May/June 2000 // Spotlight Site
Advanced Distributed Learning Network
by Stephen Downes
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Stephen Downes "Advanced Distributed Learning Network" The Technology Source, May/June 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The Advanced Distributed Learning initiative was launched in November 1997 by the United States Department of Defense "to ensure access to high-quality education and training materials that can be tailored to individual learner needs and can be made available whenever and wherever they are required." For ADL, this meant developing courseware which is "accessible, interoperable, durable, reusable, adaptable and affordable." ADL worked closely with another important online learning initiative, the Instructional Management Systems Project in the development of a standard for learning objects (a learning object is a self-contained package of educational material).

This initiative culminated on January 31, 2000 with the release of the Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM). Still at its earliest phase, SCORM essentially is a Web-based learning content model that defines a course structure format in XML, a mapping and recommended usage model for course metadata. With the release of SCORM, ADL has vaulted itself into the forefront of online learning technology, and this makes the ADL Web site as a whole worthy of detailed examination.

The site loads quickly on any machine; graphical content is minimal and consistent throughout. The main page is framed; current events are listed in the large white frame, below the ADL logo and vision statement. Site navigation is available through a menu to the left, while direct access to ALM's working "communities" is provided at the top of the page. New visitors will want to view the Site Map, available from the left-hand menu, although some readers may find the small text hard to read. Users should consult "About ADL" to obtain a site overview, then browse through the small collection of videos and links. To discover the real strength of ADL, readers can access its original research by clicking on the "Library" link from the main menu. There they will find a number of planning documents and frameworks, newsletters, and summary briefings.

Repeat visitors will want to go directly to the "Upcoming Events" section of the site for items not listed on the main page. Conferences announcements, press releases and other current information, often not found elsewhere on the site, are listed on the "Upcoming Events" and "Past Events" pages.

The SCORM page itself is sparse. Users should click on "Latest Downloads" for five useful links, one of which ("Sample LMS Readme") leads to a quick overview of the model's code. For the SCORM specification itself, users can choose "SCORM 1.0"—but they should be ready for a 219-page MS Word document. Finally, visitors can download a zipped sample learning management system.

The ADL Web site as a whole is precise and to the point. Although downloaded documents will require careful reading, the future of online learning is contained in this Web site—which makes investing time and effort in it essential for the serious learning systems designer.

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