SCORM LMS 101: The What, Why and How of SCORM in eLearning

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Nick Santaniello ·

Jul 26, 2017

Imagine you’re tasked with creating an online learning program or you’re looking for an LMS vendor for your company’s customer training program and you hear the term "SCORM" or "SCORM LMS" and wonder, “What does that mean?”

You're not alone.

Anyone who uses online learning to train their customers, workforces (gig or real estate) has likely encountered these terms. 

That said, unless you have deep technical knowledge of learning management systems (LMS) and online learning, you may be a bit confused.

Don't worry. I'm here to help! 

In this post, I'll give you a complete look at SCORM and what it means for your LMS and online learning journey. 

Ready? Let's go. 

What's SCORM?

SCORM, which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model, is a set of technical standards that allows content and LMSs to "work well together." In essence, SCORM is the building block of digital instruction and ensures the content you're creating via course authoring tools, like Adobe Captivate, works with your LMS. It makes sure they "play well."

Let's go a level deeper by looking at the components of SCORM:

  • Content Packaging: Any and all materials for a course are put into a package containing everything the LMS needs to launch it. This is also called the course's manifest file, i.e., an XML file that describes the content. 
  • Run-time Communication: Responsible for the exchange of data between the LMS and content. Said another way, run-time specifications control how the LMS launches the course and how it communicates with the LMS. 
  • Sequencing: This refers to how learners navigate the course (i.e., sequencing is responsible for determining "what happens next). Sequencing is often optional. If that's the case and no rules are specified, the default setting will deliver an "adequate experience" to learners.  
    • Directs how the user moves through the LMS by following certain actions, such as hitting a previous/next button or flowing through a navigable table of contents.
    • Specifies which activities must be completed before the user advances to the next step.
    • Weights some sections of the instruction more than others when the final score or ranking is tallied.
    • Selects on a random basis a different subset of available SCOs to be delivered on each new attempt (to enable test banking, for instance).
    • Returns the user to material not previously mastered.

Where Did SCORM Come From?

In the mid-90s, several government agencies latched onto eLearning as a way to train workers in different departments. However, each agency developed its own content and proprietary LMS, which led to a disjointed and haphazard educational effort.

So, in 1999, the Department of Defense, under an executive order from President Clinton, established the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) research group to develop a set of standards so content creation tools and LMSs could “speak to” one another and operate in unison. ADL devised those guidelines, which eventually formed the basis for SCORM.

Still operating today, ADL oversaw subsequent iterations of SCORM. Current content creation tools and LMS are typically categorized as SCORM 1.3 and 2004 compliant, which builds on SCORM 1.1 and SCORM 1.2. 

SCORM 2004 extends and formalizes the packaging and Run-time portions of the previous version; however, the major addition is the sequencing and navigation (S&N) specification, which allows the content vendor to "specify both the behavior within the SCO and the behavior between the SCOs."

SCORM Analogy

To make the definition of SCORM that much easier to understand, here's an analogy:

An oft-cited illustration of the advantage of SCORM is a DVD that works in any player.

Imagine buying a new DVD player and quickly finding out that it can't play any of your DVDs. In turn, to watch those DVDs, you have to buy all new ones that are compatible with the new DVD player. 

Here's another analogy:

You go to Best Buy and purchase an HDMI cable — the same one you've always used — and find that it doesn't work with your TV, but works with one upstairs.  

Luckily, this isn't the reality and these universal technologies are compatible with the devices you use. 

This is what SCORM is all about; it makes sure your content, regardless of when and where you created it, works on your LMS. 

What Are the Benefits of SCORM?

As I explained in the definition above, SCORM addresses programming procedures for LMSs. Its benefits — in one way or another — extend to all those involved in online instruction.

  • SCORM allows LMS vendors and creators to be more flexible in choosing and switching platforms. That means they can develop and deploy content quicker and cheaper.
  • You can customize content for customers, workforces and partners without the need for costly re-coding. SCORM also supports a more sophisticated delivery of online learning that reaches more learners.
  • By following SCORM guidelines, the courses feature more interaction between the learner and the LMS as well as the ability to assess the learner as he or she progresses through the program. 

SCORM LMS or SCORM-compliant LMS: What Are They and What Do You Need to Know

Now that we have a better understanding of the definition of SCORM and why it's important, let's look it at exclusively through the LMS lens. 

So, what's a SCORM LMS or SCORM-compliant LMS?  

SCORM LMS is an LMS that ensures that your SCORM-compliant courses work seamlessly on the LMS. Said another way, per ADL’s guidelines, the LMS must be configured in such a way that it accepts the instructional content with no technical glitches (i.e., the LMS shoulders more of the burden for creating a learning platform that's SCORM compliant).

