CMI5: A Call to Action

Introduction

Since 2000 a lot has changed. Think airport security, smart phones, digital television, and social media. In 2000, the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative gathered a set of eLearning specifications and organized them under the name of SCORM. In 2021, in a time of tremendous technological change, SCORM still remains the standard for how we describe, package, and report on eLearning.

However, finally, we are on the eve of adopting something new and something better: CMI5.

We no longer have landlines, but we still have SCORM

CMI5 Examples

To many, CMI5 is another meaningless acronym. To understand the power and benefit of CMI5, consider these very simple examples:


A Learning and Development specialist creates a learning activity that offers managers several samples of readings and videos from leadership experts. The activity allows the managers the freedom to pick and choose what they read or view; however, the specialist wants to know what they choose to read or watch as well as how they fare on a culminating assessment.

CMI5 enables the activity to capture both the learner experience (for example, the learner read an excerpt from Brené Brown’s Daring to Lead ) and the test score. CMI5 can generate a statement on virtually any kind of learner experience as well as the traditional data elements such as score, time on task, quiz questions and student answers. In this sense, CMI5 supports both openness and structure.

Let’s consider another example:

An instructor authors a learning activity that virtually guides students to places in Canada to observe the effects of climate change. She wants students to answer questions, post reflections and observe the effects of climate change on glaciers, Arctic ice, sea levels and permafrost. She sets a passing threshold for each activity. Once students have completed all of the units, then the learning management system registers that the course was mastered.

Let’s go further:

The instructor wants the learning activity to reside in a learning object repository or website outside of the learning management system – but still report to the learning management system. In fact, she wishes that no content reside on the learning management system. Regardless of where the content resides, she wants to know what sites students visited, how they scored on short quizzes, and how students reacted to the severe impact of climate change on Canada.

For students with disabilities, the instructor makes an accommodation and requests that the LMS administrator adjust the mastery score without editing the activity.

As the course becomes more and more popular, she anticipates placing the website and its activity onto CloudFlare or some content distribution network so that students all around the world can gain faster access to the learning activities.

The instructor works as adjunct for multiple universities and wants each of their learning management systems to get the content from a single location. In some cases, she wants the content locked for anyone who circumvents the Learning Management System and in other cases she openly lists the unlocked content with OER libraries like Merlot and OER Commons.


Before CMI5 much of this was difficult to achieve, if not impossible. So, let’s review what CMI5 offers us.


CMI5 captures scores in the traditional sense. But it also records data on learning experiences such as students virtually observing the change in the permafrost. CMI5 allows instructors and trainers to set the move-on criteria for each unit in a course (i.e. passing score before student moving on to the next unit).

CMI5 activities can reside anywhere – on one’s own website, for example, and still report to the learning management system. CMI5 enables an LMS administrator to change the mastery score from the LMS for the benefit of students who need accommodations and essentially trump what is set in the unit.

LodeStar’s CMI5 Implementation allows
authors to indicate where the content resides


CMI5 is a game changer. And yet for many – learning and development leaders, instructional designers, technologists and students – it doesn’t seem that way in 2021. CMI5 seems like a non-event. It feels like something we all talked about – a welcome change of weather on the horizon –and then nothing. Not a drop of rain.


We have been talking about and anticipating CMI5 for a long time – and yet, major learning management systems both in the corporate and academic worlds still don’t support it. CMI5 was envisioned in 2010, released to developers in 2015, and then released to the public in its first edition in 2016. We are now in the waning days of 2021—with limited adoption.


But that is likely to change.


For one, Rustici Software and ADL delivered on their promise of Catapult. Catapult is likely to accelerate adoption of CMI5. It provides many benefits to developers, including the ability to test if a CMI5 package conforms to the standard.

In my view, the learning technology architects have done their part. They brought us a meaningful set of specifications. They brought us the tools to test learning packages and to test the learning management system’s implementation of CMI5. Now’s it’s up to learning and development specialists and the instructional design community to cheer CMI5 on. It is my belief that once the community understands CMI5, spreads the word, and imposes its collective will on the LMS providers, CMI5 will become an important part of our tool bag. I urge you to share this article and others like it.


In the meantime, let’s take a deeper dive into CMI5’s potential.


Benefit One: Freedom to capture and report on any learner experience.


