Life in a Post-SCORM World Part 3: When will you need an LRS?

Megan Torrance (CEO, TorranceLearning)

calendar

In a SCORM-based environment, the learning & development team’s tools primarily consist of courseware development tools and the learning management system(s) (LMS) that will house the resulting elearning courses and assessments. Courseware development tools reduce the workload associated with SCORM compliance for the LMS to just a click and a drop-down box. The LMS is often the center of the corporate learning universe, capturing all those SCORM transactions and making them available for reporting. (Of course, your LMS is likely to support other functions that don’t have anything to do with SCORM such as instructor-led class registration and management, virtual class sessions, document repository and e-signature, portal pages and dashboards, and reporting. It may also integrate with performance and talent management and even other business systems.)

With xAPI we will have greater flexibility, and we will have a new set of choices and considerations to make. On the development tools side of things, Sean Putman has reviewed the xAPI functionality of four popular courseware development tools in prior issues of this journal on Lectora, DominKnow Claro, Adobe Captivate, and Articulate Storyline 2.  More and more tools will adopt xAPI allowing L&D teams additional choice in the near future. Increasing numbers of learning tools for which SCORM was never relevant are adopting xAPI as well. This is an opportunity to break down the micro-silos within the learning function where previously the gaming, performance support, post-course engagement, microlearning and other non-course learning tools did not communicate with each other, nor with the LMS, because the data captured by SCORM just isn’t meaningful.

Less attention has been paid to date to the receiving end of xAPI: the learning record store (LRS) and how it operates in an enterprise-wide environment. Many of the public case studies showcase a single use case for a specific topic where the learning and the data visualization were both custom-created to meet a focused need. The LRS itself takes a quiet back seat to the user-facing learning intervention and the data visualizations that result.

However, as the specification moves into wider use, organizations will be looking across topics and across activity providers to meet a much wider variety of learning needs on an enterprise scale. In a SCORM world, learning activity in all of the topics an organization needs can be displayed on a single report because they are reporting out on the same shallow set of SCORM data: score, date, time, completion status. In an xAPI world, the topic-specific and media-specific data that can be captured and mined is exponentially broader, making a single report across all topics in an organization – or even for an individual learner – meaningless. Instead, each topical area or each learning intervention could have its own meaningful data. This is where it gets interesting. And this is where organizations will need to make strategic decisions about how to proceed.

There are a number of considerations when moving ahead. This column will cover a few of them to get you started.

Do I need an LRS?

In at least four cases, the answer to this question is, “no, not really,” or at perhaps, “not yet.”

  • If you’re not sending xAPI statements, you do not need an LRS.
  • If you’re still experimenting with xAPI or still making the business case for adopting xAPI, you may not need anything more than the free trial account that many LRS providers offer. For now. This will provide you with sufficient data in most cases to build a proof-of-concept project that you can use to take forward with you.
  • If your organization is already using other means of capturing and analyzing data, including learning data, and you’re getting what you need out of that, you may not need an LRS or xAPI at all. Of course, the key is that “you’re getting what you need” in this environment. Organizations in this space tend to be getting good data on how learning relates to results, but may be lacking in the granular data about the learning experience itself to know why.
  • If you’re using an xAPI activity provider or tool of some sort, and they provide an LRS as part of the service, you may not yet need an enterprise-wide solution yet. In this case the tool itself and its reporting handle all the heavy lifting and the xAPI is in the background. When done well, you’re not even really aware of the LRS. Over time, as you accumulate more of these tools, an enterprise LRS will likely be on your shopping list.

I need an LRS. How do I proceed?

Assuming that, yes, you do need an LRS, there are currently two models in place. In the LMS-centric model, the LMS becomes xAPI-conformant by integrating an LRS. The LRS then receives statements from resources housed within the LMS and from activity providers outside the LMS. In an LRS-centric model, the organization’s LMS (if any) or LMSes are also learning record providers to the LRS. With both models, the LRS itself is often invisible to end users. In the second model, the LRS is front-and-center for the learning and development team.

For lack of a better term, I’ve been referring to providers of the integrated model as LMS/LRS or, only slightly more elegantly, “learning systems.” Several midsize LMS providers (including RISCOnPointLearnShareLitmos and others) have moved out of the gate very quickly with their xAPI integration. Many of the larger LMS providers that are currently SCORM-based already have or are planning to have LRS functionality soon. It may be entirely possible that your LMS will be xAPI-conformant by time you are ready to send statements to it and you can avoid the hassle of another software implementation. If you’re ahead of your LMS provider or their approach is not going to meet your needs, you may need to engage with a separate LRS provider while you wait.

