What is SCORM?


We answer one of the most frequently asked questions about eLearning. What is SCORM?

When you first start learning about eLearning or Learning Management Systems (LMS), you will eventually come across the term SCORM. When it comes to instructional design or learning strategy, it's not that important to know what it means. But if you're buying eLearning, uploading courses to an LMS or buying a new authoring tool you should have a basic understanding of what SCORM is and how it works.

Just a quick warning, while I won’t be getting too deep into the technical side of things, the point of this article is to provide a comprehensive insight into SCORM so there will be some geek speak!

The quick answer: What is SCORM?

SCORM is an API. See, I told you there was going to be geek speak.

SCORM is the acronym for the API (Application Programming Interface) that allows an eLearning course to talk to an LMS (Learning Management System).

It is a standard that has been agreed upon by developers to ensure that your eLearning will launch, function and record learner information as expected without needing to invest time in working out how to get courses and an LMS to communicate.

So when someone is providing an organisation with a SCORM package, this will be a zip file that contains all of the files that make up the course and also the files needed to tell an LMS about how to launch that course and the file structures. The easiest way to think about SCORM is to look at how you power your electrical appliances around the house. When you buy an appliance in Australia, you know that you will be able to get it home and it will plug into the hole in the wall. You can also be confident that when you move to a new house, you will be able to use your existing appliances. This is because there is a standard for the design that both the people who make the socket in the wall, and the people who make the appliance adhere to. SCORM is like a digital version of that standard, ensuring you can use your appliances (eLearning course) in your house (LMS).

What does SCORM stand for?

Shareable Content Object Reference Model. Yeah. Glad I told you that, aren’t you?

The key bit of that to note is 'Shareable Content Object', as this alludes to the ultimate goal of SCORM. It allows us to create content objects (eLearning courses for example) that can be shared across any system that adheres to the SCORM standard.

Who invented SCORM?

SCORM was 'invented' by ADL (Advanced Distributed Learning) which is an initiative of the US Department of Defense. They’re focused on research and development for learning science and technologies. The SCORM standard was essentially based on a collection of other standards, using the best parts of each and combining them into what we have today. The first version of SCORM was released in 2000, but more on that later.

How does SCORM affect users?

Aside from being a standard to ensure that your course can talk to your LMS, SCORM provides us with a framework for creating an engaging learner experience and reporting on the learners' activities.

The key benefits for a learner are focused around how the information about their progress and performance in a course is stored and used.

The most obvious benefit of SCORM is it allows a learner to complete a course over more than one sitting. For example, if someone is half way through their privacy eLearning and something comes up forcing them to stop, SCORM will allow their learning to be 'bookmarked' so that when they come back to the eLearning.They can pick up from where they progressed to last time and are not forced to start again from the beginning.

The way SCORM allows you to assess a learner’s performance also allows the eLearning to be more focused on learner engagement and good learning flow. Because SCORM is able to track learner question responses at any point, it allows you to create eLearning that doesn’t need to have a jarring assessment at the end. Instead, you can assess the learner throughout the course using activities that organically fit into the material being covered.

The different types of SCORM

There probably isn’t so much different 'types' of SCORM, as there are evolutions of it. From a user experience perspective, not a lot has really changed from one version to the next. If you do want to learn more about each version, here's some brief information about them.

Released in 2000, this was the first version of SCORM. It was really just a proof of concept for the SCO idea and as such, it was not distributed.

Released in early 2001, this was the first version of SCORM that was widely available. However it was still rather clumsy to use as it lacked the ability to use metadata or packaging manifests. This version was quickly replaced by SCORM 1.2.

Released in late 2001, this was the first widely adopted version of SCORM. It allowed the use of metadata to describe the course and included manifests of all of the course assets. While the ADL no longer supports or maintains this version of SCORM, this version is still the most prevalent.

Another interesting fact about this format of SCORM is that it allows for 4,096 characters of suspend data. Yeah, more geek speak. I will touch more on what this means and why it’s important below.

SCORM 2004 1st Edition
Released in early 2004, this was the most significant update to the SCORM standard since its release. It allowed content developers more control of the interactions a learner can have within a course, but also allowed us control of what happens between course. This could allow us to greater a seamless learner experience for a learner moving from course to course. Unfortunately adoption for the SCORM 2004 format across all editions has been slow and the benefits of this version were never really realised.

SCORM 2004 2nd Edition
Released in mid 2004, not a great deal changed between this period and the previous version. This version was really a release to address some of the defects that were discovered with SCORM 2004 1st Edition after its release.

SCORM 2004 3rd Edition
Released in 2006, this was again another version that largely focused on tightening up how the LMS and course are able to communicate. From a content creator perspective, the biggest change in this version was the increase of suspend data character limit to 64,000. The reason this is exciting is that suspend data is how we are able to store information about the learners interactions and progress through the course. So before when we may have only been able to record which questions they got right and wrong, now we could stop everything from which questions they got right and wrong, with options they selected, with pathway of a branching activity they went down, etc. In terms of being able to store this information, it’s like we went from CD to DVD. Of all the SCORM 2004 editions, this is the most widely adopted and in my opinion, this is the edition that all organisations should look to ensure their LMS supports.

SCORM 2004 4th Edition
Released in 2009 this was really just a refinement of the 3rd edition to make the technical side of the standard less ambiguous and easier to work with.

"But all that sounds sounds complicated, how do I create SCORM courses?"

Unless you are planning on developing your own eLearning authoring tool or framework, creating eLearning that is SCORM compliant is actually quite simple. There are many easy to use authoring tools that allow you to design and create your learning, then export it as a SCORM package with a click of a button.

Two of the most popular authoring tools are Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate.

Something else to consider is that there are increasingly more LMSs that come with authoring tools built in. Though these are usually limited in what you can do, they will generally be SCORM compliant too.

"So does all eLearning have to be SCORM compliant?"

Nope. The features and purpose of SCORM is ultimately to be able to capture learner data, store that data and access stored data. This is to allow robust reporting as well as providing the learner with the ability to complete a piece of eLearning over multiple sittings. However, there will be times when you do not need to track the granular details of a learner's progress and that learner will not likely be completing the course over multiple sittings.

This would be the case for eLearning that might be a short explainer video, performance support resources and job aids. Depending on the LMS, these sorts of resources can be uploaded without needing to be SCORM as readily accessed by the learner.

In many cases, there probably isn’t a need to host these in an LMS at all.

"What else do I need to know about SCORM?"

If you want to gain an understanding of the detailed working of SCORM, there are volumes of material available addressing specific areas. However at a high level, this article covers the key things people usually want to know about when it comes to SCORM and eLearning.

In terms of key things to know about when developing eLearning, purchasing eLearning or purchasing an LMS, it’s really all about ensuring that the LMS supports the version of SCORM you want to publish in.

As long as you have an alignment between the version of SCORM you are publishing content and the version the LMS supports, it really will be as simple as plug-and-play.

"What about xAPI?"

xAPI (or 'Tin-Can API', as it was named during its development) is the next generation of SCORM. The thing that is exciting about xAPI is that the amount of information you are able to gather not only about the learners results and progress, but also their preferences and behavioural patterns during their learning is immense.

To start unpacking the potential of xAPI would be a whole other article in itself, but for a high level overview of how it compares to SCORM, check out this site.