With CMI you can report on scores, completion status, and just about anything else. You can report on standard assessment results, and the not-so-standard learning experiences.


To understand this, we need to re-look at SCORM.


One should consider CMI5 as a replacement for SCORM – an improved specification. Conforming to SCORM was useful because a learning object or learning activity could be imported into just about any modern learning management system. As an instructor, if you created a game, quiz, presentation, simulation, whatever and exported it as a SCORM package, your activity could be imported into Moodle, BrightSpace, Canvas, Cornerstone, Blackboard, and any learning management system that supported SCORM. So, the benefit of SCORM was that it was a set of standards that most LMS systems understood. The standards that fell under the SCORM umbrella included metadata, a reporting data model, and standard methods for initializing an activity, reporting scores, reporting on interactions, and reporting passing or failing and completion status.

The data model included dozens of elements. One example of a data element is cmi.core.score.min. Related to score, SCORM conformant activities reported on the minimum score, the maximum score, the raw score (absolute number) and the scaled score ( a percentage between 0 and 1).


SCORM supported a lot of different data elements. A SCORM conformant activity could report on a variety of things. The limitation of SCORM, however, was that, despite the large number of elements, it was still a finite list. Take a Geolocation Storytelling activity as an example or an eBook reading. If I wanted to capture and report that the student virtually or physically visited location A, then B, and then C, I would have to work around the limitations of SCORM. I could not generate a statement such as, for example, ‘Student visited the Amphitheater in Arles’. If I wanted to capture a student’s progress through an eBook, SCORM would be problematic.


At this point, you might be protesting, but xAPI does that! xAPI? Another acronym! Yes. xAPI, or The Experience API is a new specification that makes it possible to report on a limitless range of things that a learner has experienced: such as, completed a chapter of an eBook; watched a video; toured a museum, and on and on. So, if we have this thing called xAPI, why CMI5?


The benefit of xAPI is that it supports the reporting of anything. The downside to xAPI is that, by itself, it doesn’t have a vocabulary that the LMS understands such as launched, initialized, scored, passed, completed. That is what CMI5 offers. CMI5 is, in fact, an xAPI profile that includes a vocabulary that the LMS understands. In addition, CMI5 can report on any type of learner experience. Here is the definition of CMI5 from the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative:


cmi5 is a profile for using the xAPI specification with traditional learning management (LMS) systems

(Advanced Distributed Learning).


With CMI5, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can report on learner activity in a way that LMS understands and you can report on just about anything else that the Learning Management System stores in a Learner Record Store. The Learner Record Store or LRS is a database populated by statements about what the learner experienced.

xAPI Statements can capture an
any learner experience, including reading the instructions


Benefit Two: Freedom to put the learning activity anywhere


With CMI5, you can place a learning activity in a repository, in GitHub, on a web server, in a Site44 drop box site, in SharePoint, in a distributed network, wherever….without restricting its ability to connect with a learning management system. CMI5 content does not need to be imported. A CMI5 package can contain as little as one XML file, which among other things, tells the LMS where to find the content.


To appreciate this, we need to look back at SCORM once more (as if it were ancient history).


I’ll start with a pseudo technical explanation and then follow with why it matters.
The way SCORM works is that the learning activity sits in a window. The learning activity uses a simple looping algorithm to find the Learning Management System’s SCORM Adapter. It checks its parent window for a special object. If the window’s parent doesn’t contain the object, the activity looks to the parent’s parent, and so on. In other words, somewhere in that chain of parents, there must be that special object. Typically, the SCORM activity can only communicate to the learning management system if it is a child window of that system or if some server-side technology is used.

CMI5 works quite differently. CMI5 gives us freedom to leave our parents’ home. Whereas SCORM uses a Javascript Application Programmer Interface to communicate, CMI5 uses xAPI to reach across the internet and call a web service’s methods. Loosely, it’s like the difference between a landline and a cellular phone service. To use the landline you must be in the house; to use a cell phone, you must be in the network.

Benefit Three: A simplified sequencing model.

