The Knowledge Economy, SCORM, and Design-Based Research
Brigham Young University
The Knowledge Economy and SCORM
The concept of “knowledge economy” has been around for a few years
as a means of providing a context for the idea that work force productivity in the
Information Age is more mental than manual. Because knowledge implies learning,
it is reasonable to assume that learning objects should play a role in such an economy.
As a result, it is important to explore the standards and specifications of the
Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), used to specify conventions in
Advanced Distributed Learning, to help define the role of learning objects and the
parameters within which this role is carried out.
It is assumed that understanding how these ideas fit within the “knowledge economy”
paradigm and its connection to learning could provide a broad framework for understanding
the interaction between instructional technology and various elements of education.
In particular, it seems important to not only understand the potential already present
but also to explore how to increase the impact of instructional technology.
Instructional Technology’s Potential
There is ample evidence that “instructional technology” can have a beneficial impact
on learning outcomes (Bunderson & Abboud, 1971; Bunderson, et. al. 1984; Kulik
& Kulik, 1987; and Fletcher, 2003). Such a short list of references provides
only meager documentation for technological implementations occurring over the last
35 years. In 2000, the hype reached the pages of Business Week:
Enthusiasm is also running wild in the emerging dot.com education sector. ''There
will be a tremendous migration away from classroom learning to online learning,''
predicts Howard Block, an analyst at Banc of America Securities. Some are even calling
education the next ''killer app'' for the Internet (Symonds, 2000).
Unfortunately, the dot-com bubble burst not only for business but also for education.
As is abundantly clear in a high percentage of classrooms, implementation of instructional
technology has failed to meet expectations. Furthermore, questions concerning the
effectiveness of technology-based learning still cast a shadow over its proven potential
(Dynarski, 2007). To date, for classrooms and learners everywhere, it appears that
the potential for effectiveness has regrettably been overshadowed by questions about
The Gap between the Technologies of Leisure and Learning
While the use of technology for learning languishes, a glance through any publication
from the popular press shows that technology for leisure surpasses all expectations.
The disparity between what is seen in education and the available capabilities for
computer-delivered entertainment is glaring. On the one hand, much of the leisure
time of today’s world is filled with gadgets like iPod, Zune, and a seemingly infinite
variety of MP3 players, not to mention the hot-and-connected iPhone, creating opportunities
for content providers to develop incredible amounts of multimedia content, interactive
and otherwise. On the other hand, education proceeds apace with the tried and true
elements of its centuries-old model for delivery… teachers and textbooks, creating
an astounding technology gap between leisure and learning. Indeed, minimal reflection
upon the state of technology-enhanced education is more than enough to bewilder
any self-respecting technology aficionado who wants to see students learn in the
most cost-effective and efficient manner.
Defining “Knowledge Economy”
Explaining this situation is clearly more complex than can be found by even the
best formulated Google search. An expansion of the concept of “knowledge economy”
can perhaps provide a framework to understand where things are and how they might
change for technology in learning and education. Hodgins (2002) connected the concepts
of learning objects and standards to the vision of “knowledge economy,” providing
a foundation for the examination of strategies for moving from vision to reality.
To elaborate on this notion and to make a useful examination of the principles involved
possible, it is essential first to define some terms. In the most fundamental sense,
an economy is a system of production, distribution, and consumption. In other words,
an economy exists when producers make their goods and services available to consumers
in some measurable quantity or package. Conventionally, exchange of the product
is accompanied by some form of payment from the consumer to the producer, at a time
and place amenable to both parties. The place where the transaction takes place
has usually been defined as a market, but increasingly the Internet is the space
where producers and consumers meet. Conventionally, payment takes the form of in
kind trade or transfer of monetary value in compensation for the product that is
then transferred to the consumer.
Increasingly, however, the exchange involves products comprising software or digital
media. Payment might well happen conventionally with funds, but at times it takes
the form of goodwill or enhanced reputation, as happens with open source software
such as Linux. The amount paid is an essential element of the inherent market mechanism
of the economy for evaluating the product’s value and quality. This evaluation method
depends on the situation of the exchange, which in turn reflects the demand that
exists for the products in the marketplace.
To define “knowledge economy,” it is essential to first identify those elements
that exist in parallel economic models. An economy has sectors, and within the “knowledge
economy,” the business, government, and formal education sectors would need to be
considered in the context of a complete exploration of how learning objects fit
into the big picture. The present discussion considers only the formal education
sector, but several principles also apply to business and perhaps to self-learning.
Possibly business and government will benefit from innovations in the production
and delivery of learning content before other sectors, but education is the topic
The Challenge to the Educational Sector in a Knowledge Economy
In a simplified analysis, the producers in the formal education sector of the “knowledge
economy” can typically be as viewed as publishers (with the help of teachers and
professors), while teachers and professors (referred to as teachers from here on)
are a central element of the delivery of learning content (product) to the students
(the consumers) via the classroom. As reasonable as this might seem on the surface,
it should be clear that teachers are part of the production side of the typical
market transaction (production to distribution to consumption), part of the distribution
system, AND part of the consumption side of the transaction
Because some teachers actually play a role in all three aspects of the educational
sector of the knowledge economy, some would say that this creates a conflict of
interest at several levels. At times they are part of the production side, helping
to write textbooks, but they also assume some of the normal role of the typical
consumer. As such, teachers make decisions about which specific products learners
should acquire (textbooks) and the instruction to be received (assignments and classroom
activities). At a minimum, such an arrangement creates a dynamic in the educational
marketplace that is hard to quantify or explain, especially at the distribution
to consumption side of the transaction.
