SCORM vs Tin Can vs AICC: How have the e-Learning standards evolved over the years? Which one has the most potential? Which one provides better insights into learners’ activity? Brief overview, pros, cons and a comparative chart – in this article.

In the modern world of e-Learning, instructional designers have to take care of different aspects of course delivery. At some point in the past, it used to be all about engaging content, now it’s as much about performance and activity tracking, analysis and feedback. The tracking tools and technologies, as well as smooth interoperability between various LMSs, seem to be of utmost importance to teachers and content authors across the globe.

As any well-developed industry, e-Learning has embraced standardization and technical arrangements that enable easy content distribution and smart metrics. The pioneering SCORM and AICC formats were first introduced some 10 – 20 years ago, and were a revelation to the instructor community. When Tin Can (aka Experience API, or xAPI) came on the scene, many experts predicted the inevitable deterioration of SCORM. Some have actually pronounced the standard dead yet it looks pretty much alive, employed by the majority of customers and organizations.

In this posting, I intend to provide a quick overview of AICC HACP, SCORM 1.2 and 2004, and xAPI, their advantages, disadvantages and prospects.

AICC HACP

The AICC standard (from Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee) was an early bird in the world of e-Learning technology. Its initial specifications date back to the 1980s. AICC’s “CMI Guidelines for Interoperability” was, in fact, the first widely recognized standard for interoperability between content and LMS. In 1998 the AICC standard added a web interface called HACP (HTTP-based AICC/CMI Protocol).

Like SCORM, AICC has gone through several revisions and updates. Apparently, AICC had a hard time keeping pace with the evolving market, yet some of its fundamentals still work in the modern environment. As the acronym suggests, the standard stems from aviation industry training that focused heavily on images and simulations. Years passed, and the AICC standards have ultimately helped LMS providers to deliver video content and simulations on mobile devices.

The HACP protocol has some unique features that even make it preferable to SCORM in specific cases. Since HACP is HTTP-based, it avoids cross-domain scripting issues typical for SCORM’s ECMAScript-based communication.

Known for its browser security limitations, SCORM prohibits communication between content served from one domain and an LMS served from another domain. AICC HACP is more flexible in this regard, offering a handy alternative in ambiguous deployment scenarios. It’s also worth mentioning that SCORM has actually borrowed certain aspects from AICC. For instance, the run-time communication in SCORM refers to AICC’s previous work.

In recent years, AICC experts have been working on a new specification – CMI 5 (Computer Managed Instruction). The updated standard adds support for EMCAScript-based data exchange and more “SCORM features”, yet we have to admit AICC is irrevocably dropping off the industry radar.

Pros

  • Allows content to be hosted on a separate server
  • Supports secure HTTPS data transfers

Cons

  • Out-of-date and mostly abandoned by most e-Learning providers
  • Limited functionality and lack of progress tracking capabilities
  • Requires multiple operations to remove data from the string returned by the server.

SCORM (1.2 and 2004)

Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) is a suite of e-Learning specifications developed by the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative. SCORM defines communication between client side content and an LMS. It also stipulates the way content is packaged into a “Package Interchange Format” ZIP archive.

SCORM 1.2 was the first widely used edition that is still supported by most LMSs. Before the introduction of SCORM, integrating courses with a delivery framework was a rather daunting task unless the content was tailored to a specific platform. The situation entailed time-consuming customization and prohibitive deployment costs. In this sense, the SCORM specification made a radical change.

SCORM 1.2 neglects content sequencing by a runtime service, following the conjecture that the learner would be free to pick any part of the course. However, it delivers a solid specification for content packaging and migration between systems.

The latest version of the standard is SCORM 2004 (available in four editions, the fourth unveiled in 2009). It introduced sequencing, a set of rules that defines the order of content objects to be viewed by a learner. In other words, the standard restricts learners’ experience to a specified set of paths throughout the material. SCORM 2004 also allows users to bookmark certain milestones as they make progress, and store achieved test scores. To learn more about SCORM 1.2 vs 2004, read my recent blog posting.

