work, we must deal with questions of whether they were what we originally wanted. Nevertheless, it would appear that current work such as the Content and Packaging efforts from IMS could provide a significant step towards a number of desired functions. As the specifications develop, there is an urgent need for tools to explore what their implementation really means. Beyond that, as vendor tools start to appear, there is a need for test suites similar to those provided by D-Lib [8] to test products that wish to claim compliance. We’ve come a long way but there’s a way yet to go.


1. Scherlis W L, " Repository Interoperability Workshop: Towards a Repository Reference Model" in D-Lib Magazine, October 1996, <>.

2. Maly K, "Smart Objects, Dumb Archives: A User-Centric, Layered Digital Library Framework" in D-Lib Magazine, March 1999, <>.

3. Bearman D, Miller E, Rust G, Trant J, Weibel S, "A Common Model to Support Interoperable Metadata: Progress report on reconciling metadata requirements from the Dublin Core and INDECS/DOI Communities" in D-Lib Magazine, January 1999, <>.

4. McFadden Allen B, "The CIC: Using Collaboration to Advance High Technology Initiatives" in D-Lib Magazine, February 1999, <>.

5. Collett M et. al., CEN/ISSS Learning Technology Workshop, LTWSInterimReport.html, November 1999, available from <>.

6. Weibel S, "The State of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative: April 1999" in D-Lib Magazine, April 1999, <>.

7. Sun Microsystems' developers' toolkit for the creation of XML documents that conform to the IMS Meta-data Specification standard, available from <>.

8. D-Lib Test Suite. <>.

Copyright © 1999 Paul Bacsich, Andy Heath, Paul Lefrere, Paul Miller, and Kevin Riley

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DOI: 10.1045/december99-miller