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The Rise of the Learning Record Store: An LRS Field Guide from CLN

Contributor:  Ben Mueller
Posted:  02/27/2014  12:00:00 AM EST  | 

Rate this Article: (5.0 Stars | 7 Votes)

There’s a song lyric from a little known Brooklyn band that goes “information wants to be free.” The band members—a rebellious punk act of urban squatters—sing with a grinning approval of illegal music downloads, the freedom from the bureaucracy of commercialism.

But “free” doesn’t need to only mean financially speaking. Digital information “wants to be free” in terms of location (the countless places our emails are stored), accessibility (company-wide access to documents via intranet), and understandability (you don’t have to be an IT expert to comprehend the graphs of Google Analytics).

Learner data—employee test scores, training session completions, and participation in any learning event—is another element of our digital lives that “wants to be free.” Last spring Experience API (xAPI) began replacing SCORM as the preeminent industry tool for the capture and documentation of learning events. The new learning technology makes data and the analysis of learning events more robust. This newfound, wider breadth of data capture is all thanks to the place where the learning data is stored: the Learning Record Store (LRS).


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What is the Learning Record Store? (What Goes In Must Come Out)

SCORM, or the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, has been the e-learning industry standard for software interoperability since 2001. But in 2010, the governing body of SCORM, Advanced Distributed Learning, selected Rustici Software to spearhead the development of “Next Generation SCORM,” what became xAPI. The spec of the LRS was built right alongside the rest of the code of Experience API.

An API is an application programming interface, which defines specifications (specs, for short) on how software interacts. Without delving too deeply into nerd speak, an API is what makes all of our software work. For example, Windows has Windows API to dictate how nearly all Windows programs interact. Mike Rustici is president of Rustici Software, the company that pioneered xAPI. When pressed on whether there are any other serious competitors in the space of “learning languages,” Rustici called the efforts of AICC’s CMI-5 a “complementary” effort rather than a competing one, with AICC’s recent developments built atop the core xAPI specification.

Under SCORM, learner data is sent to a company’s Learning Management System (LMS), but there aren’t requirements for how the LMS should use that data, how the data should be displayed, or how the data should be reported. With Experience API, learner data is far more collectable and accessible thanks to the Learning Record Store—where learner data is stored. Rustici explains that the Learning Record Store, at its simplest definition, is the thing that implements xAPI specification for get-it-in, get-it-out knowledge storage. Furthermore, it allows administrators to make sense of all that data.

Oh the Places You’ll Learn

Rustici said the invention of the Learning Record Store was “accidental, yet somewhat intentional.” He and Ben Clark, the chief technical architect on the LRS spec, didn’t realize what sort of learning innovation they had on their hands until they began presenting Experience API to the public. “A hand would always go up in the back of the room at these speaking sessions,” Rustici said. “And they’d go, ‘Where can I get an LRS? How do I find an LRS?” The great desire in the learning community for the LRS could not have been predicted by Rustici’s team.

Rustici and his software company have always been of the view that learning systems should be smaller and more compartmentalized. “We’ve always thought that learning systems didn’t belong as big monolithic systems,” Rustici said. “We’ve watched LMS systems get bigger and bigger and bigger. To us, that didn’t really represent how people learned.”


Image via Rustici Software

What percentage of all that you’ve learned in your life has come from an LMS? It’s a question Rustici encourages. Perhaps the largest innovation of the Learning Record Store is the wide breadth of where learning events are captured from. LMS administrated e-courses are no longer the only measuring stick of employee understanding. YouTube videos, mobile games, online social interactions—even the reading of online articles—all serve as learning events captured as xAPI statements and sent to the LRS.

John Delano, CEO and co-founder of Saltbox Services, an LRS provider, knows that the importance of xAPI comes from the wide variety of activities it tracks. “Our ideal customer is an adventurous learning and development manager that is interested in tracking all kinds of learning activities, from social to mobile to formal,” he said.

Katrina Baker is the author of LMS Success and a regional learning and development manager at Whole Foods Market, where she oversees an LMS with about 80,000 users. Again, for her, LRS data collection is all about location. “With xAPI, you’re getting a very full, complete picture of the learner’s activity,” she said. “That makes it a very cool alternative to a standalone LMS.” The capability to migrate data from one LRS to another or into an LMS supporting an LRS is unprecedented.

Analytics: Connecting Learning to Performance, L&D Programming, and ROI

“Learning data in and of itself is only marginally interesting,” Rustici said. The rich analytics now made possible with xAPI via the Learning Record Store allow companies to compare the ROI and success at work of informal learning against formal L&D programming.

Compared to Rustici, Delano was a bit more blunt about the usefulness of SCORM data. “Test scores and completions are not exciting at all,” he said. “It tells us nothing.”

Saltbox offers the Wax LRS, and the company supports clients such as Netgear and Razorfish. “The exciting things are going to be around seeing actions and behaviors happening at work in the systems in their workflow, and be able to track results,” he said.  “You can finally glimpse into how [employees] are performing on the job.” One of the biggest assets of Wax LRS is the technology’s near-real time APIs that can be exported to a company’s business intelligence visualization tool. Learning data can now be paired closely against job performance.


