In this article, we’ll explore the complex relationship between eLearning courses and the LMS, including common types of issues that can arise, as well as the steps one can take to avoid these issues, solve the pesky ones that do creep up, and future-proof content that’s developed internally.
The Course Authoring Tool - Friend or Enemy?
The creation and delivery of eLearning is a more complicated effort than most people realize. On its face, looking at the end product of many eLearning development projects, the “course” may look fairly simple. The ubiquity of rapid development eLearning tools (e.g., Articulate 360, Adobe Captivate, Camtasia Studio, Evolve, etc.) makes it easy to create professional-looking eLearning courses. A table of contents, back and forth buttons, a few questions and a summary page, and various media elements (e.g. audio voice-over, drag-and-drop interaction, video, etc.) are common elements of the vast majority of content on the market. Unfortunately, because of the accessibility of these rapid development tools, a lot of what used to be accessible to the course author through the tool’s user interface is now hidden “behind the scenes.”
Once the course is created, publishing it from the tool looks easy, but requires careful consideration of many related aspects. Everyone wants to output a zip file that works perfectly when uploaded to the LMS, and fulfill the desire to have a learner’s progress, score and/or completion of a course be accurately and successfully tracked.
However, the means by which a course “talks” back to the LMS is a very complicated business. There are technical guidelines to help ease this burden. However, these guidelines evolve, are somewhat open to interpretation, and, as mentioned earlier, not visible to the course author.
Why is this communication process so challenging? Consider this example: If 5,000 learners wish to take a course – that means 5,000 individual conversations must occur between each learner’s browser and the LMS. This poses a number of challenges such as browser support, security considerations, and general usability challenges. Little wonder that things can go wrong - maybe course statuses aren’t being reported, or are being reported incorrectly. Perhaps the course isn’t behaving as expected. Or, some people are encountering technical issues. Why is this happening? Furthermore, is there anything you can do about it??
To answer the first question, let’s explore the relationship between an eLearning course and LMS by using an analogy.
The Best Metaphor I’ve Got
To think about how courses interact with an LMS, we can use the relationship between roads and cars. Roads are built and maintained by local, state and federal governments. They are constructed of different materials (dirt/gravel/tar/concrete), have somewhat consistent signage (at least at the federal level), and support the driving of many different types of vehicles (automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, etc.). Auto manufacturers build cars that come in many different sizes and shapes, run on different types of fuel (unleaded/diesel/hybrid/electric) and can be driven on the majority of existing roads. However, incompatibilities can and do exist.
For example, if a car is broken down, or in an accident and isn’t drivable anymore, then the “road/car” relationship has failed. Likewise, if somebody builds a car that isn’t street legal (like a flying car or the original Yugo), then that is an incompatibility as well. Therefore, just because a road exists, doesn’t necessarily mean that every vehicle will be able to drive on it.
However, we know that the vast majority of cars are able to run fine on most roads. And that’s analogous to courses created by authoring tools – the majority of eLearning courses created by the most popular authoring tools work fine on most LMS’s. However, it’s important to understand that incompatibilities can exist, and most of the time the incompatibility exists on the car, or eLearning course, side.
Courseware Specifications - Yuck!
With that out of the way, it’s important to know that the vast majority of courses uploaded to the Exceed LMS will conform to the SCORM 1.2 specification. While the SCORM 2004 and Tin Can (xAPI) specs are newer, they contain functionality that’s rarely used by client-built or vendor-built courseware, and the additional complexities of those specifications typically don’t make them worthwhile to use. Ok, so what about AICC? If you have purchased content from a third-party, like Skillsoft for example, then you will most likely be uploading AICC files to Exceed that point to course content on the vendor’s server. Regardless, whether you’re using SCORM 1.2 or AICC course files, the issues we discuss in this document will apply.
Development/Delivery Challenges and How to Overcome Them
eLearning development typically requires a collaborative effort between a number of different roles. A typical “team” involves an instructional designer who organizes the course, one or more subject matter experts, one or more media development specialists (e.g. graphics or interaction developers, audio, video, technicians), a copy editor, and any number of people to review and approve the final deliverable.
