If you’re a small to medium business looking to purchase a learning management system (LMS), you may not be fully aware of the standards out there for e-learning.

Many of us take for granted the fact that we can simply sign up for an e-learning course, whether it’s an online course, or a course offered through our own company’s LMS: We log in, start our training, breeze our way through the content and questions, and everything works smoothly and seamlessly. But what’s going on behind the scenes? Plenty! And it all starts with the way the learning content (or learning objects [e.g., videos, questionnaires, glossaries]) were written and compiled, as well as the way the course content is delivered.

This article is for you if you are

  • looking to purchase an LMS or learning content management system (LCMS) for the first time, or
  • looking to update your legacy LMS.

I'll help you understand the basics about e-learning standards and how they need to be applied in the context of your LMS purchase.


Why Are E-learning Standards So Important?

To help you understand e-learning standards, here's a great analogy provided by Rustici Software:

When you buy a new movie on DVD you don’t need to check to see if it works with your brand of DVD player. A regular DVD will play on a Toshiba the same as it will on a Panasonic. That’s because DVD movies are produced using a set of standards. Without these standards a studio releasing a new movie on DVD would have a big problem. They would need to make differently formatted DVDs for each brand of DVD player. This is how online learning used to be before SCORM [a set of e-learning standards] was created.

It’s important to note that some LMSs are not compliant with any content standards. Any content created in such LMSs will not be reusable for other LMSs.


Standards You Should Know About Before Buying

Depending on your e-learning initiatives, it’s important to know how the various existing standards will affect your company's LMS purchasing decision.


SCORM, or Sharable Content Object Reference Model, is a set of technical standards for e-learning software products. It was originally developed based on the US Department of Defense's (DoD's) technology specifications for e-learning supplies. The DoD's goal was to define the smallest possible units of learning content that would allow consistent classification, "shareability," and wide reusability.

SCORM is important because it makes Web-based training content and the applications that control and display that content to learners interoperable in a standard way. If you have a SCORM-conformant LMS, you can be certain that any learning content that is also SCORM-conformant will integrate successfully with your system.

When SCORM 2004 (the most up-to-date version of the standard at the time of writing) was established, it introduced a complex idea called "sequencing"—a set of rules that specifies the order in which a learner may experience content objects. In other words, these rules constrain learners to a fixed set of paths through the training material, allow learners to bookmark their progress during breaks in learning, and assure that the test scores achieved by the learner are recorded.

SCORM also defines how to create sharable content objects (SCOs) that can be reused in different types of systems and contexts—i.e., it tells software programmers how to write code so that it can work properly with all types of e-learning software. More specifically, SCORM governs how online learning content and LMSs communicate with each other. All online or Web-based training needs to be SCORM-compliant: Your e-learning initiatives may be in serious jeopardy if your users can’t count on your LMS to deliver content well and consistently.

It’s important to note that SCORM governs online training only, and only interactions between a single user and an LMS. Offline or group training is not governed by these standards.

The advantages that SCORM compliance brings to e-learning are the following:

  • Portability: When your courses are SCORM-compatible, you can rest assured that they will "play easily" with most LMSs, and transfer between multiple LMSs when necessary.
  • Compliance: Many LMSs require that your courses meet the SCORM standard. In other words, non-SCORM-standardized courses just won't "play" on a SCORM-standardized LMS.
  • Tracking: SCORM compliance ensures that your courses can track learner performance, and enables managers to view that information.

Among all e-learning standards, SCORM has gained the most traction in the LMS industry, and I'll be referring to SCORM as the de facto e-learning standard throughout the rest of this article. That said, other standards exist, and you should be aware of them as well.

AICC Standards

In the context of e-learning standards, AICC stands for "Aviation Industry CBT Committee," an international association of technology-based training professionals. The AICC develops guidelines for the aviation industry for the development, delivery, and evaluation of computer-based training (CBT), Web-based training (WBT), and related training technologies. AICC specifications are usually designed to be general-purpose specifications (as opposed to being specific to aviation training) so that learning technology vendors can spread their costs across multiple markets, which in turn allows vendors to provide products to the aviation industry at a lower cost. This strategy has resulted in AICC specifications gaining broad acceptance among non-aviation and aviation users alike.

