PENS – Why your LMS and Authoring Tool Solution should include it

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Paul Schneider in my opinion is one of the guru’s in the authoring tool industry. I have been fortunate to know Paul for over 10 years and have always been impressed with his insight.

In 2005, PENS was launched by AICC but did not initially gain wide acceptance. In the past year, I have seen a wider number of vendors including the PENS course standard, which in my opinion, enables anyone who builds courses, a streamlined and fast process for publishing into a LMS/learning platform.

And now the interview.

Paul, before we start, I think the readers would be very interested in your background.

Thanks Craig. I got involved in E-Learning (or distance learning as we used to call it) back in 1994 at the University of Illinois where I was doing my graduate work. We had traditional video based classrooms as well as precursors for what today would be considered a virtual classroom today.

After getting my PhD in Educational/Counseling psychology I went to work for a small startup, GeoLearning. Here I ran the R&D, Training, Content Development and Professional Services departments over my tenure there and also got my first exposure to this brand new standard, at the time, SCORM. Most recently I joined dominKnow, the makers of Claro, as their SVP of business development.

 Before we jump into PENS, let’s begin in the authoring tool industry.

In the authoring tool industry there seems to be hesitancy to go into the cloud. While there are authoring tools that are SaaS based, there are significantly more that are not. Why?

Well my first reaction is because building a good cloud solution is hard! However, it isn’t just because it’s hard, but also because I think folks building content are often used to working alone or being the pivotal point to which others contribute.

When internet access became more prevalent, LMSs all jumped the band wagon, and at the time there were also a number of cloud based authoring tools.

However, due to the capabilities of the technology at the time, these tools were largely template-based systems driven by forms, and frankly, clunky user interfaces.

Around that same time you started to see the emergence of the current desktop authoring tool market leaders and the idea of rapid content development.

Ease of use and catering to the novice developer became key.

Unfortunately web based technologies, without the use of proprietary plugins, simply couldn’t compete on that level and people didn’t want to sacrifice development capabilities for the advantages of collaboration.

Since then web-based technologies have improved greatly, and a new generation of cloud based tools have emerged. We’ve also seen more and more industries and other types of work embrace cloud platforms.

Some of the newer authoring tools have resolved the problems of the past, but in the big scheme of things they are still newbies to the market when you compare them to the desktop grand daddies.

That being said, I see that people and companies responsible for training are starting to shift their way of thinking, and begin to realize the power of collaboration and central management that a cloud based authoring solution can bring, and now seeing they don’t have to necessarily sacrifice the ease of use and power to which they have become accustom.


 I’ve been assigned or have been asked to build courses for a LMS/Learning Platform, but have no experience. What are a couple of features that I should consider when looking for an authoring tool?

Like most problems, it is useful to look at where you want to be and then work your way back from there. What kind of training are you looking to produce?

What browsers or devices will your learners’ take the training on? How often is your content going to be updated and changed? Who is going to be responsible for developing this training and more importantly, whom else are you going to get to help this person or person(s) develop content.

With some rare exceptions, content is best when it is a team sport! I think too often we get stuck with the idea that we have a PowerPoint and I want to add a quiz and audio to it and call it my training course.

Don’t get caught up in “examples” you see online as these rarely tell you what you and your team can realistically do with any given software and in many cases you could do better or sometimes you don’t have the resources to do quite that.

As a newbie ease of use and the tools ability to be there as you grow and flex your skills is key.

It is easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles of the tools, but you really need to keep your eye on the prize, what are you going to do. Also get to know how their support team is. You will need help and how well they support their customers (or even during your trial) is a good bench mark.

Last, when it comes to cost, take into account your time and everyone else who is involved in the process. So often this part is neglected and what seems like the “deal” isn’t so good.

 Let’s go one more step.

I am experienced in building courses or I have a background as an instructional designer.

What features should I look for in an authoring tool that will maximize the capabilities to build interactive and engaging courses?

The need and process is similar here, but you can probably more easily map out your learning and needs than a novice can. Ease of use is always important, but take into consideration you can probably learn any tool if it will meet your needs. Also think about how you will fit into a team.

Can the tool enable you to create your own designs and templates (hopefully in a collaborative fashion) and then enable more novice team members to use your designs successfully? After all you are a leader now!

As a more experienced developer you should be looking for ways to bring more people into the fold and enabling them to create sound content and moving away from the model where you are the pivotal point on which everything relies.

Last, as no tool will do everything you need, look to how it can be integrated with other tools either through an open architecture or APIs.


