From Content Packages to Coursera: In Memory of Philip Dodds

When he was a young electronics engineer working on the set, Steve Spielberg picked Philip (in the middle) to play the keyboardist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His one line as he initiates a musical dialogue with the mother ship: “What are we saying to each other?”

Philip Dodds passed away five years ago today. A year earlier, Philip had lured me back into the world of educational technology. I briefly got involved with stewardship of the SCORM community during his illness. He shared his knowledge of the industry and his vision of portable and re-usable digital content. I wish he could see what’s happening in ed tech today.

Over the last ten years, online courses have come to dominate corporate training, largely replacing instructor-led courses. Philip’s work in creating SCORM — envisioning, designing, and cat-herding — was critical to this first major period of commercial success for educational technology. He realized that once everyone in the office had a personal computer and was connected to a LAN, it began to make economic sense for companies to use online training materials. The industry-wide agreement on SCORM, the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, allowed authoring tools to package course materials so that they’d run on any company’s LMS. SCORM also allowed the new content publishers to invest in materials that could be sold to almost any customer, no matter which LMS they had at the moment. And training departments could upgrade their LMS system without having to rewrite all of the content they’d developed. Content and LMS technologies were then able to evolve along independent trajectories into the enterprise elearning industry we see today.

The idea of portable content packages was central to the SCORM vision and to the first stable commercial market for elearning systems and content — and then the web happened. Philip and his colleagues understood that it was the PC on every office worker’s desk that signaled the need for SCORM and the formation of the enterprise elearning marketplace.

The next ed tech epoch is upon us. Nowadays, we expect every college student to have virtually continuous access to the web. Online degree-granting schools and course offerings from new players like Coursera and edX are expected to dramatically change the economic landscape of higher education. Soon enough, students of all ages will have continuous access to the web, and K-12 education will see the same kinds of changes.

However, as we have seen in so many industries now, the web is not just a new distribution channel for educational “content packages.” The web changes the products themselves. When Philip started the SCORM initiative, PCs with color screens were a big deal. Online courses were not very sophisticated by our standards. Today, as teachers and educational publishers learn how to use a vast array of new web-based technologies, the nature of online teaching is changing:

  • Video lectures that allow learners to view and review at their own pace
  • Immersive, multimedia practice and exploration environments, including simulated labs and educational games
  • Cloud-based scheduling and assignment management apps
  • Wikis, chats and other social networking tools for discussion and collaboration
  • Video conferencing for individual tutors and virtual classrooms
  • Adaptive teaching and assessment systems that can analyze and individualize
  • Intelligent online teaching agents — AI programs that guide, coach, and coordinate. These systems can not only give immediate feedback to learners, but they can also alert teachers to problems and misunderstandings.
  • Learning analytics — using data to improve teaching and products

Just as the industry agreement on SCORM was key to opening and stabilizing the enterprise training marketplace (consisting of LMSs, authoring tools, and content packages), a comprehensive agreement about data interoperability will eventually be required to support broad commercial adoption of the hundreds of new product ideas today from researchers, entrepreneurs, and established vendors. The data in this case is not content packages, since the content will live in the cloud, but rather structured information about students and their online learning. This data must be securely shared across systems in order to:

  • Realize the pedagogical potential of the new technologies. Intelligent tutors and learning analytics tools, for example, work best when supplied with tons of data about the learner’s objectives, history, and preferences. That data may be held by the student, by the student’s school, by a private tutor’s app, or by a publisher whose online products the student has used in the past. Linked data is the central to the power of web apps.
  • Allow new online offerings to interface with installed systems: LMS, SIS, TMS, CMS, VLE, and so on.
  • Allow students and teachers to use their own mobile management applications. In many cases, an individual’s apps will need to interface with systems in multiple educational institutions, as well as publishers’ web-based offerings.
  • Reduce the costs of trying a new product or swapping out an installed system. Data interoperability standards support the early adoption of new products, and thus stimulate investment, by broadening their effective market and by reducing the consumer’s risks.

Avron Barr is a founder of The LETSI Foundation, a think-tank that has emerged out of the SCORM community. LETSI believes that an open ecosystem for the learning-relevant data created by the plethora of innovative new products will be a key component of the second successful ed tech epoch, just as Philip Dodds’s SCORM catalyzed the original corporate elearning marketplace ten years ago.