The standards developed by AICC have influenced SCORM standards, as well as those of other organizations such as IMS Global, IEEE, and Ariadne. While learning content creators generally prefer the SCORM format for creating e-learning content (since importing and deploying SCORM content is a one-step process), deploying AICC content is a little more difficult and requires a bit more overhead, as the import and upload of content is a two-step process.

Although some argue that AICC is a more reliable, robust, and unambiguous system specification, the more widely supported SCORM standard seems to be a better choice with some LMS applications for technical reasons (e.g., authoring tools, sequencing, and navigation). On the other hand, there are certainly valid reasons for using courses and management systems based on AICC specifications. For example, AICC allows content to exist on separate servers, and supports secure information transfers with HTTPS. With SCORM, the content and the LMS must be on the same server. This is just one of the reasons you might want to choose AICC over SCORM.


LETSI RTWS stands for "Learning Education Training Systems Interoperability Run-Time Web Service." In a nutshell, LETSI RWTS is an enhancement to SCORM that came about through research related to scripting issues under the SCORM standard. Click here for more information on LETSI RTWS.


How Do These Standards Affect My LMS/LCMS Purchasing Decisions?

LMSs allow instructors to create and deliver content, monitor learner participation, and assess student performance. LMSs also allow learners to use interactive features such as threaded discussions, Web conferencing, discussion forums, and other methods of communication. If you're looking to buy an LMS for the first time, there are certain things you’ll want to verify before you buy. A comprehensive and SCORM-conformant LMS should be able to do (but should not be limited to) the following:

  • centralize and automate administration
  • provide self-service and self-guided services
  • assemble and deliver learning content rapidly
  • consolidate training initiatives on a scalable Web-based platform
  • support portability and standards
  • personalize content and enable knowledge reuse

Today, SCORM has been widely adopted by many large organizations. Besides the US DoD, other industries are following suit, and the standard appears in the majority of today’s requests for proposal (RFPs) in the procurement of both training content and LMSs. It is generally recommended that all e-learning content and LMS purchases include SCORM-conformant products in the submitted proposals. If these standards aren’t mentioned as part of your RFP, make sure you add them.

Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC) offers RFP templates for companies that are looking to compare LMS products. Our LMS RFP template includes all the relevant e-learning standards to ensure that prospective software buyers cover the bases when gathering information from LMS software vendors.

What Can I Do to Ensure that the Content I Produce Or Deliver Is Compliant?

E-learning standards assure learning content developers that their content will connect to almost any LMS on the market. They also promise learners that the content they purchase in the LMS marketplace will be seamlessly delivered. These standards also provide organizations with the ability to analyze their return on investment (ROI) in learning through SCORM and AICC’s tracking features.

Sticking to one standard allows organizations to mix and match course providers and deliver all courses to their employees through a single LMS. With compliance comes the opportunity to buy off-the-shelf training packages, hire a consultant to write specific programs, and create content yourself (or any combination of the above).

Bottom line: If your LMS is compliant with SCORM, AICC, or other standards, learners can use the standard packages inside the LMS instead of your company having to create native LMS course content. This can be very convenient if users don't want to tie themselves to using one particular LMS. Moreover, courseware vendors often provide their course content in some of the widely used standards, so you can purchase ready-made courses instead of creating your own. Be sure to verify standards compliance before purchasing any courses.


What If My Existing LMS or Learning Content Is Not Compliant?

If we go back to the DVD analogy, one thing is for certain, if your LMS (or the content you produce or attempt to access) do not both conform to the SCORM standard, your employees/learners won’t be able to properly access the courses you’re providing. 

Whether you want to be able to export content from your system, or import other people’s content into your system, you need to make sure you’re covered in terms of SCORM standards. Period!

It’s important to note that conforming to one standard does not necessarily mean that you automatically conform to the others. Do your homework and ask your content and LMS provider if they’re up to date with these e-learning standards—before you buy!

For insightful subject specialists and leading project managers that can help you scope, define features, select a vendor and implement your LMS, call inScope today.