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E-learning standards

What is an online learning compatibility standard?

Are SCORM, AICC or xAPI the most common eLearning development standards applicable in modern learning platforms or are there others?

Approximate reading time: 7m 15s

Summary: If you've ever had anything to do with eLearning, you've certainly come across terms like SCORM, AICC or xAPI. In this article, we'll take a look at each of these acronyms, explain how they came about, and what they do. In this article, we'll look at the main e-learning standards.

One simple but ingenious idea has been driving the world of eLearning forward for almost 30 years. The idea that it shouldn't matter which learning content creation tool you use or which learning management system (LMS) your boss prefers. 

Why do we need online learning standards and learning management systems?

There are a few key reasons why compliance standards like AICC and SCORM are so important:

- They ensure that eLearning content can be used in any LMS, which is essential for seamless eLearning.
- They allow you to track learner progress and performance so you can identify areas where your content needs to be improved.
- They help ensure that eLearning content is accessible to all learners, regardless of their ability.

All eLearning products should be compatible with each other, no matter who developed them. But in the 1980s, when there were still no standards for compatibility, companies and educational institutions had to create their own Computer Based Training (CBT) from scratch. 

This is how AICC started.


In 1988, several major aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing and Airbus, began a project to help them reduce the cost of implementing CBT for their employees. They called it the "Aviation Industry CBT Committee" (AICC). This team began to develop a set of guidelines called Computer Managed Instruction (CMI001) that, when applied to computer-based training systems, was to help ensure their interchangeability and compatibility with other systems.

Then, as the Internet became a phenomenon and the need to host courses on the Web became apparent, they updated the CMI with a new specification called "Runtime," which described how online Content⇋ LMS communication should work. The AICC called this specification the "HTTP-based AICC/CMI protocol," or HACP.

Later, in 1999, they released an API for Javascript that was an alternative to HACP and that was easier for vendors to implement in their products. This Javascript API was later reused in SCORM with some minor changes.

Among other things, CMI includes an explanation of how the training modules should communicate with the LMS. The exchange of information between them is made possible by the use of a set of predefined variables that both the LMS and the modules need to know.

These variables are the universal language that allows them to understand each other. This is the core of the CMI specification and its most important part.

Here are some of the important variables in CMI that the training module and the LMS can exchange with each other:

core.score (possible values: raw, max, min)
Raw is the score that the learner received for a given attempt.
the student's data.mastery score
Passing score - A passing score that has been predetermined by the course author. If "core.score raw" is greater than or equal to "student data.mastery score", the module is marked as passing.
core.lesson status (passed, completed, failed, incomplete, etc.)

All of these variables are created so that a module can tell the LMS when it has been completed (reviewed in its entirety) and whether all interactions within it (such as tests) have passed with a score higher than the target passing score. There were other required variables and quite a few optional ones. Vendors did not always implement the optional variables in their products, which is why AICC's CMI support was ambiguous.

By today's standards, AICC's CMI is a thing of the past. Use it only in the absence of a better alternative. And if you do use it, perhaps you should rethink what e-learning tools you use.


In February 1998, President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Department of Defense created a new organization called Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). They were tasked with finding a way to further standardize e-learning and make online learning more cost effective.

Instead of starting from scratch, they borrowed several existing specifications developed by other initiatives such as the AICC. That's why ADL called their project the Sharable Content Object Reference Model. It was a combination of references to best practices that existed at the time rather than a stand-alone new standard.

The SCORM project went through several iterations, with its final release in 2009 when "SCORM 2004 4th Edition" came out. It will not evolve any further.

Several versions of SCORM were created during its life cycle, but there are two that are still current:

SCORM 1.2 (released in 2001, including two major specifications/manuals)

Content Aggregation Model (CAM)
It was originally created by the "Instructional Management Systems Global Learning Consortium" or IMS. Among other things, it defines a text file called a "manifest" that can be found in any SCORM module. This manifest must list every resource file in the module and point to the file that starts the course in order for the LMS to run it. This document also states that the training module must be "packaged" in a .zip archive.

Run-Time Environment (RTE)
The CMI specification defined by the AICC is used here. Same principles, same variables.

SCORM 2004

This version was released in 2004 and it fixed some of the problems of SCORM 1.2, but most importantly it added a new chapter called Sequencing and Navigation. Derived from previous IMS efforts, this standard enabled content authors to build their courses from individual Sharable Content Objects (or SCOs). This allows them to reuse any of the SCOs in any other module.

There have been three releases of this version published in the 5 years from 2004 to 2009. They are called the 2nd, 3rd and 4th, and each contains some adjustments compared to the previous one, mainly in the "Sequencing and Navigation" section.

SCORM is still widely used by the e-learning community. In fact, SCORM 1.2 is still the most popular standard today. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that despite its widespread adoption, its days are numbered.

