Fall 2000


See some of Wagner’s other writings.

Managing Web-Based Training. A.L Ellis, E.D. Wagner, W.R. Longmire. ASTD, 1999.

Distance Education Symposium: E.D. Wagner (editor), M.A. Koble (editor). 1997.

"Beyond Distance Education: Distributed Learning Systems" E.D. Wagner in Handbook of Human Performance Technology, 2nd ed., H.D. Stolovitch & E. J. Keeps (editors). 1999.

Learning Without Limits, Volume III: Emerging Strategies for Effective e-Learning Solutions. E. Wagner, et. al. Informania, 2000.

Learn more about Viviance new education Inc.


eLearning has become a key adjunct to the business world. Organizations use it as a powerful strategy to better leverage their intellectual capital. Trends in several distinct arenas influence and shape elearning’s growth.

The first trend deals with issues of technology infrastructure. The ubiquitous availability, scalability, and interoperability of information technologies make elearning a viable alternative for even small, geographically remote organizations.

Second, increasingly complex, competitive workplaces need information for workforce performance improvement. This leads to increased demands for better management of an organization’s intellectual assets: its knowledge, history, shared experiences, discoveries, record of successes and failures, innovations, and when or where these resources are needed most.

A third trend in elearning concerns knowledge. Management focuses on the accessibility and reusability of an organization’s intellectual assets and its core competencies. Competency–based elearning solutions employ competency models as the pattern template for compiling and assembling learning objects in meaningful, relevant ways.

Fourth, very important work concerning learning architecture and learning object standards is taking place to ensure the interoperability of learning management systems and settings. As these trends converge, knowledge Commerce emerges. This term describes a specialized subset of the Internet Economy where knowledge is achieved through the judicious assembly and use of learning objects.

Information Technologies: Infrastructure for elearning

One of the most obvious attributes of elearning is that it depends upon technology for its implementation. Computer users, at all proficiency levels, have access to constantly improving technology. This includes browser technology, platform-independent transmission protocols, and media-capable features such as Java-enabled client-server interactivity. It also extends to readily accessible "new media" such as online multimedia and hypermedia. Technology now offers gateways to an array of full-motion, fully animated, interactive, responsive information resources. With browser robustness and platform interoperability, users can now index, store, and retrieve data files in multiple formats. They can modify or even create data on the fly by interacting with the system.

Learning objects and knowledge content distributors significantly influence elearning too. A learning object (also known generically as a content object a knowledge object, or a reusable information object) is a modular data unit that encapsulates information to describe and present a concept, skill operation, or procedure.

A categorization schema, called a metadata structure, defines an object’s descriptive attributes. For example, it could describe whether it is text, animation, audio or video information; the size and type of file; the topic being presented in the object, the performance that the object is intended to elicit, and so on.

The metadata structure allows combining powerful database capabilities with online search and file retrieval capabilities. Specific content objects can be identified, located and retrieved. Initially referred to as Knowledge Content Distributors (KCD) and more recently called Learning Management Systems or Knowledge Management Systems, these content object/metadata applications operate as wholesalers of online and digital learning content from vendors and authors. They provide user organizations with the ability to mix and match learning products. In practical terms, users can select and compile the precise content objects they want, when they want.

Good, browsable front-ends, on robust databases full of learning objects, make it possible for even small businesses to leverage the power of real-time online transactional processing. They also make it possible to offer adaptive, fully individualized professional development resources so each user can search, sort, and access only the relevant information.

With add-on metadata, users can also store, retrieve, and reuse information objects across systems. Metafiles and pattern templates provide opportunities to assemble information objects into meaningful, personalized and contexualized structures defined on the users’ terms. The scalability and performance of web-enabled databases now allow for a range of capabilities that range from single instance databases (used for housing enterprise-specific data objects) to database applications that offer data warehousing capabilities. Users can then mine these converged databases for resource planning and knowledge management.

Demands for Workplace Performance Improvement

To succeed in today’s economy, organizations need to develop core competencies in responding to and even thriving on change. These competencies depend on employees’ ability to think critically, to solve problems, and to anticipate new possibilities.

