Powerful plug-ins

Integration with existing  software
applications can dramatically improve the efficiency of your internal business
processes, say Danny Bradbury

As any manager knows, training your staff in a classroom environment can
have a negative impact on your operations.

Sending staff into a class means that they can often be away from the job
for at least a day, and often much longer, putting extra strain on your

Add travel expenses into the mix, and the case for e-learning begins to look

But there are still significant barriers to overcome in terms of integrating
e-learning systems into the rest of your IT infrastructure.

E-learning has clearly broadened its scope over the past few years as useful
communications mechanisms like corporate intranets have come to the fore and
desktop and server technology has become more graphics- and video-friendly.

In particular, the use of technologies such as Flash have helped companies
produce more interactive courses that can be studied online or offline, given
the right software plug-ins.

Nige Howarth, vice-president of international marketing at e-learning
content and architecture provider NetG, has eschewed Flash in favour of the
firm’s own proprietary technology, used in conjunction with Java applets, but
the move towards richer content is still a key priority.

"What we have to do is create very graphically rich learning objects.
We use colour palettes, graphics, cache and cookie files to ensure a fast
response to the user," Howarth says.

Whether or not the evolution of such technologies has had a part to play is
hard to say, but e-learning is no longer simply about technical skills. A quick
Web search, for example, reveals online courses dealing with issues such as
quality assurance management, office administration and project management.

To integrate or not?

One reason why you may want to integrate an e-learning system with your
existing software applications is for human resources purposes.

Tying an e-learning package into your personnel management system can enable
you to map an employee’s skillset to their course profile, for example, so that
you can help plan the best syllabus for them.

Bill Walker, technical business director at independent training company QA
Training, says that such integration can dramatically improve the efficiency of
your internal business processes.

"The advantage of hooking the systems together is that you have all of
your employees in one place," he explains. "In the past, your
training department may have had nothing to do with your HR department in a

Such integration can provide a platform on which to build other, new HR
activities, such as succession planning. Grooming staff lower down the ladder
to take over senior positions can save a company expensive search and selection
fees, while also boosting staff morale.

Hooking up to the financial systems can also enable your company to bill
internally for training courses. In a commercial scenario where a company has
to pay for e-learning courseware, hardware and network resources, accurate
internal accounting can help you maximise the benefits of such courseware and
assess its use.

Decision makers are also more likely to approve the purchase of software if
it is accountable.

When data collides

In many cases, functions such as accounting and HR are linked together by an
enterprise resource planning system with a standard set of programming interfaces.

Nevertheless, this is not always the case, and even if it is, such systems
do not always extend across the whole organisation – divisions may be left
stranded with their own data islands, for political reasons or simply due to
disparate technological development.

There are many different levels of technical integration in the e-learning
world, simply because there are so many variables, explains Simon Millns, head
of design at blueU, a company that provides e-learning courseware as part of an
overall systems integration service. For example, a company may choose to use a
separate hosted e-learning service, in which case integration will need to take
place through a firewall. Or it can be provided on a corporate intranet.

"On an intranet, we may write the tracking routine within the course
rather than having it tracked by a learning management system, or we may put it
into an existing LMS. There are no rules," Millns says.

LMSs can be vital tools in the integration challenge. Designed mostly as
complete e-learning tracking systems, they can usually carry out tasks such as
certification management, partitioning learning content catalogues for
different audiences, and measuring staff competency. Typical companies
producing such systems include Saba and Docent.

A company would plug the e-learning delivery system – the part that actually
delivered the learning content – into the LMS, and can optionally integrate the
LMS with back-end systems to achieve consistency.

Litmus test

One facility inside many LMS products that is critically important for this
optional back-end integration is AICC compliance.

The Aviation Industry CBT (computer-based training) Committee is an
association of e-learning professionals that set out guidelines for the
interoperability of e-learning products in the aviation sector.

The standard has become a litmus test in the whole e-learning sector,
explains QA’s Walker. As long as both the LMS and back-end software that you’re
using has an AICC-compliant interface, you can write information between the
two systems that will help you to track course profiles in your ERP system.

One company that has used an AICC-savvy LMS to great effect is KPMG
Consulting. The company launched its Interactive Learning System (iLS) with the
help of NetG.

Gordon Harris, executive consultant at KPMG Group, explains that the company
connected a learning management system from Saba to a content management system
designed to provide specialised courseware.

These two systems were also connected to collaborative working software from
a company called Centra, which specialises in providing solutions enabling
multiple people to work together. In this case, the software was used for
uniting tutors and students online, he explains.

NetG courseware (providing generic training content) was connected into the
system to complement the specialised content in the content management system.

"In the current implementation there is an XML interface,"
concludes Harris. "This application lets you set up a virtual meeting, and
also lets you conduct a web course over IP."

His use of XML is important, as it is a particularly significant technology
standard in the e-learning world. This meta-language can be used to describe
data in a similar way that an HTML page describes how text will look on a web

The crucial difference is that it can be customised to produce different
languages, containing different descriptive tags for different data. This makes
it a powerful tool for categorising e-learning content.

XML can be used to tie together content management systems – effectively
containers for lots of different corporate content – and e-learning systems to
create useful front-end features.

Including XML-based tags that describe the difficulty level of specific
content, for example, would enable students to automatically select their level
of courseware based on their experience in the subject. Taken to its extreme,
you could produce custom courses literally on the fly.

blueU’s Millns explains that his company uses XML to format courseware
automatically, meaning the only manual work is done by the experts who write
the courses. When producing the subject matter, the experts use XML tags
defined by blueU to format it.

A simple script written in the PERL text processing language parses the XML
and converts it into HTML, feeding it into a pre-defined template.

References to graphics and other multimedia files can also be included to
produce a fully rich set of content.

Working in this way means that the company does not have to build any web
pages for its e-learning courses manually.

Sharing content

Like AICC, XML is a key component of the Sharable Content Object Reference
Model, an umbrella framework for sharing e-learning content that has been in
development since 1997 by advanced distributed learning.

ADL, an initiative run in conjunction with the US Government, and in
particular the Department of Defence, set out to create standards bridging the
gap between proprietary e-learning products.

As a means of sharing e-learning content between multiple systems, Scorm can
be used to move content from one LMS to another, and also to create metadata
records that define course content. Not only does it include strong XML and
AICC support, it also encapsulates other specification called Learning Objects
Meta-data (LOM) from the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC).

What this means in short is that Scorm is the best kitemark to look for when
purchasing an LMS that you want to integrate with the back-end.

From this starting point, it is easy to see how a company could use plain
XML or the richer Scorm framework to integrate a knowledge management
application with an e-learning system for the benefit of the staff.

"E-learning is the distribution of learning content through a web
browser, usually tutor-supported and tracked," says Millns.

"It’s straightforward to work out how that would complement a knowledge
management system, because by putting it through the corporate browser you’re
sharing that knowledge."

Marking up information in XML as it is fed into a knowledge management
system would make it easily usable in an e-learning context.

Clearly, e-learning has come a long way since its early days, and the
definition of comprehensive standards for integration will help it go even
further. Perhaps finally, travelling miles to attend classroom sessions and
losing valuable work time in the process will become a thing of the past.

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