SCORM supported simple sequencing, which many say is not so simple. CMI5’s ‘move on’ property, in contrast, is very easy. A CMI course can contain one or more Assignable Units (AUs). The instructor spells out what the learner must achieve in an assignable unit before being able to move on. The move on property has one of the following values:


• Passed
• Completed
• Completed Or Passed
• Completed And Passed
• Not Applicable


Once the student has ‘moved on’ through all of the assignable units, the LMS notes that the course has been satisfied by that student.


Benefit Four: An assignable unit passing score can be overridden


In SCORM, the mastery score is hard-coded in the activity. In a SCORM activity, the instructor can base completion status on a passing score. But what if that hard-coded score were inappropriate for a group of students, for whatever reason? The specification enables an LMS to pass the mastery score to the Assignable Unit upon launch. So the LMS launches the AU, and sends it student name and mastery score (among other things). By specification, the AU cannot ignore the mastery score but must use it to trump what is hard-coded in the unit or refuse to run.


Benefit Five: Theoretically, CMI5 isn’t hamstrung by pop-up blockers.

When an LMS launches a SCORM activity, it either embeds the activity in an Iframe or launches a window. Both scenarios are problematic. The content may not be well suited for an iFrame and a pop-up blocker can obstruct the launched window.


Theoretically, CMI5 AU can replace the LMS with its own content. It’s not in an embedded iFrame and it’s not a pop-up window. When the LMS launches the AU, along with student name and mastery score, the LMS sends the AU a return URL. When ended, the AU returns the student to that return URL, which is the address of the LMS.


I write “theoretical” because the LMS should not but may ignore this requirement.

Benefit Six: CMI5 activities securely communicate to the Learner Record Store


As I wrote, the activity can send information about learner experiences clear across the internet to the learner record store. But how does the AU have the authorization to do this from, let’s say, a web site? And how does it happen securely?


This is the marvel of 2021 technology versus 2000 technology. Before 2000, we had difficult-to-use protocols for passing information securely across the internet. Oftentimes, special rules needed to be added to internet routers. Then along came a simpler protocol that the first version of CMI5 used (SOAP). Then came an even better way (OAUTH and REST). After launch, the LMS hands the AU a security token (kind of like a key that dissolves in time). The AU uses that key to gain access and to post information to the Learner Record Store.

Conclusion

CMI5 returns power to the instructor and to the L&D specialist. CMI5 allows one to choose where the content resides and to choose what the content reports. CMI5 captures learner experiences more completely and yet it communicates with Learning Management Systems with a vocabulary that LMSs understand. CMI5 supports accommodations for a special group of students without needing to change the code of the Assignable Unit. Finally, CMI5 uses current technology to send data over the internet.

The implications of this emerging specification are tremendous. It is better suited to mobile learning and it is better suited to the learner experience platforms that are emerging (e.g. LinkedIn Learning’s Learning Hub). Soon instructors may be able to organize content from a variety of providers (like LinkedIn Learning, Khan Academy, or OER Commons) but retain the learning management system as an organizer of content, data collector, and credentialing agent. Now instructors, average instructors, may be able participate in that content market from their own GitHub repositories and web sites.

But many LMSs have yet to adopt CMI5. The architects have done their part. Now it’s on us to understand this technology and advocate for it. Start by sharing this article. Thank you.

Appendix A — How it Works (A simplified flow)

For those interested in a deeper dive, let’s walk through the CMI5 process flow step-by-step. (See diagram)

To begin, the author (instructor, L&D specialist) exports content as a CMI5 package. The package can be a simple file that instructs the LMS where to find the content or it can include the content itself.

(1) When a student needs the content, the Learning Management System (LMS) launches the content and sends the Assignable Unit (a course can contain one or more Assignable Units) (2) information that includes student name, a fetch URL and the activity ID.

(3) The Assignable Unit (AU) uses the fetch URL to retrieve a security token. The security token enables the AU to communicate securely to the Learner Record Store (LRS).

(4) As the student interacts with the content, the AU can optionally send Experience API (xAPI) statements to the LRS . (5) At some point, the AU reports that the student passed and/or completed the unit.

(6) The LMS uses the ‘move-on’ information to determine whether or not the student can move on to the next assignable unit. The move-on options are passed, completed, passed and completed, passed or completed, or not applicable.

Finally, when all of the assignable units within a course are completed, the course is marked as satisfied for the specific learner.

A simplified process flow that starts with the
launch of the CMI5 Assignable Unit by the LMS

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