Growing workplaces demand information, instruction, and training resources when and where needed. Individuals’ requirements drive the need for "just-in-time, just for me" learning and performance support tools, both as they perform their current jobs and as they prepare for new challenges. The growing online learning and performance support marketplace shows this shift in the balance of power away from providers to individual learners. No wonder there is a growing impatience with traditional methods of designing, delivering, and managing learning experiences. Traditional methods are often seen as out of touch with our wired world.

To assist in content filtering and selection, elearning typically combines the functionality of "just-in-time" access to digital, web-delivered content with profiling functionality. Further, it actively leverages online collaboration opportunities, and offers "e-commerce" transactional functionality to facilitate subscription, purchase or "pay-per-view/hit" options. (Ironically, e-commerce transactional functionality is the cause of so much business-to-business and business-to-consumer attention on elearning.)

eLearning provides a combination of features unconstrained by conventional training. elearning tools can offer individualized, personalized learning by profiling variables such as interests, learning styles, presentation preferences and performance requirements. They can diagnose skill gaps and prescribe professional development activities ensuring the link between learning events and on-the-job practice. Individuals can monitor their own progress and determine what the next step in their professional development should be. Learning resources, ranging from individual objects to online communities of professional practice to professional advisors and mentors, can be available when and where the learner needs those resources.

Improving elearning Outcomes with Knowledge Management Methods

Knowledge management refers to the way organizations generate, communicate, and leverage their intellectual assets. Regardless of how individual organizations implement it, knowledge management provides organizations with an essential source of competitive advantage by capturing, storing, and making accessible its full array of intellectual assets.

While organizational size and complexity have accelerated the need to consciously manage knowledge across time and space, few things have increased an individual’s personal capacity to absorb information and create new knowledge. The central challenge is to better manage the flow of information through and around the "bottlenecks" of personal attention and learning capacity. Chuck Sieloff at HP suggests a number of strategies to help deal with "information overflow."

Know what you don’t need to know. Organizations need to provide personalized solutions for the knowledge needs of individuals without forcing everyone else in the organization to master the same body of information.

  Just-in-time, just enough delivery of knowledge resources reduces the required inventory that an individual must hold in store. Individuals do not need to be exposed to the full array of available information resources. Instead, it is increasingly important to profile the knowledge needs of individuals and to link them to the resources they need to quickly build specific capabilities or to respond to specific performance challenges.

  Use of trusted intermediaries. Universal access to content—whether represented as objects, links or frames—literally destroys context. This, in turn, compromises an individual’s ability to assign meaning, create associations and link new information with already held knowledge. It also makes it difficult to filter content for importance. Technology-mediated intermediaries (such as online advisors, intelligent search tools, adaptive profiling tools, pattern templates, literature summary services and learning management systems) help establish, maintain and monitor frameworks that can define (situational) context. Even so, online communities of practice, knowledge advisors and learning mentors play increasingly important roles to help individuals filter and assign meaning to the array of elements that may be contained in a "content object library."

  Precision distribution provides individuals with content objects and context for interpretation. Precision in accessing content objects depends on the quality and robustness of schemas used to organize and arrange data files and define access and retrieval strategies. To address the notion of system-level interoperability, significant work has been undertaken by such groups as the Aviation Industry Computer-Based-Training Committee (AICC), the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee, the IMS (Instructional Management Systems) Global Consortium, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Realizing the Power of elearning Systems: Learning Objects, Metadata and Pattern Templates

Wayne Hodgins of Autodesk and the Learnativity Alliance notes that for elearning systems to realize their full power, three essential system components must be in place: learning objects, metadata, and pattern templates.

Learning Objects

Learning objects offer access to content at a granular level that typically maps to a single learning objective. Learning objects (also known as content objects, knowledge objects, reusable information objects, and reusable learning objects) are stand-alone pieces of information that can be reused in different contexts, depending on the needs of the individual user.