We offer e-course development that meets the requirements of distance learning platforms and SCORM standards

Examples of SCORM training can be found in our Portfolio

SCORM Run-Time is not designed for mobile learning, and this is a huge drawback right now.

3. Tin Can API (later renamed xAPI)

In 2008, an organization called Learning Education Training Systems Interoperability (LETSI) stated that SCORM no longer met the requirements of modern eLearning. They published a set of documents called "SCORM 2.0 White-Papers".

These documents highlight the most serious problems with SCORM:

-Dependence on a constant connection to the Internet to record training statistics
-Data cannot be sent if the LMS and the training course are in different domains
-Tight range of parameters that can be recorded as statistics
-Security flaws

ADL agreed with this and hired Rustici Software to create a better standard to meet modern requirements. They called it "Project Tin Can."

In 2013, Tin Can 1.0 was released and the first users of the new standard started to appear. At the same time, ADL gave the project its official name: they called it the "Experience API" or "xAPI" for short.

The standard was under continuous development until 2016, when version 1.03 was released. This version is considered a finished product and there are currently no plans to update it further.

The xAPI is a Run-Time Environment that allows you to record data for almost any learning activity that may be happening on a computer, phone or tablet, or even in a real classroom. Data is recorded in the form of simple secure records.

Each xAPI record contains information about three things: a "participant," a "verb," and an "object."
The participant is the person participating in the learning activity. The verb is a status update (completed, passed, etc.). The object is the learning activity under consideration.

Instead of sending statements directly to the LMS as was done with SCORM, xAPI defines something called a Learning Record Store (LRS). This is a small application that captures such statements and records them in a database.

Most importantly, the LRS need not be in the same domain as the content. It can be located anywhere else on the web and still "capture" learning statistics. This is great because now learning content can be hosted anywhere but still send stats to the same LRS.

Another important improvement to xAPI was that if no internet connection is available at a given time, it allows devices to save statistics to their RAM. When the device is back online, it can send everything it captured to the LRS.

In today's e-learning world, xAPI is the most advanced e-learning standard. It's still not as popular as SCORM, but, as they say, old habits die slowly. If you're looking for a modern approach with mobile learning support or lots of statistics for specific and non-linear learning activities, make sure your authoring tool and your LMS support xAPI.

4. Cmi5

Shortly after AICC disbanded in 2014, many of its specialists decided to start a new project. Since xAPI was so generalized that it could support a wide range of implementations, they wanted to facilitate the adoption of xAPI by standard LMS-oriented learning environments.

So in 2016, they described something they called a "companion standard for xAPI". It was named "cmi5", similar to the name of the first interoperability specification developed by AICC, "CMI001".

Cmi5 is a companion specification that explains how modules should be packaged with xAPI to facilitate their delivery to traditional LMSs. It also defines how the course file structure should be described and how the course should initiate its communication with the LMS.

Basically, it does for xAPI what SCORM did for the AICC API.

If you are already working with an eLearning environment that is xAPI compatible, you might want to check that both your text authoring tool and LMS support cmi5 in addition to xAPI. Using cmi5 will make data exchange between your courses and LMS a little more secure thanks to the standard's handshake mechanism. At the same time, packaging and uploading your courses to the LMS will also become easier.

5. IMS Common Cartridge

Although SCORM is still the most popular standard for online learning, there have been other successful efforts in this area. An organization called the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which was founded in 1997, has built its own interoperability standard that is widely used in educational circles. They called it "IMS Common Cartridge."

To this day, the standard continues to evolve thanks to IMS Global. It is gaining momentum and in the future may become the preferred alternative to SCORM/xAPI.

Common cartridge is essentially similar to what SCORM does, but with a greater focus on assessments and other academic learning activities. Arguably, it is an alternative to SCORM with a much simpler implementation, although not yet as popular.

Common Cartridge is a viable option if you work in education as it features native support for classroom activities such as quizzes, assignments and discussion forums. Additionally, if you already have SCORM content, it's fairly easy to convert it to Common Cartridge.

IMS Common Cartridge will benefit you if you work in higher education. If so, make sure your LMS/authoring tool supports it.

We've looked at several different eLearning standards that have defined the face of eLearning over the last 30 years. Some of these were original projects that started from scratch (AICC, IMS) while others simply referenced a bunch of other specifications (SCORM).

Unfortunately, our journey to a brighter future of eLearning may be delayed slightly because the industry still depends too much on SCORM. It needs a strong push to move toward something better, like xAPI. But it seems that the xAPI specs are too generic compared to "good old" SCORM, so the community is in no hurry to adopt them.

We can provide a top-notch online learning platform for you that is compatible with the most used e-learning standards in the world - ILIAS.

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