Guest Contributor: June Parsons.

Love it or hate it, learning management systems (LMSs) have become a key technology in today’s digital educational environment. Instructors use their LMS for tracking student progress and for grading. Students use the LMS to access course schedules, submit assignments, check their grades, and contact their instructors.

As a textbook author, LMSs seemed a logical platform for content delivery. Digital interactive textbooks, such as New Perspectives on Computer Concepts and Practical Computer Literacy, should be easy to deliver from any LMS. The possibilities all make sense; students would be able to log in to their Blackboard, Moodle, or Desire2Learn accounts, open the digital textbook, read the assigned chapter, watch embedded videos, take the chapter quiz, and ship results directly to their instructors. Easy? Not with today’s LMSs.

Delving into LMS technology, I came to realize that its limitations affected not only students and instructors, but the entire foundation on which the future of educational technology might be built.

Most LMSs are based on a standard technology specification called Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), which was developed by the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative under the U.S. Department of Defense. SCORM dates back to 1996, with the most recent update in 2004.

SCORM is a “siloed” technology that does not interact with other applications or information systems. That characteristic was not a limitation in the days before cloud-based digital textbooks, epub, MOOCs, and tablet-based apps. With the expansion of the digital universe beyond the confines of a school’s academic computing server, however, the limitations of SCORM increasingly curtail innovation.

The intractability of SCORM LMSs begins with the requirement that all interactive learning materials be housed within the LMS silo. Courses can be built from within the LMS by instructors or they can be loaded in the form of third-party “cartridges” available from publishers and content providers.

A SCORM LMS is not designed, for example, to allow students to link out to a Khan Academy video, watch it, take the assessment, and ship results back into the LMS. And though students may link out to cloud-based textbooks, results from interactive assessments in the textbook cannot be easily imported by a SCORM LMS.

Recognizing the limitations of SCORM, the DoD and ADL developed specifications for Tin Can, an updated follow-on to SCORM. Tin Can collects students data in a Learning Record Store (LRS) that can stand alone or be incorporated as the front end for a full-featured LMS.

Unlike siloed SCORM installations, Tin Can is designed as a portal that can accept data from cloud apps, mobile devices, and offline applications. Learning materials no longer have to be loaded into an LMS; with Tin Can, activities can live outside the LMS. Results from Khan Academy, MOOCs, and cloud-based textbooks can be easily sent to a Tin Can-compliant LRS or LMS.

With Tin Can, activities can be completed online or offline. Imagine a Navy technician working on a college degree while stationed on a submarine. Coursework can be completed using an offline app, with tracking data submitted whenever an Internet connection becomes available.

Tin Can is also able to build activity and student databases on the fly, saving instructors time as they no longer have to pre-enter student rosters and assignment lists. In contrast, SCORM needs to know about everything ahead of time; it needs a list of registered students, and content has to be imported and registered with the LMS before it can be delivered or tracked.

Tin Can presents a standard platform for constructing LMSs with the flexibility to handle exterior data generated by mobile devices, offline apps, cloud-based textbooks, MOOCs, and many other innovative educational technologies. Educators who wish for the flexibility to use cutting-edge technologies may need to replace their SCORM-based tools with similar, but more flexible Tin Can tools. For information from the official Tin Can site, connect to //tincanapi.com/what-is-tin-can/overview/.


June Parsons and Dan Oja purchased their first computer, an Apple II+, in 1981 and quickly became fluent in BASIC, dBASE II, Lotus 123, WordStar, and a variety of accounting programs. The next year, they opened a successful small computer retail store that also offered software instruction to children and adults. June taught at the university level for more than 20 years, has a doctorate in Educational Technology, and was certified by the ICCP in 1995. June and Dan began writing and creating educational software for Course Technology in 1992. They contributed to the Windows for Business and Illustrated Series and developed the New Perspectives, e-Course, and Practical series.

What opportunities does this platform offer to your institution or course? Share your thoughts in the comments section. 

Wondering what to look for in an LMS? Revisit our post to access a whitepaper covering the New Rules of LMS Content Integration.