Warren Longmire asserts that most electronic learning content is currently developed for a specific purpose such as a course or a situational performance intervention rather than being developed for use in an object base (a collection of learning objects, typically contained or referenced in a relational database). However, he suggests that as object-oriented "knowledge content" becomes a valuable commodity, content will be developed and configured for deployment as learning objects that can be used in multiple ways. This shift occurs because digitized content can be repurposed for use in various settings. This will reduce costs, shorten development time, and increase learning effectiveness. This approach is a great boon because it satisfies immediate needs (such as knowledge-based or skills-based courses) and current and future learning needs that will not be course-based.


Metadata are descriptive indexing labels, marked with "tags," that define attributes for characteristics about each content object. Metadata facilitates searching, management, and linking granules of content. Metadata enable users and authors of content to search, retrieve and assemble content objects according to parameters defined by users.

Significant work is underway by the Aviation Industry Computer-Based-Training Committee (AICC), the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee, the Educause Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Project, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to address the notion of system-level learning object interoperability. No single, official learning object standard has been established but it won’t be long. Vendors, academics, government agencies and industry consortia are collaborating to ensure that web-enabled learning technology products can work with one another, although uncoupling learning objects from the context of their "parent" course may continue to present problems.

Further, establishing interoperability standards will not be easy. It is uncertain which standard will emerge as the "lingua franca" to deploy online learning objects and it is unlikely any one will solve the problem alone. Many of us expect that learning technology standards will result in a convergent solution rather than adhere to any single organization’s "proprietary" approach. No matter the approach, the learning industry now has great hope that a standard will emerge and a topic once relegated to discussions among engineers will become understandable and usable by content aggregators, learning designers, business strategists and even consumers.

Competency Models: Conceptual and Contextual Pattern Templates

A competency model is a collection of related descriptions of the knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors of an excellent performer. Competency models may offer a solution for constructing pattern templates based upon "best practices" in on-the-job or performance-improvement settings. Each competency statement describes a set of inter-related knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that characterize the excellent performer. Competency models have defined employee attributes for organizations for over 30 years. Now, these models can extend well beyond their original recruitment and selection applications. They can become knowledge management methods and tools.

By identifying the attributes of outstanding employees in given job roles, competency-based criteria can help establish performance standards for reviewing the performance and capacity of all employees. Such competency-based criteria can also establish hiring standards, expectations or guidelines.

Competency models also provide a best practices template to assist in assembling reusable information and learning objects that support both individualized learning needs and cost-effective, targeted professional development for the organization. As reusable information objects (RIOs) and reusable learning objects (RLOs) become more widespread as the building blocks for constructing highly personalized learning resources, competency models can serve as the basis for establishing the framework upon which RIOs and RLOs can be contexualized and repurposed.

Standards, expectations, and guidelines expressed in a competency model for a particular job or performance category can be used in various ways, including employee selection and job performance evaluation. They can also provide employees with a mechanism for converting the description of attributes to essential skills. On this basis, employees can compare their skills with those expected of outstanding performers. Thus, competency models support the employees’ efforts to develop professional development strategies. On an organizational level, these models help raise the overall level of industry competencies and skills.


I believe that elearning designs must focus on providing individual learners with the tools, resources, and tactics for achieving their specific learning outcomes. An intermediary step has been for instructional designers to emphasize the reconfiguration of traditional, classroom-oriented teaching and training experiences to digital, online versions of the same. To be successful in the emerging elearning space, however, designers will need to shift their thinking from designing relatively static distance learning solutions (such as class-room extended, course-based experiences, and reconfiguring existing courses and content resources) to digital forms. The challenge calls for highly personalized learning solutions that help learners respond to their defined needs and allows them to manage their own learning experiences. This will take the work of us all.

Ellen Wagner is the Chief Learning Officer of Viviance new education Inc. She’s author of Managing Web-Based Training and Learning Without Limits, Volume III: Emerging Strategies for Effective e-Learning Solutions. Contact her directly at ewagner@viviance.com




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