A Quick Introduction to LMS Standards

There are a few common reasons why folks go looking for information on Learning Management System (LMS) standards. You could be doing your due diligence to make sure a specific LMS works with your authoring tools. Or maybe you’re trying to understand some cryptic references to LMS standards and want an easy-to-understand explanation.

No matter what brought you here, you’re in the right place. This article is all about giving you the plainspoken lowdown on LMS standards and why they’re important. Along the way we’ll unpack a few acronyms and give you a little e-learning history lesson, too.

Ready? Let’s get to it!

What are LMS standards and why do we need them?

Broadly speaking, a standard is an agreed-upon way of doing something. Standards can be general, specific—or both. For instance, your workplace might have health and safety standards in place that define everything from specific practices for reporting potential hazards to more general safety precautions you should take to minimize your risk of injury.

So where do standards come into play with LMSs? Well, just like you and your organization need to share a common language around what constitutes a health and safety risk, your e-learning courses and your LMS need to have a shared understanding, or “language,” for communicating with each other. Having this common language allows your course to send information to the LMS so that things like the learner’s progress or their score on a quiz can be recorded.

Having standards in place also helps to ensure that, no matter the authoring-tool vendor or the LMS vendor you’re using, information can be shared between the two as long as both vendors comply with the same set of standards.

In the world of e-learning, there are three popular standards and one emerging standard you may have heard about. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

AICC

The granddaddy of LMS standards, AICC (which stands for Aviation Industry Computer-based Training Committee) was formed in 1988 to ensure that aviation training could be created, delivered, and assessed across various computer-based training platforms. Eventually, the specs in the AICC standard became popular outside the aviation industry.

The AICC dissolved in 2014 due to declining membership and the rise of other LMS standards. Although the standard is no longer evolving, it’s still fairly common to have authoring tools and LMSs that are AICC-compliant. Many organizations have useful legacy training content that was originally published as AICC, so they look for LMS platforms that allow them to host that content and authoring tools that allow them to maintain that content.

Before the AICC dissolved it was working on a new standard called cmi5, which I’ll highlight in just a bit.

SCORM

SCORM, which stands for Shareable Content Object Reference Model, is an LMS standard initially released in 2001. Despite its age, it’s still an industry standard for defining both how course content is packaged so that your LMS can recognize it, and how that course communicates with the LMS. The SCORM standard in all its iterations has proven to be a catalyst for broad adoption of e-learning.

However, as we saw with AICC, standards need to be actively evolved to meet the ever-changing landscape of new tech, and challenges that are emerging with cloud computing and the proliferation of mobile devices. While SCORM specifies how courses and LMSs should communicate, it does so in ways that are a bit out of date with these modern computing practices. Also, the “language” SCORM defines for communication between your course and your LMS is constrained to a limited (and, some would argue, dated) vocabulary of “complete/incomplete” or a quiz score. Ultimately, these limitations gave rise to the creation of the Tin Can API (also known as the Experience API or xAPI for short). 

xAPI

When xAPI came out in 2013, it was billed by many as a replacement for SCORM. SCORM is a robust and complex standard to implement, but xAPI is a much leaner and simpler way of defining how information should be transmitted and stored. 

Unlike SCORM, which is built around the concept of standardizing communications between a course and an LMS, using xAPI allows developers to send a wide range of data from other platforms, like mobile apps, or enterprise systems like talent management or help desk applications. With xAPI, communication was no longer limited to courses and the LMS.

By constructing xAPI statements in an actor-verb-object format (e.g., “Ted submitted a timesheet”) and implementing a special type of database called an LRS (Learning Record Store), e-learning developers were able to track a broader array of activities and experiences. Developers suddenly had a lot more flexibility in the type of information they could send and collect. While this has opened up new possibilities for gathering and analyzing more meaningful and performance-oriented data, xAPI lacks the definition that SCORM provides. And, since xAPI is an L&D industry standard, many enterprise systems vendors haven't adopted the standard or aren't even aware of it. That means that e-learning developers may find themselves trying to get support from their IT department to fully implement the xAPI standard. 

cmi5

Although cmi5 sounds like the name of a Star Wars droid or a top-secret espionage organization, it’s far less exotic. Cmi5 is the newest standard for LMSs, released by ADL after the AICC dissolved.

Cmi5 has been billed by some as “xAPI, but with rules.” That’s because it defines how the LMS and your course’s content should communicate with an LRS. In addition to xAPI statements developers can define themselves, cmi5 specifies a set of common verbs for xAPI’s actor-verb-object structure. These verbs are:

  • Launched
  • Initialized
  • Terminated
  • Passed
  • Completed
  • Failed
  • Abandoned
  • Waived
  • Satisfied

More Learning

Does all of this sound like an L&D version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? If AICC is out of date, SCORM is too constrained, and xAPI lacks definition, does that mean the cmi5 standard is just right?

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s nice to know that our industry has a rich history of evolving standards. For almost thirty years, L&D folks have been working hard to create and iterate standards that give practitioners the tools they need to help their orgs keep pace with today’s learners.

This article is just a quick overview of LMS standards, but there’s loads more to learn. Here are a few resources to check out:

All About Learning Management Systems (LMSs)

A Quick Introduction to SCORM

SCORM Explained: A One-Minute Overview

An Introduction to the Tin Can API (xAPI)

Experience API, CMI5, and the Future of SCORM

CMI Specification on GitHub

What LMS standards or technologies do you want to learn more about? Share your suggestions with us in the comments below. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

3 Comments
Sébastien Fraysse
Trina Rimmer
David Glow

Trina: Isn't the statement "isn't currently supported" a bit incorrect? It may not yet be hard-baked into quiz items, interactions, or completion triggers that ship with Articulate tools (because let's face it- the standard is very new and coding this in right takes time). However, it is entirely possible that these CMI codes can be added to any screen, button, etc. For example, When a quiz is finished, you can have the results page send a CMI JS code for finished, and evaluate scores to determine if usersscore>passscore send Passed/Satisfied or if not, send failed. I think we understand that when a new spec comes out, it takes time for the software provider to update the tools, but I think it is a bit underselling the potential to send CMI data to an LRS with your tools, becau... Expand