 PENS Time

 To me, the most exciting possibility in course standards is PENS, which was developed in 2005, but just recently is slowing appearing in a couple of authoring tools and some LMSs. Can you provide some insight into PENS?

PENS (Package Exchange Notification System) is a wonderful standard that provides a method for authoring tools to directly send course packages (primarily SCORM) to an LMS.

Every time you create a new course or update an existing course you publish it, and then navigate through the LMS (after logging in) to upload or update a zip package. Sure this isn’t “hard”, but it is several clicks and several minutes that grow exponentially with each publish.

With PENS, you have one step publishing where the course authoring tool sends a message to the LMS that an authorized user wants to provide a new course package, the LMS then grabs it and the package and sends back a “thanks I got it” message.

For an author this becomes a huge time saver.

Unfortunately PENS, to my knowledge, was only implemented in one desktop authoring tool, and it mysteriously vanished in the vendor’s next upgrade.

For cloud based authoring tools there has been a larger acceptance of the value ,and a number of LMS companies have realized that this is a pretty easy (MUCH easier than SCORM) standard to implement ,and have moved beyond outdated approaches like “FTP” access.

 Some people believe that PENS is a unique entity upon itself, but that is not the case is it?

PENS is actually a standard that was developed to make it easier to push packages (primarily SCORM) into an LMS. Without SCORM PENS has nothing to work with.

What are the advantages and benefits of using PENS?

PENS makes an author’s life easier by streamlining the development and publishing process.

It is a bit like your authoring tool would dump the published SCORM packages into a standardized drop box type folder and the LMS had an agent that prowled this folder and grabbed any packages, and determined if they were new courses or updates to an existing one, and then put them in the right spot, so now an LMS admin could easily make them available with a minimal effort.

35927340_s I have heard some folks in our industry who feel that SCORM is out dated. What are your thoughts?

Well hey, technology wise, it is old! Standards though take a while to gain acceptance and then they often stick around for a long time. Think how long GIF has stuck around even though newer standards like JPEG, and PNG emerged.

What really causes a shift from an old standard to a new one is when the new standard begins to enable people to do something that they have been clamoring to do before, but the old standard has been holding them back.

In the worst cases, new competing proprietary approaches emerge, and in the best case a new standard emerges that can both replace or become complimentary.

I think xAPI has managed to do that, but I don’t see SCORM disappearing anytime soon. I mean look at how long AICC has managed to keep a foothold, despite even the recent disbanding of the formal group.  Change is hard and expensive, and there needs to be compelling reasons to shift.


 Why would a consumer want to have the capability to publish their courses in PENS? Additionally, why would a vendor want to offer it?

Well the only reason a consumer would want to have PENS is if they are a fan of saving time.

Simply put, PENS gets your courses into the LMS faster (if it is cloud based, then the connection between the authoring tool and LMS is usually quicker as well) and to the right spot with less work.

It also conveniently helps to delineate the author and LMS admin roles.

These two folks can now collaborate more effectively without the need for some extra permission controls in the LMS, or third party drop box / folder to serve as a transfer point for the packages which can result in all sorts of mishaps.

For vendors, looking to the future and seeing the increasing growth of a ubiquitous cloud environment, it provides a secure and easy way to integrate authoring solutions and the LMS all while following a tried and true standard.

With PENS they can drop more problematic solutions like FTP and provide their customers with another compelling reason to pick their solution over another competitor’s.

How difficult is it for a vendor to add PENS? And what is your take on why vendors in general are not including it or offering it?

In the big scheme of things, it is a relatively easy standard to implement.

When I was with GeoLearning, I worked with a 2-developer team and they finished and polished their implementation into Maestro (now SumTotal/Skillsoft Maestro) in less than 4 weeks of development time.

I think the biggest reason more vendors are not offering it is that desktop solutions, unlike most standards, chose not to embrace the solution.

So like most chicken/egg problems, unless both authoring and LMS systems support PENS, it is only half a solution.

However, with the increase usage of cloud technologies, we hopefully will continue to see an uptick in support as this is something that just makes a content author’s life that much easier, and let’s face it, authoring content can be hard work!

Do you see PENS as a must feature in the authoring tool and LMS space?

Well I have been a big believer in PENS for a long time.

I don’t know if I see it so much as a must feature, but more like the feature you just expect to be there, and when it isn’t you kinda scratch your head and think to yourself what the heck was the vendor thinking when they built their tool and left this capability out?

 Bottom Line

To Learn more about PENS, I have included two documents to aid in your discovery.

PENS Overview

PENS Specs

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