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xAPI and the LRS: New L&D Technology

Bob Little 

November 18, 2016

L&D may be about “people” but, in this technological age, “people people” – such as L&D professionals – also need to know something about “people-related technology.” This can be increasingly complex and confusing. Take the Experience API (xAPI) and Learning Record Store (LRS) technologies, for example.

Learning management systems (LMSs) evolved early in the computer age, closely followed by learning content management systems (LCMSs). L&D professionals quickly discovered that not all the e-learning software they wanted to use was compatible with these systems. This prompted the birth of industry-wide standards – notably the Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM).

Even before online learning expanded beyond mere “e-learning” to encompass less formal L&D activities, many of which are accessed via mobile devices, there were thoughts that people could build a transferable e-portfolio through their working life, detailing their learning activities, qualifications and achievements.

Then – in 2011 – along came xAPI, which aims to supersede SCORM and incorporate e-portfolio elements through the LRS. Also named Tin Can API” by its Nashville-based developer and owner, Rustici Software, xAPI is an e-learning software specification that aims to allow learning content, LMSs and LCMSs to communicate with one another, to record and track a variety of learning experiences. These experiences are recorded in the LRS, which can exist within an LMS/LCMS or on its own.

According to Ben Betts, a technologist, social learning specialist, and CEO of online learning developer HT2, “xAPI gives us the opportunity to skip on measuring learning outcomes, and focus instead on performance outcomes.

While SCORM was limited to highly specified packages of content that were launched from specific platforms, xAPI enables us to track more social and informal interactions that learners have with content and platforms. It extends this support to activities outside the browser and lends itself not to tracking learning, but to tracking experiences whatever they may be.

There’s a recipe for building an LRS and, while the recipe is well-documented, executing it isn’t for the fainthearted. It takes months of work to build a standards-compliant LRS.”

While xAPI has its champions and its apologists – including Ben – it hasn’t yet achieved universal supremacy over the more traditional setup within corporate learning of “SCORM-with-LMS/LCMS.” Tim Drewitt, a digital learning strategist who’s Product Innovator at Kallidus, says, “After 22 years in the L&D profession, the xAPI still leaves me scratching my head.

“Instinctively, I know it should be the next ‘big thing’ in learning reporting standards but, as so many of my peers tell me, there seems to be little real evidence that it’s making any inroads. When you look around, it’s difficult to see any clearly presented case studies. For every word written on the subject, many more words aren’t written – giving the impression that the actual mechanics are still secret.

“It seems as if the relevant knowledge is in the heads of just a few consultancies. More openness would deliver the education the profession needs to better grasp the potential.

“The premise behind the xAPI framework is laudable – and one to which most L&D professionals will aspire. But, given how little we do with the tools we already have to measure the impact of learning and to monitor the true scale of learning in our organizations, perhaps we’re not yet ready to go this one stage further.

“It’s probably fair to say that the tools we currently use have their limitations and that SCORM 1.2 and SCORM 2004 only just about provide sufficient data to keep us happy. So we know we need to do better – and xAPI would appear to offer this potential. But we still haven’t found its ‘killer app’ – the application that’ll scream out to us as the only way to provide us with the information we need.

“I’m looking to the integration of disparate systems, such as video and mobile learning platforms, as possible game-changers – even hooking virtual reality and augmented reality experiences to our LMSs.

“Maybe it’s the next generation of learning technologies that’ll provide the impetus to look again at the xAPI. As things stand, the status quo seems comfortable.”

California-based learning systems analyst Craig Weiss is similarly hesitant about xAPI and LRSs. He says, “Be aware that the LRS is a work in progress. It has potential to generate useful ‘big data’ but I have concerns about privacy and security issues.

“For example, when a learner leaves your organization and goes somewhere else that has an LMS with an LRS, that person’s data record could integrate into the new LMSregardless if its the same LMS brand or not – because of the principle of interoperability. In other words, your worker, customer or student has a continuous and continuing data record.

“This data record doesn’t stay in the LMS but, rather, goes with them. Yet if that person’s new organization doesn’t have an LMS, wheres that data record stored?

“Some LMS vendors claim to have solved the whole dilemma. They do it by deleting a person’s data record when that person leaves the organization. However, this means that they’ve taken a key part of the premise of an LRS and tossed it out of the proverbial window!

The challenge, though, is what fields – and how many – are created in the LRS by each LMS vendor? Thus, while one LRS might have 20 fields hypothetically, another might not.

Thats why I think youll see some vendors go the route of selecting an existing LRS, built by vendor X’ and integrate that into their LMS – although you can get an LRS without buying an LMS or any of the sub-sets of an LMS.”

In Craig’s view, the two biggest names in the LRS world are Watershed and  Saltbox – Wax LRS.

Advanced Distributed Learning, the United States Department of Defense-sponsored stewards of SCORM, which initiated xAPI in 2011 by issuing a Broad Agency Announcement asking for help in improving” SCORM, provides an open source LRS – ADL LRS – for development purposes. Other open source LRSs include Learning Locker. There’s also an installable LRS such as GrassBlade LRS. This list is not exhaustive but merely representative of the LRSs that are currently available.

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