Regretfully, SCORM doesn’t address all the challenges of a modern learning enterprise. It doesn’t define how tracking information is stored, what kind of reports are built or how student-generated data is compiled. That said, SCORM remains the most common e-Learning standard since most learning management systems know how to play SCORM content.

Pros

  • Publish and play content across versatile platforms
  • Track course completion and time spent
  • Archive outdated content in a standard recognizable format
  • Develop basic content or sophisticated courses with high production costs
  • Blend content coming from multiple different sources and don’t worry about technical compatibility.

Cons

  • Infrequent updates, the latest dating back to 2009
  • Doesn’t allow elaborate reporting
  • Misses out on in-depth analysis of user activity
  • Traditional SCORM content is Flash-based, which may cause issues on new platforms and mobile devices.

These are the key upsides and downsides of SCORM. Feel like you need to render your content in an LMS-friendly format? Check out this article and learn how to convert PowerPoint slides into a SCORM package.

Tin Can API

Tin Can (xAPI or Experience API) is the successor of SCORM (even ADL heavily supports xAPI over the older format). What’s so special about the new standard?

In a nutshell, it registers learner activity and stores data for further use. To a large extent, Experience API owes its success to a feature named Learning Record Store (LRS). The data gleaned by e-Learning software is stored in the LRS to be later transmitted to the LMS when the user goes online. Otherwise, Tin Can does not require a permanent Internet connection or a web browser.

The main goal of SCORM and Tin Can is essentially the same: to keep elaborate logs of learners’ actions. From this perspective, xAPI gives you more leeway, whereas SCORM is much more restrictive about what instructors can track. SCORM 2004 takes care of completion, success and not much else. Meanwhile, Tin Can enables tracking and storage of information for a multitude of use scenarios, including mobile learning.

Experience API is a mobile-friendly e-Learning format that plays back smoothly on smart phones and tablets within major content platforms and LMSs.

xAPI adopted all key benefits of SCORM and added some really nice features. Here are a few advantages over the older standard:

  • Capability to view in-depth assessment results
  • Freedom of working outside of a learning management system
  • Advanced portability due to LRS
  • No web browser required
  • No attachment to any specific browser-based applications or JavaScript
  • Greater control over e-Learning content
  • Ability to record any relevant activity, any mouse click, answer, etc. (SCORM can only track quizzes and completion statuses by contrast)
  • Ability to track diverse learning scenarios, be it games, simulations or any type of blended learning.

The only viable drawback I can think of is the lower level of Experience API adoption among LMS providers compared to good old SCORM. It’s changing though, as more and more key players are jumping on the Tin Can bandwagon. Check out the list of xAPI-friendly LMSs in my other posting.

Comparative Chart
AICC HACP SCORM 1.2 SCORM 2004 Tin Can
Course sequencing + +
Completion, spent time, pass/fail tracking + + + +
Advanced tracking
(games, simulations, offline learning, etc.)
+
Single score reporting + + +
Multiple score reporting +
No web browser required +
In-depth test results +
No cross-domain limitation +/ +
Mobile-friendly +

In conclusion

What’s the bottom line? On the one hand, older courseware standards can’t keep up with the interactive content and scalability requirements posed by today’s e-Learning. On the other hand, we are dealing with a highly conservative industry that doesn’t treat change lightly. When you choose an appropriate format, think of the type of content you are planning to deliver, and the LMS that will play back the course. Tin Can is definitely a step forward, yet it’s not globally accepted so far. SCORM is a ubiquitous soft option, but once we bump into a mobile device, be aware of possible glitches. AICC came a close second to SCORM 1.2 just a few years ago, but now it’s heavily underrated by top players.

CMI5 – a brand-new player on the field – might be an option worth considering yet it’s still too early to tell. You can get more details in my CMI5 article.

At the end of the day, it’s quality content that matters, so keep your courses engaging and the right packaging will turn up under the right circumstances.

Survey

It’s now time to learn what you think. Today’s question is:

What is your favorite e-Learning packaging format?

Thanks a lot for your feedback!

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