I'm trying to establish whether anybody out there has successfully developed and engaging learning content in XML (DITA) from within a CMS.  We are under increasing pressure to reuse content objects, and our Technical Authors are convinced that our CMS will enable us to create and redeploy elearning content which is fit for purpose.  The examples I have seen to date have been flat and uninspiring...


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As an education team we are kicking off a major DITA project and one of the things I'd also like to explore is the creation of learning content using 1.2 functionality. So if there are any successful implementations out there I'd also be interested in learning more.

I have two questions for you to consider.

1. Why do you think that by using a CMS that you will be able to deploy content differently so it is not flat and boring. You certainly do not need a CMS to achieve this.

2. The second question is how many modules do you consider are reusable. This has been a question batting about for 15 years. During that time I can count on both hands the number of modules I have cut and pasted out of one course into another. I would be interested to hear from others that constantly reuse material and how they have reused it (other than happy sheets and instructions). You cannot reuse images as we make associations to content from images, if we reuse them then we confuse the brain to know which is related to which...How granular do you expect to go with the CMS to reuse assets?

Hi Neil,


Thanks for your comments.  I don't think that a CMS will enable us to create engaging content.  We are currently using a number of authoring tools including Captivate 5.5 and Storyline to create content for a diverse learner population; creating engaging content using these tools is not a concern.  However, our technical documentation and knowledge articles are written in XML and stored within the CMS and there is an argument internally that that we can repurpose some of these objects to create learning materials.  The examples that we have seen have been predominantly text-based with limited interactivity; this is not suitable for our learner population. I guess my question really is what can we do with XML e.g. are we able to create systems training?

Phew!  pleased to hear you were not thinking the CMS would make it engaging, but I guess to be honest it was a bit tongue in cheek!.

You new comment interests me much more.

I am firmly of the belief that we are trying to hard (and have been for too long) to turn everything into interactive courseware. When it comes to having technical documents and knowledge articles, why are we not heading these as exactly what they are and providing them as reading material to an adult who can obviously read?

I could understand that in the schools environment where we have children who need both need informative and entertaining environments, interaction and fun would create a better look and feel for learning, but why do we presuppose that adults, who read books, who read newspapers and letters would not be happy reading a document that was technical in nature?

If they will not read this material in that type of format, I question if they would take any of it in because it is delivered on a spoon full of sugar?  Have you tried adding reading material, badged as reading material to your courseware?

Hi Neil,

Agreed, we do on occasion try to hard to make learning engaging and interactive.  However, I firmly believe that technical documentation (user and service manuals) serve a different purpose to materials for learning.  We are implementing a blended learning stategy for engineers and medical physicists; creating a series of assessed elearning activities which act as prerequisites for practical, scenario-based residential training.  We have included links to reference materials (interactive pdfs, service manuals and other tech docs) for those that seek deeper level learning.  One of the challenges that we face is that we cater for a global learner population, many of whom have limited English language skills, so the reliance on text-based materials is not appropriate.  To that end we deploy as many media formats as possible in our web-based courseware.  Furthermore, I would suggest that the majority of our learners would fall into the 'activist' category and would not engage with text-laden knowledge transfer.

Hi Trevor,

I've been using XML based systems for a while now and am happy to share lessons but wanted to make a few observations if I may:

1. XML does not equal DITA. XML has been around for a LONG time and is used as a structured source for many different systems (including Flash / Air based applications and websites). DITA is a set of specific guidlines for authoring digital content. I've seen systems reuse content without either.

2. Engaging content has nothing to do with the technology - I've seen boring stuff on the most advanced systems and engaging stuff using text only (really). As people who live both in the tech world and the story telling world we have a tendency to be attracted to the stuff that changes the most and gets the most press - technology but good story telling can be done with chalk and a blackboard (and probably less). If you are getting boring content - change your storytellers (instructional designers) don't let technology become an excuse.

3. Reuse: you have to look for a system that allows reuse on the smallest of levels - reusing modules is not enough. What you need to look for is reuse of the singe media asset (e.g. a single image) then - when the single logo / digram / .... is updated you don't need to run through all of its copies to update. This is why you need a CMS (or LCMS).

I would agree with Neil that you need to think closely about scale (there is little re-use if all you need to build is 5 modules).

As I mentioned before - drop me a line if you want to hear about some of my experiences.

I hope this helps,


Hi Asi, the intention would be for us to ree single media assets (illustrations, video etc) and I appreciate the value of automted update in all copy formats.  To that end, I believe that our needs would be better met if we were to invest in LCMS to aggregrate XML content for delivery in a variety of formats including elearning via LMS.

We have talented instructional designers who are adept at telling an interesting and informative story - I think they are concerned that if XML conent is predominantly text-based, it will remove some of the learning stimuli we strive so hard to include in our activities.


