General content standards for learning materials

I’ve recently been challenged to clarify what I mean by open standards for education content. There are indeed lots of open standards around: HTML, ePUB, ODT, PDF, MP3, MP4, SCORM, xAPI/Tin-Can or IMS Common Cartridge. They all tend to be used for very specific purposes, which is part of their value.

The standards I was referring to are general content standards for publishing, which enable semantic labeling of content and can be used for many purposes (teaching, research, publishing to online, print, e-device etc) because they are pretty generic and extensible. Examples of these standards are DocBook and DITA.

Over 20 years and 30 online programmes, CAPDM has found DocBook to be the most useful general content standard for Higher Education. It is capable of structuring large volumes of academic texts and can be easily extended to support all of the academic information elements used in teaching and learning for example equations and chemical formulas.

You can read more about it here:

but the key quote there that nails it for me is:

As a semantic language, DocBook enables its users to create document content in a presentation-neutral form that captures the logical structure of the content; that content can then be published in a variety of formats, including HTML, XHTML, EPUB, PDF, man pages, Web help[2] and HTML Help, without requiring users to make any changes to the source. In other words, when a document is written in DocBook format it becomes easily portable into other formats. It solves the problem of reformatting by writing it once using XML tags.

DITA is another open content mastering standard you can use for education, but it better suits smaller-volumes of highly structured topic-oriented content, so tends to be used more in corporate e-learning and product support.

Note that by single-sourcing semantically, you don’t need to worry about exchanging courses packages between learning management systems or authoring tools any more. You simply publish from your single masters into whatever new systems/forms you need, and you can use any XML authoring tools you want to.

It is also more efficient, since by editing single-masters for all uses (web/print, interactive/dumb) you reduce duplication of development and maintenance effort. You can also use highly productive batch publishing tools to drive down costs further and to drive up quality, content richness and standardisation.

It took the UK Open University, MIT, Wiley, Elsevier, Bloomsbury, the aircraft and automotive industries many years to learn that mastering in extensible content standards and batch publishing into whatever delivery formats you need, is the smart thing to invest in doing well.

Content engineering is a specialist area that most IT systems staff never experience so, don’t be surprised if your IT Director hasn’t heard of general content standards.

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