The good news is that today’s rapid development tools are mostly cloud-based, meaning that collaboration among different roles can occur real-time without regard to geographic concerns.
From a technical standpoint, however, there are a number of steps you can take to ensure the quality of your courseware is compatible with Exceed:
- Use an industry-standard authoring tool - If you are building your own courses and want to ensure SCORM compatibility with Exceed, you will want to use the most recent version of one of the leading industry-standard tools available. Intellum highly recommends the following tools, each of which has been proven to “play nice” with the Exceed LMS (when used correctly, that is):
- Evolve - a pure HTML5 tool that creates great-looking, web-based training
- Articulate 360 - a suite of tools, from the simple, Powerpoint plug-in Presenter, to the more advanced tool Storyline. Articulate even has their own article on troubleshooting LMS issues.
- Camtasia Studio - if screencasts and videos are your thing, you need to check this one out.
- Avoid obsolete technologies or ones that are deprecated – Flash used to be a popular technology to use in courseware, however since Apple doesn’t support it, neither should you. Both Chrome and Firefox browsers have begun deprecating the use of Flash, and Adobe (the makers of Flash) have announced that they will completely end support of it in 2019! Instead, almost all popular authoring tools support HTML5, which works on all browsers and devices. Using an authoring tool that publishes output to native HTML5 is the single best step you can take to future-proofing your courses. And speaking of browsers, Chrome and Firefox offer the least headaches. If you must use a Microsoft browser, know that they’ve ended support for all versions of IE prior to IE11. If you are using IE10 or earlier, please make sure you upgrade as soon as possible (Articulate even warns of using Microsoft Edge with their older tools, and just try googling “IE11 SCORM issues”).
- Use the correct publishing options from your Authoring Tool - most authoring tools give you the choice of reporting completion back to the LMS via number of page views or via a score obtained through an embedded quiz. It’s a best practice to never select both methods of course completion since that could cause conflicting status updates based on the reporting statuses that the authoring tool offers. The typical reporting statuses are:
- Completed/Incomplete - Used for any unscored content where you are tracking completion based on slide views. If the minimum number of slides are viewed, then the user is marked as completed. If not they are left in progress.
- Completed/Failed - Same as Completed/Incomplete, but if the user doesn't complete the content, they will be marked as Failed instead of "in progress." This option also reports only on completion status of the course, with no score reported.
- Passed/Incomplete - Used for scored content (quiz) where you want the user to be left in progress if they do not achieve the minimum passing score. If the user achieves the minimum passing score they are marked as completed/passed with score, if not they remain in progress and no score is passed to the LMS, allowing them to try again.
- Passed/Failed - Used primarily for things like compliance or certification activities where you want to record a failed status. If the user achieves the minimum passing score (from a quiz) they are marked as completed/passed with score, if not they are marked as completed/failed with score. This is especially useful if you want to limit number of attempts through a learning activity for the purpose of assigning remedial training, etc., in the event of someone failing.
- Test, test, and test the course again in Exceed after it is uploaded! – Login as a student, enroll in the course and launch it. Confirm that it tracks the course status correctly (e.g., Started vs. Passed vs. Complete vs. Incomplete, etc.). Test again using different browsers and different OS’s, then test again in the office vs. at home. Don’t forget - you have a Staging account that affords the perfect opportunity to test your online courses in.
- If you encounter any issues, test on SCORM Cloud – SCORM Cloud allows you to test your SCORM course in a free sandbox environment. This site is run by Rustici software, who maintains the SCORM specifications for SCORM 1.2 (the version that is compatible with Exceed). If you’ve run into any problems with how your course(s) behave in Exceed, test them in SCORM Cloud to get detailed information about any potential issues that can be fixed. If a course doesn’t work in SCORM Cloud, then there’s a problem with the course. This article has a great overview on how to use SCORM Cloud.
Been There, Done That - Still Getting Errors
If you’ve done your due diligence and followed the steps above but Students are still encountering courseware issues, first ensure they are following this list of best practices. Failing that, here are some common solutions for Students to try:
- Clearing their browser’s cache or temporary internet files – If they still encounter problems after updating their browser, they may need to clear its cache. Under browser settings, click on Options, and locate the tab or page where browsing history can be cleared. Some browsers will specifically ask if you want to clear your cache, and others will clear it when you clear your browsing history.