Online learning is viewed by many teachers as a replacement for what is considered
to be normal activity in education, therefore acquisition and instructional design
decisions are often reduced to a simple question, “Will I choose to acquire something
that will reduce my individual role in the system?” The answer of course is often,
“No!” as witnessed by the failure of eLearning to make the progress in education
that was anticipated by many instructional technology pioneers. This creates something
of a conundrum, given that a tool’s proven value is virtually ignored in a sector
where every possible bit of help is needed.
Addressing the Challenge with SCORM
Finding a solution to the problem involves considering the law of supply and demand,
perhaps the most fundamental of all economic laws. If teachers do not perceive the
value of using eLearning technology, then there will be no demand. If production
costs are too high, then prices will limit demand as well. On the other hand, if
there is perceived value in the marketplace of the educational sector of the knowledge
economy, then it is safe to assume that demand will increase, given that prices
are at an acceptable level. Because prices are in large part dependent upon production
costs, then producers who can spread their fixed costs over a large volume of output
and corresponding consumption will be able to reduce prices to a level that will
in turn contribute to an increase in demand.
Specifically, therefore, SCORM can play a significant role in developing the business
model that is implied here by:
- Providing the mechanism to spread fixed production costs over larger
numbers of consumers (teachers and learners) than is possible through proprietary,
online delivery solutions.
- Clarifying opportunities for research that can enhance the perceived
value of instructional content by the key decision makers (teachers and administrators
in formal settings and individual learners in self-learning settings).
Both of these developments are possible to some extent right now. In particular,
several of the key goals of SCORM, i.e. interoperability, content reusability, etc.
address the first issue. Just as the creators and purveyors of entertainment leverage
their sales numbers to pump out billions of dollars of content each year, educational
publishers could also benefit from a significant change in their way of doing business.
Currently, about 77% of the cost of the typical college textbook goes to production
and distribution that could be eliminated by electronic distribution (Bradshaw &
Crutcher, 2006). Obviously, this possibility merely addresses a shift in the production
and delivery mechanism, which would benefit the producer’s bottom line even as it
would potentially increase the supply of online educational content. It says nothing
about opening the possibility of presenting the same content interactively, which
would enable learners to reap the documented benefits of instructional technology.
One market mechanism that is not yet at the required level is the means for providing
feedback on the quality of products. This is accomplished in the ideal economy by
the market itself: good products sell and bad products don’t. While publications
like Consumer Reports and product reviews in various magazines help, the
corresponding approach in educational software has yet to have much impact. It could
also be argued that there is still a lot to be learned about what are the best approaches
for designing and creating online materials.
One of the biggest untapped advantages for SCORM lies in identifying opportunities
for research. Unfortunately, there are technical and political problems that make
it difficult for such an effort to succeed. Technical issues deal with the fact
that the current SCORM model is agnostic about what an LMS does with data from previous
attempts by a learner on a Sharable Content Object (SCO). Ignoring these data and
keeping only the final attempt might be appropriate for assessing the capabilities
of the learner, but it is inadequate for determining the usefulness of online materials.
Because a SCO can be created at any level of granularity, it is probable that a
great deal of useful online content will be buried inside complete online courses,
inaccessible for use in situations where the whole course is not needed, significantly
reducing reusability. While a full course on Basic Electronics might attract quite
a few learners, smaller units of instruction, say on “Understanding and Applying
Ohm’s Law” would no doubt reach even more.
The main political issue springs from the fact that professors in higher education
are the biggest, primary source of learning content, mainly through the avenue of
textbook publication. It is safe to assume that they would be the source of any
extensive development effort for online materials. Unfortunately, the “Publish or
perish!” concept is still the guiding doctrine for academic promotion within institutions
of higher education, and professors’ contributions to instructional technology are
often ignored. To help address this situation, a well-developed, SCORM-based infrastructure
with adequate data collection on learner interactions could help education move
beyond the question of whether instructional technology works or not to the more
interesting issues of the types of online instructional interactions that work better
Design-based research is perhaps one avenue for changing this situation, given that
it is an avenue for connecting theoretical insights to educational practice (Sandoval
& Bell, 2004). The development of a SCORM-conformant research platform to facilitate
design-based research would open up opportunities for research and publication for
professors, enabling all quarters of the knowledge economy’s educational sector
It is not clear whether changes to SCORM itself would be necessary for this potential
to become a reality, or whether the development of a research-oriented, best practices
guide would suffice. What is clear is that just as engineering science enables the
implementation of scientific principles in structural design projects, so would
instructional materials science benefit from the contributions that such research
would make in the area of online learning.
SCORM provides a tool addressing many challenges in implementing instructional technology,
and its success should bode well for education. To date, however, the educational
economy has not benefited substantially from demonstrated capabilities. These capabilities
range from cost-effective development and delivery that is computer platform independent
to a means of avoiding technological obsolescence, enabling SCORM to play a positive
role in the market mechanisms of the knowledge economy.
Fulfilling this role becomes possible in two ways. First, increasing the base of
“compatible” educational users, who could incorporate content from numerous sources
into their learning environment, would increase the probability that developers
would reach a suitable return on investment. Second, an increase in the opportunities
for design-based research would enable developers to learn about learning, as well
as leading to the determination of the sorts of interactions that best facilitate
learning. In addition, reports on such research would provide invaluable information
as to how well various products work, a solid harbinger of deserved product success.
With respect to needed improvements, it is not clear whether changes are necessary
for the SCORM specification itself, or whether developing some sort of “Best Practices”
guide, which` would be based on actual experience, would suffice. In any case, it
is clear that as a specification for interoperability, SCORM is proving its mettle.
Furthermore, at Version 2004, SCORM is now quite solid, given that it enables fairly
sophisticated principles of instructional design to be implemented. Addressing the
issues raised here would further strengthen SCORM’s value and provide significant
benefits to education’s knowledge economy through increased implementation of instructional
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