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Technology Leaders Balk at Technical Guideline in Federal Grant Program

Some higher-education leaders say a little-noticed technical note in a new $2-billion federal grant program could make it difficult for colleges to use the money to build free online course materials.

The issue centers around a single line of the 53-page grant guidelines for the program, known officially as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program: “All online and technology-enabled courses developed under this [program] must be compliant with the latest version of Scorm (Sharable Content Object Reference Model).”

What is Scorm? It is a technology standard that underpins some online training materials, mainly those developed by the U.S. military services. As with any IT standard, the goal is to make sure that software written by competing companies will work together and interface with other systems. Encouraging companies and groups to follow shared standards levels the playing field and guards against a single entity gaining a monopoly.

A few higher-education leaders say that the Scorm standard works well in settings where students are going through self-paced exercises—as in military and corporate training—but that it is not designed for a professor leading groups of students, as is more common at colleges. Essentially, the argument is that the work it takes to follow the Scorm standard is not worth the payoff in a higher-education setting, where the standard is not in widespread use.

“Imposing a Scorm requirement for all resources will substantially increase the labor involved in producing them without necessarily bringing a payoff,” wrote Michael Feldstein, who blogs about online learning.

Discussion of the requirement comes just days after education officials cheered the program as a landmark windfall for the movement to develop free online courses.

The loudest voice against the Scorm provision of the new federal grant program has been the head of a competing educational-technology standards-group, Rob Abel. “Mandating Scorm is trying to force fit something developed for some very niche training needs of the Department of Defense onto education,” wrote Mr. Abel, chief executive of IMS Global Learning Consortium Inc., in an online post this week. “It has not been successful to date and it will only hamper our progress going forward.”

He argues that the Scorm standard has weighed down other college-technology efforts in the past, and he lists what he calls seven major faults of the use of Scorm in higher education. For instance, he argues that the standard “has no concept of or support for assessment,” while colleges increasingly work to use technology to help measure student progress.

Technologists who work with Scorm, however, dispute Mr. Abel’s assertions. “It’s not nearly this terrifying chasm that he’s presenting,” said Tim Martin, a partner at Rustici Software, which helps other companies comply with Scorm standards. Mr. Martin argues that the Scorm standard explicitly deals with assessment, for one thing. And he says that colleges can comply with the standard without breaking the bank.

Meanwhile, there is some chance that, in practice, the program may not actually mandate Scorm use for every grant recipient. Another line in the regulations states that online courses need to be created “in an open format mutually agreed-upon by the grantee and the department.” Officials for the Department of Education and the Department of Labor, the two agencies managing the grant program, declined to comment or could not be reached this week.

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