Open education group says feds made mistake in grant program

Ed-tech advocates are wary of a federal grant requirement.

A $2 billion federal grant program promoting the development of sharable web-based educational tools requires applicants to comply with a Department of Defense (DOD) program, irking a leading open education organization.

The federal grant program, known as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCT) Grants Program, includes the easy-to-overlook line: “… online and technology-enabled courses developed under this [program] must be compliant with the latest version of SCORM.”

SCORM, which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model, is an eLearning software standard created by the DOD for self-paced, computer-based learning in the military and business sector.

The TAACCCT grants program—a smaller version of a failed federal plan to pump $12 billion in to community colleges—was hailed by ed-tech advocates when it was announced in January.

Officials from the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a leading ed-tech standards organization, have led the criticism of TAACCCT’s requirement to use SCORM. In a January letter to IMS members, Chief Executive Rob Abel wrote that “SCORM is not a good fit for education on our public forums.”

“The requirement to use SCORM for educational content is an outdated regulation that will stifle the intended outcomes,” Abel wrote on the IMS website, calling SCORM a “niche” program that wouldn’t be conducive to teacher-led classes.

Educational content can be created and shared under SCORM, Abel said, but doing so would require a special “authoring environment to manipulate [content].”

IMS and its Common Cartridge standard would be usable for a greater number of grant applicants who want to make and share their educational programs, Abel said.

“It’s just a bad fit for a government program that is asking [educators] to develop content that’s supposed to be shared and remixed,” he said of SCORM. “We’re just trying to get some sanity back into the equation.”

While SCORM works fine for stand-alone content objects–such as a video clip illustrating how cells divide, or a PowerPoint explication of a sonnet–it cannot be used to define the more collaborative, interactive learning experiences, such as an online assessment or a wiki, that are typical of today’s Web 2.0-enabled course environments.

“SCORM was developed to support [the] portability of self-paced, computer-based training content,” IMS says. “This is a very different set of needs than those of digital course materials that are used to support an online course where there is a cohort of students and an instructor, teacher, or professor.”

Abel said he met with U.S. Department of Education officials in January, only to learn that the Department of Labor would make a final decision whether to lift the SCORM mandate.

“We’re a little bit outraged, because we thought people were listening to us,” Abel said. “Our biggest concern is that we’re not being heard. … We don’t have lobbyists. We don’t even have a Washington, D.C., office.”

Others who track open education programs agreed with Abel’s criticism.

Michael Feldstein, former assistant director of the State University of New York (SUNY) Learning Network, said mandating a single standard would prove too limiting.

“I understand why the federal government wants to mandate a particular standard for content reuse, but I think it’s a mistake in this case,” Feldstein wrote in a Jan. 24 blog post. “Educational content re-use is highly context-dependent, which means that no one standard is going to support all or even most of the relevant use cases. There will be times when SCORM is the best, times when IMS Common Cartridge is the best,” and other incidents when another open standard is the best fit for a federal grant applicant.

Feldstein, product strategy manager for Oracle’s Academic Enterprise Solutions, said it should be up to grant applicants to submit a detailed plan of how other colleges would be able to use content created through a federal grant.

“The better thing to do would be to require that grantees include in their proposal a plan for promoting re-use, which would include the selection of appropriate format standards,” he wrote.

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