As e-learning platforms and content evolve toward open standards, the capability to surface learning seamlessly within the context of enterprise applications and business processes is almost within reach.
This idea of just-in-time, contextual learning is driven by pure-play e-learning technology vendors, such as Saba Inc., Docent Inc., and Plateau Systems Inc., as well as platform vendors IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp.
IBM last month unveiled a new LMS (learning management system) consisting of e-learning components designed to connect to other applications and learning products.
The J2EE-based IBM Lotus Learning Management System runs on WebSphere and DB2 and supports Web services standards SOAP and XML. The intent is to leverage Web services to embed e-learning functionality into business applications such as CRM and ERP, according to Andy Sadler, director of e-learning at IBM Lotus Software in Cambridge, Mass.
Integration flexibility is gathering steam as most e-learning technology vendors move away from proprietary systems toward open standards, either by architecting new systems from scratch or adding support for J2EE or Microsoft Corp.'s .Net.
Plateau Systems last year rolled out Version 4.1 of Plateau 4 LMS built on a J2EE/EJB architecture. Other e-learning leaders including Saba, Docent, and Oracle also have standards-based platforms.
With the foundation of an open architecture in place, the door is opening to Web services -- and the related capability to surface e-learning as events within other applications.
Oracle recently introduced a Web services version of its Oracle iLearning platform. Version 4.2 leverages Web services for integration and bolsters analytics capabilities between systems. A forthcoming update to the product due mid-year will increase linkages between the LMS and the Oracle E-Business Suite, specifically weaving learning management into customer service and project management applications, according to Bill Dwight, vice president of learning management applications at Oracle, in Redwood Shores, Calif.
Saba, which added support for Web services last year in Version 3.4, sees open standards as a tool to quantify e-learning ROI.
"Web service support means that we can interact with apps, process, and information across the enterprise," said David Andrews, senior director of product marketing at Saba, also in Redwood Shores. "When you can look at the data across all those different systems and see the ROI of learning, it becomes a lot more powerful."
Although many vendors' systems are capable of Web services-based integration, the nirvana of just-in-time e-learning in the context of different applications is still sought, according to Jennifer Vollmer, research analyst at Meta Group, in Stamford, Conn.
"Certainly Web services will make [integration] easier and will encourage LMS [users] to do more data feeds and look at real-time integration with business applications," Vollmer said, adding that, eventually, "e-learning will be invisible middleware. It will be taken for granted and surfaced at a portal or application [via] Web services. [But] this is a vision not a reality yet."
In addition to platform standards, e-learning content standards are also being hashed out. SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), first developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, is a set of specifications that aim to enable interoperability and reusability of Web-based e-learning content. A draft of SCORM Version 1.3 is under development.
Oracle is spearheading an effort to standardize Web services for e-learning. The IMS Global Learning Consortium aims to provide standard Web service APIs to learning management functions, according to Oracle's Dwight. The charter for this new standards effort will be up for ratification vote later this month.
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