Image via Rustici Software

An LRS Case Study

A very large telecommunications company, working in conjunction with Rustici, engaged in a proof-of-concept to trial a new approach to compliance and ethics training.  The proof-of-concept involved two levels of situational simulations.  Participation was optional and those who chose to participate were randomly assigned to one of the two experiences.  The first simulation was basic text and graphics with one branch that provided immediate feedback based on the learner’s response.  The second was a video-based, experiential simulation with multiple branches.  The learner received emotional responses from a supervisor or the customer based on their choices.  They were also encouraged to “rewind” and explore multiple paths.  A variety of incentives to participate were included such as having completions earn a badge or a donation to a charitable organization. The goal was to determine if the effectiveness of the video-based approach justified the additional expense and which motivators produced the highest volunteer response rate.

The company used pre and post-surveys to compare opinions about their current compliance training format and the simulations.  They also leveraged xAPI calls to record learners’ interaction with the simulations.  As a follow-up, they will monitor to see if participation in the proof-of-concept, the type of simulation completed, or the incentives offered have an effect on the number of calls placed to their compliance hotline.

LRS enabled all this data capture, as well as the abilities to make sense of analytics and create charts and graphs around the learning data. The study is an intersection of ROI (is a more expensive learning program more effective?), employee engagement, and performance. This kind of case study inspired Rustici to innovate its own Watershed LRS.

As John Delano of Saltbox says, the Learning Record Store moves “just-in-case training” to “just-in-time learning.” This is a completely different model than learning and development is used to.

wax lrs

A screenshot of Wax LRS.

Adoption: Taking the Long Road

The LRS has only recently been introduced to the corporate learning world, and as such it’s facing a relatively slow adoption. LMSs running Experience API will by default have LRSs built into their code. Rustici points to the issue of “SCORM-parity”: when a company updates to an LMS running the xAPI specification, but only utilizes its capabilities on a SCORM-level.

“[xAPI] hooks into so many different things that it would really be a shame to go over and adapt to it and not really use what it’s capable of,” Baker at Whole Foods said. “It’s such an advanced technology in comparison to anything that’s happened in the learning technology world up until this point.”

Baker sees connecting an LMS to an LRS as possibly the best learning solution for a company right now. There are several technological permutations for companies looking to switch. Data translated from SCORM to the xAPI spec can be moved to an LRS, and then transferred to another LRS or LMS running xAPI. Some of Saltbox’s customers are bypassing their current LMS totally with an LRS. In terms of LRS brands, the differences, according to Baker, come down to user interface. Capabilities may not change, but ease of use does. “The questions is: Which system is the easiest to use for either the end user or the administrator who is taking care of the system?” she said.

An LRS is not currently a full-on replacement for an LMS. “The thing we’re telling people right now is don’t try and ditch your LMS,” Rustici said. “Don’t try and replace it with a Learning Record Store just yet. The industry’s not ready for that, and in all likelihood your LMS does 500 things that your Learning Record Store can’t do.” Delano of Saltbox Services explained that some of the things companies will still get from their LMSs are administrative tasks—like scheduling classes, maintaining course catalogs, and overseeing student profiles.

In terms of software add-ons, the burden of complexity of the technology, fortunately, is on the side of the LMS. Relatively speaking, it’s not difficult for an experience provider—that is, a software creator like Articulate Storyline or Lectora—to become xAPI conformant and begin making xAPI calls. If software companies want to innovate (like these four LRS complementing tools), they can. As Rustici said, it’s just a case of “swapping out the plumbling” from SCORM to xAPI.


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Personal Data Lockers (Who Owns the Data)

The increasingly mobile nature of learner data via an LRS naturally leads to an employee’s learning history following them throughout their career. Moving from one company to the next, an employer can know that a learner learns best in 40-minute multimedia training increments. Imagine one step further that learner data began at the university (or earlier), so employees arrive day one on the job with data for L&D professionals to utilize.

“Traveling” learner histories are possible via a personal LRS, referred to as the Personal Data Locker (PDL). The idea can materialize in many ways, say an online login or app plugin via Facebook where users choose to upload their learning data, or more of a password protected thumb drive that learners bring to their company and take home.

“I think what’s going to come from [LRS] data is the ability to really personalize learning more and more with intervention engines,” Delano said. Picture Netflix recommendations, only instead of “You May Also Enjoy Watching,” it’s “You May Also Enjoy Learning.” Furthermore, LRSs can certify where course learnings take place (whether on or in a MOOC). If teachings were regulated by the proverbial badge that everyone loves talking about, we could be on our way to a more systemized version of L&D across the industry.

“The challenge right now in the industry is who owns the data,” said Delano.

We already have the tools. “Technically, we’re really close,” Rustici said. “Politically, and bureaucratically, and adoption-wise, business-model-wise, I think it’s going to take a while.”

Privacy concerns abound. For one, as raised by both Baker and Delano, there is company data—say, exclusive training centering around the new iPhone—that companies will surely not want leaving the premises. When kept behind company walls, data is less useful to the learner, but certainly more secure.

Should learners own their own data? They may wish to protect data that they don’t wish to share: a fumbled test score or embarrassing seminar absences.

These concerns are loftier ones, and at times seem a bit more sci-fi than reality until the LRS gains a stronger foothold over the next decade. But at this very moment, the LRS is a valuable contribution to our increasingly knowledge-based economy. “If we can start to quantify an employee’s ability to learn, and capture that,” Rustici said, “I think that has massive potential to change how we look for jobs and how we hire people.”

“As an employer, I don’t really care about people’s resumes. I care about their ability to learn,” he said. And with the LRS, the data behind learners has never been more free.   

Ben Mueller Contributor:   Ben Mueller

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