Implementing SCORM-compliant Learning

Are you ready to implement SCORM-compliant learning?

Great.

Let's break down some of the steps you'll need to take:

Find a SCORM-compliant Authoring Tool

Numerous SCORM-compliant authoring tools populate the marketplace. On the commercial side, Adobe Captivate and Articulate Storyline are two oft-cited examples.

Additionally, there are open source, free, “lite” and freemium course authoring tools you can consider, such as iSpring or EasyGenerator.

However, these tools are often limited in what the course developer can create. For example, it may only permit the conversion of PowerPoint presentations but not live audio/video capabilities. 

Further, as with any newly purchased software, users need to be trained on the SCORM authoring tools for more advanced courses. That could mean an added expense as well as extra time needed to train those involved in creating the content in a SCORM-compliant authoring software.

Find a SCORM-compliant LMS

A good place to start is the Advanced Distributed Learning website (adlnet.org), which keeps a log of all SCORM-certified products. 

Furthermore, learning management systems carry different pricing models, from pay-per learner, pay-per-use, or a licensing fee. So you must decide which pricing model works best for your needs.

Free and open-source learning management systems are available as well. However, some of those may be more suited for the academic market.

It's also worth noting that creating content within a SCORM-compliant LMS does not necessarily mean the content is SCORM compliant. For that, you need a SCORM-compliant authoring software to create the course, publish it as SCORM, and then upload it into the LMS.

Best SCORM-compliant Learning Management Systems

Given the prevalence of SCORM in today's online-learning world, SCORM-compliant LMSs are common. Still, to help you sift through some of the best LMSs out there, here's a list to reference during your search:  

  • Northpass
  • Docebo
  • LearnUpon LMS
  • Absorb LMS 
  • TalentLMS 
  • 360Learning
  • SAP Litmos
  • Thought Industries 
  • eloomi 
  • Adobe Captivate Prime 
  • eFront

For a complete list of SCORM-compliant learning management systems, head over to eLearning Industry

Creating SCORM-compliant Content

Fortunately, SCORM does not impede the creativity of instructional designers when they devise the courses.

The instructional designer still decides on the content and how it’s organized. SCORM merely addresses how the learning content and the LMS link with each other through the coding language of SCORM.

With that in mind, when designing the learning program, instructors must first decide:

  • How the learning activity is structured and presented to learners, including whether the can take the courses in a pre-set sequence or in any order.
  • Whether the learner must pass a certain module before progressing.
  • If the learner can return to material already completed for a review.
  • Whether the modules include embedded assessments or will the assessment be a separate module.

Decide What You Need to Develop

Not all content needs to be developed as SCORM compliant. It depends on the scope and the sophistication of the course content.

For internal courses that focus on say, employee compliance training or issues relevant only to the organization, a SCORM LMS is probably not required.

Since those courses are not being used by external (paying) clients, you can opt for utilizing PowerPoint presentations or videos and then tacking on an exam for an online learning program and avoid using more high-end, SCORM-compliant software.

The bottom line: SCORM best serves eLearning that's customer- or workforce-facing and sophisticated.

Always Test Before Launching

Finally, keep in mind that SCORM is based on a series of codes. And like any code, there could be bugs in the system, especially as the software's developed.

Therefore, research the SCORM LMS or authoring software before purchasing to unearth any issues — and always test the program before launching it via the LMS.

The Future of SCORM

As you immerse yourself in the world of SCORM and work to enhance the engagement of your program, you may be wondering: What’s next?

Following the trend of all-inclusive, user-friendly software solutions, the capabilities of authoring tools are likely to be absorbed in cloud LMS solutions.

Imagine an LMS where you can do it all:

  • Customize the look and feel the entire learning experience (via a custom LMS)
  • Design and produce highly interactive content that combines text, animations, audio, video, assessments and more
  • Integrate with your existing software stack via LMS integrations
  • Easily give course access to admins and learners and manage your online community
  • Track learner engagement through a robust analytics dashboard

As eLearning content development becomes more democratized, there's an opportunity for cloud solutions to optimize their authoring functionalities to match the sophistication of a tool like Captivate or Storyline. Some LMSs are already moving in this direction.

For our team here at Northpass, removing the learning curve of online content creation is one of our top priorities.

With a focus on modern, minimal design and how it plays into the user’s experience, our goal is to enable anyone to take the reins of creating, delivering and managing powerful online learning programs.

Want to learn more? Reach out today to connect with a SCORM LMS expert.

About the Author
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Nick Santaniello

Nick Santaniello heads up content at Northpass. He would like you to know that he feels most at home while reading or wandering through the woods. He's passionate about learning and Villanova Basketball, and thinks you should be, too.

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