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xAPI Drives the Future of LMS: An Interview with Troy Tolle of DigitalChalk

by | Jan 27, 2017 | eLearning Tools

dc-xapi-drives-the-future-of-an-interview-with-troy-tolle-of-digitalchalkExcerpt from an interview with DigitalChalk CTO and xAPI thought leader, Troy Tolle, on his vision for the future of xAPI in the learning industry.

How does an LMS help solve current key business challenges?

An LMS (Learning Management System) allows a business to deliver a consistent learning experience to all their learners. The LMS also provides a repository for course content and a set of administrative functions.

Traditionally, LMS administrators also look at the LMS as a tool to analyze and report on the effectiveness of their training and to identify trends in student activity – things like whether students are completing courses or what is the pass rate.

What are the limitations of current LMS technology in resolving these challenges?

Most LMS technologies currently use an API like SCORM or AICC to capture learner data. Think of an API as a language that devices use to capture and communicate data. SCORM does a good job of capturing learner data, but SCORM is a limited language in that it is created to only send a specific set of data to an LMS. This means that reports and analytics created from SCORM data are limited to the reporting capabilities of that specific LMS. 

What is xAPI in a nutshell?

Building on the analogy of an API as a language, think of SCORM as a limited language with a pre-defined set of words. xAPI (Experience API), on the other hand, removes the language limitation by allowing you to, in essence, create new “words” to describe any learner activity for which you want to capture data. 

How does xAPI improve the learning industry?

The primary limitation in learning industry technology is collecting and analyzing learner data.  As I mentioned earlier, SCORM is most often used now to collect learner data, but SCORM is limited to general data like overall grade, time completed, and name of student, and any reporting and analytics are limited to the LMS from which the data was collected. The level of information that SCORM collects really only skims the surface of the total learner experience.  For example, SCORM can collect learner data about overall grades for a test, but what if you actually want to see what test questions learners are missing?  The tools that allow this kind of reporting in SCORM are more complicated and rarely used in practice.

That’s where xAPI opens the door by giving you the ability to define, and collect data on, any learner activity. Integrating xAPI into learning technology makes it possible to capture a learner’s actions at any point in the learning process. The data you collect using xAPI is stored in an archive system called an LRS (Learning Record Store).

What’s really cool to me is that the data collection capability of an LMS integrated with xAPI, combined with reporting and analytics of the LRS, now make it possible to really understand how people learn and then to personalize that learning experience for any given group of learners.

Can you give a specific example of how xAPI helps overcome the limitations of current LMS technology?

Suppose a learner takes a course on an xAPI-integrated LMS and is scored on the results. The data is collected and sent to an LRS. After a learner completes the course, a supervisor may want to record time taken to complete specific tasks in the field, to validate the effectiveness of the online training. The field data cannot be collected from the LMS, but through xAPI technology, it can be sent to the same LRS to be correlated with the LMS data.

Where do you see xAPI in the future of the learning industry?

I think the role of the LMS is changing. I am excited that we now have a format that allows an LMS to contribute an important piece to the learning structure of an organization.

To become better, the LMS should support xAPI across the entire platform.  The question that is asked a lot of times is “does your LMS support xAPI?” I’m not sure that’s the right question. The right question is probably “what is the depth of support?” You can say an LMS supports xAPI just by uploading the xAPI package. But that that doesn’t really unlock the power of xAPI, and functionally makes it the equivalent of what you did with SCORM.

So the power of xAPI comes in when you can recall the entire experience through the elements in xAPI. For instance, we record a learner login and then we can record and track all the things that they’re touching within the LMS. We can track tests and surveys and videos and assignments, as well as SCORM packages, xAPI packages, certificates earned and file downloads. And once an LMS starts to track all of that, it becomes more than just a way to administer and store course material.

Maybe 10% of all learning takes place on a traditional LMS. But an LMS fully integrated with xAPI can benefit a learning structure well beyond that 10% contribution. And you’ll also see more LRS options. You might have an LRS embedded in your LMS, you could have an external LRS, or you might even stand up two LMSs side by side in two different departments that both funnel data to a single LRS. The possibilities are endless.

Where do you see xAPI in the future of DigitalChalk development?

DigitalChalk has embraced xAPI as the next big standard in the learning industry, so I see xAPI as an integral part of all new development at DigitalChalk. All our current feature sets are enabled for xAPI technology, and, wherever it makes sense, we plan to incorporate xAPI into future development.

I do believe that it’s not only important for DigitalChalk to be an LMS fully integrated with xAPI, but also to be participant in the xAPI world, because I think that’s where learning systems are going and where most organizations will be. The proprietary nature of learning data is going to change when people no longer have to get that data from the LMS. Instead, they’ll be able to get that data from a repository not tied to any API and that is standardized across the learning industry. DigitalChalk will be part of that world and part of that solution.

If you have an xAPI question you’d like to ask Troy, send us a question via Twitter @digitalchalk.

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