- Disable pop-up blockers – Since courses load in a separate window, pop-up blockers will prevent this window from opening.
Common Problems/Potential Solutions
Although Intellum support is just an email away, here are some common problems with solutions you can try before escalating:
Problem: The course is not communicating the correct time, score or status to the LMS.
Solution: This is most likely an issue with how the course was architected or published from the authoring tool. Things to look for include:
- If it’s a scoring issue - take a look at how the score is compiled within the course (if one or more quizzes are being used).
- Make sure you are using the very latest version of the authoring tool along with any patches that the vendor may provide.
- Check with the tool vendor to see if any patches for the latest version of the authoring tool have been released. For example, in the past we realized that Articulate had to provide a patch for their tools so that courses published from them would work in IE10.
- Use a different browser such as Chrome or Firefox that better aligns with the course functionality.
Problem: A passed or failed status was sent, followed by an incomplete status.
Solution: Check if the User had multiple windows open (perhaps they’re cheating) whereby they completed the course in one window and then closed out the other window where the course was in an incomplete state. Another cause is where a race condition occurs where a complete status and an incomplete status are sent very close together from the course and the complete status arrives first and the incomplete second (so the last record on the course is incomplete).
Problem: Error 403 (Forbidden error) message received.
Solution: Forbidden messages appear when a user’s IP address is not remaining consistent throughout the course, or the LMS security protocol has been compromised in some way while accessing the course. Some causes are:
- If you have more than once course open at the same time. Close one or both courses, and try to restart them, one at a time.
- A user’s IP address may not be staying consistent while they take the course; switching computers or location may help to keep this from continuing.
- Your browser’s cookies need to be on to verify authorization to access courses. If your browser’s cookies are turned off, they should be turned on in order for you to access courses.
You may need to get your IT department involved if you suspect issues in your local network environment, such as the VPN, security applications, differences in the standard IT desktop image across different machines, SSO setup, or other applications or browser add-ins. There’s literally thousands of computer applications that can reside on a user’s machine or network they’ve connected to, and there’s the potential for lots of interference when an eLearning course is launched.
Ok, Time to Escalate
If you still cannot solve your course issue(s) at this point, run your course in Debug Mode. Admins have the ability to launch a course in debug mode from the File Properties page in order to log and review all communication coming from the course. You should be able to see each API call from the course and see what statuses were sent.
Please see the Courseware Troubleshooting – Debug Mode article for gathering the correct information to submit to Intellum Support.
Make Me Dangerous - What Should I Ask a Courseware Vendor?
After reading this document, you may have come to the conclusion that you need to “level up” your authoring tool or tools, or just get into the game. If you’re still not sure which tool to purchase, or you’re newly in the market for one, here’s a list of questions to ask authoring tool vendors:
- Will students need a separately installed plug-in on their computer to run courses?
- What information is actually sent to the LMS (using SCORM 1.2 output)?
- How are templates, interactions and themes created and maintained in the product? How flexible are they (for logos, colors, text fonts, images, etc.)? Does the tool come with pre-built themes, page types and interactions?
- How active is the user community supporting the product?
- How can I collaborate with team members using the product?
- What's on your product development roadmap?
- Can we move licenses between authors simply and easily?
- What browsers does your output support? (is support still provided for older versions of IE?)
- Will the published content work effectively in a low bandwidth environment?
- Is published content suitable for all devices or do we need to select a target device when we publish?
- Is the published output responsive and can I see it on a mobile/tablet/laptop/desktop?
- How long does it take to publish and maintain courses?
- How easy is it to localize courses for overseas markets?
- How long have you been in business?
- Who are your major clients? Do you have references?
- Can you provide course samples?
- How much does the tool cost (subscription or one-time fee)?
While some courseware issues may indeed be tricky or complex to troubleshoot, by using this guide, you’ve understood that there are a number of common problems which are “solvable” through the use of some fairly straightforward forensics. If you are building your courses via one of the popular authoring tools, once you master its use (especially the publishing settings), you’ll be able to produce courseware that communicates well with Exceed an