Online Learning Basics

By Outcrop consulting

2 Oct 2014



I was asked recently to educate a former colleague on ‘all things on-line content’ as he’d been seconded onto a project at short notice. ‘All things …’ seemed rather broad, so I dusted off my performance technologist and instructional designer hats and sat down with him.

The outcome was that there was a need to publish 2 on-line courses through his firm’s LMS:

  • a compliance related policy acknowledgement, and
  • a short information piece, with a quiz/assessment, on corporate information security

All Jim wanted was enough information to sound knowledgeable when interacting with the external supplier building the content and his local LMS guru. Knowledgeable on things LMS, not the learning content itself as that was being handled by a SME (Subject Matter Expert) within his firm.

His company had already made a strategic decision to have all their content developed externally (see related article ‘Developing On-Line Learning Content’)

Below is what I told him – I hope it hits the spot for you if you are new to this concept.


Hi Jim

The following should be enough to keep you out of trouble, or at times get you into it, as you contribute to that on-line course development project. The first two sections – SCORM Basics and SCORM Options for Your Two Courses – are a must read.

The last section – Extra Information – will ensure that you are invited onto every content development project. Not sure if that’s your desire … over to you!

SCORM Basics

Most on-line learning content is built in a format called SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model). Other formats include AICC (Aviation Industry CBT [Computer-Based Training] Committee) and the more recent xAPI (formerly known as Tin-Can, a very new type of SCORM). For your needs ask the supplier to build the content in SCORM 1.2 or SCORM 2004.

SCORM allows the following things to happen (as does AICC)

  • LMS sends basic info to the course when it launches (date/time, username, existing score, bookmark)
  • Course sends back to the LMS basic info (score, course status, bookmark, etc.)

So nothing too complex. The main thing is that a SCORM (/AICC) course will work on any LMS that caters for these formats. As it’s so common, everyone knows how to build a SCORM format course. I know your firm has already chosen an external supplier, but if the supplier asks for info on how your LMS handles SCORM, ring the alarm bells!

When the external supplier sends you a completed SCORM module, it’s just a zip file, to be loaded by your local LMS admin.

There is a variation on SCORM – called Deployed SCORM – that you probably want to steer clear of. When it’s ‘deployed’ the user launches from one LMS, with the content being served by another LMS anywhere in the world. Theoretically the end result is the same – a score/completion recorded on the learner’s LMS – but in practice it’s easier to manage the course if the SCORM module is launched from your LMS. So at the risk of jumping at shadows, just check the contract with the external supplier to make sure one of their deliverables is a SCORM zip file or files emailed to your firm.

SCORM Options for Your Two Courses

For your policy acknowledgement, you may not need a SCORM module to be built at all. Just ask your local LMS expert if yours can load the policy PDF as it is … when the user opens the PDF it’s marked as a successful completion – done! I’ve seen this work well in a number of companies. Though some compliance departments like the user to click on a link that says something like ‘I have read and understood the XYZ policy’. In which case SCORM is the way to go.

The corporate information security course, with quiz/assessment, needs a little more thought. The supplier can build one SCORM module (content and assessment combined) or two SCORM modules (one each for content, assessment).

The former approach – one SCORM module with both the content and assessment – is easiest for your LMS Administrator and the learner. Admins load one item, not two; similarly learners only need to find, launch and complete one item.

The latter approach may be a navigation issue for your learners. And more complex for your LMS admins too. But if your learners are used to dealing with two launch items on most of their assessable courses – stick with that for consistency.

Extra Information

Here’s some other stuff which I know is a bit beyond the basics but it will save your LMS admins and first level support providers a lot of grief … some are LMS configurations, some instructional design issues and a couple are both. Do your best to have them considered during the project.

Restricting number of attempts – most LMSs can be configured to restrict the number of times the learner can re-launch a particular course in order to get a completion. Unless there is a compelling reason to have this in place, don’t do it i.e. leave number of attempts unrestricted.

Pass mark – the pass mark on the assessment can usually be set both in the SCORM module and the LMS. Make sure it’s the same on both, and not 100%. Making it 100 causes completion problems due to the inevitable ambiguous question throwing a few (too many) learners.

Question level reporting – speaking of ambiguous assessment questions, some course owners want a full report on which questions are causing the most grief to learners. This is a LMS reporting issue, not something that is in the control of the external supplier.

Location of course documents/resources – many courses (and at least one of yours) have a related document or two. It’s tempting to have a link within the course pointing to the document stored on your intranet. This sounds more elegant but it’s harder to manage short and long term. The best approach is to include the document as part of the SCORM zip file. You’ll probably get some argument on this – let me know if you do and I’ll provide at least 3 compelling reasons to stand your ground!

Letting the learner go straight to the assessment (bypass the learning content) – this is fodder for a spirited discussion with many SMEs. SMEs love their content – so much so that they want everyone else to love it fully too. So often they want to force the learners to go through all the learning content before doing the assessment. Modern instructional design principles suggest no – let learners head straight to the assessment if they want to. Then review the content if they get some questions wrong. The instructional designer from the external supplier will likely support this STA option (Straight to Assessment), but may need support from you. Especially after they have cut 30% of the SME’s content from the course!

There you go Jim – you are set to contribute to the project. Let me know how it goes …


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