In this situation, where your LMS provider is or will become xAPI-conformant, you will want to engage with them on a number of questions:

  • How flexible will the reporting on xAPI statements be? Will you be able to design reports, dashboards and visualizations by actor? by verb? by object? by context?
  • What options for data visualization exist within the system? Can the LRS be queried by more powerful analytics tools to make up for any deficiencies?
  • How will reporting of SCORM-reported activity work alongside xAPI-reported activity?
  • Will other non-SCORM LMS transactions (class enrollment, for example) be available for reporting alongside xAPI-activity?
  • How will rights and permissions within the learning system support access to the data by the right people?
  • How easy is it for non-LMS activity providers to send statements to the LRS?
  • Will the LRS be conformant with cmi5 Quartz version?
  • How are user records reconciled if they do not all use the same identifiers as the LMS?
  • How much will the xAPI functionality cost and what is it based on (user count, transaction count, etc.)?
  • Has the provider built their own LRS or have they licensed one from another provider, such as Watershed or Saltbox?
  • What other APIs and connectors already exist or are possible? This includes inbound data (from other business software) and outbound feeds (to data analytics and business intelligence platforms)?
  • How will it work in a multi-LRS environment?

If you’re taking an LRS-centric approach, your learners won’t really know it. They’ll encounter learning experiences throughout their environment, with the data all routing behind the scenes to the LRS. The LRS itself may only be used by the L&D team. The LRS is not an LMS: in most cases you’ll need to account for your learning management functions some other way.

The good news is that software selection right now for LRS platforms is pretty straightforward in that there are only a few providers in the space (including WaxSCORM CloudWatershedLearning LockerYet and Grassblade). The list of questions to ask is similar to the LMS-centric model, with a few notable differences:

  • How flexible will the reporting on xAPI statements be? Will you be able to design reports, dashboards and visualizations by actor? by verb? by object? by context?
  • What options for data visualization exist within the system? Can the LRS be queried by more powerful analytics tools to make up for any deficiencies?
  • Is the LRS conformant with cmi5 Quartz version?
  • How are user records reconciled if they do not all use the same identifiers from different activity providers?
  • How much will it cost and what is it based on (user count, transaction count, instance, etc.)?
  • How does it play nicely in a multi-LRS environment?
  • What other APIs and connectors already exist or are possible? This includes inbound data (from other business software) and outbound feeds (to data analytics and business intelligence platforms)?
  • Can the platform host learning content? How it is it assigned or made visible to different user populations?
  • Can users be grouped by employment demographics (organization hierarchies, job class, etc.) for reporting purposes?
  • Is the LRS cloud-based or installed on my own servers?

In order to take advantage of all that xAPI has to offer, you’ll need more than new activity providers. Whether it’s LMS-centric or LRS-centric or a hybrid, you’ll also need an updated learning ecosystem to support it. It doesn’t have to be hard – and your LMS provider may be doing it for you already. And of course, there’s a case to be made for a hybrid approach as well. Over the next 1-3 years as platforms, connectors and activity providers evolve, your environment may very well evolve in ways that you cannot foresee today. The enhanced interoperability that xAPI enables should make this evolution easier than it has historically been in the SCORM world.


MEGAN TORRANCE (President, TorranceLearning)

ffc5a30bb7e0-torrance__004_II_sq_crop21-120x120Megan Torrance is the Chief Energy Officer of TorranceLearning, an elearning design and development firm outside of Ann Arbor, MI. She has spent over two decades knee-deep in projects involving change management, instructional design, consulting and systems deployment. Megan thrives on design excellence and elegant project management. And coffee. She and the TorranceLearning team have developed the LLAMA project management approach, blending Agile with excellent instructional design techniques. TorranceLearning projects have won IELA and BrandonHall awards, and the 2014 xAPI Hyperdrive contest at DevLearn.

2 Comments…

  1. Dear Megan,
    Many thanks for this detailed and very helpful article.
    Would you mind if I asked you a question. I am new to this field so please forgive my ignorance.
    So far as I understand it, the LRS-centric scenario (where the LMS and the LRS are separate) presents the possibility of hosting the learning content on a server different from that which runs the LMS. However, I am still a bit confused about how the learning content, the LMS and the LRS will interact in such a setup.
    Assuming such a setup and use of the CMI5 standard, may the LMS communicate directly with the LRS, or must its communications with the LRS be mediated through the content? In other words, will it be the case that only the content may send statements to the LRS?
    The difference seems significant from an interoperability point of view. If it is the case that the LMS may communicate directly with the LRS then the success of a deployment would appear to be more be heavily dependent upon the extent to which the LMS complies with the CMI5 standard. The content provider would also need to more closely address differing levels of compliance between different LMS vendors, a problem already familiar in the SCORM context.
    I would be grateful for your comments. Many thanks.
    Kind regards,
    Grant Bailey

    • Excellent question, Grant. In an LRS-centric environment there are three options (at least):
      – learning content resides in the LMS and manages to communicate both SCORM (to the LMS) and xAPI (to the LRS)
      – the LMS communicates to the LRS via a connector for hands-free passing of data from LMS to LRS. As you noted, this requires either a standard configuration of both CMI5 and (the WIP) LRS conformance standards to work seamlessly or a degree of hand-holding to get everything set up the first time.
      – you extract data from the LMS, format as xAPI (Watershed, for example, has a .CSV to xAPI process) and send into your LRS. In this case you’ll likely have more control over what LMS data you send to your LRS, for the price of having to do some of the work yourself.

      At this point, there is still a little bit of lifting required when using a new activity provider / LRS couplet. It’s getting easier every time someone does it though!

      Thanks for asking – this question furthers the conversation.

      Megan

Speak Your Mind

*