I would love to hear more about your experiences with XML.


Kind regards,



We (www.capdm.com) have been using SGML and XML for over 20 years to master 'good' learning materials, which we then deliver to ANY platform but including in highly integrated and functional ways into VLEs.  We use XML to structure and semantically tag learning content at a very rich semantic level.  The quality of delivery is then a function of that structure and richness PLUS your ability to semantically interpret for delivery purposes.  By mastering in an open XML (we tend to use DocBook rather than DITA for expressiveness) then all client content is independent of technologies - which evolve and die far quicker than long lifetime, high value learning materials - and are future-proofed to a high degree.  The OU now adopt this exact same approach.  The content is also 100% reusable.

We developed the flagship Heriot-Watt online MBA this way, plus many others.  See for example the latest Edinburgh Napier University master courses at http://globalonline.napier.ac.uk/learn/  (use enuguest and enuguest for the public demo).  They are 100% and fully automatically delivered from XML masters into VLE, PDF and for tablet/iPad.  There are interactive content features in the Study Guide in particular that show how 'smart' the semantic interpretation is.  Our web site contains many papers that document the XML advantages and approach.  I repeat, we have doing this for 20+ years.

Successful implementations?  Heriot-Watt have earned over £150m.  Is that successful?  If you want an academic measure of success then look at the demo above and make a judgement.

Thanks Ken, it was really useful to see the Napier University example, which looks ideal for learning materials in an academic environment.  However, the majority of the content is text-based, which is of course suitable for MBA/social sciences, but I am still not comfortable that this would be suitable for vocational training/learning.

My other concern is that you and your dedicated team have been developing in SGML and XML for in excess of 20 years.   Our challenge would be how to upskill our SMEs (not developers)with the necessary authoring skills to create content in XML?  I think we need to carefully consider our strategy and desired outcomes - do we want to exploit reuse opportunities or do we want to provide our limited training resource with simple, but effective authoring tools to create the required training interventions?

Trevor, this is but one example - we do a lot with the British Council (Connecting Classrooms) for example that is much less text-based, much more graphical and interactive.  The standards-based approach is the crucial thing.

We do not necessary get SMEs involved in XML - we let them get on with the creation of fit-for-purpose materials that conform to our design and structures.  These are not restrictive in any way, but allow us to 'engineer' the final delivery.  SMEs should do what they are good at.  Whatever tools or technologies you might want to adopt for delivery, it's unlikely that you would want your SMEs to spend time mastering tools that might just be in vogue for a year or two.  Similarly, they need not become XML experts, though one thing about standards - they have a much longer life than technologies.

At the end of the day we deliver high quality outputs through design, structure, standards and that interpretation of these.  The cost base is also attractive.

Many thanks Ken - we have a workshop this week to discuss our future strategy for corporate content development. I agree that in an ideal world the SMEs should provide the ID and developers with the technical content, in an approriate context, but we are operating with limited resource and to date our strategy has been relatively effective.

I'll be working closely with our technical documentation team, who are creating documents and knowledge articles in XML, to see how we can align our strategies to permit cost effective reuse of assets.  Thanks again for your thoughts.



Hi Trevor

At Alfresco we have a similar situation. Our documentation team uses DITA for authoring our documentation and are very big into reuse.

In the training team we use DITA for student guides which accompany ILT and eLearning courses. We have recently started using DITA 1.2 but even with this you need to remember that DITA was originally conceived for documentation and not for training.

I don't believe that DITA in its current form is a sufficient delivery mechanism for engaging training. DITA is based on XML but its schema is too restrictive, no videos, quizzes, etc. This does not mean that you cannot do this in XML (SGML of course was the mother of XML and is a mother of a markup language!).

You will need a repository for your content, I don't mean an LMS, these are ok for content delivery, but you need a content management system that allows you to version content, provides workflow, renditions of content etc.). Obviously we use Alfresco.

DITA works very well for our ILT courses in particular where we can easily build up new student guides from existing material for new or customized courses. Thus reusing content.

Hopefully that was not too contentious. Maybe this will be I think content reuse can be taken too far, I think our own documentation is guilty of this. The problem (in short) is that in order to reuse content fragments they have to work independently of anywhere they may appear. They have to be self-standing. The result tends to be that the context is lost. This can be fine if you just need a reference guide, for example when documenting an API. However in many cases the context is as important and that is what you lose when you fragment content too much for reuse.

Finally on eLearning, I'm starting to think that eLearning (the way we develop it currently) is going to change over the coming 5 years, perhaps so much that we won't even recognise what we currently do.

Here is an example of the eLearning we produce currently; Introducing Alfresco.

Happy to discuss further drop me a line.




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